The Value of a Quiet Voice: For So Long the Poor Relation of English Letters, the Short Story Finally Came of Age in the Fiction of V S Pritchett

Article excerpt

The origins of the short story in different regions of the world - where it came from and when, how it developed - vary from country to country. Although its birth was most often a natural transformation of what was there already, occasionally the change that occurred was more dramatic, coming from nowhere, without a pedigree of tradition or of anything else. The vitality of America's first stories owes much to such newness, to an untrammelled purity that challenged, without being at odds with, the classicism of Russia's vast contribution to the same literary development. In Europe - particularly perhaps in France and Germany - the influence of the antique continued, then slowly withered.

"A child of our time," Elizabeth Bowen called the modern story, irrespective of its source, and she was right. At the very heart of modernity, it belonged to a briskly different age and almost perfectly reflected it. Its matter-of-fact brevity did, its sense of urgency, its glimpsing manner, its stab of truth. Troubled Ireland took to it; Italy, too; in England it didn't much appeal. Overshadowed by the riches and delights of the Victorian novel, it was regarded by literary England as little more than a poor relation living on the crumbs scattered by the popular success of fiction that flourished as fiction never had before. But these humbly gathered crumbs were more wholesome than they might have been. They nourished a modest art, and in modesty the English short story eventually found itself. It discovered the value of a quiet voice and acquired, in time, a quality it since has made its own: distinctive, spare, unfussy. All that was waiting for V S Pritchett, who gratefully reached out for it, prized it and indelibly left his mark on it.

Pritchett was born in 1900 into a family in which literature was neither esteemed nor considered necessary. His mother was a cheeky cockney girl made wretched in marriage; his father he called "a jaunty cocksparrow", forever penniless yet repeatedly managing to set himself up in trades of which he had no experience and in which, each time, he miserably failed, Family life was a string of hurried departures and new addresses, of money owed and debt; collectors' threats, of tears and quarrels:

  Go back two generations and the names and lives of our forebears
  vanish into the common grass. All we could get out of Mother was that
  her grandfather had once taken a horse to Dublin; and sometimes in
  my father's expansive histories, his grandfather had owned trawlers
  in Hull, but when an abashed regard for fact, uncommon in my father,
  touched him in his eighties, he told us that this ancestor, a decayed
  seaman, was last seen gutting herrings at a bench in the fish market
  of that city.

In a noisy household, where blame began and ended every day, Victor Sawdon Pritchett may not have known who he was or where he came from, but he knew what he wanted and knew that it wasn't to be where he found himself. Drawn into the world of trade - a projected career in leather already begun - he seized his chance to escape from it when his father decided that textiles would suit him better and sent him to Paris, where there were openings. Obediently the young Pritchett went, secretly intending never to return to England.

There were no openings in textiles. He worked in a photographer's shop, became a salesman of shellac and glue, sold ostrich feathers in the Faubourg St-Honore. He wanted to write, which was all he'd ever wanted to do. He was 20 He drifted. These meagre beginnings - scraps and jottings and bits of autobiography, rejected newspaper articles and all he rejected himself - offered little promise of a literary future. He kept his ambitions alive by reading a lot, especially short stories, which he greatly admired for their economy. But wary of failure with a form he was later to describe as "exquisitely difficult", he was slow to try his hand at writing stories himself. …