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A Lifetime of Travels With a Man of Letters


AT HOME AND ABROAD, by V.S. Pritchett. San Francisco: North Point Press. 332 pp. $19.95. TO paraphrase a contemporary travel writer, it's a moldy garbage heap of stereotypes, prejudices, and accepted ideas that we carry with us on our travels. Are the Irish truly ``garrulous,'' the Germans ``obstinate''? The contemporary travel writer, wearing his prejudices on his sleeve, apologizes for them without disowning them.

The older school, of which V.S. Pritchett is the preeminent example, was not so sensitive to the ideological problem of preconceptions. Or rather, it's only part of what he attends to as he travels. Fixities of soil and sun and the eternally changing weather also concern him.

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Pritchett's first assignment as a writer was to go to Ireland for this newspaper in the '20s. In a 1961 piece included in ``At Home and Abroad,'' he confronts the Irish stereotype head-on, complicating it with history and observation. The resulting essay, called ``The Irish Character,'' was published, like most of the articles collected here, in Holiday Magazine. It is a fine essay in definition.

In a piece curiously titled ``Guideless in the Pyrenees,'' Pritchett writes, ``one has only to look at the sharp faces, the steady yet fast walk of the villagers, to know that a Pyrenean type still exists.''

Still exists: Pritchett focuses on change. Types don't change. Everything else, or practically everything, shifts with the tide of time. Pritchett loves coasts and waterways, and writes here about the Amazon, the Seine, the Thames. He says his temperament is that of ``the trader,'' and we see these watery roads as work places as well as places where shadows swim and light darts and dazzles. Work and pleasure alike can be included in the ``vulgar gaieties'' he celebrates with an unjaded appetite.

A full-blown Man of Letters, famous for review and short story, Pritchett started as a travel writer, and it's in these pieces that his style can be seen against the backdrop of the real world. The ``seasoned foot-slogger'' takes us around South America and through Europe, pointing out how much has changed in the last quarter century, and discovering just how much remains. He believes it's his duty to ``know the people.'' He may point out injustice, but he rarely if ever sheds the white man's tear of hypocritical compassion. Of the dangerous Indian ghettos of Brazil, he says, ``most have no light except the candle or the oil lamp on the table; and the life of the women is the perpetual journey for water.'' Of the dogs from the wealthy houses ruined in Bolivia's revolution, he writes, ``The homeless dogs camp at night in the avenues.'' He sees, and he makes us see, but at his best, he does not tell us what to feel.

Reading through these essays at one sitting (they were originally read one at a time in different issues of magazines), one can become spoiled and apathetic and miss the achievement of the whole. Pritchett contains worlds. All his types - from Irish to Portuguese, from Chileans to Germans - speak through him. He is himself perhaps a Mediterranean type, as he defines it: ``a realist about the body, about his feelings, about money, about human nature. The good life is possible only when you accept things as they are.'' His essays seem to agree.

Pritchett's realism does not limit his sympathy. The sublime is part of the real. It is there in the Andes mountains. ``They are set out, capped by their ice helmets and snow shields, with the flash and the packed shadows of some endless encampment of chivalry standing around its tents; and on clean, blue afternoons, as we fly among them hour after burning hour, we cannot hide the feeling that the wit of man in his roaring dragonfly is triumphantly vying with the majesty of nature. They have mere pedestrian eternity; we have been given these immortal moments.'' Centuries of the European imagination are reflected in these reflections. The words were first published in 1956. Pritchett's optimism may read strangely today, which is all the more reason we should reconsider it.

It's not just that there's a past to our present. At the end of his journey down the Pyrenees, Pritchett comes to rest in a pool of light. He has been comparing and contrasting the French and the Spanish as he goes. In the end, though, ``Most of all the traveler feels the change in light: he is standing in the luminous, classical clarity where the burning light of the land is indistinguishable from the burning light of the sea.'' Pages like this, backed up as they are with miles of patient, minute observation, have put Pritchett himself among the immortals.

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