Thursday, April 11, 2013

H. E. BATES, A Breath of French Air (1959)

I wrote a few days ago about my book-buying orgy at the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library Spring Book Sale.  I know I won’t get around to writing about all of the new finds I picked up, but I thought I’d report briefly on the first one I dived into, since I had so much fun with it. 

I’m sure I have actually heard of H. E. Bates before.  I must have glanced at his novel Feast of July (1954) at some time or other, which is actually in print and was made into a movie, and I’m sure I’ve heard of his story “A Month by the Lake” (though admittedly I get it confused with J. L. Carr’s novella A Month in the Country).  He apparently wrote many other novels, including one based on his World War II experiences, called Fair Stood the Wind for France (1944), which looks interesting. But if you had asked me who he was a few nights ago at the book sale, I would have been at a loss.  

Which is why I unforgivably passed up a lovely hardcover of The Darling Buds of May (1958), the first (as I know now but did not know then) of Bates’s “Pop Larkin” series of humorous novels about a large (and growing), joyful, and eccentric English family.  It was also in great shape and had a lovely intact dust cover, and I had it in my hand alongside A Breath of French Air, which as it turned out is the second in the series.  But, since I had never heard of any of them and have been burned before by excitedly buying everything in sight by an author only to feel let down later, I decided one was enough for starters.  You see?  Non-buyers’ remorse sucks.

At any rate, I started A Breath of French Air last night and had nearly finished it before I finally got so sleepy I couldn’t focus on the words anymore.

In this novel, the prolific Larkins, Pop and Ma and their seven offspring, along with Charley, the new husband of their oldest daughter, Marietta, are feeling down in the dumps because of a particularly cold and rainy British summer and decide to head off to France for a month to get some sun. 

H. E. Bates

From there, the plot is completely predictable—jokes about the lascivious and hard-living Larkins trying to speak French, about the French hotel manager’s horror at the Larkins’ shocking and destructive behavior, about the Larkins’ horror at the hotel’s somewhat lacking accommodations, about French food, and about how the Larkins ultimately overcome, make friends, improve the hotel, and happily return home.
It’s all been done a thousand times.

And yet, I admit I was completely seduced by it and was laughing out loud so much that Andy was starting to glare at me as he tried to work on the computer.

For example, much is made of how, shall we say, ample Ma Larkin is, especially in the chest region, and how happily she will breast feed her youngest child, Oscar—in private, in public, in a hotel lobby, etc.

“What’s up?” Pop called.

“He says he wasn’t aware that one of the children was so small.”

“Tell him we’ve only just had him,” Ma said and moved herself as if to expose her bosom to larger, fuller and more public gaze.  “I’m trying to fatten him up as fast as I can.”

When the chair Ma is sitting on in the hotel lobby finally collapses beneath her weight, and the hotel manager is scolding her, Pop leaps to the rescue with what he recalls of his French lessons:

With incredible swiftness Pop came forward to defend Ma.  Irately he strode over to the man in pince-nez and struck the desk a severe blow with his fist, speaking peremptorily and with voluble rapidity.

Qu’est-ce qu’il y a?” he shouted, “and comment ça va and comment allez-vous and avez-vous bien dormi and qu’est-ce que vous avez à manger and à bientôt san fairy ann and all that lark!”

The little man in pince-nez looked as if he’d been hit with a poleax. ... A moment later Pop and Ma started to go upstairs, followed by the children, Ma still laughing, Pop glad in his heart of the excellent tuition by given by Charley in various French phrases likely to be of use in emergency.

It’s all quite silly, of course, and it’s wish-fulfillment comedy at its simplest—the Larkins are nothing if not happy and always have a solution for everything, to the consternation of those around them.  Pop even sums up his philosophy:

He supposed that if it came to a definition he would say that being alive was his relidge—that and earth and woods and flowers and nightingales and all that sort of lark and enjoying it and not preventing other people doing so.

This is opposed to the philosophy of the sister of one of the several women in the novel who find Pop irresistible (and with whom he flirts with the complete, comfortable blessing of Ma, who knows she keeps him sufficiently occupied and doesn’t need to worry):

“Got to lacerate yourself, according to Iris.  Beds of nails.  Fakir stuff.”

“Sackcloth and ashes?” Pop suggested.

“Dishcloth and wet breeches,” Angela Snow said, “that’s Iris.  A positive wetter.  Even says damp prayers.  Sobs away half the time.”

This attitude, along with the Larkins’ borderline “free love” perspective on romance, was clearly cultural as well as comedic.  The 1960s were just around the corner and would make much of these ideas that were just beginning to sprout in most of the mainstream in 1959.  It also reminded me of the pure joy of reading the now highly obscure novels of American writer Mary Lasswell, written in the 1940s and 1950s, about a similarly boisterous and hard-living trio of middle-aged women.  It might be possible to come up with some complex and profoundly intellectual reading of A Breath of French Air, taking all of its sociological and psychological implications into consideration, but ultimately for me it was just a tremendously entertaining few hours’ reading.  I have a feeling I’ll have to be checking out the other of the Larkin novels, and perhaps even try some of Bates’s more serious writing.

If the passages quoted above don’t seem funny to you, then the book will likely not be your cup of tea (though you should imagine Pop Larkin gazing at you pityingly for your inability to appreciate the simple joys in life).  But here’s one more taste for good measure—and just in case you think that the laughs are all at the expense of the French language, this is the hotel chef’s attempts to graciously acknowledge the Larkins’ praise of a special meal he has cooked:

“I sank you, ladish and jentlemens,” Alphonse said.  He had learned these few words of English off by heart from the second cook, who had once worked in Whitechapel.  “Blast and damn, merci, mesdames et messieurs, blast and damn, sank you!”

Perhaps I should consider ending my future blog posts with a hearty, “Blast and damn, thank you!”

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