The Welsh Chekhov
The unjustly neglected Rhys Davies wrote about human frailty with compassion.
Julian Sheppard/National Library of Wales
When I was young my father owned a factory in Tonypandy, a town in the Rhondda Valley of South Wales. He always disparaged the character of the Welsh, for whom I therefore conceived an affection that has remained with me ever since. You may be said truly to like a people when you are aware of their imperfections and are fond of them still. If one can be a patriot of a country not ones own, I am a Welsh patriot.
My memories of Tonypandy are hazy, for I was younger than ten when my father took me there. In those days, coal mining, not the administration of unemployment and its attendant social problems, was the Rhondda Valleys major industry. Our civilization at the time was founded, as George Orwell once remarked, on coal, without which we would have lived in unlit and unheated houses. The miners were like Atlases; upon their shoulders a whole world rested. My visual recollection of Tonypandy is monochromaticof everything begrimed with coal dust; of the slate roofs of tiny terraced houses dull in the perpetual, dirty rain; of black slag heaps lowering over the town. Whether this is a true memory or a reconstruction based on what I subsequently learned, I could not swear in a court of law.
Half a century later, while scouring the secondhand bookshops during a sojourn in Wales, I discovered a writer who came from Tonypandy: Rhys Davies, who published 20 novels and about 160 short stories before he died in 1978. Some critics of his day esteemed him highly, calling him the Welsh Chekhov. At least four books have appeared about him and his work, the first published in 1932, when he was only 31, and the most recent in 2009. And yet his name rings only the faintest of bells in the memory of even the best-informed about modern literature. Except by specialists, he isunjustlyall but forgotten.
The book that I happened on was a slim volume of Daviess stories called The Trip to London, published in 1946. As soon as I read the opening sentence of the first story, The Benefit Concert, I knew that I had to read more, not just of this story but of this writer: When it was decided to give a Benefit Concert for Jenkin, so that he could buy an artificial leg, no one thought this ordinary event would lead to such strife. What follows draws the reader irresistibly on:
But then no one suspected that the loss of his proper legit had gone gangrenous through neglecthad turned Jenkin into a megalomaniac. The affair not only divided the valley into bitterly opposed camps but it nearly caused a strike in the colliery. Imperfect mankind is addicted to warfare and a false leg is as good a pretext for liberating smouldering passions as greed for a continent.
Here, in euphonious and unhectoring prose, is the declaration of a vindication of literature: that from the small change of life, properly attended to, one can extract the wisdom that is the true end of philosophy. The events may be small, but their meaning is large.
The benefit concert takes place in the local chapel, called Horeb, in the little town of Twlldu. The conflict arises after the concert raises considerably more money than needed for the leg, and opinion divides as to whether Jenkin or the chapel should get the extra funds. The dispute is at once ludicrous and intractable; Jenkin refuses to wear his leg until it is resolved, hobbling around town on crutches to keep his supporters inflamed. For a time, passions run high; the dispute gives life meaning. It is settled not by appeal to principle but by boredom, the passage of time, and the distraction of a fire at the house of one Mrs. Roberts, who requires the help of another benefit concert. In the end, Jenkin dons his leg, and the wily Horeb deacons, who had lain low while the dispute persisted, have their chapel quietly redecorated.
In a few pages, Davies conjures up for the reader not only the atmosphere of a South Wales mining town or village, but its human warmth and small-mindedness. The warmth and the small-mindedness are two sides of the same coinyou cant have one without the other. By implication, human life remains imperfectible and always incomplete; there can be no gain without loss.
Davies has a sheer delight in detail that teaches us (if we are attentive) to look around with a fresh eye. For example, Jenkins benefit concert is such a financial success because one of the Horeb deacons has persuaded Madame Sarah Watkins, an opera singer who hails originally from Twlldu and now lives 20 miles away, to come out of retirement and sing at the concert. (It is securing her participation that makes the deacons feel entitled to the extra money.) Under her name on the concert posters appear the words london, milan, and twlldu. But on the night of the concert,
the car that had been hired to fetch her was an old decrepit one driven by the fishmongers lout of a son. And he had taken it into his head to kill two birds on this trip by collecting a small cask of herrings from the coast; it was already beside him on the front seat when he called for Madame Watkins, who brought with her a large suitcase. Secondly, no one had remembered to welcome her arrival with flowers. Thirdly, no one had thought that she would need, for changing into a concert dress, something more private than a vestry filled with coming and going persons connected with tonights affair.
Madame Watkins, however, is a true professional:
Yet no one would have guessed the divas fury when at last she mounted the platform and, amid thunderous applause, gave a superb bow. She advanced like an old ruined queen majestically unaware of new fashions and systems, giving an expert kick to the billowing train of her dragon-coloured but tattered dress. At sight of her, and perhaps the train, a little hiss of awe seemed to come from the goggling women in the audience.
That Madame Watkins may never have been an international success, except by Twlldu standards, is suggested by the fact that, according to local newspaper reports noted at the end of the story, she is sued by her grocer for unpaid bills and tells the court that she had been too good-hearted and lately had sung everywhere for nothing, in aid of this and that charity.
The story takes a generous and uncondescending delight in the comedy, all the more remarkable in that it was published soon after the conclusion of one of the most catastrophic wars in world history; a delight in the foibles of mankind, its petty vanities, evasions, snobberies, and small lies, which, though not admirable in themselves, give interest, savor, and meaning to our existence. What a wealth of social meaning and personal history Davies conveys by the closely observed detail of Madame Watkinss expert kick to the billowing train of her dragon-coloured but tattered dress, a gesture that only she, out of thousands of women for miles around, could have made!
Daviess vision of life was not always so benignant; but over a writing career that spanned half a century, during which his subject matter included thwarted passion and murder, he never displayed disdain for those about whom he wrote. His compassion was clear-eyed and unsentimental. Mankinds feet of clay never made him cynical.
Daviess is a remarkable story, but it is typical of his reticence that biographical detail about him is not easy to come by, for he believed that the business of a writer was to write, not to become a self-publicist and obtrude himself on the world. He was born Rees Vivian Davies into the tiny petty bourgeoisie of the coal-mining valleys, surrounded by, thoroughly conversant with, but not of the proletarian world. His father, who, like Chekhovs, ran a grocery store, extended credit to the miners during hard times. From an early age, Davies knew that he was different: his leanings in the macho world of Tonypandy were literary and aesthetic, and he was homosexual. Without going in for the excesses of political correctness, I think it reasonable to say that the Tonypandy of Daviess youth was no place to be homosexual. Daviess marginality, as to both class and sex, doubtless gave him special insight into the lies and evasions of mankind, having had to practice many himself.
After only a secondary educationwhich, however, was clearly a good oneDavies escaped South Wales in 1919 for the bohemian and relatively tolerant world of London, determined to become a writer. He found a congenial spiritual world in Charles Lahrs left-wing Progressive Bookshop, as much a club for avant-garde writers as a commercial enterprise. Lahr, a friend of D. H. Lawrences, clandestinely published the first English edition of Lady Chatterleys Lover, as well as Lawrences banned book of poems, Pansies.
In those days of limited consumption, scarce comforts, and relatively few necessities, it was easier to live on next to nothing, which is what Davies did for long periods. His earliest published stories appeared individually in slim, often well-produced booklets. Then came his first collection in 1927: The Song of Songs and Other Stories, with a tiny print run of about 100 copies. The sureness of touch of these first stories is astonishing.
They are already infused with the compassionate and nonideological tolerance that Davies retained to his dying day. A Gift of Death begins:
It soon emerges that the dead man, whose wife died before him, was a religious bigot, for whom every day was a Sunday and who made life in his house like a Sunday school. He has turned his daughter Maria, now 33, into an old maid; she is ugly and stout, and the women who live nearby expect her to remain unmarried, though her father has left her with what, for the coal-mining valleys, is a small fortune. But Maria has a plan. Scandalously, she has her fathers funeral conducted by the less expensive of the towns two undertakers, not only to save money but because he is a bachelor, if an unattractive one: a little man, fussy and nervous, bird-like. They agree to marry, he for her money and she to prove the neighbors wrong and to be respected in the town. Strangely enough, the unromantic nature of this doesnt appall. Instead, one respects the couples clear-sighted appreciation of their situation and their determination to make the best of it. And almost every line of the story contains a telling detail that reveals something about a whole way of life. The reader enters an alien world as if it surrounds him: surely a sign of literary skill.
Having received a small advance for his first novel, The Withered Root, Davies traveled to the south of France. There, armed with an introduction from Lahr, he became friends with Lawrence, whom he accompanied from Bandol to Paris for medical tests on the elder writers tuberculosis. (Davies smuggled the manuscript of Pansies back into England.) Davies, in his quiet way, was always his own man, and he had a subtler mind and sensibility than Lawrence did, but not surprisingly, Lawrence would influence him. Both writers came from mining communities in which a sectarian Protestantism, highly suspicious of any pleasures of the flesh, especially sexual, held sway, and in which respectability in the eyes of the ever-vigilant neighbors was the ruling desideratum. In one of Daviess early stories, Revelation, we meet a married miner who has never seen his own wife naked.
Frustration, furtiveness, illicit liaisons, and hypocrisy proliferated in these circumstances. Protestant chapels, often lumpenly neoclassical and grandiose in form, and with names such as Bethel, Zion, and Pisgah, loomed over the rows of small workingmens houses in Welsh towns. (They remain to this day, though now they are often closed or converted to uses that are the very reverse of religious, such as nightclubs.) They were as much observation towers and centers of intelligence-gathering as places of worship; they were the symbols of a society rigidly policing itself.
Again, it is no surprise that Davies portrayed this religiosity as oppressive; how would it have portrayed him, had it known his nature? But he was an artist and not an ideologist; and so what comes across in his depiction of this society is that it was extraordinarily rich in human types, that its workingmen and their wives possessed deep and individual charactersnot unrelated to their immersion in the Bibleand that, notwithstanding all the pressure on its people to conform, it was tolerant of true eccentricity (the unselfconscious kind that does not arise from an egotistical need to distinguish oneself from others). It is as though the strong but not impregnable boundaries freed people as much as they imprisoned them and gave to their lives an intensity that they would not otherwise have had. I am not convinced that life in the region has become richer for the abolition of the boundaries, or that any literature as fine-grained and sensitive will emerge from it again.
Nor did Davies ever suggest that sensual liberation, desirable as he no doubt thought it, would spell an end to human woes: he was never utopian. In a late novel, Nobody Answered the Bell, published in 1971, he depicted a lesbian relationship, in a port city on the south coast of England, in which the two women are as free, apart from the need to observe slight public discretion, as it is possible to be. They have enough money to live without working; they suffer no oppression from society. And yet their relationship slides downward, by a process that Davies describes with brilliant subtlety, into paranoia and hostility, and ends in murder and suicide.
Davies had a tragic but not dismal view of life, as a short story published in The New Yorker in January 1964, I Will Keep Her Company, illustrates to perfection. Davies must have been a quick worker, for the events in the story clearly took place during that exceptionally harsh winter, when snow thickly blanketed Britain. The story concerns a couple in their eighties, living in an isolated farmhouse in the Welsh hills and snowed in. Even today, bad weather can easily cut off such places; in 1963, the isolation would have been total.
The old woman in the story, Maria Evans, has just died after a short illness and lies on the old four-poster bed. Her husband, John, both knows and refuses fully to acknowledge that she is dead. He goes downstairs from the bedroom with great difficulty, the house being so cold and his joints so arthritic, to continue the routine that his wife established. He knows that the district nurse is on her way:
Theyll be here today, he said aloud. . . . The sound of his voice was strange to him, like an echo of it coming back from a chasm. His head turning automatically toward the open door leading to the hallway, he broke the silence again, unwilling to let it settle. Been snowing again all night, Maria. But its stopping now. Theyll come today. The roads have been blocked. Hasnt been a fall like it for years.
This is not only very movingthe old mans bewilderment at and refusal to accept the loss, the intensity of his underlying grief, is conveyed with wonderful economybut very accurate. Every doctor has encountered something similar in his patients families.
Evans tries to make the kitchen look cared for, so that when the district nurse arrives she will think that he is managing well and abandon her suggestion that he move into an old peoples home. He tries to imitate his wifes way of doing things; she had supervised him while she was still capable of lying on the sofa downstairs, before her terminal illness forced her to take to bed. But he is clumsy. He breaks the clock, excusing himself to her. Then he gives up and returns to the bedroom, where he sits on a chair beside the bed where his dead wife lies. There he dozes as he slips down into death himself, his mind wandering to pleasant scenes of the pastalso an accurate depiction of death from cold.
Meanwhile, Nurse Baldock has geared up a rescue operation involving a snowplow, a van, and a helicopter. She is, as her name seems to suggest, conscientious and bossy and, having completed a diploma in social studies in her spare time, believes herself entitled to a promotion. She had visited Evans a few days previously, when his wife had just died, and was prevented from removing the body by the snow. Now she is returning, determined to get his agreement to leave for the old-age home. When she finds him dead, she utters a bitter yet self-satisfied recrimination:
This neednt have happened if he had come with me, as I wanted six days ago! Did he sit there all night deliberately? . . . Old people wont listen. When I said to him, Come with me, theres nothing you can do for her now, he answered, Not yet. I will keep her company. I could have taken him at once to Pistyll Manor Home. It was plain he couldnt look after himself. One of those unwise men who let themselves be spoilt by their wives.
In a few pages, with a highly sophisticated simplicity, Davies arouses emotions and thoughts as impossible to resolve into full coherence as life itself. John Evanss death is both tragic and a triumphant final expression of the love that gave his life meaning; we oscillate between sorrow and joy, between discomfiture and reassurance, as we read. As for Nurse Baldock, she encapsulates the mixture of good intentions, condescension, and careerism that is the modern welfare state. Rationally, we cannot refuse to endorse the efforts to rescue Evans; it would be a terrible world in which his predicament evoked no response. At the same time, we know that these efforts are not only beside the point but, at the deepest level, incapable of being other than beside the point.
Davies died of lung cancer in 1978, modest, tolerant, and unassuming to the end. He said that he had always had a taste for cultivating ruined characters. His reticent but charming autobiography, Print of a Hares Foot, suggests what he thought of his own life and workthat they would leave little trace, like a hares footprint in the snow. In a world of publicity seekers, this became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Without making exaggerated claims on Daviess behalf, one can see the parallel with Chekhov in the similarity of the two writers intellectual outlooks. Both abominated cruelty but depicted human frailty without censoriousness or expressions of hatred. Both valued truth above convenience. The following words of Daviess, about the reaction of some of the Welsh to his work, have a Chekhovian ring:
If . . . the author is one of those peculiar people with a liking for things that are best forgotten, then howls go up. Columns of correspondence appear. . . . Warm letters protest that Welsh people do not do this, that, or the other; do not speak this way nor that way; do not go to bed in their day shirts; are not immoral and drunkards; do not eat peas with a knife; this is not a true mirror of Welsh life, but a lot of perverted trash, etc.
Above all, both writers steered clear of the low and dishonest ideological temptations of their age, which so often deformed the minds, work, and conduct of their contemporaries. In 1888, Chekhov wrote to the poet A. N. Pleshcheyev:
I am afraid of those who look for a tendency between the lines, and who are determined to regard me either as a liberal or as a conservative. I am not a liberal, not a conservative, not a believer in gradual progress, not a monk, not an indifferentist. I should like to be a free artist and nothing more. . . . I hate lying and violence in all their forms. . . . Pharisaism, stupidity and despotism reign not in merchants houses and prisons alone. I see them in science, in literature, in the younger generation. . . . My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and the most absolute freedomfreedom from violence and lying, whatever forms they may take.
It is worth comparing this with a few of Daviess utterances. In an interview in a Welsh magazine, he said that of course Welsh writers wrote about Welsh subjects, but he added, No flag waving. A curse on flag waving. During the warwhich he detested, though he hated Nazism morehe wrote to his friend Raymond Marriott, When the great bestial War Machine is in action writers are of no use whatsoever, its activities, which are destructive, are in complete opposition to them. And he wrote to a policeman friend, Louis Quinain, Im one of those who believe that nothing on earth can impair ones own interior libertyunless you allow it to. Though outwardly bothered and vexed, I have reached a certain calm.
These are Chekhovian thoughts. Davies was a good writer and (not at all the same thing) a good man.
Theodore Dalrymple, a physician, is a contributing editor of City Journal and the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.