Tuesday, 11 December 2012

A Cab at the Door - V.S. Pritchett

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More Slightly Foxed!  Yay!  Well, this one was actually a little bonus - earlier in the year, when they sent me the fabulous Look Back With Love by Dodie Smith, they inadvertently sent me A Cab at the Door by V.S. Pritchett first.  And then very kindly said I could have both.  Having recently adored Blue Remembered Hills, I realised I couldn't go long without another fix of Slightly Foxed, and so grabbed A Cab at the Door (1968).

I have to confess, I've spent much of my adult life confusing V.S. Pritchett and V.S. Naipaul (he of the I'm-better-than-all-women rant).  As crimes go, it's not the worst, and I hadn't actually read anything by either of them - but now I'm sure that Pritchett is going to be my favourite V.S.  Sorry, Italian astronomer V.S. Casulli.  Tough break.

Like all the Slightly Foxed Editions (of which this is no.3), A Cab at the Door is a memoir - stretching further than some, in that it takes us beyond childhood, up until the time Pritchett breaks away from his parents and leaves home for France.  Like most memoirists, Pritchett seems to have been blessed with more amusing, regional relatives than the average person (c'mon, my relatives, be more comical) but although we have entertaining visits to these, the dominant character in this memoir is Pritchett's father.  And I choose the word dominant deliberately.  Whatever other merits the book has, I think its greatest achievement is a rich and complex portrait of the sort of man who would simply appear as an ogre in fiction.

Father (if his name is mentioned, I have forgotten it - as I invariably forget names) is selfish, arrogant, and angry.  His cruelty is that peculiar brand which stems from monumental self-delusion - he drives his family deeply into debt, but appears to believe it is none of his doing.  He has constant ambition to better himself and his standing in society (and even achieves it to a degree, eventually, becoming a Managing Director) but doesn't care how his failures along the way ruin and sadden his wife and children.  His wife - a lively and somewhat crude woman - is all but forbidden from entertaining, and is constantly carted from pillar to post, as they move to escape his debts.  The eponymous cab at the door is Pritchett's familiar childhood sight, waiting to take them to their next home.

But because this is non-fiction, Father is not the caricatured evil man, nor his wife the stereotypical woman whose character is squashed out of her.  Instead, despite his unkindness to his younger son, and his unpredictable behaviour towards Victor himself, there is still love in him.  His wife still has moments of shrieking with laughter; Victor can still bond with his father over literature, occasionally, even if his own early attempts at writing are loudly derided.  And what novelist would have the masterstroke of making Father become a fierce proponent of Christian Science?  It is a truly exceptional portrait of a complicated man - and a portrait which is never finished to the artist's satisfaction, simply because he could not be comprehended.  Pritchett writes this brilliant paragraph towards the end:
Right up to the day of his death in his eighties, none of us children could settle our view of him.  It was simple to call him the late Victorian dominant male without whose orders no one could think or move.  It was only partly true that he was a romantic procrastinator, egotist and dreamer, for he was a very calculating man.  Sometimes we saw him as the unchanged country boy, given to local shrewdness and gossip.  (He loved the malicious gossip of his church and his trade.)  Sometimes we saw him as a pocket Napoleon, but he never even tried to obtain the wealth or power he often talked about.  His mind was more critical than creative and he was appalled by criticism of himself.  He would go pale, hold up his hand and say, "You must not criticise me."  He sincerely meant he was beyond criticism and felt in himself a sort of sacredness.
A Cab at the Door doesn't have the warmth and delight of other Slightly Foxed books - it doesn't intend to - and so, while Pritchett cannot compete with Dodie Smith and Rosemary Sutcliff for my affections, his task is different and executed incredibly well.

There are, of course, other angles and facets to this memoir, but I thought it worth identifying and discussing the one which set it apart from others that I have read.  Perhaps not one to curl up with in front of the festive log fire (for that, get Look Back With Love or Blue Remembered Hills, I cannot encourage you enough) but certainly an impressive portrait of a frustrating man, exactly the right ratio of objective and personal, an exemplary achievement.

2 comments:

  1. I am not the only one who gets the VSes mixed up! I find that incredibly reassuring.

    This sounds like a rich portrait of Pritchett's father, who seems like a fascinating if not necessarily appealing man. I really appreciate that Pritchett doesn't fall back on caricatures for either his father or the other members of the family. All of the lazy cliches that fiction writers employ (and which you mention) drive me nuts, especially the "squashed" wives. People are rarely so straight-forward and, if they are, then they are even more rarely worth reading about.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I am another who confuses the VSes, and now I realize that I know nothing about Pritchett - beyond what I've learned from your review!

    ReplyDelete

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