22 JANUARY 1972, Page 14

Painting the self-image

Isabel Quigly

Autobiography is a rash, revealing business yet modest-looking people go in for it every week. It can mean falling into a hole or climbing up a mountain — a snare or a challenge, depending on how you tackle it, or perhaps rather more on who you are. Memory is so complex that all remembering is rash — and revealing, too, whatever you choose to hide. The young man may seem too close to it to write about his experience but the longdistance autobiography has its complications as well. The old man looks back at a youngster, and there are two figures with little in common, almost embarrassingly connected. "The two, if they could meet in the flesh, would be stupefied," says V. S. Pritchett, who in his second volume of autobiography, Midnight Oil (Chatto and Windus, £2.25), looks back on his own early self with exactly the right detachment, yet with the right pinch of retrospective warmth and involvement too. It is 1921, in Paris. From a stool in the leather trade the young V. S. Pritchett has fled, not so much to "see life" as to learn, to be taught. With twenty pounds in two suitcases, he envisages this apprenticeship as more or less eternal: "To be alone in Paris, knowing nobody, was an intoxication: it was like being on the brink of knowing everyone." For two years he hangs on, selling glue, working in a photographer's shop, starting to write and even to publish, losing his virginity (then the girl emigrates: "Geography, that I loved so much, had swallowed her up "). It may be Paris in the 'twenties, but it is not the 'twenties Paris of most autobiographers: "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 what they were trying to do. I had really carried my isolation in England with me." But this is in fact refreshing: once a writer starts meeting only other writers or hobnobbing only with the famous, his memoirs (to me at least) lose much of their point and value, They may make useful reference books to look other people up in, but the personality generally goes out of them, the central figure is no longer his own distinct self but one of a group, part of a movement.

Paris made its mark on the young Pritchett's mind without involving hill' directly in any intellectual movements; ir did so not just through the books he read but visually, through its topographY. There is not much description in the book but what there is is piercingly individual, the young man's eyesight through the 01d man's mind: "The water looked still yet it rustled like a dress. I had never seen water and stone in such pleasant conversation, the stone moonish, shading to saffron like the cheese of Brie, the water womanish and velvet . . . I walked from bridge to bridge along the Seine, past the acacias, the poplars and the planes that leaned with graceful precision over the water, each tree like the stroke of a painter's brush. The orderliness of the trees, the gravely spaced avenues, rearranged MY mind."

It was further rearranged by Spain, which he visits later in the book. This Spanish part (like his Spanish Temper, in fact) shows the result of openmindedness, of going into a new situation quite blank, ready to learn and lap up everything -landscape, language, people, politics, history, culture in general and cultural pat' terns, Unamuno, Baroja, landladies, the lot. Each town, each street, each hotel or rented room is a new experience savoured fully, intuitively, without preconceived ideas yet without the loss of individualitY either. Some people plunge into foreign' ness so excitedly they lose their oWs feeling and intellectual shape on the waY, A place as overwhelming as Spain, es foreign to English eyes and feelings, tends to do this more than most. Not to the young Pritchett, though (or clearly to the old one, either). His background, in all case, was not rejected; it had receded for while in Paris, but he returned to it (" wearing the awful green velour hat with the wide brim, the Montmartre boy's worn-out black and tan high-heeled boots. How sons appal their fathers!"), and the book ends, after some general autobiography, brief but always exact, always rightly spaced, ' rightly distanced, with the death of his parents, the father from A Cab at the Door ending in a new suburban crematorium. Other selfportraits and backward looks suffer by comparison with one as rich and as clearsighted as this. Stuart Cloete's A Victorian Son (Collins, £2.25) also starts with Paris, a rather earlier one than Pritchett's. It is still the belle époque, and the trouble with it is that the whole thing, in retrospect at least, or the Way the author thinks we ought to see it, is just too high-coloured. The descriptions are straight from a film like Gigi, you expect Chevalier to come whistling round the next corner. Pritchett's Paris is seen with wide-eyed romantic wonder by his young self but the old man remembering throug.11 him keeps his head, or more important h!S own private, personal eye. Cloete's Paris IS not individual, not the city seen by a single child but a general view recalled bY an old man determined to catch its P'c' turesqueness. Much better are the chapterS on the first world war, which have plenty of direct observation and few of the generalisations that mar the rest of the book; Where they generalise beyond the narrow world of trench and mud and hospital, it is on the subject of wartime comradeship, of groups and belonging, which trench and mud and hospital made direct and personal. Ernest Shepard's reprinted Drawn from Memory (Methuen, £2.60) is much less ambitious. It celebrates a middleclass childhood in St John's Wood in the 'eighties a brief text tagging along with drawings in which the author looks just like the boys he drew so long ago for Kenneth Grahame's Dream Days and The Go/den Age. (He was middle-aged by the time he drew, indeed visually almost created, Pooh and Piglet and the others.) Like Grahame, he had Aunts in eccentric Profusion; unlike Grahame, he could get them out of his system at the age of seven by drawing their portraits (reproduced here) with almost alarming precocity. Time softened his style; ugly old ladies, by the Christopher Robin days, had become merely funny old ladies. Another reprint, Patrick Kavanagh's The Green Fool (Martin, Brian and O'Keeffe, £3), withdrawn in 1938 for what now seems an absurdity, an improbable, glancing half-libel or might-be libel, is well Worth its reappearance. That Irishmen Speak or write as Welshmen sing, with enviable though suspect grace and facility, is its best we take for granted, but at best there is something miraculous about the Irishman's use of English — its fluency, the unexpected acrobatics it can be made to perform. A poet writing without self-indulgence (though I hate the Irish accent set down in print, as he has it) of course produces happy oddities — like a dancer walking or a singer talking. This Story of a country boy's youth is, like most autobiographies, best on the early days; once he reads Gertrude Stein in the Irish Statesman, about three-quarters of the Way ay through, the magic wears thin.