The value of a quiet voice

V.S. Pritchett (Photo courtesy New Stateman)
William Trevor, New Statesman

The origins of the short story in different regions of the world – where it came from and when, how it developed – vary from country to country. Although its birth was most often a natural transformation of what was there already, occasionally the change that occurred was more dramatic, coming from nowhere, without a pedigree of tradition or of anything else.

The vitality of America’s first stories owes much to such newness, to an untrammelled purity that challenged, without being at odds with, the classicism of Russia’s vast contribution to the same literary development. In Europe – particularly perhaps in France and Germany – the influence of the antique continued, then slowly withered.

“A child of our time,” Elizabeth Bowen called the modern story, irrespective of its source, and she was right. At the very heart of modernity, it belonged to a briskly different age and almost perfectly reflected it. Its matter-of-fact brevity did, its sense of urgency, its glimpsing manner, its stab of truth. Troubled Ireland took to it; Italy, too; in England it didn’t much appeal.

Overshadowed by the riches and delights of the Victorian novel, it was regarded by literary England as little more than a poor relation living on the crumbs scattered by the popular success of fiction that flourished as fiction never had before. But these humbly gathered crumbs were more wholesome than they might have been. They nourished a modest art, and in modesty the English short story eventually found itself. It discovered the value of a quiet voice and acquired, in time, a quality it since has made its own: distinctive, spare, unfussy. All that was waiting for V S Pritchett, who gratefully reached out for it, prized it and indelibly left his mark on it.

Read full essay at New Statesman …