The unavoidable writers – Milton, say, and Melville – we take in like oxygen. They are there, our natural inheritance. Others are delivered serendipitously, by way of critics, friends or a moment of grace among the library stacks. By these means I happened upon, respectively, William Mayhew, Edward Dahlberg and Tadeusz Borowski. Every serious reader cobbles together a personal canon, unique and unaccountable to critics and other kibbitzers. It takes only attentiveness.
Theodore Dalrymple, whom I discovered online about twelve years ago, recounts in his latest City Journal essay, “The Welsh Chekhov,” the fortuitous path he followed to a Welsh writer once new to him, still new to me – Rhys Davies. Dalrymple found him “while scouring the secondhand bookshops during a sojourn in Wales.” But for the geography, half of these blog posts could begin with those words. When a writer is described as “The [Welsh, Cowboy, Lesbian, Left-Handed, Philatelist, take your pick] Chekhov,” it usually means only that he writes short, under-plotted fiction. According to Dalrymple, the affinities between Davies and his Russian precursor run deeper and truer:
“Without making exaggerated claims on Davies’s 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."
Dalrymple also says Davies, an acquaintance of D.H. Lawrence, “had a subtler mind and sensibility than Lawrence did,” but that wouldn’t be difficult. Dalrymple convinces me Davies and his books have been unfairly neglected and remain worthy of reclamation. Our public library has two of his novels in its collection – Nobody Answered the Bell (1971) and the posthumously published Ram with Red Horns (1997) – and I’ve placed both on hold. Out of such happily serendipitous alignments – essay, library – is a reader’s life fashioned.