A few people have asked me for a ‘View from…” guest post about literature from my native land of Wales. I’ve been searching for a book loving Welsh blogger for a year now and haven’t had much success. So I thought I would mark our national day – March 1 – by giving my own insights. Not sure how it will work to answer my own questions but I’ll give it a go.
Let’s meet Booker Talk
My real name is Karen. I was born in South Wales and apart from a few years where I went off to university in England, I’ve lived here all my life. Despite several attempts I have never mastered my native language. It’s a tough language to pronounce – many words don’t seem to include a vowel and then there are the dastardly ‘ll’ and “dd” combinations which always trip up people from outside the country. I started my blog on books and literature in February 2012, intending it to be a way of tracking my reading of novels from the Booker Prize list. It’s just grown from there as I got more involved with other bloggers who got me interested in literature from around the world.
Q. What books are creating a buzz right now in Wales?
I would love to be able to highlight some titles that are unique to Wales but sadly that’s not possible. We seem to be reading pretty much what the rest of the world is reading. In the local branch of Waterstones last week for example there was a buzz around the table promoting all the Elena Ferrante books and at the ‘Buy one, get one half price” tables which had many of the latest paperback titles. The one area where you’ll find a big difference in our buying habits is in non fiction – more specifically in sport. Rugby isn’t just a sport here; it’s almost an obsession with each outing of the national team treated with almost religious fervour. Hence just about anything that features rugby will get attention. Stick a photo of a hulking guy in a red shirt on the cover and the money will roll in.
Q. Who are some of the big Welsh authors?
They don’t come much bigger than Dylan Thomas. He’s a legend in Wales. I wonder if that’s as much to do with his bad boy image and early death as his poetry. The latter is sublime though not always easy to understand. If you already know his play for voices Under Milk Wood try some of his prose work – A Child’s Christmas in Wales is a classic but the lesser known Portrait of an Artist as a Young Dog is well worth reading if you want an idea of what influenced Thomas in his formative years. It’s a collection of autobiographical short prose stories set in his home city of Swansea which reveal snatches of his life from childhood to his first job as a newspaper reporter.
Other big names are Roald Dahl of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory fame and Ken Follett, author of a clutch of crime and historical best sellers like The Pillars of the Earth. More modern era writers include Sarah Waters (Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith) and Cynan Jones who won the Wales Book of the Year prize for fiction last year with The Dig, (a novel notable for its lack of punctuation).
Q. Any authors you think deserve more attention than they’ve had so far?
The challenge is there are so many names I could suggest. A number of these authors were notable in their day but have since disappeared from view for reasons I find hard to fathom. Let’s start with Jack Jones who was a novelist and playwright from the 1930s/1940s. His style probably feels a bit old fashioned now but if you want a sense of what life was like in Wales during the decades when it provided the coal that fuelled much of the world, take a look at his first novel Rhondda Roundabout (there’s that “dd” to get your tongue around) which later became a play. The novel chronicles the hardship of people from the valleys of South Wales against the back set against the backdrop of the aftermath of the General Strike and the Great Depression.
A name I strongly recommend is John Cowper Powys who has been likened to Thomas Hardy because of the role the landscape plays in his novels. Four of them from the 1930s: Wolf Solent, A Glastonbury Romance (the most known of this group); Weymouth Sands and Maiden Castle are often referred to as his Wessex novels. They’re set in Somerset and Dorset but draw a lot upon Welsh myths.
Coming more up to date you’ll find someone I’ve written about on this blog a few times: Gwyn Thomas. He deals with some of the same themes as Jack Jones but in a more biting style. The Alone to the Alone is a perfect demonstration of how he uses comic hyperbole to make a political point. Even more current is Carys Davies who won the 2015 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize with her collection of short stories, The Redemption of Galen Pike. It’s a virtuoso performance that I loved when I read it last year despite the fact I’m not a great fan of the short story format.
Wales is a small country and the percentage of the population using the Welsh language is tiny (4% was the last figure I saw). It’s also not a language that you find used outside the country with the exception of a community in Patagonia. Which means there is a limited market for Welsh language books and not many publishers despite the valiant efforts of indigenous authors. I can’t even recall a book translated into English in recent years that has garnered much attention.
When I decided a couple of years ago it was time to broaden my reading horizons and seek out more authors outside my usual zone of UK and USA, I didn’t realise how tough it would be to find writers from certain countries. Many blog challenges that seemed promising initially turned out to simply list books set in the country not written by a native. Many websites didn’t distinguish between fiction and non fiction or just gave the author’s name but no indication of their style or genre. If it were not for one website – Complete Review – and a small number of bloggers who are passionate about reading books in translation, I would have struggled.
If only, I mused, there was a comprehensive reference guide to authors from different parts of the world. My life would be much easier.
A fairy godmother has now granted my wish in the form of The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction by Michael Orthofer. Orthofer is the founder, managing editor, and lead contributor to the Complete Review which operates as an aggregator site for reviews and book news. It pays particular attention to contemporary work in translation and original language from around the world.
Orthofer has now expanded that content to bring us in book format The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction, a superb resource for English language readers interested in fiction from around the world. The guide is divided into profiles by region and country each of which contains a commentary on literature from that part of the world and a multitude of author names to explore from 1945 to the present day. The Guide could easily just be page after page of lists but Orthofer avoids this with his short but insightful summaries about trends in each country.
How well does he have his finger on the pulse in each of these countries? I used the section on my home country of Wales as a test. Actually I was impressed to find there was a section on literature from Wales – we’re such a small nation that we usually get overlooked or lumped in with our big neighbour England. Orthofer accurately comments that government support for the Welsh language has led to a resurgence in Welsh language writing. He gives examples of both 20th century and contemporary Welsh language writers and those writing in English (Robin Llewelyn, John Williams for example) but it was odd not to find even a mention of people who I consider to be big names from the past like Jack Jones and Gwyn Thomas. Perhaps I’m setting the bar too high but I’d love to know what people from some of the countries he includes, think of his selection.
While the country profiles are a useful gateway into each location, the part of this book I enjoyed reading most was Orthofer’s introduction in which he analyses the current state of literature in translation and why so little of it exists. American and British publishers continue to show reluctance to invest in translated works, he notes. Even the university presses concentrate on very narrow slices of international literature. Despite the presence in the United States of so many foreign authors, most of them are unknown to American readers. When the American houses do go for a work in translation “… too often it is the second-rate works – the earnest prizewinning novels and imitative local thrillers – that make the cut and disappoint both readers (with their mediocre quality) and publishers (with their low sales).”
In Europe, Germany’s support for translated works has led to greater exposure for Scandinavian and eastern European countries while readers in France benefit from the more generous support given to translation in that country. Orthofer sees two glimmers of brightness however. One is that other countries, most notably India and southern Africa, have made a concerted effort to translate more works from their regional languages. The second is via the determined efforts of some small and nimble publishers determined to raise the profile of great writers from all parts of the world. As Orthofer says early on in his book: “Great literature and great books know no borders.”
The Complete Guide to Contemporary World Fiction by M. A Orthofer is published by Columbia University Press. Many thanks to the publishers for making this available via Net Galley in exchange for an honest review. As an indicator of how much I appreciated this book, I’ve now gone and bought my own copy.
Since today is the patron saint’s day for Wales I thought I’d mark the occasion with some insights on authors who hail from my native land. The people I’ve chosen are all people who write in the medium of English rather than the Welsh language. Thats not out of disrespect to the language, but since many of my readers are from overseas, it wouldn’t be particularly helpful if I pointed you to Welsh language texts.
The most famous son of all is of course Dylan Thomas. A bit of a hell raiser was our Dylan; a familiar figure in the bars in Swansea (the city of his birth) and Laugharne, the fishing village where he lived with his wife Caitlin. His poetry is defined by his ingenious use of words, imagery and sound patterns which sometimes makes the meaning hard to discover. My recommendation: don’t worry too much about the messages behind the words. Just find a recording of Richard Burton reading Thomas’s poems or his play Under Milk Wood, and revel in the sounds.
After Dylan, the other writers from Wales don’t have anywhere near the same reputation beyond our borders. Many of these names will, I suspect, be ones that you might vaguely have heard of but more likely will be a complete mystery.
Gwyn Thomas: author and Tv/radio broadcaster from Barry (near my current home) whose black comedies focused on life in the coal mining communities of South Wales during the grinding poverty of the 1930s. He’s all but disappeared from the public conscience except amongst the literary elite in Wales. His autobiographical work A Few Selected Exits shows his passage fro the poorest of families in Wales to Oxford and the BBC. I’ve posted a few reviews of his works here: Reading a Welsh legend and here The Alone to the Alone.
Raymond Williams: If you’ve ever studied the work of Charles Dickens there is a chance you will have encountered the name of Raymond Williams who was one of the foremost Marxist academics active in the 1960s and 1970s. He made his reputation with Culture and Society, published in 1958, which examined famous British writers such as Wordsworth and Orwell to argue that culture, as we know it, developed in response to the Industrial Revolution and the social and political changes it brought in its wake. His assessment of Dickens challenges Orwell’s contention that Dickens wasn’t a social reformer. Well worth reading is his work The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence which looks at the way historical and social changes affected the development of the novel through the works of eleven writers. He also wrote novels – perhaps the best known is Border Country which is set in the community Williams knew personally, rural South Wales, close to the border with England, There are lengthy flashbacks to the 1920s and 1930s, including the 1926 United Kingdom General Strike and the Great Depression in the United Kingdom.
Bernice Rubens was the only author from Wales to win the Booker prize. She was actually the first woman to win the prize with her novel The Elected Member. It was one of the first books I read as part of my Booker Prize project – good in parts but not wonderful was my verdict at the time.
If those options seem a little heavy for you, the following authors may be more to your taste.
Owen Sheers: Although Sheers was born in Fiji, I’m classing him as a Welsh author because he spent his formative years here and has kept his close connection with the country not least because much of his work has a connection to Wales (including a role as the first writer in residence of the Welsh Rugby Union(. Sheers began writing poetry, publishing his first collection in 1999. He was named as one of the Poetry Book Society’s 20 Next Generation Poets in 2004 but it wasn’t until his first novel Resistance was published in 2008 that he really came to the public’s attention.The novel imagines that the D-day landings have failed and Wales been occupied by the Nazis. it’s been translated into ten languages and was shortlisted for a Best Book Award.
Dannie Abse: a native of Cardiff in 1923, he trained as a doctor but began writing poetry and plays while working in a London hospital. His first novel, Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve, appeared in 1954, tracing the fortunes of a Jewish family in Wales against the backdrop of unemployment, the rise of Fascism and the Spanish Civil War. In 2002 his novel The Strange Case of Dr Simmonds and Dr Glas was long listed for the Man Booker Prize.
Ken Follett: author of highly-readable novels such as The Pillars of the Earth, Eye of the Needle and The Man from St Petersburg, was born in Cardiff (capital city of Wales). He worked as a reporter on the same local newspaper that once employed me, the South Wales Echo, though our paths never crossed.
Iris Gower: a prolific writer of historical romances in the vein of Catherine Cookson. Gower set many of her works in her home city of Swansea and the adjacent coastal area of the Gower Peninsula from which she took her pen name. She was a prolific writer publishing one new novel (and sometimes two) almost every year between 1975 until her death in 2010. Her work doesn’t appeal to me but my mum loves her.
You know how food packaging includes a ‘Best Before’ date that tells us just how long the item will live in the cupboard before it’s past its best.? If you’re house is anything like mine, we often find tins and packets buried at the back of the cupboard that look perfectly fine even if they are two years out of date. Sometimes I’m tempted to open them just to see if the contents have deteriorated.
Last year I started to think that certain authors appear to have a shelf life too. For some like Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, their shelf life runs for several centuries while for others like C P Snow (remember his Strangers and Brothers series?) or even the Booker prize winners, Stanley Middleton and David Storey, it could be a few decades before the book gradually gets pushed to the back of the book store shelves before being relegated to the bin end sale or relegated to the basement at the library. Some of them may get rescued and the
author rediscovered (which seems to have been the case with Elizabeth Taylor) but others seem destined to disappear from our memory.
What promoted this was a book club discussion on a title I’d chosen, The Alone to the Alone, by the Welsh author Gwyn Thomas. It was published in 1947 by an author who went on to become a household name in the UK as a regular chat show participant and broadcaster. If I tell you that this was the man chosen by the BBC to write and broadcast a eulogy to those killed in one of the UK’s worst mining disasters in 1966, you’ll get a sense of his status.
His written work was widely applauded for its lyrical qualities and acerbic wit. the book club enjoyed The Alone to the Alone yet decided it was very much ‘a book of its time’. In other words, it would have resonated more for readers at the time of its publication in 1947 than it does for today’s readers. Since his other novels are in a similar vein, the group’s assessment probably goes for his body of work as a whole.
Why that should be the case, we were not sure. Thomas wrote about life in the coal mining communities of South Wales during the grinding poverty of the 1930s. Why would this not resonate today yet Dickens’s novel about the poor social conditions of London in the 1840s (Dombey and Son) and Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1850s exposure of the appalling conditions of mill workers in northern England continue to get our attention? Why are the latter considered literary classics and yet you’d be hard pressed to find a copy of Thomas novel in any leading bookshop (not even in the capital of Wales). We had no answer except to pose another question: what makes a book a classic? We had even less of a clear answer to that question and even suspected that it’s a question to which there is no clear cut answer, just theories.
If you’re interested in hearing Gwyn Thomas’s eulogy, its available at the BBC site via this link http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00gmpcf
It would be hard to read Gwyn Thomas’ 1947 novel The Alone to the Alone and not admire his ability to conjure up phrases and sentences that dazzle with the kind of wit that can be biting and savage one moment and warm and endearing in another. This is a novel that displays his trademark prowess with language to the full and in which there is scarcely a page that doesn’t ooze with black comic hyperbole.
And yet this isn’t meant to be a novel purely of entertaining comedy. Thomas crafted it to illuminate the experience of life in the coal mining communities of South Wales during the grinding poverty of the 1930s. Set in a village community he calls simply The Terraces (a reference to the layout of housing in this part of Wales), the novel features the adventures of group known as The Dark Philosophers. They’re four unemployed men who have nothing else to do but to sit on a wall each day to chew the fat. There are few subjects upon which they don’t have an opinion: religion, imperialism, the profit motive, socialism; heredity and the vexed issue of Jonah and the whale are all topics upon which they feel equipped to pontificate. But love? Ah that’s a different matter.
When a plain village girl called Eurona seeks their guidance on how to win the attention of the village idol (otherwise known as Rollo the bus conductor), they’re both dismayed and stumped.
That pricked us for we were proud of the little stocks of wisdom that life had battered into us with its bare knuckles. …. we were prophets of a sort whenever the discussion was about things of which experience and book reading had taught us much, particularly in discussions about the Slump. We were the oldest sons so to speak of the Slump…
Even so, they rally around when Eurona gets a job as a domestic help outside of The Terraces and needs new clothes “because wealthy folk who hire other folk to do their dirty work are kept so busy organising a cleaner world that they have no time for anything other than first impressions.”
Their attempts to help and to put her life back on track lead invariably to confusion and some magnificent set pieces including one when these philosophical giants end up plastering every conceivable wall and lamppost with advertising posters for a grocer with aspirations to build a whole chain of stores throughout the valleys. As they rest in the midst of their labours one afternoon a purplish, glowing path materialises around the corner: Eurona’s father proudly parading in a new suit and bowler hat many sizes too big.
It must, without any need for tape measure or question, have been the biggest bowler in the Terraces. … His ears appeared to be closing in on him for they were large and made larger by the fact that when Morris was baffled beyond endurance, he had two of his children take one ear apiece and pull to make room with his skull even for the small simple thoughts that ached to have done with him as they tripped headlong in the narrow alleys of his prickly awareness. To fix the bowler at a point above his eyes he had stuffed several sheets of newspaper into it. This stuffing had been done in haste and clumsily. One strand with a legible headline about the birthrate came down over his brow as if to provide him with some quiet reading in the intervals of being admired and fainting from the strain of holding up on so slight a head a hat of such weight and size.
Such moments of humour offset the depth of Thomas’ satirical take on the limits of human aspiration in a society so deeply deprived that beauty itself has been suffocated. For as one of Thomas’ philosophers comments: ….”when men consent to endure for too long the sadness of poverty and decline, beauty sees no point in staying, bows its head and goes.”
Gwyn Thomas was himself a native of the kind of valleys community featured in The Alone to the Alone. Born the youngest of 12 children to a coalminer, he managed to escape a life underground as a coal miner with the aid of a scholarship to study Spanish at Oxford University. Struggling to establish himself as a writer in the 1930s, he began teaching and lecturing. Success did not come until the early 1950s after which time he became a regular chat show participant and broadcaster.
Who is the greatest writer to have emerged from Wales in the last 100 years?
For those of you who fell asleep during school geography lessons, it might be helpful if I first explained where you will find Wales on the map. It’s a small country and often — mistakenly — labelled as England. But make that error on the day when England and Wales meet on the rugby field and you could find yourself in deep trouble with the thousands of fervent Welshmen and women in the stands. There is good reason why the national colour is red and our national symbol is the fire-breathing dragon — both capture the essence of our passionate nature.
So here is where you will find Wales. It’s the bit to the left and as you can see quite distinct from England.
Now to my question: who is Wales’ most esteemed writer? If I were to ask the question even within Wales, the answer invariably would be Dylan Thomas, that hell-raising man with the golden syrup tongue who authored the play for voices Under Milk Wood and a myriad of intensely lyrical poems in between downing pints of beer at his local pub. Even if you have never read anything by him, there is more than a fair chance you will recognise some lines of his:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Or the opening lines spoken by the narrator of Under Milk Wood
It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea.
You can expect to hear much more about this “roistering, drunken and doomed poet” over the next months as the country celebrates the centenary of his birth.
Despite his fame (more like notoriety) and undoubted skill, he was never a commercial success to anything like the same extent as another writer whose centenary is actually this year: Gwyn Thomas.
You will most likely never have hear of him. And yet during his life time he was esteemed by writers like William Faulkner and his novels sold a phenomenal number of copies in North America.
He wrote about the community he knew well, the coal-mining valleys of South Wales where he grew up as the twelfth child of a coal miner and where he experienced both the desperate poverty of the area and the heartache of his mother’s death when he was five years old. There were typically only two choices for boys in that area in the 1940s — if you were bright, you might just get to train as a teacher but if not, you followed your dad down the mines as soon as you were 14 and spent your days in the dark, breathing in coal dust. Thomas was one of the lucky ones who escaped through a scholarship to Oxford university.
But he never forgot the experience of his youth which sowed the seeds of his socialist beliefs and his complete disregard for authority. Both came through in novels like All Things Betray Thee, his autobiography A Few Selected Exits and his television and radio broadcasts in which he displayed a virtuoso talent for sophisticated humour mingled with satire and a deep appreciation of the human effect of industrial change.
If you’ve never read him before now, 2015 could be the time to begin.