A blog respondent recently asked which I thought the better writer, V.S.Pritchett, or Graham Greene.
My first inclination was to choose, but on reflection I realised that what I ought to be doing was understanding why I couldn’t. Or perhaps shouldn’t! In fact, I’ve not read that many GG stories, though I do have the 1990 collection The Last Word & other stories. It was one of those ‘other stories’ I was interested in: The Lieutenant Died Last was the basis of the wartime propaganda film by Calvalcanti, Went the Day Well, one of the adaptations I’ve written about in the series ‘Changing Your Story’. I had read the other 11 stories in the collection too, but the question prompted me to read them again.
I still can’t give a straightforward choice answer, but I do now have a clearer idea of how I perceive the two writers in relation to one another. From what I have read, there is a difference, but what is striking about it is not so much the style of the stories, as their content. VSP and GG write from a different perspective, and tell a different type of story.
The stories in The Last Word are mainly about individuals in conflict with a state, or its representatives. In The Lottery Ticket, for example, a tourist wins the lottery in a third world country, and donates the prize money to the government, precipitating a series of unintended, and negative, consequences. In The Last Word itself, and in An Appointment With The General, the protagonists confront the individuals embodying the tyranny under which they live. Even in the stories The Lieutenant Died Last and A Branch of the Service the protagonists are serving the interests of the group, rather than following their purely personal agendas.
If stories like this dominate the GG collection, VSP’s Complete Short Stories, of which I have read about two thirds as I write, is of a quite different stamp. Here it is personal demons that are confronted, and private wars that are waged. Stories like The Fall ,The Camberwell Beauty, Blind Love and The Saint examine individuals in conflict with their emotions and their beliefs, characters struggling to form and maintain their relationships. As yet I have found no story with the David & Goliath asymmetry of the GG ones.
The nearest GG comes to VSP, in the collection I have read, is with The Moment of Truth, in which, under ordinary rather than extra-ordinary circumstances, a waiter misinterprets his relationship with a couple of regular customers. In VSP’s wartime set, The Voice, where one might expect a story of the nation at war, we find instead two individuals playing out their private issues in the devastation of the London Blitz. The story is not even based upon their relative statuses within the church in which they are both priests, though that element is included.
But back to the question, and my answer to it…For me V.S.Pritchett has the edge, because his stories are about the private rather than the public, about the emotional rather than than the institutional. That is not to say that Graham Greene is unaware of the emotional, any more than Pritchett is unaware of the institutional, but the focus of the two is decidedly different. The fact that I feel this way, of course, might be telling you more about me than it is about them.