V.S. Pritchett – Midnight Oil (book review)

Ireland during the Irish Civil War, Spain just a few years before the Spanish Civil War, and a bit of Morocco and Algeria and Appalachia- that’s a lot of ground to cover in one book. Midnight Oil, by V.S. Pritchett, is a memoir, one my brother handed me when he heard I was hoping to read some good memoirs before writing my own. Of course, Pritchett’s book was written when he was in his late 60’s going on 70. At my mid-30’s, my memoirs could not cover as much ground, so my book will be different, maybe more like Paula Fox’s Borrowed Finery, another good one I recommend btw.

V.S. Pritchett was born in 1900, so in the 20’s he was in his 20’s, and so on. That, I think, would be cool. I never can remember how old I am anymore, though that is maybe more denial than forgetting- if I am not sure I am really 35, maybe I’m not! Pritchett grew up in a Christian Scientist household, which meant he could get a job working for the Christian Science Monitor in his 20’s, working as a correspondent in Ireland and Spain. In Midnight Oil he talks about his experiences in these places and his struggles in Paris before that to figure out who he was, what he wanted to do with his life (writing), and how to be a writer.

I really related to this book, I think, in part because I grew up in a similarly conservative, fringe Protestant sect, and the tensions between me and my family who are still religious define some of how I approach people. My friends are always impressed that I can talk to people of any religion and make them feel at ease, even when talking about gender issues and philosophical questions religion likes to weigh in on, and that is something I learned out of necessity to avoid fighting all the time with my ultra-conservative grandparents and mother. In fact, like Pritchett, I find that people assume I must be in some church, because of the many religious people I am friends with and how well-versed I am with respect to the Bible and various church political topics (salvation by faith/works, women as preachers, women choosing not to have kids, etc.).

I also liked seeing how Pritchett became a writer. I tried for too many years to be something else, because my family instilled in me this idea that jobs are things you go somewhere else to do, an office or something, and they are things you do because you have to. So, writing must just be a hobby, because you can do it all at home and enjoy it, or at least be passionate about it. Now, I guess you could call it a mid-life crisis almost, I am abandoning grad school after too many years in college with no job prospects in sight, to be a writer, and I am dealing with the ‘how to be a writer’ question Pritchett was trying to find answers to in Paris in the early 1920’s. My answer will be different, because the world now is different from how it was back then, but it is still interesting to read about how another writer became successful.

Midnight Oil is short (~220pgs) and covers a lot of ground, so it stays interesting all the way through, even if you aren’t a writer or weren’t raised by fundamentalist Christians. I loved reading about what it was like traveling around Ireland mid civil war, and about what Spain was like before the civil war there and Franco’s regime afterward tore that country apart. If you’re looking for some good biographical non-fiction to read, this may be one to check out.

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About Ravenmount

Independent science nerd/writer/music blogger/arts enthusiast/theorist currently in Colorado.
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