For a decade or two, I preferred reading memoirs to fiction. The best are as well-written, and with as much craft. But they are “true”.
V.S. Pritchett’s A Cab at the Door is memorable. His father was a petty tyrant, schemer, dreamer, manipulator. He was inexcusably selfish. He plunged his family into poverty, while indulging himself in petty luxuries–oysters, clothes, lace, pianos.
He perpetually skirted financial disaster, and there was always “A Cab at the Door” as the title says, for yet another move under duress.
There are memorable vignettes. His father lolling in an armchair, legs splayed out, while his mother kneels before him, trying to get off his tight boots. His father eating oysters, while they watched. His father spending lavishly on himself, and niggardly on them.
The marriage, he memorably says, was ” a marriage of the rich and the poor.”
I remember reading that much later, Pritchett discovered that his father had another family, who were provided for in an even more niggardly manner. His half-sister has written a book about her childhood, farmed out to an old woman who would have her massage her nipples for hours at a time!! The Pritchetts had no idea of this family’s existence.
I conclude with an except from Thomas Lask’s New York Times Review, “Through it all, Mr. Pritchett’s mind and spirit grew, though it was squeezed and stifled in an environment hostile to art and learning. Irregularly educated and never in contact either through print or person with anything that could show him the possibilities of a life he desired, he had to live with his undisclosed and inchoate yearning. He did not know where to turn. He describes with painful recollection the humiliation he had to undergo as his father read with scorn a piece of schoolboy writing. He could not live at home, but there was so little independence in the family that he could not break away either. When he left at 20, he did it with subterfuge. He said he was going on a holiday to France, but he knew he would never return.
A novelist, short story writer, author of superb travel books, and also a critic, he has provided an engrossing document and a first-hand look at England in the first two decades of the century. It reads so quickly and is so engaging that the reader finds himself becoming unconsciously partisan, as impatient and restless as the young hero for the great day when he will be on his own.”