Monday, February 18, 2008

Richard Llewellyn's "Green, Green My Valley Now": Book Review

In high school, three decades ago, I read the Welsh and Patagonian saga of Huw Morgan that began with, of course, "How Green is My Valley." Although the other day I came across a reference to the 1941 film version -- recall it won Best Picture Oscar in that remarkable year of "Citizen Kane"-- as "Hollywood schmaltz," the novels did have their moments of energy and conviction. Certainly I learned much about not only coal but cabinetry, life in the Argentinian frontier and the culture that Welsh speakers sought to preserve in their dramatically sparse new land.
What stayed with me past the admittedly heavy-handed emotional scenes was Llewellyn's conviction in the distinctive identity of his people.

His novels played for a mass-market audience, akin in retrospect to the epics of a Leon Uris as mid-20th century sagas, and so never earned the respect given critically to, say, Dylan Thomas, yet they remain for many a while back probably the average Anglo-American reader's introduction to a Welsh milieu. This belated end to Huw's Patagonian stint brings him back from the military corruption that strangles 1970s Argentina. Huw keeps his wealth, more or less, and in this novel appears limitlessly wealthy. I suppose the British economy was indeed at a low ebb then; he's able to buy up land and homes and fund a deserving student for three years at Heidelberg while he pays for or pays off conniving relatives from the Argentine who learn of his newly acquired bank account.

The novel, when I read it way back, had not stuck in my memory. Now I know why. It's surprisingly dull. Llewellyn's strongest gift was his narrative voice-- it rings true here as in his earlier installments of Huw's life. But, despite the women willing to throw themselves at this aging scion, and the intricate derring do of Breton and Irish and Welsh nationalists who all conspire to foment pan-Celtic havoc, the whole question of what will happen to a Wales so down on its luck, and a Huw who manages to parlay his luck into one investment after another, human or financial, gives this effort a detached, airless quality. You do not care as much as the author intends about Huw and his relations and acquaintances.

Without the details of how to make a cabinet or mine coal that invigorated earlier storylines, the characters remain often inert. And, there's very little payoff in any return to the valley of his childhood, or any connections with his earlier novels that matter much. While this may stand as a small marker to a post-Investiture Welsh society still threatened by dams that obliterate villages, and convulsed by idealistic rebels, the blundering mayhem blamed on the Welsh who dare to act foolishly for the self-government that others remain only dreaming about turns the novel into not so much farce as indifference. Llewellyn castigates his countrymen for blunders and doubts they could ever rule themselves, and the whole Panglossian theme of cultivating one's estate and letting the rest run down appears to have escaped the eye of what once would have been a sharper observer of Welsh complacency.

(Posted to Amazon today, British and US!)
Image: poster for the movie that beat out Orson Welles:

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