The Novelist as Critic
The Living Novel. By V. S. Pritchett. (Chatto and Windus. 8s. 6d.)
MR. PRrrarErr, in his preface to this collection of essays on Eng- lish, French,. Italian and Russian novelists, disclaims the title of critic. One sees his point ; Mr. Pritchett's first reputation is as one of our finest contemporary novelists and short-story writers, and his impulse towards criticism springs out of long reflection on his art. "A reconsideration of the novel might tell me where my own half-finished novel was wrong ; it would certainly tell me, if I regarded each classic as it came along as a new just-published book, what a good novel ought to be." And so Mr. Pritchett reviews them, Fielding, Richardson, Smollett, Scott, George Eliot, Dickens, Wells, Bennett, Lawrence, Verga, Merimee, Balzac, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Goncharov among them, as though they were new, but reviews them with all his formidable technical knowledge as a novelist behind him. At the same time he has all the apparatus of criticism at his finger tips, and he brings off with complete success what he sets out to do: to see his subjects without pre- conceived notions, with the freshness with which one greets the new and exciting ; and he so communicates his excitement that one's immediate impulse after reading him is to dash off and re-read, or read for the first time, the novels of Richardson, Scott, George Eliot, Arthur Morrison or Verga.
How does he do it? Fundamental to everything else is his passion for his art. Then there is his passion for ideas, which finds expression in brilliant generalisations and brilliant comparisons which throw light both on the subject of comparison and what it is com- pared with. Of the former I would instance the following: Whereas Goldsmith and Fielding revelled in the misadventures
of the virtuous and the vagaries of Fortune—that tutelary goodess of a society dominated by merchant-speculators—a novelist like George Eliot writes at a time when Fortune has been torn down, when the earned increment of industry (and not the accidental coup of the gambler) has taken Fortune's place; and when character is tested not by hazard, but, like the funds, by a measurable tendency to rise and fall;
of the latter, his glimpse of Smollett as a precursor of Joyce's way With language in Finnegan's Wake.
Then Mr. Pritchett's criticism is informed by a balanced con- ception of man ; his ideal is the eighteenth century's as he defines it himself : " an amenable moral animal with all his greatness and All his folly." So he is the most humane of critics. And he is not blinkered and inhibited by fashionable influences ; he is not looking for perfection but for the essential life in a book. He is, more- over, firmly rooted in one of the strongest and—one trusts— most enduring traditions that go to make up what is now called somewhat solemnly the British way of life, the sturdily resolute nonconformist tradition of the lower middle class, of yeomen and skilled craftsmen. It has provided the material for many of his best stories. It gives him, I believe, a keener and more sympathetic insight into some of the permanent characteristics of our people and literature than critics who spring out of other, more aristocratic, traditions can easily have. He writes, it seems to me, from a wider experience of life, as for instance in his essay on Gosse's Father and Son:
One of the greatest mistakes which the genial critics of puritanism make is to suppose that puritanism seen from the outside is the same as puritanism seen from the inside. Outwardly the extreme puritan appears narrow, crabbed, fanatical, gloomy and dull; but from the inside—what a series of dramatic climaxes his life is, what a fascinating casuistry beguiles him, how he is bemused by the comedies of duplicity, sharpened by the ingenious puzzles of his conscience, and carried away by the eloquence of hypocrisy. He lives like a soldier, now in the flash of battle, now in the wangling of camp and billet.
It is because of such qualities as this that, exciting as his studies of French and Russian writers are, he is at his most important for us in his re-interpretations of our own novelists, Fielding, Richardson, Smollett, Scott, Dickens, George Eliot and Bennett In particular. If I had to narrow the choice still further I would pick out the essays on Scott and George Eliot, for here his fine perception of moral qualities comes fully into its own. These two essays, I believe, are likely to be revolutionary in their implica- tions for criticism. It is significant that Mr. Pritchett says, " I doubt If any Victorian novelist has as much to teach the modern novelists as George Eliot "; and he ends his essay on her : " There is no hysteria in Middleraarch; perhaps there are no depths because there is so much determination. But there is a humane breadth and resolution in this novel which offers neither hope nor despair but simply the necessity of fashioning a moral life."
Not a critic? Once in a while the reviewer must let himself go. Without trepidation and with complete assurance, one con- tradicts Mr. Pritchett in his fond delusion. He is a superb critic.