Category Archives: Bates, H.E.

The Reviews That Escaped Me – July ’17

A little while ago I had the idea of reading the four most recent novels/novellas by Milan Kundera one after the other and reviewing them. Although I had read at least one of them before I wasn’t sure whether I had read the others or not. After the publication of Immortality in 1990, which is possibly my favourite of his novels, Kundera’s output dwindled significantly; his output in this period consisted of Slowness (La Lenteur) (1995), Identity (L’Identité) (1998), Ignorance (L’Ignorance) (2000), The Festival of Insignificance (La fête de l’insignifiance) (2014). Kundera was born in Czechoslovakia in 1929 but moved to France in 1975 and these post-Immortality books were all written in French rather than Czech. Of course as I read them in English translation it doesn’t really make much difference but it was interesting to notice that the style was still recognisably Kundera, the only difference with his older books was that they were shorter and his style was a bit more sparse.

So, I had intended to review each book separately but it’s now been over a month since I read them and I have to accept that I’m not going to do it, mainly because they’re starting to blur together in my mind and I usually find that I have to write a review soon after finishing the book or I lose the impetus to do so. Although shorter than his early works I still enjoyed reading them. As always Kundera analyses his characters’ motivations, thought processes, their conversations and interactions with other characters as well as highlighting any misunderstandings between them. All his characters analyse and philosophise about their lives and the world generally, which may annoy some readers, but I find that Kundera is not doing this for effect or as a gimmick but out of genuine inquisitiveness and playfulness as he places his characters in certain situations and wonders what will happen to them.

Instead of any reviews I thought I would share a few of my favourite quotes from the books.

There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting. Consider this utterly commonplace situation: a man is walking down the street. At a certain moment, he tries to recall something, but the recollection escapes him. Automatically, he slows down. Meanwhile, a person who wants to forget a disagreeable incident he has just lived through starts unconsciously to speed up his pace, as if he were trying to distance himself from a thing still too close to him in time.
—From Slowness

For love is by definition an unmerited gift; being loved without meriting it is the very proof of real love. If a woman tells me: I love you because you’re intelligent, because you’re decent, because you buy me gifts, because you don’t chase women, because you do the dishes, then I’m disappointed; such love seems a rather self-interested business. How much finer it is to hear: I’m crazy about you even though you’re neither intelligent nor decent, even though you’re a liar, an egotist, a bastard.
—From Slowness

Remembering our past, carrying it around with us always, may be the necessary requirement for maintaining, as they say, the wholeness of the self. To ensure that the self doesn’t shrink, to see that it holds on to its volume, memories have to be watered like potted flowers, and the watering calls for regular contact with the witnesses of the past, that is to say, with friends. They are our mirror; our memory; we ask nothing of them but that they polish the mirror from time to time so we can look at ourselves in it.
—From Identity

To die; to decide to die; that’s much easier for an adolescent than for an adult. What? Doesn’t death strip an adolescent of a far larger portion of future? Certainly it does, but for a young person, the future is a remote, abstract, unreal thing he doesn’t really believe in.
—From Ignorance

Overall, Slowness was my favourite of the four and is comparable to his other works. There was a scenario near the end of the book where all the characters were brought together into a scene by the side of a pool in a hotel; we know a little bit about each character but the characters themselves know nothing of each other and their actions are quite confusing for each to comprehend. Kundera even brings together two characters from different time periods, the eighteenth and twentieth century, to highlight how modern life forces us to experience pleasures differently than in the past.

The other novellas were enjoyable to read but were not quite as good as Slowness. My enjoyment of Identity was spoiled for me as Kundera relies on an ‘it was all a dream’ ending. In Ignorance Kundera concentrates on the experience of being in exile, returning to your homeland and how our memory can play tricks on us. I didn’t quite get the ending but I think that was my fault. The most recent, and shortest, of the four is The Festival of Insignificance and it shows that Kundera can still produce an entertaining and intelligent work; here Kundera considers navels, apologisers and Kalinin’s bladder; there’s a superb scene describing a woman’s unsuccessful suicide attempt.

Image source: scan of personal copy

I also read another volume of short stories by Arthur Schnitzler called Selected Short Fiction which was published in 1999 and translated by J.M.Q. Davies. It includes two of Schnitzler’s early stream-of-consciousness works, Lieutenant Gustl and Fräulein Else, the first of which is rather funny, whereas the second is more dramatic, even melodramatic, but seen from a single viewpoint. The stories span Schnitzler’s whole literary career from 1888 to 1931 and are in a variety of styles. I found Success quite amusing; a policeman is ridiculed by other officers as well as his fiancée for not being able to make an arrest. When his fiancée flaunts the fact that she is spending the day with another man and doesn’t much care for him she calls him ‘a surly ape’. The policeman ends up dragging her and her friend in to the station as his first arrest. From then on he has no trouble making more arrests. Schnitzler has quite a wicked sense of humour; in The Duellist’s Second he recounts the problems of a second who ends up sleeping with the wife of the dead duellist when he visits her to tell her of her husband’s death. It’s worth tracking down a copy as some of the translations are unavailable elsewhere.

I don’t often go on a book-buying spree as my reluctance to part with money usually takes over but I couldn’t resist buying these three books by H.E. Bates on the British countryside. They are Through the Woods (1936), In the Heart of the Country (1942) and The Happy Countryman (1943); all three books contain loads of illustrations.

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‘The Four Beauties’ by H.E. Bates

Bates_Four-Beauties-fcXCThe Four Beauties is another slim collection of short stories by H.E. Bates which was originally published in 1968. It contains four medium-length stories of about 30-40 pages each: The Simple Life, The Four Beauties, The Chords of Youth and The White Wind. The first two stories are probably more typical Bates stories, both in setting and style, whereas The Chords of Youth is almost like a Saki story and The White Wind a bit of a South Seas adventure.

The main characters in The Simple Life are the married couple Stella and Barty. It revolves around their attempt to get away from the city to a ‘simple life’. Bartholomew loves it and spends his time chopping wood, pruning apple trees, fishing etc. but Stella loathes these weekend breaks, she hates the Friday evening drive down, the cottage, the fresh air, the cold, the lack of modern conveniences. To cope, she starts drinking as early in the day as possible. Stella’s loathing of the cottage life changes once Roger, a seventeen year old local boy, starts to help Barty out around the house. Stella enjoys flirting with the rather shy boy when her husband is away. It looks like it’s going to end badly but Bates handles the story perfectly; it doesn’t quite end how you’re expecting but then it’s not a surprise ending either, it’s just masterfully done.

Probably my favourite of the four is the eponymous story, The Four Beauties. This is set in real Bates country, where the narrator recalls a time when he was working as a reporter for a local newspaper and got to know the Davenports. Mrs Davenport owned a café which the narrator would often visit and where he would often encounter the three lovely Davenport girls, Tina, Sophie and Christabel. All three girls were vivacious and attractive to the narrator; Tina who was only fourteen was mischievous, Sophie, at seventeen was both dreamy and passionate and Christabel (Christie), the eldest at eighteen, reminded him of a flamboyant lioness. In comparison Mrs Davenport seemed quite shabby and sad wheras Mr Davenport was rarely seen at all. The narrator ends up taking Christie out dancing, teasing Tina playfully, taking Sophie on a picnic when Christie was away and having talks with their mother about her life and ambitions. In a way he falls in love with them all:

One of the more curious things about the Davenports was the way, in the presence of one, I would be haunted by the absence of another.

But they drift apart and the Davenports move away. However, five years later the narrator encounters the Davenports again and…

The Chords of Youth is a more humorous story almost in the style of Saki or Wodehouse. It opens with the rather imperious Aunt Leonora claiming to the narrator that a visiting German dignitary called Otto is an old friend of hers. She can’t remember any details and it’s never really established whether Otto is the person she thinks he is. Anyway, Leonora invites Otto round for lunch as part of an Anglo-German cultural exchange. She’s determined to introduce Otto to the delights of a Steak and Kidney pudding (or ‘the old Kate and Sidney’ as Uncle Freddie constantly exclaims much to Otto’s confusion) and Christmas pudding, even though it’s summer. Although Otto starts to enjoy himself tempers start to fray, especially between Leonora and Otto’s English companion, Mr Wilbram. It’s an amusing story, probably a little dated, but funny nonetheless – and very controlled.

The final story is The White Wind and was probably the one I liked least, but it was still an interesting story. It takes place on a South Sea island which is visited by a pair of doctors who dish out pills to the local inhabitants. The main character though is a local boy who likes hearing stories from Fat Uncle about his youthful days of adventure in his boat. We get to know a few more of the island’s inhabitants before it is discovered that some of the islanders have typhoid. As the plane, which brought the doctors to the island, has left they have to try to get someone, maybe Fat Uncle, to sail the boat to the mainland to get help. In some ways The White Wind reminded me of Steinbeck.

I think it’s no surprise that along with my Maupassant fixation at the moment I’m also into reading H.E. Bates as they seem to me to be very similar, both in style and execution. In fact, the title story reminded me of a Maupassant story that I read recently called The Rondoli Sisters, which I hope to get around to reviewing at some point. Both Maupassant and Bates use a simple, realistic style to tell a story, with no waffling and no waste; both enjoy surprising the reader with the endings but both authors often do this subtly rather than blatantly. The telling of the story is just as important as the ending.

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‘The Wild Cherry Tree’ by H.E. Bates

Bates_Cherry-Tree-fcXC-700pxA little while ago I picked up a few books by H.E. Bates from my local Oxfam bookshop, which has since closed; I hadn’t read anything by him before, not even his Darling Buds of May books, but after skimming through some of them they really interested me. I’ve been in a bit of a short story mood recently, I’ve read stories by Chekhov, Maupassant, Katherine Mansfield etc., so I thought I’d read one of the volumes of short stories that I bought, The Wild Cherry Tree, and boy, am I glad I did as this collection of stories was excellent and, in my opinion, deserves to be mentioned along with Chekhov et al.

The collection contains ten stories; there are about three stories that are below ten pages and these are generally the weaker ones but the others, which are about twenty pages long are excellent. I was expecting stories with predominantly rural settings but there is a varied mixture of settings as well as a mixture of character types. The collection kicks off with Halibut Jones, which is set in a rural village. Halibut, whose real name is Albert but as a child couldn’t pronounce his name correctly, is a bit of a loveable slacker. The story begins:

Halibut Jones lay stretched at full length on top of a dry ditch, staring through the breathless August air at great sprays of blackberries gleaming on the hedgerow above. It had been a very good season for blackberries, a very hot season, and some of the berries were as fat and bloomed as grapes.

Halibut decides to see if he can earn some money by selling the blackberries to some local housewives. When he visits Mrs Parkinson she tries to get Halibut to do some other chores such as trimming her privet hedge or cutting down some thistles but he finds reasons why he shouldn’t embark on such tasks at that moment. When she wonders if he could catch some trout for her, Halibut claims that he has no hooks and that he’ll need to get some fishing line. Mrs Parkinson takes pity on him when she hears him cough and starts supplying him with homemade bread, beer and cheese. He eventually leaves with some apples and an advance on supplying the trout – but it’s too hot to go fishing at the moment so he goes off for a bit of a sleep.

The title story has a less idyllic setting than Halibut Jones though it is still semi-rural. Mrs Boorman is married to a pig farmer and spends most of her time knee-deep in mud. When her husband and sons are off drinking in the evening she likes to secretly pamper herself and dress up in fine clothes in an attempt to escape her squalid life. One day she attracts the attention of a car driver who is visiting neighbours of the Boormans. She is wary at first but soon finds the attention appealing.

In The World Upside-down Bates gets even more playful. The story concerns Miss Olive Stratton who has taken to wearing odd-coloured stockings to work in an attempt to get men to notice her legs – but with no effect. One day she notices a man in her train carriage who is reading his newspaper upside-down. It turns out that he’s been doing it for years and doesn’t even notice himself doing it anymore. Anyway, the rest of the story is about the relationship between these two slightly odd characters; it’s funny and a little sad.

One of my favourite stories in this book was How Vainly Men Themselves Amaze; it’s set in a French holiday resort where a young man called Franklin is hanging around an attractive woman, Mrs Palgrave, who is sunbathing on the beach. She has a couple of children who are being cared for by Heidi, a young German maid, whom she loathes. Mrs Palgrave seems to like the attention of the young man and she flirts with him. Franklin is a budding photographer and convinces both the mother and Heidi to pose for photographs and then he arranges trysts with Mrs Palgrave and then Heidi. I won’t reveal how it ends.

The Black Magnolia is a very funny story. Poor Hartley Spencer, a bachelor of fifty, who has no known vices and spends most of his free-time raising money for various charities gets involved with Vanessa La Farge and her friend Kitty O’Connor. They claim that they want him to help them raise some money for a charity but they spend most of their time amusing themselves at his expense by teasing him mercifully. The women just can’t believe that someone like Spencer exists:

   For some long time after Hartley Spencer had left the two women sat on the terrace of the house, drinking glasses of cool white Alsatian wine. Now and then Kitty O’Connor’s mischievous laughter floated, very like scales of rippling water, into the darkening summer air.

   ‘Nobody,’ she said once, ‘can be that good. No one man can have that amount of goodness in him. It isn’t human. Even virgins have some vices.’

   ‘I’ve a deep suspicion that virginity is more painful in the male.’

   ‘Really? And would you care to remove it?’

Though less funny than The Black Magnolia the stories Same Time, Same Place and The Middle of Nowhere are just as good. Same Time, Same Place is about the elderly Miss Treadwell who is living off a very small income and having to resort to wearing newspapers underneath her coat to keep warm – but she must ‘keep up appearances’. The Middle of Nowhere is about the rise and fall of a roadside café.

The stories in this collection are as near to perfection as is possible. There’s a mixture of sad and funny stories; Bates has a brilliant ear for dialogue as well, and unlike many British writers of the period it doesn’t grate for the modern reader. Bates doesn’t seem interested in class at all so, although the characters can be identified as farmers, middle-class, workers, maids etc. they aren’t defined by it and this makes the stories flow quite naturally. He is also very interested in flowers; references and descriptions of flowers crop up in nearly every story, sometimes it’s the colours, other times it’s the scents whilst in some of the stories characters discuss how to grow them. Bates wrote a hell of a lot of stories, novellas and novels so I’m going to enjoy working my way through his back catalogue and I’ll probably read some of the ‘Larkin’ stories as well.

By the way, my copy was a Penguin edition from 1977 and it literally crumbled apart as I read it; it appeared in good condition when I started reading it but the glue was as dry as anything and it split down the spine with the pages detaching from the cover and into three sections. I’ve had books come apart before but never so drastically.

A well-read copy

A well-read copy

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