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As an undergraduate, I gave up trying to write fiction (my only completed story bore the decidedly unpromising title “Growing Marijuana”) and realized I wanted to write literary criticism instead.Troubled by the cavernous gaps in my reading, I sent a fan letter to James Wood, whom I didn’t know personally but whom I admired deeply, and asked him what he thought an aspiring young critic ought to read.His language pulses with artistic effect: “determined stupor,” “phenomenal baby,” a mind that “congests”—like a nose, or a throat.
Almost every major French, English, Spanish, and Russian novelist is accounted for, as are various Italian, Brazilian, Portuguese, and American writers.
One of the pleasures of reading these essays is to share in Pritchett’s discovery of newly translated writers: Robert Musil, Machado de Assis, and Giovanni Verga, among others.
Surely he had a hand in helping to shape their English-language reputation, just as he was always generously receptive to younger talent.
Pritchett’s review of Mulk Raj Anand’s (1936) gave the Indian novelist “enough happiness to requite me for all the pain and torment that had been wrung out of me by the passion of that book.” Like his near contemporary Virginia Woolf, Pritchett had no formal education.
(“My real delight in reviewing is to say nasty things,” she once told a friend.) As an aspiring young writer in Paris, Pritchett felt he had nothing to say except “I am alive.” Then, one day, he overhead a joke.
He noted it down and submitted to a contest in a newspaper.In Russian literature, characters were allowed to inhabit their private silences, their anonymous days.Chekhov, for instance, “caught people in their solitude …Why was I born, get me out of this, let me live on less and less, get me to the grave, the womb, the last door, dragging this ludicrous, feeble, windy broken old bag of pipes with me.This was not just a radical departure from the standard Beckett criticism I was then reading (which usually went something like, “One of the constitutive elements of the text is its enumeration of the instruments deployed to escape signification”).It was a sweeping redescription of Beckett’s entire literary endeavor.In a single paragraph, without analyzing or interpreting or even commenting on the novels, Pritchett had somehow managed to capture their essence.The same can be said of certain literary critics and theorists, many of whom are eager to serve as watchful judges, sternly banging their gavels.Pritchett, on the other hand, wrote metaphorically, imaginatively, about the writers under review—almost as if they were characters themselves.His literary essays were once cherished by writers on both sides of the Atlantic, including Edmund Wilson, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Anthony Burgess.Susan Sontag discovered Pritchett’s reviews when she was a graduate student at Harvard, and later described the encounter as “a revelation”: “I didn’t know you could write about literature in such a way, that you could be lyrical and precise and not carry a huge burden of judgment.” Gore Vidal called Pritchett “our greatest English-language critic.” Theamounts to a history of literature, not by design but by gradual accumulation: there are 203 essays in total, ranging from Cervantes, Rabelais, and Richardson to Borges, Rushdie, and Nabokov.