We spent our Christmas week in a cottage in north Wales and I could not pass the time without taking the opportunity to read a long out-of-print collection of stories by one of Wales’ finest writers of the 20th century, Rhys Davies. The Collected Stories of Rhys Davies is one of the many perhaps not entirely out of copyright books that have been added to the Internet Archive by the Public Library of India project.
Davies is one of the rare examples of a writer who let himself be driven almost wholly by his artistic instincts without going broke. He rarely sought work and even less often cared about popular taste. Davies was realistic about the consequences of his artistic choices. In his preface to The Collected Stories, he wrote that, “Short stories are a luxury which only those writers who fall in love with them can afford to cultivate.” Yet he was able to keep publishing steadily through a career of fifty years and, on occasion, get well paid for it. At one point in the early 1960s, his sales to The New Yorker alone earned him $3,881, which translates to nearly $32,000 by today’s standard.
Although Meic Stephens wrote a very interesting biography, Rhys Davies: A Writer’s Life (2014), Davies’ life was largely uneventful. He did manage to live relatively undisturbed as a homosexual at a time when that was not easy to do in England, but there were no great romances or dramas in his relationships. He had few close friends, but perhaps his closest was a fellow writer, Anna Kavan, whose struggles with heroin and mental illnesses perhaps provided enough drama to compensate for its lack in Davies’ life. In an obituary published anonymously in the Times, another friend and fellow writer, Kay Dick, described Davies as “a sweet-souled man of immense courtesy and loyalty … a gentle man, full of compassion, an artist in every fibre of his being….”
In the forty-three stories collected here are tales of comedy and tragedy, tales set in the hills and mining towns of Wales where Davies grew up, in the busy metropolis of London where he spent most of his adult life, and (a few) in France, where he spent some time in the last 1920s in the company of the ailing D. H. Lawrence and his wife. Of the comic stories, only a few, and those brief, come off as little more than yarns. The rest are human comedies in the best sense: the comedy that so often arises when people are simply themselves. In “A Death in the Family,” for example, the children of a near-penniless old man come together in part to be with him in his last moments but more importantly, to put their claims on what’s left of his furniture. It does not go well, as you can imagine, and from the day of the funeral on, “an eternal feud was maintained in the family.” In “The Dilemma of Catherine Fuchsias,” the women of the town rebel when a wealthy local man, fallen dead in the house of his mistress, turns out to have willed money to buy a new organ for the church: “Never would I use such an organ–no, not even with gloves on!”
Most of the stories, however, lean to the tragic side. In a study of Davies’ fiction, Wynn Thomas has described Davies as “a deeply troubled man”: “To read these stories in bulk is to wonder at their bleakness….” There is perhaps no more obvious example of this than “The Boy with the Trumpet,” a story set in London in the late days of World War Two. The protagonist forecasts a future far grimmer than even post-war England proved to be:
“I believe,” he said, “there’ll be big waves of crime after the war. You can’t have so much killing, so much teaching to destroy, and then stop it suddenly. . . . The old kinds of crime, and new crimes against the holiness in the heart. There’ll be fear, and shame, and guilt, guilt. People will be mad. There’s no such thing as victory in war. There’s only misery, chaos and suffering for everybody, and then the payment. . . . There’s only one victory–over the evil in the heart. And that’s a rare miracle.” His voice faltered in defeat. “I’ve been trying to make the attempt. But the air I breathe is full of poison.”
At the story’s end, his vision is of a world where all hope and possibility of spiritual relief was gone: “He saw himself the inhabitant of a wilderness where withered hands could lift in guidance no more. There were no more voices and all the paps of earth were dry.”
Davies had a gift for pulling tragedy out of comedy. In “The Dark World,” two Welsh boys develop a fascination with viewing corpses. They troll the nearby towns: “they would search through the endless rows houses for windows covered with white sheets, the sign that death was within, and when a house was found thus, they would knock at the door and respectfully ask if they might see the dead.” Although they act with great solemnity when with the family, once outside they scurry away in delight, comparing notes on the condition of each body. When, however, they come to see the body of a neighbor, a man with whom one of the boys has shared some experiences, the fun of the game falls away abruptly: “Something broke in him. He put up his arm, buried his head in it, and cried. He cried in terror, in fear and in grief. There was something horrible in the dark world.”
In the decades since his death in 1978, Davies has come to be celebrated in his native land. The Rhys Davies Trust, founded by Stephens, supports the publication of authoritative editions of his works and encourages the work of young Welsh writers. The Welsh Writers’ Trust and Literature Wales embrace his work and hold him up as inspiration. Davies’ own relationship was more complicated. He once remarked to an interviewer that,
Across the border, in Wales, books–and especially novels–are looked upon as frivolous unnecessary things that cost money to obtain, the frequently encourage sin and blasphemy and provoke indolence, that sometimes even date to criticise the purity of Welsh life.
In his preface to The Collected Stories, Davies offered a wonderful analogy from the difference between short stories and novels: “Compared with the novel, that great public park so often complete with draughty spaces, noisy brass band and unsightly litter, the enclosed and quiet short story garden is of small importance, and never has been much more.” And with this post, I close the gate on a very enjoyable year spent in this garden, which has given me just a glimpse of the wealth of fine short story writers whose work remains to be discovered. I plan on returning many times in future.