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Pritchett's incisive literary essays; two reissued novels

A Man of Letters: Selected Essays, by V. S. Pritchett. New York: Random House. 305 pp. $19.95. V. S. Pritchett's celebrated literary essays -- 46 of which appear in this attractive omnibus volume -- impress me as far clearer and more tightly written than his equally celebrated short stories (which I find uneven and diffuse). He seems unfailingly able to extract the essential spirit from a body of work, to grapple with the central problem a writer poses.

Examples abound. Note his generous appraisal of Sir Walter Scott as a writer ``who face[s] life squarely,'' a realist steeped in ``what all ordinary, simple, observant men know about one another: the marks of their trade, their town, their family.'' Or his understanding of how World War I assaulted and unraveled Virginia Woolf's finely-strung intellect and emotions. Or his sensitivity to Faulkner's range of skills -- as stylist, evoker of mood, and ``creator of episode.''

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Pritchett is equally incisive and entertaining whether paying tribute to major writers or rummaging urbanely through the productions of eccentric figures like George Sand, illustrator George Cruikshank, or that alarming proto-feminist Mrs. Amelia Opie.

Of the writers and artists examined, 22 are British, eight American, and 18 European. All the essays are appreciations that are intended, clearly, to excite our interest.

Pritchett exercises what I'd call a utilitarian approach to literature: Here, he suggests, is this wealth of great writing, put on earth for our instruction and delight and to use to make us better people.

It's not sparkling phrases that characterize Pritchett's modestly direct prose, but sentences or arguments. He is an absolute master of summary and paraphrase (see his ``Turgenev in Baden'' for a particularly brilliant example). He is adept at the capsule biography that omits no salient detail and a genius at the developed response that puts a writer in his proper contextual place and proves his claim on our attention and respect.

Two kinds of essays show Pritchett at his best.

His summary reconsiderations of full careers (Ford Madox Ford, George Eliot, Arnold Bennett) reveal a lifetime's imaginative involvement with revered masters and mentors. His comparative essays (Robert Musil with Italo Svevo, S. J. Perelman with a host of British and other American humorists) amount to miniature educations in complementary literary traditions.

Few critics have ever contributed such a vivid sense of the excitement and value of reading and learning. One may say of Pritchett what he himself has said of Scott: ``He writes like a citizen.'' Clarissa, or The History of a Young Lady, by Samuel Richardson. New York: Penguin. 1,533 pp. $25 cloth. $10.95 paper.

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This is a welcome reissue of a great 18th-century novel that was once embraced as the ultimate analysis of refinement in extremis, but in this century is frequently dismissed as bloated sentimentalism. Probably the longest novel in the English language (this edition is 1,533 pages), it is unquestionably one of the most impressive and satisfying. Its many longueurs and improbabilities slacken -- but cannot vitiate -- Richardson's masterly portrayal of the struggle between a virtuous young heroine and the rake who plots to seduce her; the story is told through the hundreds of letters each exchanges with various confidants. Stay with it, and ``Clarissa'' offers a reading experience unlike any other. The Whole Family: A Novel by Twelve Authors, William Howells et al.. New York: Frederick Ungar. 350 pp. $19.95, cloth. $9.95, paper.

One of American fiction's authentic curiosities, ``A Novel by Twelve Authors'' was conceived by William Dean Howells and involved some of the then most popular and successful writers in the United States.

The composite work first appeared serially in Harper's Bazaar in 1907. Howell's aim was ``a serious treatment of the effect of marriage on the family''; a realistic chronicle akin to his own much-admired novels. What resulted was, in parts, more interesting.

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman gave an unsettling, independent-feminist slant to her chapter concerning ``The Old-Maid Aunt.'' Further complexities arose with Henry James's intricate -- and intriguing -- portrayal of ``The Married Son.''

Modern readers may prefer scholar Alfred Bendixen's lively, informative ``Introduction'' to the workmanlike contributions of one-time celebrities such as John Kendrick Bangs, Mary Heaton Vorse, and Henry Van Dyke. But the book remains a decent read, and it's a sample of American literature, and Americana, that was well worth reviving.

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