A WRITER, V.S. Pritchett once explained, "is at the very least two persons. He is the prosing man at his desk and a sort of valet who dogs him and does the living." Few literary lives so genially and thriftily illustrate this peculiar symbiotic relationship as that of Victor Sawdon Pritchett. Two volumes of peerless memoirs (A Cab at the Door, Midnight Oil) chronicle his evolution from a shy, working-class English youth (born 1900) to eminence as an international man of letters: renowned lecturer, editor and critic. Pritchett's stories, meanwhile, regularly throb with the same grotesque scenes and sensuous memories as his life, recollected with a comic clarity and shrewd indulgence.
The present collection is mainly love stories, and in it life and letters support each other like an accomplished husband and wife team telling a family anecdote. An incident in Midnight Oil, for example, in which Pritchett, aged 20, hungry, penniless and drenched by rain, is brought in and chastely made to undress and dry off by his Paris landlady, Mme. Chapin, is turned into a comical Dickensian story called The Diver. In it a prudish, passionate English boy falls into the Seine and is succored by Mme. Chamson, a sexy harridan, with different but no less touching results.
Pritchett admits he is mainly interested in the spectacle of people "floundering amid their own words, and performing strange strokes as they swim about with no visible shore in their own lives." Yet he is a romantic, a coup de foudre man for whom love strikes like a thunderbolt in the most preposterous ways. Still, it can produce instant chills and fever, practically as long as body draws breath or soul shudders at engulfing loneliness.
Our Wife is a middle-aged story. It begins as what appears to be domestic satire and ends as a spare, affectionate yet totally merciless tribute to a noisy, troublesome wife. The Spree follows a septuagenarian into an adventure involving an elderly widow and the convenient fiction that the old man is about to buy a house near Brighton.
In his most worldly confrontation, Pritchett produces a Guatemalan poetess, thus described: "She was a stump, as square as a box, with tarry, chopped-off hair, heavy eyebrows and yellow eyes set in her sallow skin like cut glass."
This fright lays siege to the heart of Julian Drood, a famous left-wing editor well armed against "astonishing stories of private life" (they "seem frivolous to him") and a skilled office tactician to boot. "Poets," the editor knows, "were remorseless. The one sure way of getting rid of them was to read their poems at once. They stared at you with pity and contempt as you read, and argued with offense when you told them which lines you admired." In the brief encounter that ensues, it is the tarry stump who achieves warmth and dignity, the editor who is found (and left) wanting.
Love stories! In the age of Alex Comfort and physical passion catered to almost as a culinary art? Yes, indeed.
How does Pritchett do it? With a sharp eye, a fond heart and a lifetime's evidence that whatever silky Venus may insinuate, The Joy of Sex is not what Cupid had in mind at all.