Nonfiction -- briefly; The Tale Bearers, by V. S. Pritchett. New York: Random House. $10.
V. S. Pritchett has the remarkable ability to distill a broad theme into an epigram: He tells us that "Italy played its ancient trick" on E. M. Forster and converted him to paganism; that Graham Greene is not only a novelist by also a bookish critic and essayist because "he has gone through the English mill"; that comics are unfunny (this is an essay on Evelyn Waugh) because "all humorists suffer from overwork."
This collection of 23 essays on various authors may be considered a rough sort of sequel to "The Myth Makers," an earlier collection that concentrated on non-English writers.
One of Pritchett's bons motsm provides the key to this new book. Speculating on the cause of Max Beerbohm's sadness, Pritchett wonders if it was Beerbohm's realization that his work had to be perfect, "as that of minor writers has to be."
This is a premise that the reader has ample opportunity to ponder, since the writers covered by these often witty and sometimes profound essays range from the indisputably major (Henry James, Joseph Conrad), through the minor ranks (E. F. Benson, Baron Corvo), all the way to the totally unheard-of.