Book Review : Reflections on Compromises of Aging : A Careless Widow and other stories by V. S. Pritchett. (Random House. $16.95. 164 pages.)
For something like 70 years, certain things have made a difference to V. S. Pritchett. In his stories, the exact way people behave and feel. In his criticism, the exact way a writer works to reach us. And in the clandestine poetry of his language--he professes only to be plain and clear--the exact way a phrase can be constructed to lasso us in our tracks.
Discrimination is a moral as well as an intellectual act. Nearly 90, Pritchett has held the post of Saint of English Letters for decades, certainly since the death of E. M. Forster. In his last years, though, Forster was a kind of saint emeritus. Pritchett continues to perform regular acts of grace along with an occasional miracle.
There is a miracle, a near-miracle and a fair scattering of grace in the six stories in this collection. In several of them age, perhaps, has made a certain stiffness in setting the scene for his protagonists to act, or not act, or in any case, to reveal themselves. An archer who once could bring down his quarry at a canter now dismounts to take aim.
Still, in two of the stories, Pritchett writes with what I am tempted to call a youthful surge of boldness and freedom. And in all but one of the others, the stiffness is that of an old singer who husbands his voice, but not his art.
Most of the stories are about age and the dues it pays for a life lived selfishly or arrogantly, refusing the claims of others. Most of the protagonists, the refusers, are old men.
Curiously, considering the author’s condition, these are the stiffest and driest. As we get older, imagination, like memory, may work better with distant things than with near ones. The two best stories in the collection concern, respectively, an adolescent girl and a spinster.
“Cocky Olly” is a lovely, faintly mysterious story of a young middle-class girl discovering a larger and alluring world in an eccentric neighboring family of bohemian intellectuals. She falls in love with all of them. Only gradually, in the high-strung near-madness of the son, her playmate, does she sense the dangerous dark side of the new moon.
The story is told by the protagonist as a middle-aged woman, a schoolteacher. Her restrained but clear-eyed vision is her triumph, out of her childhood memories she has fashioned a balance between the golden and the terrible.
The class touches are splendid. From her tidy, carpeted house, the narrator discovers the bare wooden floors, the walls of books, and above all the giant jigsaw puzzle that her neighbors work on, a few pieces at a time. These things are the trophies of a well-to-do intelligentsia, the equivalent of framed hunting prints one social notch down, or, three notches down, of plastic ducks on the wall.
The informality, the jokey directness of the Short family contrasts with the conversational carefulness of the narrator’s own home. The Shorts welcome her with a breezy intimacy that is also an exclusion. As a visitor, she is theirs; which is not the same as their being hers. The upper classes bless what they deem appropriate.
“A Careless Widow” is about a snobbish, middle-aged hairdresser who rebuffs the hesitant advances of a newly widowed neighbor whom he finds pleasant but vulgar. Later, meeting her on vacation, he discovers in her a more elegant and considerable figure than he had imagined. It is too late; she is going to marry someone else. The story is excessively well-prepared, but it has some shrewd and stirring touches to it.
So does “Things,” about the disturbing effect of a visiting sister-in-law on the orderly life of a prosperous businessman who has made of his retirement both a castle and a prison for himself and his wife. Another story, “A Trip to the Seaside,” offers another isolated old man, but it is the most meager in the collection.
“A Change of Policy” is the masterpiece. Here, the character threatened with isolation is Paula, a spinster who quit on principle when the academic journal she edited went popular. Influential friends intercede but, as the author writes:
“The trouble was that her friends had outlived their influence; it had leaked away. When you lose an important job, there comes a time when there are silences: You embarrass, you find yourself in a limbo, you become a curiosity. Even the target of indignation loses its focus. After the promising interviews that, one by one, came to nothing, her story seemed to dissolve.”
That is an incidental jewel. The heart of the story is Paula’s seduction by George, the magazine’s printer. He is well off, but socially, he is a step down. Furthermore, he is married, though his wife has been in a coma for two years. Paula’s impulse--lifelong--is to reject him. She diverts their talks to queries about his wife; she remarks how hard it must be for him to travel and be away from her. George is not simply a seducer; he is a gentle man who has a terrible hole in his life, and whose need of Paula is very direct. He will not let her evade him.
“I’m ‘away’ here in London,” he tells her. “I’ve been ‘away’ for two years. I’m nowhere.” Paula pivots suddenly.
Pritchett constructs a love affair that is funny--"Printer, you are a snake. What are you doing here?” Paula growls after dragging George up to her bedroom--brief--George dies--and enormously exhilarating. Paula has said yes, she is transformed, she ends up with life in both her hands and taking care of George’s widow, now partly recovered. The story is comedy, irony and pure joy.