A man of the century. Martin Amis wrote about him with devotion; to Gore Vidal, he was the best critic of "the living novel". Geoffrey Wheatcroft on one of literature's finest all-rounders

V S Pritchett: a working life

Jeremy Treglown <em>Chatto & Windus, 308pp, £25</em>

ISBN 07011732

Over the years, this magazine has known many ups and downs, vicissitudes and victories, grandeurs et servitudes, but there is one radiant moment which should be celebrated yearly. In 1927, a young writer was asked by Raymond Mortimer, the literary editor, to contribute fiction reviews to the New Statesman. V S Pritchett's debut was the beginning of a glorious 50-year tenure, and of one of the more inspiring literary careers of his time.

He was a child of the 20th century, but also, in his way, the last Victorian. Born in 1900, Victor Sawdon Pritchett's first name commemorated the monarch who was still, just, on the throne. He never liked either given name and his friends called him "VSP" or "VS" - sometimes said, with a little difficulty, as one syllable. When he was born, his father was trying without success to run a small business in Ipswich, but the family soon moved back to London, which was to become one of the loves of VSP's life and perhaps his greatest subject.

The family was lower middle class, a much-abused term that covers a multitude of virtues. But VSP's father, whom he portrayed so unforgettably (if not always quite accurately), was a charming chancer and charlatan, a good deal less than a paragon of petit bourgeois morality. The family often hovered on the brink of bankruptcy and moved in the Cab at the Door of VSP's memoir from one lodging to another, a step ahead of the duns and creditors. As Jeremy Treglown notes in this lucid, just and humane biography, VSP felt the strain of imminent bankruptcy, a strain typical of this class ("so desperate to be more middle than lower"), throughout his early years, and it coloured his life. For most of his long career, he was "driven by the need to find intellectual and artistic scope without forfeiting security".

Like his slightly younger contemporary George Orwell - his only rival as best critic of their age - he never went to university as an undergraduate. At 15, after a good schooling at Alleyn's in Dulwich, he left to work at a tannery in south London, an experience he relished. He explored London and then Paris with a restless curiosity. He already knew he wanted to be a writer. At 21, he published his first short story, under the unimprovably Pritchettian title "Cyrano of the Gasworks", and he joined the Christian Science Monitor.

"Oddly enough", I was about to write, but that could have been a subtitle for VSP's life and work; let's say that, as it happens, the family belonged to that unlikely Church and, thanks to the connection, he began his other career as a journalist, reporting from Ireland during the Troubles. It was there that he met his first wife, Evelyn Vigors. The marriage was sexually unsuccessful, and unhappy almost from the start, although they travelled energetically through Spain in the mid-1920s. There he found one more metier. His first book, Marching Spain, showed that he was one of the best travel writers, just as he was one of the finest critics, and simply the best English short story writer, of his generation.

Back in England, he began his connection with the NS. His reportage and stories had in common an intense physicality, an awareness of tang and texture as well as the sheer curiosity of life. And his reviewing had its own sharp understanding of the way words on the page create their own world.

On Guy Fawkes Night in 1934, he met the 19-year-old Dorothy Roberts. Forty years later, he recalled their meeting in his story "The Marvellous Girl": "There are glances that are collisions, scattering the air between like glass . . ." And more than glances: it was a lifelong joke between them that there were fireworks indoors when they went home together that night, as well as in the open air. After Evelyn and he divorced, VSP married Dorothy. There were no sexual problems here, as their letters show. Treglown is admirably matter-of-fact about the ever-interesting subjects of sex and money, although I prefer reading about the latter. There is always something intrusive about reading other people's letters - the more intimate, the more intrusive - and one can sometimes understand W H Auden's insistence that love letters should never be published (and that all his own letters be destroyed).

When the Second World War began, the Pritchetts moved to Berkshire, where a son was born to join their daughter, Josephine. "Beneath the surface," Treglown writes, "the marriage was be-coming rocky. And sometimes on the surface, too." When I used to see them in old age, VSP was a teddy bear and Dorothy a benign little lady, but she was an intense as well as intelligent woman and "often either felt left out, or pre-emptively excluded herself". Her recourse was drink, which caused her and the family much grief for many years.

In the country, they mixed in what Treglown calls a "bohemocratic" set, whose antics are amusingly described. But although VSP was an artist to the bone, he was not a real bohemian. He worried about money, toiled unremittingly, and compared that toil with "the relative ease and indolence of better-selling writers such as Graham Greene", his biographer notes. No doubt a touch of envy and self-pity is part of the writer's condition, but VSP had managed most definitely to escape from shabby gentility. For a time, he was literary editor of the NS, and in the mid-1940s his total income from the magazine was roughly £1,500. Treglown may not realise just how much that was: "a four-figure" income was then the mark of a successful managerial or professional man.

By the 1950s, VSP had begun to review regularly for the New Yorker, as well as publishing stories there, and also to tread the American lecture circuit. Even then, to buy a house in north London he needed to borrow £2,500 from the NS (does it still make mortgage loans of what would now be the best part of £100,000 at 3 per cent to its writers?), and he had to repay the balance when the magazine became a public company in 1957. To do so, he borrowed again, from Leonard Woolf, a fellow member of the NS board, who then doubled the interest, which sheds a little light on that great radical's character.

As part of his transatlantic experience, VSP had a passionate liaison with an American woman. Dorothy learned about it and hit the bottle again, with what her husband called "the old instability and violence". Altogether, middle age was a bad time, he told his young friend Al Alva-rez: "Avoid it. Hibernate between 45 and 65 if you can." But VSP didn't, and continued to write as prolifically and beautifully as ever.

Honours were now being showered on him - doctorates, a knighthood - and yet by his seventies, not all was sunny. The New Yorker disconcertingly rejected his work, which had almost always been used before, and so did the NS, whose literary editor wrote him a "graceless letter" saying that a story already accepted would not be used after all since "I have only a limited enthusiasm for it". VSP had already resigned from the board, although that was not simply, as Treglown believes, because Bruce Page had been elected editor, rather than Neal Ascherson (whom VSP favoured) or James Fenton. It was because he was appalled by the way young whippersnappers like Christopher Hitchens had conducted Fenton's campaign. At any rate, a half-century after he had published his first story in the NS, this was "about as clumsy an end to the association as could have been imagined".

Maybe, as Treglown suggests, "in a culture increasingly swayed by academic trends, Pritchett's standing was newly in question". Outside the academy, he remained a touchstone. He had always been, and always would be, revered by real writers as opposed to careerists and Eng lit mountebanks, and he brought out the best in other artists. Martin Amis wrote about him with tender devotion, and Gore Vidal (another superb critic untouched by higher education) wrote scathingly of VSP's detractors: "Our universities are positively humming with the sound of fools rushing in . . . As McDonald's drives out good food, so these hacks of academe drive out good prose." By contrast, VSP was the best critic of "the living novel". And Vidal added that "it would be nice if Sir Victor lived for ever".

He didn't, although he made it to 96; a man who was born when Tolstoy was still alive was himself alive to write appreciatively about Salman Rushdie. He left behind a sweeter memory and more enduring legacy than most. Treglown frets that Pritchett's reputation is now obscure, but that is to treat literature as a stock exchange, with this writer's shares going up and that one's going down. Whatever the hacks of academe may do or say, V S Pritchett will be read with delight as long as anyone reads at all.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft's The Strange Death of Tory England will be published by Allen Lane, the Penguin Press, next year