Monday, January 30, 2017

"It won't eat you." Elephants and H.E. Bates

I read a collection of stories by English writer Herbert Ernest (H. E.) Bates, who died in 1974 and of whom I'd never heard before I stumbled across this volume in a used bookstore during a trip to Boise. What sold me was the back cover copy comparing Bates to Chekhov, whom I love. Bates is not quite an English Chekhov, though, at least not in the collection Elephant's Nest in a Rhubarb Tree. Though by an interesting coincidence, Bates' first novel The Two Sisters was only published (after rejections from several other publishers) by Johnathan Cape upon the recommendation of Edward Garnett, whose wife Constance was the translator who more-or-less introduced Chekhov's works to the English-speaking world, and who remains my favorite translator of Chekhov. So there you go, small world and all of that.

Bates wrote a lot of novels and stories. Twenty-five novels, I think, a dozen story collections, books of criticism and books for children, three autobiographies, and God knows what else. Apparently he's quite well known and here I am, just now stumbling over his tomb. His writing career spanned the years 1926 to 1974, and for much of that time he put out a novel and a story collection each year. So a prolific and busy writer.

Henry Miller's preface to this collection calls Bates "rather conventional," by which I suppose Miller means that Bates was not in the least an experimental writer. Bates was not deeply influenced by the Moderns, in other words. Which is fine, because the best of the Bates I've read (which is not much, percentage-wise), is mighty fine stuff.

Miller also compares Bates to Isaac Bashevis Singer, which I suppose is a fair comparison, though perhaps I thought that Bates is closer in style, at least, to J. D. Salinger or even Ernest Hemingway. There is a directness of speech, a journalistic clarity of style, to Bates' writing that seemed quite modern (if not Modern) and even American rather than English. Part of that American is likely my inability to read Bates' use of the Northamptonshire dialect as being anything but a rural American dialect, like something out of Faulkner or O'Connor or Twain:
But she did not think of it much. Apart from the heaviness of her body she felt strong and well. And the country was new to her, the fields strange and the river wider than she had ever dreamed.

It was the river, for some reason, which struck her most. 'Don't it git big?' she said. 'Ain't it wide?'

'Wide,' Albert said. 'You want to see the Rhine. This is only a brook.' And he went on to tell her of the Rhine. 'Take you quarter of hour to walk across. And all up the banks you see Jerry's grapes. Growing like twitch. And big boats on the river, steamers. I tell you. That's the sort o' river. You ought to see it. Like to see a river like that, wouldn't you?'


'Ah, it's a long way off. A thousand miles near enough.'
Bates' rural folks say "ain't," go fishin', drink hooch, and I cannot convince my inner reading voice to give these people anything but a backwoods American accent. Though once in a while someone says "blimey" or eats Yorkshire pudding.

Anyway, what's good or even great about these stories is that Bates has taken Chekhov's formula for a story (a man, a woman, and a reason for them to be unhappy) and run with it, peering deeply and objectively into his characters the while. A good example is "The Kimono," in which sense gives way to sensuality.
'Why don't you just come up and see the room?' she said. 'Just come up.'


'Come up and see it. It won't eat you.'

She opened the rear door of the shop and in a moment I was going upstairs behind her. She was not wearing any stockings. Her bare legs were beautifully strong and white. The room was over the cafe. It was a very good room for three and six. The new wall-paper was silver-leaved and the bed was white and looked cool.

And suddenly it seemed silly to go out into the heat again and wander about looking for Wade's Hotel when I could stay where I was.
The narrator is in London to interview for an engineering job, and cannot find the hotel he was advised to stay at. He's stumbled into Blanche's shop for an ice but the ice machine is broken. He spends the night in Blanche's arms, gets the job the next day and then returns home to marry Hilda, his fiance. Despite Hilda, our narrator cannot stay away from Blanche. He abandons Hilda, he abandons the prestigious engineering firm, and he abandons his family and friends to live above Blanche's shop until he is eventually abandoned by Blanche. If I was to compare "The Kimono" to a Chekhov story, I'd point to "Three Years," maybe.


  1. I love H. E. Bates! He's in my list of writers whose books I have found worth rereading. And I love "Elephant's Nest in a Rhubarb Tree," the book you read. I only own that one and another New Directions collection called "Love in a Wych Elm and Other Stories." Oh, and a book about stories--"The Modern Short Story"--which I read long ago and found interesting at the time though don't remember it well.

    You can tell that he loves going on long walks in the Midlands and looking at charming things he finds in streams and woods--and looking at rural people and thinking about how children see the world. I ought to read more of him. There are volumes of war stories and just such a mass of work; he was so happily productive.

    You know, Graham Greene thought that the best of H. E. Bates equalled Chekov.

    Of course, he is well known now because of the BBC versions of some of the novels and stories....

    1. p. s. I suppose this is counter-intuitive, but he reminds me of the Cornish poet Charles Causley. They seem temperamentally kindred, and they both wrote about war and children and nature, etc.

    2. His nature writing reminds me of Thomas Mann's A Man and His Dog: the attention to details, the joys of being surrounded by living things.

      I've been wishing lately that I could discover a new writer I enjoy who has a very large catalogue. Maybe Bates is that writer.

    3. Mmm, please read him all and tell what is the best!

  2. Scott, because you mention Chekhov, I will impose upon you by asking you to guide me a bit by answer this question: what is your recommended shortlist of Chekhov's "best" that I should include on my "must read bucket list"? (Note: I've purchased a copy of Janet Malcolm's book, _Reading Chekhov_, and I am poised to begin my Chekhov adventures, so your advice will be most helpful.)
    BTW, the wind has blown my blogging into a new address (for too many reasons worth mentioning): here is the address---

    1. Oh, you know, the old standards are all worth their weight in gold:

      The Steppe
      The Duel
      The Lady with the Little Dog
      Three Years
      A Boring Story (aka A Dreary Story)
      An Attack of Nerves
      The Bishop
      The Grasshopper
      An Anonymous Story
      The Party
      The Wife
      Ward No. 6
      The Schoolmistress
      The Beauties
      and, I donno, 150 others.

      I recognize that blog address, and it's not yours!

    2. Oops!

  3. I'm always searching for yet another good used bookstore, and plan to be in Boise this summer. Do you remember the name or location?

    1. Trip Taylor Bookseller, right downtown:

    2. Belated thanks, Scott.

  4. i read "A Fair Wind for France" several times when young and keep trying to read it again, even though i remember it pretty well... excellent writer, he was... i don't know why, but his style reminds me of Nevil Shute: a sort of mild intellectual approach that is comfortable and comforting; "Trustee of the Toolroom", although not one of his best, is the one i liked most...

    1. When I think of Shute, I think of On The Beach, a pretty scary book I read in my teens. Shute's known for a plain prose style, isn't he?

      When we were in Vancouver two weeks ago, I forgot to look for Bates when I was at MacLeod's Books; I'll bet MacLeod's have a load of Bates. I was focused on the Ruskin Shelves in the basement, where I found a nice 19th-century edition of The Queen of the Air.

    2. plain style, yes... but with gemutlichkeit... he played a significant role in the development of the British aircraft industry, being an engineer and all... my attempts to read Ruskin have been laughable... sort of like bobbing for apples: i know it's there but i can't quite get at it...