Welcome to Wales: a St David’s Day primer to the best of Welsh writing
John Lavin of Wales Arts Review looks at eight books that make the Welsh literary scene so varied and exciting, before casting an eye over two often overlooked classics
Dylan Thomas really is the quintessentially Welsh writer, marrying, as he does, the light and the shade in his nation’s character, while harking back to the rich poetic traditions of an ancient people. Photograph: Picture Post / Hulton|Archive
John Lavin, left, with Carys Davies, Cynan Jones, Rachel Trezise and Francesca Rhydderch, and host Paul McVeigh, at the Wales Arts Review Fiction event at the London Short Story Festival last year. Photograph: Sira Pocovi
Welsh fiction has a relatively short history, albeit one clearly influenced by the rich traditions of Welsh language poetry. We may trace its beginnings to the Welsh language novels of Daniel Owen, the romantic works of Allen Raine or perhaps to the Celtic mysticism of Arthur Machen. However, for many, Welsh fiction begins in earnest in 1915 with My People by Caradoc Evans. A thunderbolt of a book, it was described by Gwyn Jones as being like “a bucket of dung through the Welsh parlour window... the bucket [thrown] in after, with a long-reverberating clangour”, a statement that still feels wholly accurate, for it is a short story collection that strips bare the ignominies and hypocrisies of Non-Conformist Wales.
The uncompromisingly dark truths that Evans introduced to Welsh literature were an inspiration to contemporaries such as Rhys Davies, Kate Roberts and Caradoc Prichard (whose own dark masterpiece Un Nos Una Leuad / One Moonlit Night, was recently awarded the title of Greatest Welsh Novel), if not to all, with Roland Mathias declaring that “No other Anglo-Welsh prose writer... displayed such ill will to Wales or to Welsh people”. The kind of opprobrium, in other words, that lets a writer know that they have really got underneath the skin.
A novel like Richard Llewellyn’s 1939 How Green Was My Valley, perhaps the most famous Welsh novel of all, is self-evidently the direct antithesis to a work like My People or One Moonlit Night. For all its charms, it tends to produce similar feelings in Welsh critics to those that Nabokov expressed in regard to Doctor Zhivago, when he described the Pasternak novel as “a sorry thing, clumsy, trite and melodramatic”.
Bleakness, however, is by no means the defining tenet of critically lauded Welsh literature, even if it may certainly be said to be a central pillar. Warmth and an excellent sense of humour – by turns homely, by turns mordant, by turns surreal – as described with such wistful rapture in Llewellyn’s novel, are intrinsic characteristics of the national make up, and as such Welsh fiction is often at home to humour, perhaps as best embodied by its most famous son, Dylan Thomas. Thomas may have written “Land of my fathers, and my fathers can keep it”, (which is in itself a very good example of that aforementioned humour), but he is a writer who is inescapably filled with a deep love and affection for his country, as a childhood story like Extraordinary Little Cough from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog makes abundantly clear. It is his matchless talent as an artist and the intuitive detachment that comes with that, that allows Thomas to approach subject matter that others might make mawkish and imbue it with profundity instead. Although not a Welsh speaker himself, the poet was brought up by fluent parents, and the influence this had on his at times gloriously unconventional approach to the English language is easy to surmise. Yes, he may well have once pointedly written to Stephen Spender:
“Oh, & I forgot. I’m not influenced by Welsh bardic poetry. I can’t read Welsh.”
But Thomas’s poetry is, for all that, steeped both in Welsh geography and the Welsh poetic tradition (albeit in an unconventional, quite possibly subconscious manner). Indeed, for all the irksome hype and tourism created in his name, there can be little doubt that Thomas really is the quintessentially Welsh writer, marrying, as he does, the light and the shade in his nation’s character, while harking back to the rich poetic traditions of an ancient people.
While contemporary Welsh fiction is unquestionably internationalist in terms of influence, there can be little doubt that Evans and Thomas, in particular, continue to represent a profound source of inspiration for Welsh writers, whether it be Niall Griffiths, Rachel Trezise or the exciting new writer, Thomas Morris. And fittingly, 100 years since the publication of My People, 2015 was something of a benchmark year for new Welsh literature, with Carys Davies deservedly winning the Frank O’Connor Short Story Prize for The Redemption of Galen Pike; Cynan Jones, the Welsh Fiction of the Year Award for his outstanding The Dig; and Rebecca John the PEN International New Voices award for Clown’s Shoes.
Alongside new books from Morris (which I discuss in more detail here), Tessa Hadley, Robert Minhinnick, Kate Hamer and Gary Raymond to name but a few, it felt like the Welsh literary scene had turned an important corner.
At one time, there would, in all honesty, have been one or two new Welsh titles of such quality to discuss in a particular given year. Now, all of a sudden, there are almost too many to mention. In celebration of this, I take a look at eight books that define why the contemporary Welsh literary scene is such a varied and exciting place right now, before casting an eye over two often overlooked classics.
1. The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies (Salt)
Upon reading this slim, densely packed volume it is easy to see why it has been heaped with so much praise. A story such as On Commercial Hill, for instance, concerning how the narrator’s grandparents first met and the subsequent revelation that her grandfather had almost been married before, is only five pages long and yet somehow manages to be almost operatic in scope. There is an intensity and wisdom to these pieces which recalls Flannery O’Connor, not least in the Gothic-tinged title story, revolving around a Christian woman visiting a condemned man in jail (to reveal the crime he is condemned of would be to give away one of Davies’ trademark twists). Davies intrinsically understands what Ian McEwan has called the “defining moments” that can alter a life and she fills this collection with them, leaving the reader to imagine the before and after for themselves.
2. The Dig by Cynan Jones (Granta)
The opening scene of The Dig, in which the “Big Man” treats the dead, ravaged mother badger with such detestation and contempt is one of the most upsetting and successfully allegorical pieces of literature that this critic has read in recent years. Indeed the novel as a whole deals with humanity’s capacity for cruelty with an unflinching resolve that can make it a difficult, if oddly beautiful book to read. Keats’ line “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty” may trip off most tongues with a touch of jaded flippancy but it has never felt more pertinent than when wielded by this intense, often revelatory writer. Jones demands that his readers bear witness to the events that he so starkly portrays and develops an almost audible tension between writer and reader that is quite remarkable. Jones is a writer in the concise, minimalistic tradition of Hemingway and Carver and like those writers he is capable of creating a sensuous poetry that it is as much born out of the rhythms and repetitions of the text as by the language itself.
3. The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price (Quercus)
Angharad Price’s exquisite family history, reframed through the lens of fiction, tells the story of a family whose people have farmed the Maesglasau valley for a thousand years. In doing so Price ushers us into an almost forgotten rural world whose way of life, like the language spoken there, is in danger of disappearing altogether. A novel that is so inextricably concerned with both the beauty and the plight of the Welsh language has, nevertheless, been translated with sensitivity by fellow Welsh author, Lloyd Jones, who renders the novel’s spare and luminous poetry with great delicacy.
4. Ritual, 1969 by Jo Mazelis (Seren)
The brittle, wounded female characters that inhabit the pages of Ritual, 1969, Jo Mazelis’s third short story collection and her first book since her 2015 Jerwood Prize winning novel, Significance, find themselves perpetually observed and judged by their peers, almost as though they were specimens under an objective lens. Mazelis writes about the repressed desires and casual cruelties of suburban life with an acute sensitivity that lends these stories an almost dreamlike, even Gothic quality. Imagine if Carrie had been set in 1970s Swansea and filmed by Mike Leigh rather than Brian de Palma and you’re getting close to describing the atmosphere of a collection that is marked by a particularly British sense of melancholia and surrealism.
5. Submarine by Joe Dunthorne (Penguin)
The inimitable, borderline-sociopath, Oliver Tate, is a comic hero to rival Jim Dixon and Submarine is arguably the funniest literary debut since Lucky Jim (another Swansea novel). Dunthorne writes about teenagers with a wonderful lack of sanction and almost every page contains a belly laugh of the highest order, a difficult enough achievement to pull off even before you consider the fact that this is also a novel of some considerable romance, melancholy and depth.
6. Cosmic Latte by Rachel Trezise (Parthian)
Although many would automatically point to Rachel Trezise’s first short story collection, Fresh Apples, as being her most important work to date, it is in Cosmic Latte that this writer’s promise truly comes into fruition. Trezise namechecked Annie Proux in interviews around the time of publication and this influence is certainly evident in the complex, widescreen stories to be found in this impressive volume. Her core subject may always be the Welsh Valleys that she calls home (simply because she can write about this subject with an instinctive ease, humour and succinctness that no one else can get near). However, Trezise is an internationalist at heart and these stories also take in locations such as New York, Israel, Ireland and Cold War Berlin. The collection is primarily concerned with themes of borders, migration and gender, three topics which have only grown in significance since the book’s publication three years ago, and Trezise is a writer of tremendous empathy who we clearly need in these unforgiving times.
7. The Rice Paper Diaries by Francesca Rhydderch (Seren)
Rhydderch’s ambitious debut novel, set during the second World War, switches between two very different locations in the shape of Hong Kong and New Quay, Ceredigion. The story of Elsa and Tommy Jones, and their young daughter Mari, takes us from the expat community in Hong Kong, to the deprivations of the Stanley Internment Camp before finally returning to Wales. Told from the point of view of four different characters, the author expertly draws attention to the differences and distances between people who would ostensibly appear to be very close. Doing this allows Rhydderch to explore the concept of us all being unreliable narrators of our own experience, with time being evoked as a fluid and in some ways deeply individual experience. As with all of Rhydderch’s work to date, the often sombre meditations of this very talented writer are handled with a light touch, and this is a work of some considerable suspense and melancholy romanticism.
8. Clown’s Shoes by Rebecca F John (Parthian)
One of the stories here, The Glove Maker’s Numbers, about a synesthete’s breakdown following the death of her brother, was shortlisted for last year’s Sunday Times Short Story Award. It’s not difficult to see why. John enters a mind unravelled by grief with both empathy and perception. However, given the author’s youth, what is perhaps most impressive is her lack of sentimentality when dealing with this and other ambitious subjects. Take the bewildered Korean girl, starting a new life in England with her aunt, after the apparent death of a wayward mother – someone that her aunt describes as having had a “bad mind”. Or try Salting Home, where a woman finds herself unable to communicate with a daughter that she has believed to be dead for 10 years. When the daughter leaves in the night, the mother experiences a terrible sense of relief that feels both alien and wrong – not only to herself but to the reader too. In the bold, dramatic stories collected in Clown’s Feet, John plants us, time and time again, in new terrain.
9. Tywyll Heno (Dark Tonight) by Kate Roberts (translated by JP Clancy) (Temple University Press)
This short, oppressive masterpiece by Roberts takes its title from the ninth-century Welsh saga poem Canu Heledd (Song of Heledd). Heledd was the sister of Cynddylan, Prince of Powys, and the work mourns the death of her family at English hands:
The hall of Cynddylan is dark tonight
Without fire, without a bed.
I will weep for a while; then I will be silent.
Roberts transposes this sense of total desolation onto the subject of Bet Jones, a non-conformist minister’s wife who stops believing and who is, as a result, interred in a sanatorium. Roberts, a Welsh language writer who has been frequently compared to Virginia Woolf, writes about psychology – and female psychology in particular – with much of the same insight and intensity as her more famous peer. And like Woolf, Roberts’ work is underpinned by a troubled world vision. As Francesca Rhydderch has written of Tywyll Heno:
“At the heart of the book is a bottomless pit of angst which transcends the borders of an individual society or distinct culture, an existentialist fear that beneath all this there is simply – nothing.”
10. A Human Condition Rhys Davies (Parthian)
Davies was at one time Wales’ most famous exponent of the short story form and yet the majority of his short fiction remains inexplicably out of print. A Human Condition is, indeed, the only anthology currently available. Within the hundred or so pages of this marvellous if rather brief book (considering Davies wrote in excess of 100 stories, the republishing of a mere seven seems a little on the slim side), we immediately find ourselves within a perfectly realised, stylistically idiosyncratic universe. Davies, sometimes erroneously called a cold author, writes of subjects ranging from London suicides to Welsh rural intrigues with equal artistic empathy, while his prose style can, at its best – which is perhaps especially when employed in the depiction of nature – stand comparison with Nabokov. Take this description of a hare (a creature that Davies, a homosexual when homosexuality was still a criminal offence, frequently identified with in his work) as evidence, and seek out this collection if you can:
“He seemed bewildered, and sat up for an instant, ears tensed to noise breaking the silence of these chaotic acres, a palpitating eye cast back in assessment of the oncoming plough. Then his forepaws gave a quick play of movement, like shadowboxing, and he sprang forward on the track with renewed vitality. Twice he stopped to look as though in need of affiliation with the plough’s motion. But, beyond a bridge over the frozen rivers he took a flying leap and, paws barely touching the hardened snow and scut whisking, escaped out of sight.”
John Lavin is fiction editor of Wales Arts Review, editor of the Lonely Crowd and co-founder of the Lampeter Review