- Paperback: 432 pages
- Publisher: Modern Library (July 12, 1994)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0812991834
- ISBN-13: 978-0812991833
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 8 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #638,794 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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A Cab at the Door & Midnight Oil Paperback – July 12, 1994
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About the Author
Victor Sawdon Pritchett (1900–1997) was an extraordinarly prolific and versatile man of letters, widely regarded as one of the greatest stylist in the English language.
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This volume contains two 200-page memoirs, written when Pritchett was about seventy, in which he tells of his origins, his youth, and the somewhat rocky road to becoming a distinguished writer. The title of the first memoir, A CAB AT THE DOOR, refers to the many times as a boy that he was awakened to find "a cabby and his horse * * * coughing together outside the house and the next thing we knew we were driving to an underground station and to a new house in a new part of London, to the smell of new paint [and] new mice dirts". Given the vicissitudes of his father's business endeavors and his efforts to dodge his creditors, by the time Pritchett was twelve the family had had eighteen different addresses. Pritchett started school in industrial South London at the age of eight, and at fifteen he left school to work in the leather trade. His four years with the leather factors essentially coincided with World War I and the bombing of London by Zeppelins. After Pritchett recovered from an extended illness first brought on by influenza, he resolved to escape the constant family upheaval and pursue his destiny in Paris.
MIDNIGHT OIL starts in 1921, with the twenty-year-old Pritchett newly arrived in Paris. It was there, after work in a photography studio and as a shellac and glue salesman, that Pritchett first began to earn money as a writer. But he wasn't part of the famous literary scene of Paris in the Twenties: "When I read memoirs about the Paris of the Steins, Sylvia Beach, Joyce, Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald I am cast down. I was there. I may have passed them in the street; I had simply never heard of them. Nor had I any notion of what they were trying to do." Paris was followed by stints in Ireland and in Spain as a correspondent for the "Christian Science Monitor". After Spain, the pace of the memoir speeds up considerably, and the last fifty pages of MIDNIGHT OIL cover Pritchett's life from 1927 through World War II and marriage and fatherhood; by the end of the book, Pritchett is an established writer of short stories and travel books as well as an increasingly influential literary critic, and his hand-to-mouth days are in the past.
Throughout both volumes several themes are prevalent. Most so is Pritchett's strained yet devoted relationship with his father, and the book surely belongs in the upper ranks of father-son memoirs. Related themes, because his father was the source for both, are family turmoil (yet, somehow, the family stayed together) and Christian Scientism, to which for many years Pritchett subscribed as a dutiful son. Sex is another recurring topic, and it is surprising how much Pritchett's philosophy of life is oriented around sex (though by no means is he Freudian). Finally, and especially in the second volume, there is a fair amount on writing - more on the psychic wellsprings of writing than on the craftsmanship.
The memoirs are rich with noteworthy observations. One has to do with the effect of World War I, concerning which I have always read that it was devastating on English society. But the Pritchetts and their ilk did not constitute English society. "In many ways, for us, this most shocking of wars, a cattle slaughter, was a liberation. A hungry generation pressed forward over the graves of the dead; great states and great families decayed and their certainties with them." "The war had changed everything. The stuffed, quilted and cushioned Edwardian age had gone; the age so soft for the bottoms of the comfortably off, so mean and bitterly exacting for the struggling, small man, so wretched for the poor."
V.S. Pritchett led a singular life. He tells about it self-deprecatingly, and with candor and charm. Of the two volumes, I slightly preferred MIDNIGHT OIL over A CAB AT THE DOOR, but the later memoir would not be as rewarding if one did not have the benefit of having read the earlier one.
Kudos to Random House for re-issuing both of the memoirs in a combined Modern Library volume in 1994. I recently bought my hard-cover copy on the secondary market from a large public library. It was as new. My guess is that it had never been checked out in nearly twenty years. The decline (death?) of literacy is appalling . . . and depressing.
But I had my doubts at first. In fact, if I were only reviewing A Cab At The Door, this would indeed be a very different sort of review. It is an account, with wry bits of Yorkshire humour, of Pritchett's youth in lower middle Class Edwardian England and the influence of a Christian Scientist father and disbelieving mother. I realise - after reading Midnight Oil - how essential it is to have this background in coming to an understanding of Pritchett. But, for all Pritchett's stiff upper lip concerning his disadvantages, it makes for a rather depressing read.
But then Pritchett departs from kith and kin, taking off for Paris in Midnight Oil. It must be said that, aside from a few jokes which you must know French to understand, Paris is not too much fun to read about either, but at least here we have the faint glimmerings of an independent spirit beginning to take flight. As he leaves Paris, Pritchett asks himself what he has learned, and answers himself: "I had learned to be absurd, was willing to see what happened to me."
And so he does when he goes to write about Ireland. This first trip to Ireland, where he meets Yeats - "He was the only man I have known whose natural speech sounded like verse." - and other Irish literary luminaries, he falls in love with and becomes enchanted by the grandeur and folly of the Emerald Isle and its inhabitants. This is the most winsome and coruscating part of the whole narrative, I should say, especially after reading of the material and spiritual deprivations the author has endured hitherto.
Spain - as it was in the 1920s - clearly had the most influence on Pritchett's literary and personal development, but he leaves out a great deal - so he says - because he has covered them in other works. Still, the reader is stricken by the wide, barren landscapes Pritchett describes and the deep respect he comes to feel for the poverty and Stoicism of the proud intellectuals he comes to know there, many to die a decade later in the Civil War.
Despite the novels and short stories Pritchett produced, it is well to remember that Pritchett won fame as a literary critic. And it is as a literary critic that he is primarily remembered. Towards the end of Midnight oil, Pritchett reflects:
"In my criticism, perhaps even more than my stories, I am self-portrayed. When I reread those essays written in such numbers over the last thirty years, I am surprised to see how much they are pitted with personal experience....In penetrating to the conflicts of authors, I have discovered and reflected on my own."
Ahem, it's an experience to which this reviewer can certainly relate!
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In this book, the second volume of his autobiography, VS Pritchett tells of his flight from an oppressive Christian Science background to...Read more