Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Glyn Jones' "Selected Stories": Book Review

I read Glyn Jones' gripping "The Pit" in a later collection of stories by various Welsh writers, "The Green Bridge," (reviewed by me on Amazon US and here recently); the novella "The Green Island" here rivals it in length, plot and premise. Two uneasy lovers find that nature conspires against them and wonder if it's more than the elements that have it in for their adulterous actions. Jones combines the quasi-biblical cadences of many of his fellow Welsh writers who move between their native language's rich imagery and eloquent rhetoric into an English perhaps marginally more spare, and perhaps more blunt. The result can make for a stylistic register that may at first sound out of sync with contemporary English. It's stranger and more detached, even as its intimacy draws you in to a faintly archaic mode, despite the modern settings of many of these stories.

Like the Irish writer Liam O'Flaherty, who also went back and forth between his native Irish and English for powerful stories that often entered into animal as well as human souls, imagining their brutal and yearning lives on the edge of civilization, many of the stories here set up parallels. Characters appear often rather archetypal, and this heavier burden means that some stories remain clunkier by comparison. I liked the selections best in which, as Jones explains in an excellent brief introduction to this 1972 anthology, as a writer he gets to play God. The clash of conformity with instinct, the pairing of beast with human, sparks confrontations and tensions that impel the best stories.

Some, as he notes, are based on anecdotes he heard; one appears taken from a Welsh legend, and the rest, even though they take place in the middle of the last century, more or less, evoke often a distant time freer of distractions from passion, revenge, lust, and loyalty. Surprisingly, the mines so well described in "The Pit" do not appear here; the pastoral settings of the south-west Welsh coast contend against the Welsh city as the places for these stories, but, as with O'Flatherty, I reckon Jones favors the rural redoubt over the urban bustle. The peace may not come in either place for his protagonists, but there's less to draw his characters away from their silent, nagging, or insistent voices in their head as they face nature and enter themselves to wrestle with the big questions that, inevitably, they must answer.

(Posted to Amazon US today; I note a collected stories came out in 1999 from U of Wales Press. Too expensive, but worth seeking in a library!)

Painting: Sir William Nicholson, Tate Gallery caption: "The Nicholsons lived at Harlech in North Wales towards the end of the First World War and later. This view is from high above Harlech Castle, which is itself on the edge of a hill, and looks across Tremadoc Bay to the mountains on the Lleyn Peninsula. It is seems [sic] to be by moonlight, after rain, with a reflection from a slate roof and a pattern of shadows cast by the walls around the fields." "The Hill Above Harlech" 1917

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