An Aspidistra in Babylon by H.E. Bates ~ 1960. This edition: Penguin, 1964. Paperback. 191 pages.
My rating: 9/10.
This man could write. His stories read absolutely effortlessly.
So, what have we here, behind that curious title?
Four brief novellas, all about – universal theme! – the human desire to be loved. And, very much to the point in these four tales, the human tendency to allow that desire to cloud one’s better judgement.
The cover drawing by Robin Jacques rewards closer examination; the background detail utterly accurate of its time and place, an English seaside garrison/resort of the 1920s. Note the white chalk cliffs, upper right. It both intrigues and misleads with its depiction of the singing woman, blowsily out on the town. She’s actually a side character of the title novella, a casually promiscuous hotel chambermaid who serves to rescue the “real” heroine from her youthful folly.
Occasionally this collection is touted as “comic” by booksellers who haven’t actually read the works within, for though not without a delicate balance of ironic humour, these are not funny stories in the accepted sense.
Prosaically tragic might be a better description, as long as it doesn’t put you off reading them. (Well, they’re not all tragic; some do come out on the optimistic side.)
Paradoxically, I myself find Bates’ sometimes-dark scenarios rather comforting, pointing out as they do that all of us are emotionally fallible in certain circumstances, and that most of us survive our lapses, coming out the other side older in spirit but wiser in mind, to alter an appropriate cliché.
The first two novellas are the best, in my opinion, but all four are worth reading for the sheer pleasure of how H.E. Bates puts together his words. He is very strong on description, something which I thoroughly enjoy, but which may be a bit of a deterrent to those of you with no patience for detailed scene setting. Give these a go anyway, I say.
An Aspidistra in Babylon
An eighteen-year-old girl lives with her widowed mother in the boarding house they keep in a small coastal city. The nearby cliffs house a large army garrison; the constant ebb and flow and of soldiers, sailors on shore leave, and their hangers-on and followers leads Christine’s mother to shudderingly label the place as “Babylon”, and she warns her as-yet naïve daughter against it.
Christine herself finds the warning unnecessary, for she hasn’t yet had any meaningful encounters with the roistering Babylonians.
As to the men, the soldiers and all the rest, I simply didn’t exist for them. This is not entirely surprising, however, since I was clearly infinitely and terribly dull myself. The best description of myself that I can think of is to say that I was as dull as one of the many aspidistras that cluttered up the rooms, the hallway and even the dining-tables of our little boarding-house. I was just that – a female aspidistra and nothing more.
A female aspidistra, perhaps, but one with a luscious body under those shapeless frocks and black woolen stockings. A body which catches the eye of the dissolute Captain Blaine, who shows up on the doorstep in quest of a room for his wealthy aunt, and gazes upon Christine’s hidden charms with an experienced and lascivious eye. Not only her virginity but her very moral sense is soon to be in danger of worldly corruption…
A Month by the Lake
Holiday makers staying at an Italian lake resort mingle peacefully, middle-aged but still active and attractive Miss Bentley finding herself mildly drawn to slightly older, determinedly suave, and rather handsome Major Wilshaw.
To Miss Bentley the most remarkable feature about Major Wilshaw were his small flat pink ears. They were not only exceptionally small for a man who was thickish, upright, and rather tall. They were very delicately, very intricately fashioned. Nothing in the entire human body, Miss Bentley would tell herself, had quite the same fascinating quality as ears. All the attraction of mood and response and character and emotion lay, of course, in the mouth and eyes: everybody knew that. But ears were, Miss Bentley thought, far more wonderful. Ears were unchanging and undying. They remained, in some strange way, uncoarsened, undepraved, unwrinkled and unaged by time. In the ears of the aged you could see the flesh of youth; in a sense they were immortal and never grew old.
Major Wilshaw isn’t particularly taken with Miss Bentley in a sexual sort of way. Though he enjoys her company and her tart turn of phrase, he considers her past her prime, decidedly on the shelf, whereas he is still very much in the romantic running.
When a young English governess enters the picture, very cool and collected and confident in her sexual powers, an unexpected and silent rivalry erupts between the two women. Major Wilshaw, suddenly very aware of the very different qualities of each, turns first this way and then that.
Which will prove the strongest draw? Warmly ripe age? Cooly beautiful youth?
And do either of the woman actually want Major Wilshaw, or is he merely symbolic in his maleness of the prize which society insists all women are incomplete without?
A Prospect of Orchards
Many years ago I belonged to a young men’s club where I used to play chess, read magazines and also box quite frequently, though not very seriously, with a man named Arthur Templeton. We must have been, I think, eighteen or nineteen at the time.
Templeton was a shortish leaden-footed man with weak brown eyes whose responses were those of a duck with its legs tied. His jaw was babyish, smooth and hairless, like a pale pink egg. I had taken up boxing because once, at school, in a playful scuffle, a young ox of a farmer’s son had struck me on the chest with a blow of such short-armed ferocity that I was convinced my heart had stopped beating. Soon afterwards I found a friendly ex-policeman who gave me lessons, taught me that the essential art of the game lay in footwork and in a maxim of six short words: hit, stop, jab, and get away. Presently I was practising these principles on Arthur Templeton, to whose pink hairless jaw I sent so many unresisted straight lefts that it became intolerably embarrassing – so embarrassing indeed that I presently became profoundly sorry for him and gave up boxing altogether.
Losing track of Templeton as life goes on, the narrator is surprised to run into him on a train many years later.
Templeton is still of a pale pink unresisting type. He now gentleman-farms in a haphazard sort of way, raising pigs and attempting to create a new kind of pear-like apple, while his bossy wife Valerie is the loud leader of the local arts community, going in for amateur orchestras and the like.
As the narrator observes the Templeton ménage through a number of visits, his sympathy for his long-ago boxing partner grows as he realizes the man’s deep loneliness. He watches as a second woman now enters Arthur Templeton’s life. For a while it looks as though the feeble striver will at last take a step forward in confidence, and, presumably, happiness.
But can anyone ever change how one’s fundamental psychology, and what type of lover one attracts?
The Grapes of Paradise
On leave from his Vancouver banking firm, Harry Rockley travels the South Pacific, fetching up at Tahiti, which immediately repels him with its unexpectedly grim and sordid industrial decay, and its hostile natural features.
(H)e went back to the hotel, stripped off, put on his swimming trunks and went down to the sea. The beach of
black sand, such as there was of it, looked like a foundry yard. The lagoon of black water illuminated by the flares of mysterious midnight fishing-boats had become a stretch of tidal junk-yard, one foot deep, filled with countless black clusters of sea-birds and lengths of what looked like yellow intestine.
At the end of fifty yards of jetty sprouted a lump of coral rock. On the rock a French girl with a figure as flat as a boy’s and legs like white peeled sticks sat staring down into forty feet of dark blue water from which rose shadowy mountains of rust-brown coral, murderous as steel.
‘I’m glad you came,’ she said. ‘If there’s someone watching, the sharks don’t follow me.’
Harry decides against swimming, and returns to the hotel bar, where he starts drinking, and doesn’t stop for weeks, until on a whim he tags along on a schooner travelling to a nearby island. There he finds something more closely approximating the South Seas paradise of his former expectations, including a single-minded native girl who throws herself at him in wanton desire.
But love isn’t always reciprocated, and shunned would-be lovers may prove dangerous to trifle with, especially when the elemental sea and its creatures become part of the set of Harry’s idyll-turned-nightmare…
Oh, yes. Here’s a little bonus for those of you who, like me, were a bit hazy on what the heck an aspidistra actually looks like. I suspect they are still very much around, but I couldn’t pull up a mental picture to go with the name. So there we are!
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