Friday, 15 May 2009

A Ravening Reader

Ford Madox Ford was, among much else, a great editor and literary talent spotter, the maker of many a writer. What I had forgotten until I started rereading V.S. Pritchett's memoir, A Cab At The Door, is that Ford also made a writer out of Pritchett. It happened when the young Victor was a pupil at Rosendale Road School in Dulwich, where a new master, Mr Bartlett - clearly one of those great teachers who change the course of so many lives - was teaching in an extraordinarily free, improvisatory and informal manner that was positively revolutionary in 1911. His first lessons on English literature were from Ford's English Review, which opened the 11-year-old Pritchett's eyes for the first time to the possibility of being a writer. 'For myself,' he writes, 'the sugar-bag blue cover of the English Review was decisive. One had thought literature was in books written by dead people who had been oppressively over-educated. Here was writing by people who were alive and probably writing at this moment.' Suddenly young Victor's imagination is awakened; he becomes a reader - and determines to be a writer. Pritchett's account of this awakening, and of his early reading, is wonderfully vivid - the amazed discovery of a raging hunger the existence of which had been entirely unsuspected. In his case, the overused term 'voracious reader' is no exaggeration; he is a ravening reader. And his hunger will lead him into trouble with his violently anti-literary father...
Originally Pritchett envisaged himself as a poet, but he was driven back onto the terra firma of prose. His analysis of why he was no poet is very acute: 'The poet, above all, abandons the will; people like ourselves, who are nearly all will, burned up the inner life, had no sense of its daring serenity and were either rapt by our active dramas or tormented by them; but in prose I found the common experience and the solid worlds where judgements were made and in which one could firmly tread.' And few trod more firmly than V.S. Pritchett.


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