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.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.
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.'
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.'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.
'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.