‘A primer for the hitherto uninitiated’ – On the Edge of the Cliff: Selected Short Stories by V.S. Pritchett

oteotcvspV.S. Pritchett: he’s lauded and beloved by writers and librarians, but in the public arena the name tends to be met with a slightly bewildered recognition (or a hesitant ‘like, Naipaul…?’); you don’t meet very many people who’ve ever actually read him. We’re not sure why that is. Perhaps the name? Maybe, on the shelves, Pritchett falls into the name-recognition cracks between V.S. Naipaul’s Very Serious Books and Terry Pratchett’s Very Funny Books? If we were pulling the canonical puppet-strings, V.S. Pritchett would be as prominent in the twentieth century short story canon and as ever-present in the undergraduate syllabi as your John Cheevers (Pritchett’s just as socially astute, just as tuned into the perils of twentieth century sub/urban life) and Flannery O’Connors (just as grotesquely funny and psychologically acute). Maybe he’s seen as too culturally specific (English, middle/upper-middle class)? Well, so is Virginia Woolf, so is Henry James. What we’re saying is, you’ve probably heard of him but you’ve probably not read him, and that’s a crying shame because you’d bloody well love him, so get out there now and read him.

Conveniently, then, of course, this is where the new collection comes in: Turnpike Books have issued this snappy octet of Pritchett’s stories that acts like a primer for the hitherto uninitiated and a neat pocket companion for the established fans. Topic-wise, these stories are various: from a surprisingly touching love affair between an old man and a young woman, to the tensions and bitterness between a pair of middle-aged sisters; from a niece clearing out her aunt’s house and confronting the past, to a frail old art-collector’s having to face the long-ago death of the man he loved; from an aging political agitator to a woman whose estranged husband has suddenly returned. If there is a common thread, it’s that these pieces all trade in the idea of fantasy – that is, not with the fantastical, but with desire and wish-fulfillment and (thwarted) dreams. Pritchett’s plots are realist in the dirty-kitchen-sink tradition (though the sinks themselves do not necessarily manifest), but the plots themselves scarcely matter: his real strength lies in characterisation. The enjoyment that we (and you) derive from these stories lies in how he draws out all the difficult complexities of personality, and he does so through a prose style that’s far removed from the affectless plains of your Carvers and Hemingways: like O’Connor, Pritchett eschews naturalism – his qualifiers are gloriously rampant, his sentences long and clause-heavy, his storylines brilliantly meandering.

Back in 1979, Pritchett published another collection, confusingly also called On the Edge of the Cliff, which Martin Amis reviewed in the LRB; here Amis opined – with a typical disregard for the gendered and the sweeping – that Pritchett’s stories, characterized by a ‘delightful curiosity’ and imbued with ‘an empathy that all readers will identity with’, are ‘formless and feminine’. He meant this as a compliment: what he’s getting at is that the stories don’t stick with any kind of formulaic structure (‘there are no twists, payoffs, reverses, jackpots or epiphanies’) and that Pritchett’s ‘quietly extraordinary way of looking at life’ offers an alternative to the hunting-and-fishing variety of so-called masculinist writing that shadowed (and shadows) much contemporary short story writing. Amis’s idea of what might constitute the ‘feminine’ might not hold critical water, but his assessment of Pritchett’s excesses and diversions rings as true for this collection as for its earlier namesake: he doesn’t ‘tidy up’ his prose to fit with fads and trends or diagrammatic form, and if his work explores the ‘peripheral’, it glories in it. Here, in ‘The Skeleton’ (one of his more anthologized stories), the protagonist is gay (if closeted), elderly, alone and clinging to the dead Empire; he’s socially ludicrous and politically objectionable, marginalized by his own petty cantankerousness and alleged superiority, and yet we’re rooting for him all the way. If that isn’t a triumph of empathy, and a triumph of the grotesque over the minimal in the search for empathy, then what is?

Any Cop?: Better than ten of whatever you’ve been reading. (And if you like these, you’ll probably be glad to hear that Pritchett published more books than you’ll have time to read in a year; get spending!) Devilishly insightful, horribly funny and pithy as hell.

Valerie O’Riordan


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