26 thoughts on “Essential Stories – V.S. Pritchett


    A seeming,y demented common woman with her eponymous sack, imagining a monocled General and orange gardens in Valencia, as she dreamcatches her lights in Piccadilly – sometimes lights are bodily innards like lungs, though? cOVID-19? Coronavirus? A plague upon lights. And golden circles like orange spheres? A “ballet into nothing”, or VOID…

    “…people’s faces bobbed up and down like Chinese lanterns.”

    Chance is always powerful. Let your hook be always cast; in the pool where you least expect it, there will be a fish.
    – Ovid, Heroides


    “She, fey and war-like, was waving her twig.”

    This story is a real discovery! Rarely published? The two members of a long-married childless couple, he a rent collector, sleep in separate rooms, and talk to each other through the wall or via the open doors before going to sleep. Open doors, but did he lock the gate outside to where the windfall apples clustered? He said, yes he locked the gate. So poetically astonishing the observations of conversation and of their anxieties and of their falling asleep images, later disturbed by truly eerie events, like strange men walking through their rooms or at best dreams, intent on the apples that had thumped and thumped from Elizabeth Bowen’s The Apple Tree, or horses as holy hokum equine spirits or children of his ambitions beyond rent collecting? The gate was left open, after all, by him, or God had later opened it surreptitiously? Who rents what from Heaven? The last is a serious question.


    “He didn’t wear a hat. He gave me a look and I gave him a look. I didn’t like the look of him. And he didn’t like the look of me.”

    And if you don’t wear a hat you can’t raise it for a passing hearse. Even for a hearse carrying a coffin with yourself in it! This is a highly poignant story of the narrator – a travelling salesman whose father is an undertaker – a narrator staying at a hotel, getting off with the girl receptionist who wants to get out of such downtrod hotel life, then they are both stalked by her boy friend on his motor bike, followed by a lot of twists and turns (one of them deadly traffic) that take me back to how I started this review. A mutual cross-reference of the dead and the living, the loved and the loved, even if both were unloved when compared with life’s aspiration of moving on for the better. Staccato, deadpan and naive. An essential story. With a sense of wry humour.

    “Hearses are funny things to drive.”


    “‘Nobody have any soup. I want soup. Nobody soup,’ he said sadly to the proprietor.”

    Great short stories, it seems to me, always have a brush with NEAR-Absurdism. A brush with a brush with the deadpan truth and the disarmingly idiosyncratic as it were. Here seven men have a reunion in and we are told of their various quirks and style of personality. And the dinner party tale of one of them drowning in his pyjamas. Or did I get that wrong?

    “We agreed with what he said. We all stood up and, by our private parts, swore that he was right. It was one of the evils of Spain.”


    “At Carragh-cross road the signpost stood emptily gesticulating like some frightened speaker with the wind driving back the words into his mouth, and the two roads dangling from its foot.”

    And, in Ireland amid the troubles, extroverted Micky visiting, until his money runs out, for a year or so, visiting his introverted brother Charlie (Micky, as a Canadian, being a fighter with the British during the World War) had shot down the Holy Ghost thinking it was a bird. Charlie arguably a coward by staying in Ireland, by being sick.
    And whose enemy was whose? A tale of two brothers and the dog Micky gives Charlie, snatched away, a tale that is darker than the darkest tale you might read in any fiction genres, even in the darkest genres that there are. Or is the word somber, not dark? The brothers’ respective introversion and extroversion are far deeper and more wayward than these two clinical words – that I have probably misused – portend.
    It takes a drinking schoolmaster to transcend the knots – until you realise that ‘schoolmaster’ is an old nickname not an occupation.


    “All his life he had waited, to stand in all his stature and fullness, attending the Passion.”

    The Passchendaele, too? This is the powerful story of Calvert the clerk, his head bent like cobblers, carpenters and mechanics, taken to the trenches, where a bullet makes his head upright permanently. So he stays metaphorically with head bent as he is incapable of doing worthwhile jobs. The reader is one of the Angels in their story, as Calvert did have an initial brush with Heaven at least by being in this work, and the reader judges this irony of a story for what it truly is. A lowly yet open culvert, one for the flow of truth and honour.

    I’ve cheated for once, as about the next story I quote directly from someone (Yiyun Li) who seems to know a lot more than me about what the power of short stories is all about…
    This review is written by the greatest hair barber I’ve ever met, where shaving is tantamount to gestalt real-time reviewing………

    [[The story is short—six pages, written in first person. It opens when the narrator, waiting in a small town for a train that was not to come, spots a barbershop and decides to have a haircut. Other than this one impromptu decision, we learn nothing more about the narrator himself for the rest of the story. But what propels a man to enter a barber’s shop when his should be waiting for the train to leave the town? Already it is described as “a dead place,” and “ten miles from this town the skeletons of men killed in a battle eight centuries ago had been dug up on the Downs.”
    Once in the barbershop, the narrator serves entirely as ears and eyes for the readers. In the barber’s chair is a sickly-looking young man, grim as the town seems to be. But wait, there’s also the barber himself, who, despite not speaking to his customer, is efficient and dutiful and contented with his job. “A peculiar look of amused affection was on his face as he looked down at the soaped head.” And when the customer was gone, “the barber was smiling to himself like a man remembering a tune.”
    A happy man! As one can easily make a happy man talk, the narrator, with a few questions, is able to make the barber tell a triangle love story. But is it the narrator’s accomplishment? The more the barber talks, the more the readers realize that no, the narrator could be any stranger from out of town—the barber has been waiting for the moment to recount his tale of triumph all along. The narrator only surrenders himself when loneliness drives him into the barbershop.
    And the story of triumph in love—how the barber beat his best friend to marry a girl they both courted—is an old story, and the barber, a good storyteller as Pritchett himself was, does not dwell on his success but more on his friend’s deterioration in his lost battle. First he tried to poison the barber, and when that failed, the friend sent the couple “the best man’s present” by slitting his throat, but that effort failed, too.
    “Funny present,” the barber said. The couple lived happily ever after, with the friend coming to visit all the time, playing with their children. “The only thing is he doesn’t like shaving himself now,” the barber said of his friend. “I have to go over every morning and do it for him. I never charge him.”
    The story is over. It’s time for the narrator to exit the barber shop. A short story is always like that, showing you the way out before you are ready, closing the door behind you, but only when you hurry down the platform to catch the train do you realize that the story has taken part of you hostage: the barber in with his bemused smile; the slowly-dying friend who feels the touches of the barber’s hands every day. “Where’s the hope?” bemoaned my young student, and not knowing how to make him feel better, I gave him a very American answer. “The hope,” I said, “is with the title of the story—You Make Your Own Life.”]]
    YIYUN Li

    My own review, in 2009, of Yiyun Li’s own PAVILION about a flu epidemic – a subject that seems very apt today!
    Pavilion by Yiyun Li
    “He was a singer, and he sang for them every morning…”
    I feel this is a fascinating fable concerning the coming ‘flu pandemic. An interesting contrast between the different permanences – with the possibility of young people dying before old. And, like the first story, the reader needs to impute death as a refined palimpsest of the spirit. But not really palimpsest this time, but karaoke.
    And I wonder if ‘pavilion’ is rooted in ‘papillon’? The women to whom the man sang were kind enough archetypically to safeguard the chrysalis until he flew away and left its ‘tent’ behind…? (16 July 09 – 3 hours later)


    “‘Do you like spotted dick?’ So it was.”

    An amazing rolling story as if the town and countryside has worse disorientation than the sea whence the sailor has been invalided out. The sailor comes to the narrator’s bungalow, neighbouring a bungalow where the so-called Colonel’s Daughter lives, with her bathtub of empties. A but nympho in her way, I guess, but was it left unsaid that our narrator, in her sights, did like more than just dick for his pudding? Being a book reviewer has its own Temptation just as the lost or led astray sailor has his own temptations, but I am tempted to say that these three characters make a right rollicking story that, in turn, also makes light of anything – even of a just spotted plague, I guess. None of us reach Whitechapel, perhaps.



    A story of a seventy years old husband and wife, facing the hopelessness of past habits, not helped by the recurrent air raids, now with a visit from their 40 year old son. The mother wants all three of them to be together again as in the idyllic, more hopeful past. I was an only child, too, now 72, and her feelings affect me deeply. She feels her personal entropy of hopelessness equally deeply. Meanwhile, the father still has his faith, his faith in his belongings and no doubt in his God, that the air raids won’t harm them – and the mother surreptitiously shows the son all the father’s treasures, some quite gratuitous, including his sole favourite painting of Daniel in the eponymous den. I know what that means, without knowing exactly what it does mean to the father here. I do not have the same faith as this father, but I have my own treasures, these books I read and publicly build into a Gestalt, and my photos of frozen time, of time still happening around me, at least for the moment. A life changing as well as a life affirming story, despite its moving perceptions of sadness and angst.

  10. Pingback: The Lion’s Den | THE DES LEWIS GESTALT REAL-TIME REVIEWS — A golden sphere in fey balance between clarity and confusion


    “Mr. Timberlake went upstairs to wash his hands.”

    Later he steams in the hot sun having been dunked in the river when his show-off punting went wrong! Meanwhile, Timberlake is a religious lecturer, and in many ways, reminds me of Michingthorpe in William Trevor’s ‘A Friend in the Trade’ (a story I happened to review this very morning here) – Timberlake being a flaccid, wide-eyed and dull innocent, an inculcator who has had the instinct of any Error (Evil) removed from his consciousness. He visits the youthful narrator who has the maturity to experience doubt about the Purity of Timberlake’s religion, a religion that had already been inculcated into the narrator’s soul by his family, despite an ‘ape’ of doubt that often made visitations to tarnish such certainty in the narrator. Timberlake’s accident on the river is not conducive to infallibility; however this feeling is tempered by the vision of a gold leaf saint from religious painting, when crushed buttercups start attaching themselves to Timberlake’s sodden suit when he laid down in a meadow to dry out! This is an adeptly devastating satire upon unthinking religions – yet I admired the poignant Error or Timberlake’s Ways, as a sort of rough justice that was done to Christ? Perhaps, this story’s subtitle should have been ‘The Angel Ape’s Annunciation’.


    “‘The mine of the past,’ he said. ‘The dark mine of the past.’”

    Miss Freshwater’s niece returns after 25 years to a place where she, the niece, once lived — to clear out her aunt’s house, and is picked up at the railway station by a forward taxi-driver called Robert, as if she is instinctively ‘captured’ (as can only work within the truth of instinctively inspired fictions such as this one) and he relishes burning things and using the house’s proudly special wheelbarrow towards bonfires, good fires, to help her clear the house, wherein she is steeped in regretful vanities and sadnesses of memory, turning over papers and photos, and she listens to Robert’s own backstory, his wild youth and the disaster in the mine now making him a lay tub-thumping preacher in a local Mission, the marquee of which can be seen from the house. That is just a skeleton of the story, and there is much more to hang on to it – of resignations and clumsy overtures and oblique sincerities between the two of them. The wheelbarrow is a recurring leitmotif for some emotion or possibility I continue to keep on not quite putting my finger upon. Or not quite putting the whole of me upon. Until it tips me out at the end. They must have used wheelbarrows, I guess, to clear the way to get Robert out of mine.

    “‘…You don’t know anything about life when you’re young and when you are old it’s too late…’”

  13. THE FALL

    “What I mean is — do you first take a step, I mean like in dancing: I mean is the art of falling really a paradox — I mean the art of keeping your balance all the time?”

    A delightfully off-putting absurdist take on an office party where we are behind the eyes of a paradox, a man who is his own brother, of introverted and extroverted fragments where the gestalt is equivalent to the story’s own musical or theatrical ‘dying fall’, mixing drunkenness with the artful slapstick or staged fall of fiction. We, however, need today to airbrush his “music hall Negro” drawl. A balance of weight and distance. Fish shop roots, notwithstanding.


    Pages 140 – 152

    “She would walk along, with a cough like someone driving tacks.”

    Or racked by hacking? Meanwhile, this is a very busy opening to this story that took the breath out of lungs, a gathering of a family and accoutrements, including the narrator as a relatively new connection with the family, as their Hilda returns on a train from her wartime abroad (this Hilda about whom we gain a gradually lively picture, as we do some of the other characters). I gain the impression she has returned from a ‘Japanese torture camp’ after the end of the war, having been married twice, once to a man whom someone today at the gathering refers to as a Nip! Twice, like a stopped clock being right twice every day…? Meanwhile, Hilda’s face… “It was the face of someone to whom nothing had happened; or, perhaps, so much had happened to her that each event wiped out what had happened before.”

    • Pages 152 -166

      I can’t pretend to yet understand what Hilda had got up to in Japan during the Second World War and her missing years immediately following thereafter, but impressions begin to accrete, as they do about the interactions of her family to whom she has now so showmanshiply returned, to a family and all its sometimes hilariously and adeptly described human accoutrements, people who previously thought she had been held in a cruel concentration camp all this time!
      A section about pensions and a possible trip by Hilda and her mother to Monte Carlo. And it seems as if there is even a film to be made in America about Hilda’s life! And it is as if the Second World War is seen here as a modern pervasive unseen ‘cloud’ system that (when this story was written) would have been a futuristic prophecy about our Coronavirus Third World War today. Think about it.

      “We had been living a hidden vision for years. It was an effect of the long war. England had been a prison. Even the sky was closed and, like convicts, we had been driven to dwelling on fancies in our dreary minds. In the cinema the camera sucks some person forward into an enormous close-up and holds a face there yards wide, filling the whole screen, all holes and pores, like some sucking octopus that might eat up an audience many rows at a time.”

      • Pages 166 – 167

        And here we have another significant passage in respect of what I said in the previous entry above about our dire predicaments today. Also an intriguing reference to what was then the future’s FAKE NEWS syndrome!


      • Pages 167 – 179

        “We lived in the true and the untrue, comfortably and without trouble.”

        Much further busy-ness of Hildations galore, one man called Bill sniffing around this Hilda who centres the furores and broken predictions about whose going to make her fortune, making another woman jealous and clinging to Bill for dear life. The paragraph about Mrs. Fulmino fulminously LOW voice you will never forget, nor will you forget the passages about Mrs Johnson’s abrupt death (she doesn’t go to Monte Carlo after all), become a white leaf pressed in a book. Hilda leaves home because the truncated kid she kicked with in bed (Mrs Johnson) was, yes, dead! Bill helped Hilda with her luggage, of course. The monkeys in the zoo, notwithstanding. And, oh yes, Mr Fulmino gets a job with a PENSION! What a lot of Pritchetty gossip in so few pages. I feel steeped in wire-brushed sunlight, post-war, pre-corona. Still more to read.

      • Page 179 – 190

        “If Hilda’s face was eventless, it was the event itself, it was the dance.”

        This is amazing stuff! An ending to conjure with! A post war dance hall that has more craziness than our recent pre-corona ones were! Pre-Twist Twists. And a ‘coloured’ or ‘West Indian’ man involved. And Hilda’s stalking or harassment by Bill becomes manically obsessive, but on which party’s part, his or hers, or both? “Her face had a nakedness of a body.” And the male narrator takes on more of a significance. Was he obsessive, too? And, judging by the closing lines, did he in fact write the whole thing objectively as a work of fiction or as an intrinsic part for himself in the action being described? A fascinating literary device, assuming that that last question is relevant. And the melodrama with Hilda’s luggage and the Fulminos is absolutely priceless. Hilda herself a character from literature you will never forget. A very funny novella, but using ‘funny’ as Mr Fulmino himself would use it!

        “I have always liked the hard and sequinned sheen of London streets at night, their empty dockyard look.”

  15. Pingback: Third World War As An Unseen ‘Cloud’ | THE DES LEWIS GESTALT REAL-TIME REVIEWS: Books as a Merging of Wood, Metal & Stone into one Block.


    “Of course, things are better than when I was a boy. I feel everything is better.”

    A touching slice of life as this old man has confusions that his wife is still alive, now staying with his middle-aged son’s family. His fixation on fish, and buying a house by the seaside. There is always just a little more possible, however old one is, I guess. And that little bit more is paradoxically unlimited.


    This is Pritchett’s version of Trevor’s Torridge (reviewed here) — or vice versa? A sort of school reunion with all the old names, each now with his wife, and then there is Tessa due to arrive who seems to have slept with all of them, but Saxon still holds a candle if not a torch for her. As he frenziedly Dad-dances in front of HER ‘Dad’, her so called father nicknamed Dustman. Full of Pritchett beautifully misbalanced. With sauasages and misbodings. A whole gamut of claimed and misclaimed ‘oldest friends’. One of them seems to be VSP himself! And phrases that whack you.

  18. 575F2344-53FC-4B37-A844-CA9B15656C15 ON THE EDGE OF THE CLIFF

    Funny I should read this telling story for the first time today in my 72nd year, the year I wrote the Facebook post the day before my birthday here about my ‘Midsommar’ Cliff dive. And now we have this Covid business. This 70+ widower man, too, dives off a cliff where he once had naked romantic moments. 674DEE23-4F84-4A48-BF32-A911863A49D2 He seems today, though, to have a 25 year old bit of feisty stuff to toy with, a woman called Rowena. And he meets an old flame at the Giraffe fair, a 40+ woman called Daisy, I infer, who now has her own toy lover called Stephen. The rage and the feistiness amid miserly time… no, it is we great old ones who are miserly with time, not the other way. I could relate to this story very much, but there are aspects of it that I could not weigh in the balance today. It looks as if my Golden Wedding with my wife will now have to be spent in our splendid isolation. Assuming that I reach May 23, that is!


  19. Pingback: V. S. PRITCHETT: The Camberwell Beauty | Bowen KÔRner (The Circumflexing Elbow)

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