Thursday 30 January 2020

A Pritchett Curiosity

The city centre of Wellington, as I’ve noted before, is blessed with three very good second-hand bookshops, all within a few minutes’ walking distance of each other, and each rewarding in its own way. At the smallest of them, The Ferret Bookshop on Cuba Street, I found the other day a novel by V.S. Pritchett that I didn’t even know existed…
  Dead Man Leading was published in 1937, politely received, and then, it seems, forgotten, until it was reissued as a Twentieth Century Classic by Oxford in 1984, with a perceptive Introduction by Paul Theroux. That’s the edition I found on the Ferret’s shelves. Dead Man Leading tells the story of an expedition heading deep into the Brazilian jungle in search of the missionary father of the explorer-hero Harry Johnson, an intense, solitary man driven by strange compulsions. His father has been missing for 17 years, so the expedition is clearly a forlorn hope, but Harry, who has a great deal of what might be called charisma, has persuaded the experienced Charles Wright to be its leader, and Gilbert Phillips, a journalist, is also of the party. Each of these three men is linked to one woman, Charles’s step-daughter Lucy, with whom Gilbert has had a short, fairly straightforward romance, and Harry – a man brought up to hate women – a far from straightforward one, from which the expedition is a form of flight.
  What unfolds is at once an adventure story, full of dramatic incident and reversals, a tale of survival (and the opposite), and a study in the psychology of exploration – in Harry’s case at least, the morbid (and specifically male) psychology of exploration. Although Pritchett had never set foot in Brazil at the time he wrote this novel, his evocation of the jungle – of the sapping heat and teeming life, the sounds, sights and smells – is entirely convincing (though he slips up once, when an orang-utan makes a brief appearance). Years later, Pritchett visited Brazil and was glad to discover that he’d got the atmosphere of the endless jungle right in his novel of 1937.
  Dead Man Leading is a very atypical Pritchett work – if I’d read it without knowing who was the author, I don’t think I’d have guessed it right – and it could have been rather heavy going (at least for one not much given to reading adventure stories) if it had stayed narrowly focused on the three Englishmen and their mad expedition. Fortunately, however, along the way a character crops up who is more in Pritchett’s regular line – the unabashed scoundrel Calcott, a Londoner in unhappy exile, who carries a very English chip on his shoulder about class and ‘university men’, and who fights the boredom of his life with séances stage-managed by his urbane Portuguese friend, Silva. The energy generated by the scenes featuring these two suggests another novel – or at least a short story – struggling to break out of Pritchett’s tale of adventure, but it’s one that never got written. Instead we have Dead Man Leading, a novel that is of course well written, of course readable, of course full of nice touches – this is Pritchett after all – but ultimately more of a curiosity than a must-read.

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