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?'

'Yes.'

'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.'

'Well—'

'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.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

a statement of theme

Very often one comes across a more-or-less bald statement of theme in a novel's latter pages. This is the one I discovered today, from about page 705 of Le Côté de Guermantes (Moncrieff translation):
[...]the very purity of the Duchess’s language was a sign of limitation, and that, in her, both her intelligence and her sensibility had remained proof against all innovation. Here again, Mme. de Guermantes’s mind attracted me just because of what it excluded (exactly the content of my own thoughts) and by everything which by virtue of that exclusion, it had been able to preserve, that seductive vigour of the supple bodies which no exhausting necessity to think no moral anxiety or nervous trouble has deformed. Her mind, of a formation so anterior to my own, was for me the equivalent of what had been offered me by the procession of the girls of the little band along the seashore. Mme. de Guermantes offered me, domesticated and held in subjection by her natural courtesy, by the respect due to another person’s intellectual worth, all the energy and charm of a cruel little girl of one of the noble families round Combray who from her childhood had been brought up in the saddle, tortured cats, gouged out the eyes of rabbits, and; albeit she had remained a pillar of virtue, might equally well have been, a good few years ago now, the most brilliant mistress of the Prince de Sagan. Only she was incapable of realising what I had sought for in her, the charm of her historic name, and the tiny quantity of it that I had found in her, a rustic survival from Guermantes. Were our relations founded upon a misunderstanding which could not fail to become manifest as soon as my homage, instead of being addressed to the relatively superior woman that she believed herself to be, should be diverted to some other woman of equal mediocrity and breathing the same unconscious charm? A misunderstanding so entirely natural, and one that will always exist between a young dreamer like myself and a woman of the world, one however that profoundly disturbs him, so long as he has not yet discovered the nature of his imaginative faculties and has not acquired his share of the inevitable disappointments which he is destined to find in people, as in the theatre, in his travels and indeed in love.
Marcel is becoming disappointed that the glittering high society of Paris turns out to be populated by vain, envious, backbiting mediocrities who just happen to have money, good looks and famous names. Marcel is very soon to meet again with the Baron de Charlus, an inhabitant of Paris high society and a cousin of the Duchess discussed above. Marcel has not yet realized that Charlus is an infamous sexual predator.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

the lady had felt hot and had stopped dancing

The river, the women's dresses, the sails of the boats, the innumerable reflexions of one thing and another came crowding into this little square panel of beauty which Elstir had cut out of a marvellous afternoon. What delighted one in the dress of a woman who had stopped for a moment in the dance because it was hot and she was out of breath was irresistible also in the same way in the canvas of a motionless sail, in the water of the little harbour, in the wooden bridge, in the leaves of the trees and in the sky. As in one of the pictures that I had seen at Balbec, the hospital, as beautiful beneath its sky of lapis lazuli as the cathedral itself, seemed (more bold than Elstir the theorician, then Elstir the man of taste, the lover of things mediaeval) to be intoning: "There is no such thing as gothic, there is no such thing as a masterpiece; this tasteless hospital is just as good as the glorious porch," so I now heard: "The slightly vulgar lady at whom a man of discernment would refrain from glancing as he passed her by, would except from the poetical composition which nature has set before him-—her dress is receiving the same light as the sail of that boat, and there are no degrees of value and beauty; the commonplace dress and the sail, beautiful in itself, are two mirrors reflecting the same gleam; the value is all in the painter's eye." This eye had had the skill to arrest for all time the motion of the hours at this luminous instant, when the lady had felt hot and had stopped dancing, when the tree was fringed with a belt of shadow, when the sails seemed to be slipping over a golden glaze. But just because the depicted moment pressed on one with so much force, this so permanent canvas gave one the most fleeting impression, one felt that the lady would presently move out of it, the boats drift away, the night draw on, that pleasure comes to an end, that life passes and that the moments illuminated by the convergence, at once, of so many lights do not recur.
from Le Côté de Guermantes by Marcel Proust, Translated from the French by C. K. Scott Moncrieff

I read this and I thought about the abstract landscapes of Turner and I thought, yes, that's it, the world does in fact look like a Turner even at his most abstract, if you think about it the right way; the vision of the artist is the value of an artwork, yes, which is what places art outside of history and separates the true value of art from it's price at auction. All of which made me think that I could buy an easel and some paints and some canvas and set up as a painter again. Which I won't do, but I had that happy thought for a minute or less.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Reading in 2017: a preposterous list

I really have no idea what I'll read in 2017, so I have no idea what makes me think this post is a good idea. And yet.

Proust. Yes, Proust. I'm not quite halfway through the six volumes of In Search of Lost Time. I imagine I'll have finished by the spring. It's a remarkable novel, this thing of Proust's, a sort of endless knot of desire and irony.

Tolstoy. War and Peace to be precise. I read this book when I was fifteen or sixteen, so almost forty years ago. I am certain I have forgotten most of what I read except for the Battle of Borodino (that spinning cannonball, have I got that right?) and the early scene in the bar with the English and German soldiers and the Russian officer (I think) who insisted on translating everything into English for the Englishmen, who protested that they did speak Russian. Or something like that. Anyway, it's such a long book that I figure there must be some other scenes in there that are worth remembering.

Miscellany. The Long Ships. Thayer's Life of Beethoven (again). More poetry (I shall force myself to swallow some of the Romantics, with whom I've always had difficulty). Erich Kaestner's Emil und die Detektive. The NYRB collection of "New York" stories by Henry James. More literary criticism, probably. More philosophy, very likely, hopefully with an emphasis on Augustine and Kierkegaard. Some sociology texts I happen to have to hand. Blah blah blah. A focus, possibly, on values and morals and art. I'm not really sure.

I have vague ideas about (re)reading all of Conan Doyle's "Holmes" stories and books this year, though I pretty much doubt that will happen. I think 2017 might be heavy on nonfiction. It feels like it, though I'm not sure why. Although, of course, there is no real reason to label literary criticism and philosophy as "nonfiction".

Other ideas. The Iliad again. Herodotus, Xenophon. That sort of thing. Aurora Leigh and other long poems. Long poems, yes. That's the ticket. Middlemarch, finally. This list is already too impossibly long.