Preceded by A Cab at the Door
(1968), British author and literary critic V.S. Pritchett’s memoir Midnight Oil
(1971) covers his early literary career from 1921 through the present. The New York Times
writes, "Aside from Pritchett's familiar muted wit, we see reflected in these pages the increasing precision of style and the gradual refining of sensibility that accompanied the writer's personal development."
Born in 1900 in Suffolk, England, Pritchett is raised by his devout Christian Scientist father. When the narrative of Midnight Oil
begins, the year is 1921 and Pritchett has recently relocated to Paris to work as an assistant in a shop. For two years, Pritchett immerses himself in French culture, perfectly adopting the local dialect and wearing his French identity as something of a second skin. His first piece of published writing comes in the form of a joke about the opera that he successfully submits to The Paris Review
Because of his familiarity with his father's faith, Pritchett is employed as a foreign correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor
news publication. In 1923, the news outlet sends Pritchett to Ireland to report on the Troubles, the ethno-nationalist conflict between Catholic nationalists and Protestant loyalists. His time in Ireland is a formative experience as Pritchett meets several Irish literary icons including William Butler Yeats, George William Russell, and Sean O'Casey. Pritchett also meets Evelyn Vigors, the woman who will become his wife in a marriage the author frequently characterizes as unhappy. While there is still plenty to report on in Ireland, the end of the Irish Civil War causes the Christian Science Monitor
to withdraw Pritchett as a correspondent there.
Next, Pritchett is sent to Spain as a reporter. Up until that point, Pritchett views writing as purely a commercial endeavor, rather than his passion and calling in life. But something about the Iberian landscape awakens in him a newfound purpose to become a serious man of letters.
After a few weeks spent in the United States, Pritchett returns to England where he finds work with The New Statesman
, a political and cultural magazine in London. There, he rises through the ranks to become the magazine's literary editor. Meanwhile, Pritchett works on his first book, Marching Spain
, a personal narrative based on his experiences in Spain which he publishes in 1928. The following year, he publishes Clare Drummer
, a book based on his experiences in Ireland and his union with his wife, Evelyn. Neither book receives particularly good reviews, and Pritchett acknowledges their weaknesses in his memoir.
After relocating to the English countryside to better focus on his writing, Pritchett finally finds his voice. His literary career takes off in 1932 with a highly regarded collection of short stories, The Spanish Virgin and Other Stories
. Four years later in 1936, Pritchett divorces Evelyn and marries Dorothy Rudge Roberts, with whom he has a satisfying marriage that produces two children. Meanwhile, Pritchett comes to grips with his own parental trauma and upbringing, depicted in Midnight Oil
's predecessor, A Cab at the Door
. Both of his parents age with little grace, as his father suffers the latest in a string of business failures and steals his wife's savings to throw money at one last failed venture. As his mother and father move into their 80s and each suffers a series of health ailments, Pritchett develops a measure of empathy for them he never possessed in the past.
With the start of World War II in 1939, Pritchett reports on the conflict for the BBC and Great Britain's Ministry of Information. He also continues to contribute weekly articles to the New Statesman
. When the war ends, Pritchett lives in the United States for many years where he teaches at Princeton for almost a decade. He also serves as a visiting professor at the University of California, Columbia University, and Smith College. During this time, Pritchett continues to publish extensively, writing 16 novels, short story collections, and works of nonfiction and criticism between 1951 and 1971.Midnight Oil
is an enlightening coming-of-age story full of both adventure and trenchant wit.