Thursday, January 31, 2008
Roland Mathias' "Anglo-Welsh Literature: An Illustrated History" Book Review
This 140-page text, with nearly a hundred pictures, gives a brisk overview of the past five hundred years of Welsh writing in English. On pg. 16. Mathias, a noted poet and editor of the "Anglo-Welsh Review," defines his topic: "it implies no mixture of blood" but "it describes those writers who by birth or strong family derivation and residence were Welsh but who, whether from necessity or choice, wrote in English." Today, of course, anyone in Wales chooses to write in one of its two languages. In the beginning, starting in the Tudor period and increasing after the Union of 1536, when Welsh historians and poets first penned texts in English in appreciable numbers they tended to emphasize dutifully the loyalty of the Welsh to the Crown. They concocted stories assuring Britons that those enthroned at Westminster traced their roots to Brutus the Trojan and then to a Welsh monarchy.
Since then, many of those included here tended to explain their country, adopted or native, to the English. The foreignness of Wales could be mined for pathos, praise, satire, stereotype, and romance. The difficulty, as Mathias charts, lay in the fact that much of Wales over the past few centuries lay off limits to most writers in English who lived in the Principality, unless they knew both languages, and few could navigate both tongues with equal facility. Most, and this tendency perhaps grows in the past half-century, exaggerate the strangeness supposedly left in Cambria with an eye towards a London publisher, and a wider audience eager for stock characters, timeworn platitudes, and manufactured lore.
The most intriguing recent authors among admittedly a vastly disparate lot united only by geography remain such as the formidably learned but intriguingly erudite David Jones, who Mathias places within a 'second movement' along with Emyr Humphreys' fiction, R.S. Thomas' verse, and perhaps the much less known poems by Raymond Garlick. These writers sought a reapproachment with the older, fading literary culture that emphasized communal duty rather than merely channelling one's muse. Mathias contrasts this disciplined mid-century faction against a 'first movement' sparked by the Joyce-like portraits of a religiously constricted and morally corrupt village that brought Caradoc Evans his first fame in 1915, and then flamed into the laments of Richard Llewelyn, Gwyn Thomas, Alexander Cordell, and others who sought in rural depictions and coal-pit descriptions a vital Welsh sensibility grounded in the peasant and the proletariat. Above all, the talented Dylan Thomas voiced his own alienation from the Welsh tradition in a language he never learned, while echoing its cadences in verbose and dazzling wordplay.
The shadow of Thomas, as Joyce for Irish writers, casts a long stretch across the second half of the past century. Mathias scans the results, and nods at Raymond Williams, John Cowper Powys, and Richard Hughes for their uses of their Welshness. He accurately observes of a less remembered author: "Menna Gallie, who wrote three spirited novels-- beginning with Strike for a Kingdom (1959) -- never adequately followed them up." (118) Gallie's predicament appears common among the later writers Mathias mentions. He finds that the most successful writing (and this book appeared in 1986) comes from criticism such as Ned Thomas' "The Welsh Extremist" and Glyn Jones' "The Dragon Has Two Tongues," as well as Raymond Williams' literary and political criticism, not to forget Kenneth Morgan and Gwyn A. Williams' histories.
In a society so anglophonic today, can the hyphen of Mathias' title still matter? He suggests that for the 'first' and 'second' movements, a counter-movement away from anglicization lingered. The 'first' usually, "involuntarily or otherwise, had an acquaintance with the then receding Welsh language and the different culture that had flourished within it,"-- that of the Nonconformist combination of radical politics and literary craft which since the mid-18th century enabled Welsh people in villages and then cities to keep moored to their legacy, much as they may have resented it, it did keep them informed of an alternative. The writers of the 'second' movement, within which I'd transfer the late J.C. Powys along with R.S. Thomas-- reconnected their own severed strands to the Cymric inheritance. But, now, Mathias argues, the involvement with the Welsh end of the hyphenated identity appears purely a matter of one's own preference.
I interpret this attitude as follows. Many live not in Wales except as a postal address-- they see themselves as part of the United Kingdom or Great Britain. The names of their towns may seem nearly as remote as the Indian terms common across so many of the United States. There's no commitment for nearly all but a few idiosyncratic residents of a land occupied by a people who've invaded and taken over another nation to learn the atavistic language or master the cultural remnants, if any exist outside of museums and monographs.
Mathias concludes that since 1950 and especially 1965 ("when the latest of the older writers emerged" from his mid-1980s perspective) the standstill of Welsh at least halted its rural erosion with an urban and school-based revival. (Same as Irish has in the past few years, perhaps, although I'd say the Gaeltacht and the Welsh-speaking enclaves both continue to decline under the pressure of both anglicized tourism and the dependence of the economy on incomers.) He wonders, in fact, if the move towards reclaiming Welsh leaves many learners too optimistically thinking they should try to write by that language's "demanding standard" when sticking to their native English'd be a wiser option and ensure the continued creativity they could bring to their work by their native means of expression. As of nearly a quarter-century ago, then, Mathias ends his reflections doubting that "Anglo-Welsh" can continue to matter as the nostalgia's vanished, the village's modernized, and the shibboleth of not being truly Welsh without a command of Cymraeg continues to shut out so many emerging citizens of Wales who have no "poor but romantic past" in either language to return to, or who wish such a retreat from modern reality.
(Posted to Amazon US today.. Image: "Hill Pastures, Capel-y-ffin, 1926," watercolor by David Jones. His delicate drawings do not transfer well, but here's a bolder vision from the commune he shared with Eric Gill. Wish it was in color! But, a solid non-Monkee David Jones website; and we all know another D.J. who changed his stage name to avoid confusion at the time to Bowie. All three were London Welsh.) www.case.edu/artsci/engl/VSALM/mod/dresch/index
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Menna Gallie's "In These Promiscuous Parts" Book Review
I continue to search out this Welsh novelist's work, as background for my research into her "You're Welcome to Ulster," and I've also critiqued her first book, "Strike for a Kingdom," both here and on Amazon US. She sought a popular audience, and the cover of her last book, from 1986, with its curious title (a quote from Kipling's "The Elephant's Child") and the airbrushed Welsh cottage looking indeed like as her omniscient narrator comments late in the story, "a children's drawing," appears misleading on two counts. The sex remains discreet and barely PG, and despite the titular promise, there's not much action in the sack, at least for the protagonist Rosie. She's visiting her "rather stupid and uncompromising Marxist" mother Myfanwy, who had named her after Rosa Luxemberg, and definitely Myf's waspish lines remain the best here. She lives, by the way, in Krupskya, a house named after Mrs. Lenin.
An early exchange after-- shades of R.S. Thomas-- Myf's turned off the central heating. Rosie's rebuked, "you know how I feel about central heating ever since your father's sister was killed by it." When her daughter reminds her that this was only because "My Auntie Hettie electrocuted herself by shoving a pair of scissors inot a switched-on plug because she couldn't get her iron in," Myf dismises the "nasty end-- not entirely undeserved, I might add" that had befallen Hettie and then blathers on about "the citadels of privilege being attacked by the storm troopers of the working classes," forgetting that her maid's working for Myf herself to keep her ungrateful son at Cambridge, and that Rosie had been sent off to boarding school and then Oxford.
Although Rosie's supposedly back at her hometown Trenewydd from that same citadel of privilege to work on her own book, this appears never to surface again and the sabbatical's spent getting into mischief with the hapless Water Bailiff, helping salmon poachers evade said enforcer, and dealing with a dull main plot involving the Ladies of Llwynrhos, Myf's failed run for Labour, a Traveller smuggler, displaced Italians and a misplaced Italian painting.
Descriptions do enliven the lighthearted story of life in a small village. There's an extended exposition of the village as Rosie drives down into it that's a tour-de-force. I was disappointed that the Welsh Language Society's furtive sawing off of English-language "fingerposts" proved their only shadowy appearance, and the whole context of the back-to-nature incomers who swarmed into such Welsh hamlets started off promisingly evoked but the thread then became left behind as Gallie pursued the local policeman's investigation of the purloined painting. Still, late on, here's an insight.
An elderly woman worked to the bone caring for a farm commune aiming for idealized self-sufficiency sighs. Meg: "There's no fantasy, nothing fantastic, a stupid, drab, and dreary place. With a tawdry, second-hand mysticism. The alternative society. It only means choosing to stink to high heaven and wearing U.S. army castoffs. They wear camouflaged army uniforms as a symbol of their freedom, their break-out, rejection, and they don't even get the joke." (232) Gallie's at her best in her fiction when recording such honesty, in monologues and dialogues, and the vast changes that separate this tale of a not-so-young woman down from the university with her young-man-from-the-mines up to Oxbridge in her 1960 "Man's Desiring" (Jesu, joy of-- or Jesus College, Oxford, the institution founded for the medieval Welsh?) show the enormous gap between the Lucky Jim-meets-How Green Was My Valley aura of her pre-Sixties story with this mid-Eighties tale of encroaching middle-aged loneliness in a rural hideaway not so isolated, and increasingly threatened by its poor economy for the locals and its attractive amenities for the entitled.
Rosie finds at the novel's close a muted epiphany. Gallie's never been one, at least from the four novels of hers I've found so far, for the grandly intricate plot. She's most at home with characters and their interior restlessness and their half-articulate speech to themselves and to each other. This novel may not rank with those reprinted and rediscovered today, as it shies away from the social contexts that I believe goaded her into her sharpest observations. Yet, any reader wishing to imagine Wales in the era of post-hippie longhairs, Cold War thaws, and a straitened future for its unidealized small-town denizens can find them evoked here.
(Review posted to Amazon US today.)
Tuesday, January 29, 2008
Internal Exile: Born Speaking a Foreign Tongue?
This article had been gestating already, but the puerile efforts of respondents hiding often under anonymity who attacked Alan Jones' "Independence Cymru" blog after he had borrowed the Celtic map from here (in turn, its original URL cited from FletcherSaga on my Jan. 18 post) saddened me. I'd just finished re-reading Roy Clews' narrative about the Welsh republicans of the late '60s, and this descent from idealism to hooliganism as seen as the dreams of that decade melt into the dreck of our own moved me to reflect below. Here it is, a bit altered for another orthography, much longer than I'd envisioned, as an attempt to bridge gaps between Welsh and Irish, this disembodied Net apart from the domain you and I know.
Submitted to The Blanket (see link at left from my blog home page) as 'Internal Exiles: Welsh Activism from an Irish Netizen’s p-o-v'
We are exiles within
our own country; we eat bread
at a pre-empted table. 'Show us,'
we supplicate, 'the way home',
and they laughing hiss at us:
'But you are home. Come in
and endure it,' Will nobody
explain what it is like
to be born lost?
from R. S. Thomas, 'The Lost';
published in: No Truce with the Furies (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1995).
This verse serves as my defense for all of us who claim our Celtic roots in the face of naysayers and buffoons. All of us who get jeered at for not having the right surname, degree, or passport. If the Net's to claim its territory as truly global, it's both a particular site and a world without borders for us to debate-- nationalism in a networked realm. A perfectly complicated, contradictory subject?
There does not appear from my limited and largely anglicized searching on the Net many places for sustained consideration of Welsh republican and national movements from an Irish (if diasporic by default) perspective. (For a circumscribed example of a pan-Celtic comparison from Wales, try: http://www.balchdercymru.com ) I’ve revived a dormant interest in seeking out such ties lately, as background for studying such themes in a handful of novels that treat the Welsh rebel of the 1960s generation in light of the Irish exemplar. This essay today's a sample of a few of my thoughts, to serve as a place for recording such a topic and perhaps to spark connections among others so tuned.
I searched the nearly hundred hits on ProQuest the past dozen years via my work database under ‘Free Wales Army’. I was curious, having re-read recently my well-worn copy of Roy Clews' To Dream of Freedom: The Story of MAC and the Free Wales Army (Talybont, Dyfed, Wales: Y Lolfa, 1980 although I have on backorder a revised 2005 ed. of this once-infamous title), how recent press had covered such figures as Julian Cayo Evans, Dennis Coslett, and Antony Lewis-- all three having died in the past few years. Also, there'd been Dic Edwards' play satirizing Cayo, ‘Franco's Bastard’, and another recent play in Welsh, Manon Eames' ‘Porth y Baddar’ about the flooding of Capel Celyn to provide water for Liverpool: this catalysed opposition to English incursions through the rise of Cymreithdas yr Iaith (The Welsh Language Society) and then the Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru & FWA. The early 1960s saw nascent sabotage begin at the dam. Mainstream commentators suggest that such destruction as the loss of the Tryweryn valley led to three decades later the establishment of hesitant devolution and the Welsh Assembly.
However, veteran radicals, whether at The Blanket or the Welsh ‘alternative nationalist’ Gethin ab Iestyn (Keith Griffiths) would counter such moves prove but constitutional detours. Obvious if not precise parallels to the controversies that continue among die-hard dissidents who claim to be the Welsh Republican Army, or those who might make the analogy Sinn Féin: SDLP = Plaid Cymru: Labour Party. The squabble may never end among the few in the Celtic lands and their far-flung supporters who insist on a more revolutionary, less conciliatory, campaign. What distinguishes, of course, the Provos from Plaid was that PIRA upheld physical-force nationalism, while Plaid under Saunders Lewis and his principled leadership continuing under Gwynfor Evans MP chose a pacifist stance, at odds with the Fenian strategy. Evans in fact appears many times on the pages of Clews’ history, with considerable chagrin disavowing Plaid’s responsibility for Welsh republican factions. (Perhaps Saunders Lewis, one of the Penyberth Three who in 1936 set fire to the RAF training camp for bombers on the historic Llŷn peninsula, secretly sympathised– as did Thomas for those half a century later who torched second-homes owned by in-comers. A leading Nationalist was said to have been disheartened when the Cymric people failed to rise up after Penyberth to incite their version of an Easter Rising.)
As John Jenkins conceived it, violence could be deployed theoretically or in reality against the State, not for a military victory, but in hopes of inciting 'indiscriminate retribution' against 'sleepers' and innocent neigbours. By increasing the level of Crown oppression, Jenkins reasoned that his MAC would gain support from infuriated Welsh folks. Again, study into their similarities with insurgent strategies sought by the Official IRA and republican socialists would prove worthwhile. If any reader of The Blanket knows of such, kindly respond in kind.
This tension between conventional, non-violent nationalism and the appeal to real or mock violence dramatically demonstrates a key distinction between the Irish rebels who linked to Cayo Evans and his friends versus the Welsh resistance that based itself on Christian values, a legacy of the Chapel and of the 250-year-old traditions of education and community formation based in the Welsh Bible and the literate labourer. The Rebecca Riots and the “War of the Little Englishman” predated the Black & Tans by nearly a century, and much of subsequent Welsh agitation had been subsumed into organised labor actions and Marxian paradigms.
Also, perhaps echoing more Pearse and the 1916 rebels than their camouflaged hirsute comrades in postwar liberation fronts, the FWA selected a logo, a uniform, and a carefully planned public persona. The IRA may have donned balaclavas and stuck or pinned their lily, but boyos lacked the sartorial flair that the ‘Byddin’ sported. Cayo Evans defended these choices as designed to attain Geneva Convention status for the members as enemy combatants with insignia in the language of their nation, with the country’s flag as their badge. They more immediately gained for the few and the proud Double Eagles with straight-armed salutes considerable notoriety. For wags, the old saw of an army of generals but no privates persisted. Historians today (post-1980 Clews) suggest that no more than a couple dozen FWA soldiers filled their ranks, contrary to Cayo’s catty claims of thousands ready to march. Not to mention Coslett’s classic dodge that convinced Fleet Street that his dog, 'Gelert,' was one of a pack of trained Alsatians strapped with magnetised boxes of live ammo ready for suicide missions across Offa’s Dyke.
Also, on a more serious note, a distinction between the Irish and Welsh republicans emerges from this Situationist stance. The threat of violence, as Coslett stressed, remained the impetus for his allies. Unlike the Irish, the goal of driving the British out and achieving a socialist state was not realistic. The Welsh lacked the international suppliers of arms, know-how, and agitprop that the Irish could rely upon with over 150 years of contacts and experience. And, unlike the Irish, only two deaths from the Welsh late-1960s challenge resulted: two FWA men in Abergele, forty miles from the site of the Investiture, the night before were blown up by the gelignite they were planting. The bombs the Welsh set were always intended to attack symbolic or economic targets. Perhaps the Christian principles gained these activists fewer ‘spectaculars’ but arguably higher moral ground? Meibion Glyndŵr’s arson against holiday homes in the 1980s, similarly, sought to discourage English outsiders moving into Welsh-speaking enclaves, but eschewed personal injury. While P. O Neill and many other spokesmen claimed similar caution in the Troubles, the persistence of rogues, provocateurs, double-agents, and incompetents all damaged the Cause.
The infiltration of Special Branch into the Welsh radicals damaged their defenses too early on. Unlike the Irish, the Welsh lacked guerrilla guidance. Their contacts, heightened after leaders had visited the 1966 commemorations for the Rising in Dublin, rarely earned the success that has often been assumed for the Welsh pupils who sought sage advice and potent gear from their Operation Harvest mentors. Cayo denies, in fact, that the IRA gave away its arms. He counters Cathal Goulding’s claim. Cayo told Clews that the arms were handled by an American firm, ARMCO, who acted as a go-between, so the IRA could modernise its arsenal. Evans explained that while FWA nodded longingly at the glossy brochures ARMCO proffered, the Welsh could not afford even second-hand stores of weaponry. FWA lacked the money available to the IRA. The Welsh fought a propaganda war more than an armed assault against the solid Crown.
Further contrasts can only be listed here, perhaps to goad readers towards their own lists. I suggest a few: the language issue, the self-improvement tradition, and rural literacy rates differed greatly between the two nations. Other distinctions include the Famine vs. massive industrialisation, a powerful Marxist appeal to Welsh proles vs. middle-class urban Irish nationalism, and the strength of trade unions & workmen's institutes vs. a Gaelic League & GAA ideology of local support. The language itself united many activists for further cohesion throughout a contiguous Welsh enclave, unlike the Gaeltachtaí with their comparative isolation from urban republican operations. The So Armagh vs. Limerick, Dublin vs. Six Counties, tensions that hastened the splits in leadership and tactics in the IRA may have been mirrored in the South vs. North Walian rivalries or those of Cardiff vs. Gwynedd, but the FWA took advantage of the cellular structure and anticipated the infiltration of a hierarchical command that would weaken the IRA a decade after the rise of the FWA and MAC and Patriotic Front.
One nation found itself overwhelmed with massive industrialization in the 19th century while the other encountered millions of its countrymen and women as dead, emigrants, or destitute. The Irish endured sectarian tensions, not a Nonconformist-inspired self-help system. The Welsh kept their culture and tongue alive in an austere but devout and intelligent set of guidelines to learn and live by, while the Irish found themselves victimised by clerical lordships and capitalist lords. Not to minimise the power employed by the capitalists over the Welsh, but many of them worked– albeit horrifically– rather than starved thanks to a dark, mined commodity that the Empire demanded more than praties. Finally, note a difference in diasporas that ensured American support for Fenians yet provided little ideological or financial continuity for Welsh militants-- who had no uprising in every generation to mark their past seven centuries under the rule of the Crown.
For too long, and my ProQuest search uncovered multiple repeats of this assertion, the only link most of us ever forge between the IRA and their Welsh counterparts remains that the Stickies dumped their arms on the hapless FWA, therefore leaving the OIRA helpless when the Troubles ignited in that tense summer. Weeks apart, in the North of Ireland and the North of Wales, July 1969 roused Celtic rebellion and British reaction. For the Welsh, major celebration and minority protest both occurred when Charles Windsor came– after a crash course in Welsh by a leftist tutor formerly hostile to him who was won over by the young man’s charm: a double dose of symbolism or irony-- to Caernarfon Castle to be invested as the Prince of Wales. I was still a child then, but I remember an early lesson in pan-Celtic rebellion. I heard the news of FWA counter-demonstrations with glee and their leaders’ sentencing on explosives charges – scheduled with exemplary discipline on the first of July– with sadness. Jenkins, who played the strategist and thinker to the more publicised FWA contingent with aplomb and intelligence (see his 'Prison Letters'), has not received the notoriety or folk-hero status of the more flamboyant Cayo, but any account of the lasting legacy of Welsh republicanism must take the actions of both men, as well as Lewis, ab Iestyn, and Coslett among others, into account. The press still appears to sensationalise the statements of activists in Cymru and Cornwall today, and perhaps the activists themselves play into this as a necessary method in generating attention for their cause.
By the way, Gethin ab Iestyn played a leading role in the Patriotic Front– a group of Plaid dissidents seeking political action– and FWA, as Clews narrates. Gethin's critiqued the 'Franco’s Bastard' send-up of colourful Cayo--as Carlo Lloyd Hughes-- on his blog 'Welsh Patriot'. Steve Dube reported May 6, 2002, in the Western Mail that at a Cardiff performance: On the opening night an old friend of Cayo Evans leapt onto the stage at the end of the performance to rebuke the writer and his play.
"Freedom of speech is one thing, but this is an abuse," Gethin ap Iestyn told the audience.
Ap Iestyn served a nine-month prison sentence alongside Cayo Evans in Cardiff after the high-profile Free Wales Army trial in 1969.
This issue of proper representation of the FWA-- who did have a welcome sense of humor and a keen sense of performance art often lacking in their more embattled IRA comrades-- appears in need of deeper investigation. You can even glimpse it in Dube’s attribution of the patronymic in the common 'ap' rather than the preferred form of 'ab' preceding the Cambrian form of this activist’s surname. A minor detail perhaps pedantic, but like the Ó vs. O’ before a Gaelic clan, a telling instance of Anglo-Saxon Attitudes. Gethin's first-hand testimony, amidst his related blogs, had proven for me a valuable resource. I'm intrigued by his PF association, and the tensions that split that Plaid ginger group from the party over the fact many younger Welsh in the 60s had grown up hating the mother language, and that this attitude differed from many in Ireland who imbibed the Christian Brothers form of nationalism along with an teanga.
The appeal to the English-speaker rather than a Celtic heartlander contrasts the Irish republican family tradition with a Welsh one that, as the thoughtful John Jenkins tells Clews, rarely thrived within such a domestic setting from one decade to the next. You can find much about the Welsh campaigns of the late ‘60s under Gethin’s blogs. For example, consult this entry, 31 Dec. 2007. Read his explanation of the influence of Irish radicalism on how he became a Welsh Nationalist of the socialist denomination here:
Yet others taunt, on the blogs or in the papers, the antics of a media-savvy, Fleet Street-baiting few provocateurs who goaded the British press into thinking that thousands of Cambrian patriots armed with German shepherds and IRA arms were out to overthrow the Principality and overwhelm the Prince at his investiture in 1969. While Mario Basini for the Western Mail and Meic Stephens for the (London) Independent produced thoughtful journalistic tributes, many other English reporters jeered in their obits at the band of merry men uniformed, posed with weaponry, and eager to tell tall tales to gaping journalists. Both the FWA and the press they baited appeared to thrive on the sport in an era that predated the worst of the Troubles, and the relative innocence of that period soon dissipated. The Crown jailed many Welsh activists under 'Operation Cricket', both among the more provocative FWA and the less publicised MAC.
In a jittery era when Jamie Oliver and Rick Stein (celebrity chefs who've moved into Cornwall) gain the ire of shadowy Kernow agitators from An Gof (renamed Cornish National Liberation Army), perhaps the whole pan-Celtic movement may, to jaded observers, take on the air of 'The Pirates of Penzance'. Or that scene every splinter-group ex-member memorises from 'Life of Brian'. But, reading Clews and skimming the dozens of accounts of continued resentment against relentless cultural and linguistic assault against the remaining Celtic homelands, I sympathised with what R.S. Thomas expressed above, among 'The Lost' in his eighty-second year. Justin Wintle and Byron Rogers’ biographies of this poet were my holiday reading, and my reactions vary about this contradictory if eloquent defender of Cymru and infuriatingly irascible character.
But, in my long effort studying all things Irish and my renewed inquiry into Welsh, in Mr. Alan Jones' ardent eloquence at the Independence Cymru blog (see my home blog page for link), in the efforts of honest people (as at The Blanket) I know in the diaspora and in those isles of the North Atlantic archipelago (to use that Council of the Isles phrase!), I also recognize a gentler spirit. Informed and articulate, neither New Age blather nor dryasdust philology, such idealism and activism partake of the wish that Thomas articulates for all of us.
Whether or not born into a Celtic-speaking home or homeland, we can learn from the example of a confederation who, in ancient times, considered its members not by DNA but by language. Not by complexion, but by culture. Politically, despite our capitalist hegemony, there's a counter-argument that often romanticizes a communal economy and decentralized identity. Many ridicule such a vision, but like monasteries and communes, there survives a notion of a more humane, less frenetic place together to live and learn. We long for a recovery that we yearn for almost illogically, atavistically, and still genetically-- the power of some ancient nature over our post-modern, usually urban, and anglophonic nurture.
Image from a review of the Porth play: "Remember Treweryn" daubed in Cymraeg. Alan Jones at "Independence Cymru" on 1 Feb. 2007, posted there that this wall's endangered. http://alanindyfed.blogspot.com/2008/02/campaign-to-save-wall-cofiwch-dryweryn.html Photo:http://www.bbc.co.uk/cymru/adloniant/theatr/adolygiadau/bro-porth.shtml
Monday, January 28, 2008
Joshua Cohen's Wrong Heaven: Forward interview excerpts.
Snipped and redacted from the January 18, 2007, "Forward," that paper's formidable critic's conversation with his friend Daniel Elkind printed as "The Wrong Heaven." I guess the logrolling's excused, when your buddy gets to ask you about your fourth novel of a very esoteric nature from a small press and then your employer prints the schmooze, but a forgivable fault in the cause of furthering our Republic of Letters. There's a philosophical depth inherent here as these two intellectuals chat which certainly does prove their lament about the absence of such arcane yet relevant ideas in most of our nation's current literature.
Compare Cohen's somber text to the mass-market Jane Smiley version (reviewed on my blog and on Amazon yesterday) of another discourse filtering through American eyes a vision of Middle Eastern war and death. Cohen, as I can gather from the tiny portion of "The Heaven of Others" on his website, evokes what feels translated from Central Europe-- a densely allusive stream of consciousness vs. Smiley's half-educated, half-blithering chatter. I guess same as it ever was for what sells.
And, I admit, without this elegant blurb in article form, how else would I have found out about such an eschatological exploration? Not where I found Smiley on my public library's new book shelf. That's the Jewish intelligentsia's predicament vs. the bestselling publisher. Yet, both Smiley and Cohen do the book tour, dutifully, emissaries to the curious hinterlands of American bookshops and campus towns, I suppose-- the last holdouts for the life of the mind. Smiley's, after all, a former professor, and in academia and literate bastions Cohen seeks the audience that will appreciate his demanding work. Same as it ever was?
[. . . .]
“A Heaven of Others,” Joshua Cohen’s fourth book of fiction, is an Israeli boy’s account of the wrong heaven — the Muslim heaven of his murderer, a young Palestinian suicide bomber. Mistakenly transported to an afterlife of oases, obliging virgins and ravenous serpents that dwell in valleys of nails, 10-year-old Jonathan Schwarzstein narrates his attempted pilgrimage to the heaven of his own people, even while leading the reader through memories of his life on earth, with “Aba” and “the Queen” in their home on Tchernichovsky Street, Jerusalem. Full of holiness and profanity, “A Heaven of Others” (Starcherone Books, $16) is a story of an individual in the modern world, and beyond — a victim both trapped and free in his eternal victimhood. In Brooklyn, I [Elkind]spoke to Cohen about Israel, America and the complications of life and literature.
Dan Elkind: “A Heaven of Others” is a book about life, the afterlife, and the spiritual identity or soul that mediates between. Your idea of Jonathan maturing even after his murder — “maturing to infinity,” as you put it, and so becoming in heaven a person whose wisdom and insight have soared beyond anything earthly — seems to entail an entire philosophy. Even in heaven he is an individual, beyond what you’ve called, elsewhere, “the consolation of cult.” How easy is it to break free of that “consolation” today, and how do you think such cultural elopements are viewed by mainstream society?
Joshua Cohen: Blown up in a suicide bombing, Jonathan transcends Judaism with relative ease: He dies. Those who attempt to reposition themselves with regard to the religious or political identity they’re born into, and to do so without being killed, have it more difficult. Martyrdom is reductive; the daily exigencies are far more complex.
Children of Jonathan’s age, especially boys, are always told: “Just wait until you’re grown,” “You’ll mature.” As if humanity might age to a biological wisdom, or soundness of judgment — the “mainstream,” you’ve called it, which doesn’t exist. The section entitled “Maturing to Infinity” posits such a process, but infinitely, eternally: “In heaven maturation is unending. Maturation is ripening not to rot but to riper.” On one rung of the ladder, we’ll shed our prejudices; on another, religion. This cosmology is ridiculous, of course. But it does suggest that religion has an element of childishness to it. God will always be a negligent parent.
D.E.: As an American Jew, it must have taken some time to convince yourself that you’re qualified to write about Israeli culture in the era of terrorism, that you can follow an Israeli boy to the Muslim heaven and beyond. Given the irreverence of your literary imagination, how do you think Israelis will receive this book? What does your American perspective consist of?
J.C.: What qualified me to write about Israel was that I wanted to; it took no time to convince myself. The only reservation I had was about heaven: I wanted to write about the Jewish heaven, but did not feel qualified because I did not and do not believe in “it,” though I should. Swedenborg mapped the Christian heaven. The Muslim heaven features prominently in the Quran, Arabic poetries and Hadith. The Jewish heaven, though, is still a mystery; it’s mystic. Jews believe in olam haba — literally, “the world to come,” which is, accurately, this world if and when messianically perfected, and not “the next world,” or any other world, for that matter, past or future.
How did I reconcile myself? I found, strangely, I had no reservations writing about the Jewish heaven under the guise of a Muslim heaven — in the mirror of “A Heaven of Others.” As for how Israelis will receive this book, I don’t know, as there hasn’t yet been a translation. My American perspective, as you put it, consists of being indulged in my irreverence, only and entirely.
[. . . .]
D.E.: Your taste is especially influenced by European literature, though the heart of your expressiveness is American — I mean improvisatory, inclusive, unpretentious. Why do you think American literature has become so isolated from the rest of the world, so self-reflexive, to the point of developing almost its own arbitrary rules of what can and can’t be done on the blank page? Why do you think it avoids big ideas and themes in favor of the mundane? Why this detachment and half-adherence to stories of quotidian experience?
J.C.: The answer is Karl Marx’s. Money, which has become everyone’s jealous God. We oversell and we underestimate. If we were as insipid as most of the television programming, movies and books made by us and for us, we would be dead. Our civilization would cease to exist.
American literature isn’t the worst of all possible literatures, though. Most literature everywhere and of every time is bad. This is a dangerous reality — especially for someone who makes his living as a book critic, and so sometimes has to praise or damn disproportionately, or against the standard, if only to keep working and sane.
D.E.: “A Heaven of Others” is your fourth book of fiction. How do you see it in relation to your other books?
J.C.: They’re all the same book, essentially: the book before the book — in the style of the Quran, which was said to have been written in heaven in its entirety, before being given down to Muhammad…. [. . . .] It took three years to find a publisher for “A Heaven of Others.” One agent wanted no virgins. Another agent wanted the boy to be rewritten as, to quote from his e-mail, “a handsome young Israeli army commander.” One prospective publisher said if I depicted Muhammad, I’d be killed in a suicide bombing myself. I don’t think any book of mine will ever come as close to pure fantasy as “A Heaven of Others.” I’ll never again set a book in a world, or after-world, in which it’s impossible to buy a cup of coffee, or take an undisturbed afternoon nap.
D.E.: You’ve been at work on a novel about the last Jew on earth. How do you view Jews, especially American Jews, in the world today, and the state of American-Jewish literature?
J.C.: “Graven Imaginings” is a novel about the last Jew on earth. The last Jew in the universe. From New Jersey, America…“Joysey.” Call him Benjamin Israelien. The last Jew on earth will have a portentous name; he is overweight, and was born with a beard and wearing glasses. What else is there to say? Israel is the moon to me, and Europe a cemetery more impressive than even the fair, and fairwaylike, wilds of Union County, off the Garden State Parkway.
That the ideal of an autonomous Jewish literature in America is itself kitsch doesn’t mean its perceived paragons — its individual novels, and stories — have to be, too. It’s not that all of the chances have already been taken, it’s that all the safely remunerative chances have; and the rest, far from being commentary, might be more dangerous and destructive than our writers can or would want to attempt.
Image: book cover from author's home page; Michael Hafftka's powerful illustrations and a brief excerpt from the novel can be viewed here: www.joshuacohen.org/home
Sunday, January 27, 2008
Jane Smiley's "Ten Days in the Hills" Book Review
I agree with early reviews (Feb. and Mar. 2007) posted [on Amazon US] by "One Man's View" and Lynn Harnett and Ellie Reasoner which summarized the plot and the book's highs and lows. My wife, who works in Hollywood at a far less elevated status occupationally, financially, and geographically than the denizens of the pleasure palace who amble and couple in sight of the Getty Museum, admired Smiley's ability to convey how films emerge in a director's mind. Certainly, the liveliest part of this often stultifying narrative emerges when Max and the Russian producers discuss how Taras Bulba could be remade for contemporary relevance without losing its period flavor. When I read Smiley's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel," (see my Amazon review Feb. 25, 2006, hardcover) the one book she inspired me to find was-- Gogol's "Taras Bulba." This "epic novella" (!) as filtered through the imaginations of the film devotees here displays well the power of the image and the word and how the two combine on screen.
However, the rest of this novel, like certain movies, appears to sluggishly move as if in real time. The conversations prove often interminable and unmemorable. And, what's with Zoe and Simon? This episode remained unresolved and puzzlingly off-stage. Now, my wife wondered if this unevenness reflected Smiley's own subtle depiction of the banality of these limousine liberals. (I note the exception of Charlie as the designated mouthpiece for the war, although not even Smiley appears to bother with creating sympathy for her straw man stuffed only for rhetorical purposes-- and he's trundled in from ghastly New Jersey.)
The stories do at times appear engaging for a page or two, but as they lack the organized ritual that united the tellers of Boccaccio's Decameron, they drift about often aimlessly and on the fringes-- there's really no plot other than whether or not Max will agree to make "Taras." The retreat to the hills to flee the start of the second Iraqi war appears flimsy. It's not as if the bombs are dropping on L.A. There's no plague or zombies to cause these privileged sycophants to hole up in first Max's manse and then the Russian mansion.
Smiley could have created a better novel out of this material. If she had focused on "Taras" vs. "My Lovemaking with Elena" as competing projects and moved the characters earlier (rather than 2/3 of the way through) into the hilltop Xanadu, she could have used the potential of the lavish rooms and the curious staff there to enrich the mystery represented by Mike, not to mention the offstage Avram Ben Cohen-- whose name hints at spiritual symbolism abandoned, as does guru Paul's quest.
The most gracefully handled parts of the novel come very late, probably for many readers who will never make it that far. Elena's thoughts of kisses, the relationship between Isabel and Stoney (the best character for he's recognizably rounded whereas some like Cassie, Delphine, and Simon appear stock figures), and especially the underplayed denouement between Paul and Zoe manage to convince you that these are-- finally-- characters that resemble people we could relate to, even if they got on our nerves. The problem is Smiley appears delighted by her imagination.
When Arianna Huffington's thanked in Smiley's acknowledgements, and when Smiley notes there the value of endless hours of director's commentaries on DVD's, this does betray the author's own leisured status. Blame for the noblesse oblige tone may also be attributed to Smiley's own detachment in her Carmel Valley ranch from the little people who never get to stay with limousine liberals in the Palisades or Bel-Air. This is not an "ad feminam" fallacy. Smiley, by including such nods, shows that she's part of the system rather than its critic. There's nobody present among this novel's chosen few from the "below the line" folks who toil making movies. Or, the average folks who watch them. Tellingly, this omission's rarely admitted by anyone in these 450 densely printed yet generally blithering pages. I realize that Smiley wishes to keep us in the sunny heights rather than in the smoggy flats of L.A., but we tire of her characters who rapidly wear out their welcome.
This novel appears never to have been edited, and rambles on at least half as long as it should. Dishes served, movies viewed, relationships recounted, sex detailed: the minutiae of daily life plod on relentlessly but too rarely artistically. The author's supposed to pare down and refine the plot; this novel reads more like taped transcripts.
Politically correct UCSC undergrad Isabel does make one remark I can agree with: It's easy to believe in universal love when you live in Santa Cruz and own a sailboat. This blinkered perspective appears to have limited both Smiley and her characters. This novel serves as an blithe testament to the intermittent beauty of sex, film, and narrative. But it also channels the astonishing vapidity of the minds and bodies of the affluent who preach to the rest of the world their sanctimonious attitudes. The fact that I may agree with much of what Smiley's humanism represents does not blind me to the failure of her fictional representation of these morals in an artistically sustained delivery.
(Posted to Amazon US today. The novel has received generally harsh reviews by the 44 previous critics. Many readers of Smiley's earlier novels expressed disappointment.)
Can a computer translate Welsh?
Inspired by my comparison of Patrick Ford and Sioned Davies' Mabinogion translations of an excerpt from "Pwyll" yesterday, here's the InterTran on-line Welsh-to-English rendering. I admit that it worked all right when I tested a short phrase in Latin and in Spanish, for comparison. No Irish or Old English machinery to date! What do you think of the results? Perhaps the medieval text overwhelms the software in the same way Gawain or Chaucer might. (I found out today that Pwyll's also on Wikipedia as "an icy crater of Europa," Jupiter's moon. And that by googling images for Mabinogi, there's catalogued an immense number of Japanese cutesy anime.)
"Meuyl im," heb hi, "yr blwydyn y neithwyr o'r pan elem yn nyblyc yn dillat guely, na digrifwch, nac ymdidan, nac ymchwelut ohonot dy wyneb attaf i — yn chwaethach a uei uwy no hynny o'r bu y rom ni."
Ac yna y medylywys ef, "Oy a Arglwyd Duw," heb ef, "cadarn a ungwr y gydymdeithas, a diffleeis, a geueis i yn gedymdeith." Ac yna y dywot ef wrth y wreic:
"Arglwydes," heb ef, "na chapla di uiui. Y rof i a Duw," heb ynteu, "ni chyskeis inheu gyt a thi, yr blwydyn y neithwyr, ac ni orwedeis."
Ac yna menegi y holl gyfranc a wnaeth idi.
"I Duw y dygaf uy nghyffes," heb hitheu, "gauael gadarn a geueist ar gedymdeith yn herwyd ymlad a frouedigaeth y gorff, a chadw kywirdeb wrthyt titheu."
"Arglwydes," heb ef, "sef ar y medwl hwnnw yd oedwn inheu, tra deweis wrthyt ti."
"Diryued oed hynny," heb hitheu.
Meuyl to , " without she , " he drives years the will become a member he ' group when we were to go crookedly tracts crookedly mselves guely , I do mirth , nor ymdidan , nor thal from he covers face attaf I — crookedly much less I go uei uwy no that he ' group he was the rom we." And there the medylywys he Oy I go dj. & adv.) God , " without he , " strong I go ungwr the gydymdeithas , I go diffleeis , I go geueis I crookedly gedymdeith." And there the d we earnested he by the advance : " dj. & adv.) , " without he , " I do neel di uiui. The I give I I go God , " without or , " we chyskeis inheu gyt I go thi , he drives years the will become a member , and we esorts." And there s glancing the all meeting I go he did idi. " I God the I steal uy confession , " without her digress gauael strong I go geueist signs gedymdeith crookedly one scouted.) I go frouedigaeth the body , I go keep kywirdeb by titheu." " dj. & adv.) , " without he , " namely signs the g that yd we delay inheu , while I was silent by you." " to age that , " without her digress.
Image-- I suppose it's not of Pwyll but Annywn-- from a beautiful webpage (unfortunately for me in German), where there's a titular alteration to "Pwyll Häuptling von Annwvyn" for the First Branch rather than Ford's "Pwyll, prince of Dyfed." The art's from a sumptuous Bibliothek Nemeton series by Alexander A. Gronau. www.bibliotheknemeton.de/Info-Mabinogi.html
Saturday, January 26, 2008
Mabinogion: Sioned Davies & Patrick Ford's translations: Book Review
Patrick Ford's standard version of the Mabinogi has been out for three decades now. In fact, it'll be reissued this March by U. of California Press. I wish I had been able to study with him at UCLA as a grad student, but pressures of having Old & Middle English and Latin to master along with the required array of seminars and courses outside my medieval emphasis already constituted a heavy burden. Harvard spirited him off anyway, the middle of my arduous slog to a Bruin Ph.D. Old Irish and Middle Welsh, it appeared, would have to wait as luxuries neither my schedule, my research, nor my endless grind of teaching frosh comp could accomodate. But, in either my mid-life crisis or my maniacal prime, I try to learn more about both Irish and Welsh in their venerable cultural guises and contemporary linguistic fashions.
My question today: How does this handsomely bound new rendering by Sioned Davies, Chair in Welsh at Cardiff, compare with Professor Ford's? Will his "30th Anniversary" U. of California paperback reissue of his widely praised and often chosen standard version find itself in a dead heat with Davies in this elegant Oxford U.P. edition? The race may prove a photo finish!
I compared their translations of a favorite passage of mine early on in the First Branch, Pwyll's tale. Arawn's just been reunited with his queen after the year's test by unwitting yet steadfast doppelganger Pwyll. She wonders, post-coitally after a long year's lapse, why it's been so long since her husband made love with her.
Here's Ford (1977 ed., p. 41) first at bat.
"Shame on me," she said, "if from the time we went between the sheets there was even pleasure or talk between us or even your facing me-- much less anything more than that-- for the past year!"
And he thought, "Dear Lord God, it was a unique man, with strong and unwavering friendship that I got for a companion." And then he said to his wife, "Lady," he said, "don't blame me. I swear to God," he said, "I haven't slept with you since a year from last night nor have I lain with you."
And he told her the entire adventure.
"I confess to God," she said, "as far as fighting temptations of the flesh and keeping true to you goes, you had a solid hold on a fellow."
"Lady," he said, "that's just what I was thinking while I was silent with you."
"That was only natural," she answered.
--You can feel the hesitant insertion of the teller's dramatic pauses implied with the "saids." These intensify rhythms of the poet's strong, confident prose. A few contractions and the well-placed dashes quicken the dialogue's pace. The language avoids the flowery exactitude and chivalric diction that marked Gwyn and Thomas Jones' 1949 Everyman edition. But, neither does Ford choose an entirely modern register. He keeps a slightly elevated style while emphasizing verve and a gently sophisticated voice for the couple.
--Compare and contrast Davies (2008 ed., p. 7). As in other pages I spot-checked, the two professors run neck and neck and overlap considerably-- a sign of how both scholars channel what Ford calls the "restraint" in this passage as well as its humor and tension.
"Shame on me," she said, "if there has been between us for the past year, from the time we were wrapped up in the bedclothes, either pleasure or conversation, or have you turned your face to me, let alone anything more than that!"
And then he thought, "Dear Lord God," he said, "I had a friend whose loyalty was steadfast and secure." And then he said to his wife, "Lady," he said, "do not blame me. Between me and God," he said, "I have neither slept nor lain down with you for the past year."
And then he told her the whole story.
"I confess to God," she said, "you struck a firm bargain for your friend to have fought off the temptations of the flesh and kept his word to you."
"Lady," he said, "those were my very thoughts while I was silent just now."
"No wonder!" she said.
--Davies in her preface emphasizes the "performative" qualities in her edition. In this passage, she appears to let the lines go longer rather than reining them in to English syntax. They drift away slightly before coming back to us. Perhaps this echo demonstrates Davies' own scholarship in the medieval Welsh interplay between orality and literacy. The author of two books on the Mabinogi, she stresses the "interactive" nature of the manuscript to be read aloud for the "acoustic dimension" embedded in the Welsh texts and through alliteration, tone, and beat, she tries to give us a feel for this tempo, albeit imperfectly conveyed perforce into our clunkier English.
--Both Davies and Ford include the four branches: Pwyll, Branwen, Manawydan, and Math. Both include Lludd & Llueyls. But, reflecting textual differences in the original manuscript anthologies, they also differ. Ford's tales attributed to Gwion Bach & Taliesin, Culhwch & Olwen, and his appendix on Cad Goddeu do not appear in Davies. She provides Peredur, The Dream of the Emperor Maxen, The Lady of the Well, Geraint, and Rhonawby's Dream.
--Both editors explain their textual choices and open with prefaces. They both add glossaries, pronunciation guides, and bibliographies. Ford situates the tales in Indo-European contexts and Davies delves into their delivery as recited stories. Ford begins each tale with a short introduction; Davies adds explanatory notes in a detailed appendix, keyed to asterisks in the body of the text. Davies keys her "Index of Personal Names" to pages in the text while Ford does not. For study and teaching, it looks like the competition may result in a dignified and spirited draw. Most serious readers doubtless will want to consult, as I have, both fine efforts side-by-side.
(This review's, fittingly,-- sans the personal lament-- at both the Ford [1977 ed. as the 30th Anniversary one has not come out yet-- as of 2008!] and Davies listings on Amazon US. May both translations flourish.)
Image: Y Lolfa's graphic novel version in Welsh by Gwyn Thomas, illustrated by Margaret Jones. http://www.ylolfa.com/dangos.php?ISBN=0862438993
This cover reminds me of the Cló Mhaigh Eo tetralogy of colorfully depicted Irish tales from Colmán Ó Rathallaigh that I've commented upon earlier on my blog regarding his "Táin." Jones' elongated style recalls the hieroglyphic-Amerindian draftsmanship of the Cló series.
Friday, January 25, 2008
Smaointe faoi ag foghlaim Breatnais (as Gaeilge!)
Scríobh mé chuici G.R. Grove ar a bhlog Tre Gwernin faoi ag foghlaim Breatnais areir. Chuir sí orm cúpla focal a rá. Fhreagairt sí go gasta. D'imir cleachtadh intinn aici ag cruinniú briathra agus frásaí nuair bhí sí ag thiomanteáin thríd Deanvír. Is ionadh liom go bhfuil tig léi shileadh na teanga go dúshlánach agus ábalta sí tabhairt aithne uirthi an bóthar ar am céanna!
D'inis GRG scéala ar feadh meanaois go luath leis na cogadhái catharthaí Sacsanaigh agus Ceiltigh eatarthu. Chríochnaigh "Gwernin" dha leabhar le seanchas go An Bhreatain Bheag san ama atá i láthair. Thosaigh siad san am fadó. Níl fhios agam ma léighfeadh sí stair na "Porius" le John Cowper Powys fós.
Dúirt sí go raibh é a chreideamh go "Welsh in Three Months" le Phylip Brake agus Mair ap Myrddin (DK/ Hugo, 1999) go mbeadh ceannach ceart dom. D'imigh sí go Cymdeithas Madog a tógail a cumhacht as Breatnaise; is maith léi go hiontach. Ba mhaith liomsa féin ag dul ansuid lá éigin nuair deánfaidh mé airgead go leor agus gheobhaidh mé leathanta saoire. Tá dúil agam ag cloisteáil an teanga na Bhreatain Bheag Theas, mar sin chuala mé Breatnais ansin an am chead-- agus am amháin, freisin!
Níl foclóir dha teanga agam ag scríobh seo inniu. Tá ghéarrfoclóir agam mise amháin Ghaeilge-Béarla. Is mian liom ag obair tuilleadh inchinn Éireannach agam! Bhain aimsir dom go lag anseo. Bhí sé ag scriófa uair agus ceathracha noimead. Caithfidh mé ag dul ag muintir ar lar anois.
Thoughts on learning Welsh (in Irish!--somewhat of a literal translation)
I wrote G.R. Grove last night at the "Tre Gwernin" blog about learning Welsh. She sent me a few words in reply. She answered quickly! She was playing around mentally with gathering words and phrases while she was driving through Denver. I was surprised that she had the ability to think in a challenging language and to keep her knowledge of the road at the same time.
GRG tells stories during the early Middle Ages concerning the ancient battles between Saxons and Celts. She has finished two books on the old Welsh tales at present. They began long ago. I don't know if she has read the novel "Porius" by John Cowper Powys yet.
She told me that she believed that "Welsh in Three Months" by Phylip Brake and Mair ap Myrddin (DK/ Hugo, 1999) would be a correct choice for me. She went off to Cymdeithas Madog to build up his command of Welsh; she likes it wonderfully. I would like to go there some day when I will make more money and I will get a vacation. I desire to hear the tongue of South Wales, since I heard Welsh first there-- and the only time, so far!
I don't have a bilingual dictionary to write this today. I have an condensed Irish-to-English dictionary only. I need to work more my "Irish" brain! The time went away slowly here. I was writing an hour and forty minutes. I must now go downtown to teach.
Image/ griangraf: www.fletchersaga.net/LWCAD1.html
Thursday, January 24, 2008
Gwyn Williams' "An Introduction to Welsh Literature" Book Review
This primer efficiently sets out what the title promises. The chapters all are brief, the narrative flows quickly, and while the samples of prose are non-existent and the poetry far too rarely's cited, this gives you an overall view you can read in a couple of hours. I had studied Williams' 1978 history of Wales, "The Land Remembers" (also reviewed by me), and his skill in rendering medieval Welsh in its fabled intricacy impressed me; he followed that book up with a longer study of Welsh identity over the ages, "When Was Wales?"
Compared to those books, this literary survey sometimes provides little more than a guidebook-style quick mention of authors and works undoubtably deserving-- as on any itinerary-- a visit of your own. A short bibliography's provided for more reading in both languages. While at times resembling more a binding of a distinguished critic's lecture notes, this may suit those readers not wanting to be overwhelmed by the two-dozen metrical styles of the bards or the details of Methodism vis-a-vis Romanticism. Political and religious issues keep in the background, although I do note three times a noble medieval poet's acclaimed with the proviso that as an aristocrat, "he was free to write as he wished." It made me wonder about the versifiers less elevated: were they censored or suppressed? Maybe only the monkish scribes knew for sure.
P.S. A reminder that this volume in the Writers in Wales series deals with only those who created Welsh-language texts. It goes from the beginnings to now, by the way, if in a rapid-fire fashion once you leave the Middle Ages behind. For a comparatively concise study of Anglo-Welsh Literature, see Roland Mathias' illustrated history. I reviewed Williams' 124 pp. 1976 edition, but the contents probably have not changed much compared with the 1992 paperback listed here.
(That's my eight-hundredth review on Amazon US, posted yesterday.)
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
"A White Afternoon: New Welsh Short Fiction" Book Review
Meic Stephens, by whom I am heartened reading in the acknowledgements that he learned Welsh as an adult, edited (sparingly-- brief notes on each of the thirty-four Welsh-language contributors) and translated these stories. (He also edited the standard reference "A New Companion to the Literature of Wales.") All are by authors who in 1998 were under the age of fifty. Now, given that perhaps half a million know Welsh and few of them can make a living as full-time authors, are these disparate tales comparable in quality to those winnowed from, say, small-press magazines and literary journals in America or Britain of their counterparts working in English?
Without Stephens' facility in both languages, I hesitate to pass judgement on these varied stories he's chosen to give us in English. Yet, overall the mood strikes me as melancholy rather than celebratory. The stories begin with the title entry by Sonia Edwards, and this elegicially captures a young girl watching her mother don a wedding dress as her mother prepares for a second marriage, to a man not the girl's father. This effectively conveys the mixed emotions inherent in this fresh perspective of what would otherwise be a too-familiar setting.
The selections progress through evocations, often about faltering if not failed relationships, into depictions of madness and mental instability. Many of these appeared awkward, perhaps reflecting their subject matter, and less compelling. I'll mention the stories that stood out most to me. "Mothers" from Meleri Roberts depicts the triptych of new babies as seen by a maternity ward nurse simply portrayed for better control; Dyfed Edwards tilts the mundane world of and for "The Librarian" into a muted gothic narrative. Eirug Wyn's "The Window Maker" reminds me of a Kafkaesque parable. "Reflections by a Pool" from Dafydd Arthur Jones takes the post-modern conceit of an author's creations turning on him in revenge or revolt and manages to keep the idea vivid enough. Many of the stories, however, falter near their conclusions, and the strain many of them show in their characters' own impotence permeates their themes and constructions.
John Emyr's "By the Waters of Babylon" casts a subtly apocalyptic tinge over its beachside party with its recalcitrant Welsh exile among German expats. Lowri Angharad Rees' "The Coat" and Meg Ellis' "Going In" tell their accounts of inequality and struggle with a social justice flavor that enhances their perspectives. "The Pizza Man" by Owain Meredith, and "Mr and Mrs Tiresias" by Sian Prydderch Huws ambitiously strive to combine an off-beat sensibility and touches of satire that make their telling notably different than the more dour scenes of most of their compatriots.
This funhouse distortion contrasts with two stories that adapt the folktale mode into stories with dialogue and tonal shifts that appear contemporary despite the magical qualities of the events and diction employed: "The Heart of Dafydd Bach" by Esyllt Nest Roberts and "The Cuckoo's Time is April and May" by Robin Llewelyn. These types of stories, with their more exaggerated qualities, may resist easy comprehension into English: I felt much more resonance veiled through the Welsh originals that must have dramatically energized the allusions and deepened the prose.
The translator chose a low profile and his decision not to editorialize beyond four paragraphs on the final page of this anthology shows his determination to let the stories speak loudest. Stephens manages with general success to let the divergent voices of thirty-four authors emerge, and this range alone deserves acclaim. The choices he's made, on the other hand, show the perhaps inevitable strengths and weaknesses of showcasing efforts of widely divergent ideas and craftsmanship among many emerging authors in what's a lesser-known language needing translation.
(Posted to Amazon US today.)
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
Michel Faber's "The Courage Consort" Book Review
What I admire about Faber: a refusal to live up to our expectations. In his novels "Under the Skin," which perhaps took on a bit more than it could handle but featured masterfully drawn scenes in the Highlands between the victims and their mysterious killer, and "The Crimson Petal & The White," the subsequent contemporary homage to the Victorian "triple decker" which proved worthy of its twenty years of preparation (I hear a sequel's a-borning), Faber combined a love for the fabulations he created and a seriousness about what he expected from his readers as to committment towards the half-familiar, half-alien sensibilities he explores.
By the way, this novella collection, which I read after the shorter stories compiled recently and issued in the US as "Vanilla Bright Like Eminem" (reviewed by me), in its British version had featured as its title piece the shortest novella in "The Courage Consort," "The Fahrenheit Twins." Rather confusing, so I figured I'd clear it up for any transatlantic followers or readers of the fine print on the copyright acknowledgements of Faber's works.
Previous readers on [the Amazon US] site have summarized the stories themselves, and fairly discussed their strengths or weaknesses. I agree, but when reading them, the ambiguities that later perplex me earlier have entertained me. That is, Faber-- so a blurb from The Scotsman notes on the inside flap-- "is fiercely inventive, his plotting wholly unpredictable, but he pulls no tricks." True, but whether readers will be pleased by Faber's skillfully disguised (at least before the conclusion) tendency to leave ends loosened rather than neatly tied up at a story's end may show whether one wants in fiction the messy versimilitude of "real life" along with the metaphors, digressions, symbolism, and characterization of any literary text. The stories do not end when you expect, nor do the characters meet the ends you expected.
"The Courage Consort" stayed with me akin to watching a multi-layered arthouse film. It did not satisfy all my questions, but in leaving them vague, the resonance somehow echoed the musical and sonic textures of the story itself. There were, unlike most popular narratives on screen or in print, many suggestions left unanswered. The cumulative flow of Faber's prose stands out; while individual sentences may not show off their precision, their total effect works to set mood and delve into motive well. The characters all turn recognizably familiar while remaining "types" as in an allegory. The omniscient voice tends to drift in and out of a main figure, and again this may frustrate readers wanting easier explanations. This story may be more to the taste of readers who have read other stories by Faber.
Similarly, "The Hundred and Ninety Nine Steps" sets up with its Whitby setting, Dracula references, Gothic and murder and monastic settings all sorts of intricacies, perhaps intentionally left all about at the end of the story half-connected, perhaps since Faber wished to simply conclude rather than tie up the loose ends tediously. I liked the clash of Siân's medievalism with Mack's yuppie motives, but their exchanges appeared too mannered, and not only on her side as would be expected. The dog turned out to be my favorite of the trio! The mood of the historic seaport works well, but quirks remain-- why the Welsh name of the protagonist? Why is her surname a secret? What's the point of her mid-career curatorial switch? This story would appeal most to readers who liked "Crimson."
I wasn't as taken by the Fahrenheit twins; their arch names and the kitschy nature of her fairytale parents and their Siberian second home appeared to lack the grounding in reality that the previous two stories had established. This does show Faber's range and his imagination, but the story's dialogue and the narrator's coy tone served as barriers between my understanding of as opposed to my enjoyment of this story. It's ambitious in the way many of his stories are in "Vanilla," and this story as a fable proves uneven, if perhaps a good choice for readers of "Vanilla" or "Under the Skin."
Faber remains a favorite writer of mine for his ideas, his refusal to find the easy way out of his fictional labyrinths, and his intelligence. He may not follow the lead of so many genre writers who never give you a detail or a character that they cannot account for later. The prodigality of Faber's invention may make him a figure admired by a few rather than many, but he seems to have found his style and may it serve him and us well for many more decades of quality fiction on whatever he sees fit to make into his next novel or story.
(Posted to Amazon US today.)
Monday, January 21, 2008
Blogoír gaelach i mBÁC/ Dublin blogger in Irish
Tá blogoír gaeilgeoir ó Mullach Íde in aice leis i mBaile átha Cliath go raibh ag faighte areir nuair bhí mé ag léite lascannaí ar an "Expulsion of the Blatant Beast" le Bo ó Oxford (feic ar dheis anseo). Is mac leinn Scott ar An Cólaiste Ollscoile. Tá sé ag foghlaim Ghaeilge agus Bhreatnais chuige chéim a fháil cúrsa staidéir an Léann Ceilteach. Is céad bhlog air faoi a dhomhan féin as Béarla. Is an dara ceann go bhfuil ag plé a trachtaí féin mar fear aerach as Gaeilge. Is an triú ceann go bhfuil ag tabhairt danta aigesean dóibh as Gaeilge.
There's an Irish-speaking blogger from Malahide, near Dublin, who I found last night when I was reading links on "The Expulsion of the Blatant Beast" by Bo of Oxford (see at right here). Scott's a student at University College. He's learning Irish and Welsh towards getting a degree through a course in Celtic Studies. His first blog's about his own world through English. The second one's discussing his commentaries as a gay man-- in the Irish language. The third one's giving us his very own poetry in Gaelic.
1) "Scott's Blog...in English": "An English-language insight into a young Irish speaker's world" http://scottdebuitleir-en.blogspot.com/
2) "Dialann Pearsanta Poiblí": "Trachtaí go fear óg aerach i mBléa Cliath" http://dialannscott.blogspot.com/
3) "Nua-fhiliocht Ghaeilge": "Danta de chuid Scott de Buitléir" http://filiocht-nua.blogspot.com/
Image/ Grianghraf: Mullach Íde/ Malahide uaidh "Dialann."
Sunday, January 20, 2008
Cilmeri & Llewelyn the Last's death
Mr. Alan Jones, whose comprehensive blog "Independence Cymru" I have included in last month's post "Googling Welsh Nationalism," serves as an informative source for pan-Celtic political and cultural concerns from his West Walian perspective. I've linked to it on the right side of my blog. He's a Plaid Cymru activist and a prolific commentator on Welsh independence and federalist possibilities, which among the Irish republicans have gained fewer cross-channel comparisons than they deserve.
He kindly updated my limited knowledge of Llewelyn the Last's death that I discussed in the past few days: By the way, Prince Llywelyn did not die in the battle at Cilmeri - he was lured into a trap and murdered. In December I attended the Remembrance there.
This made me curious, so I looked up more. I know that as Wolfe Tone's grave at Bodenstown is to Irish Republicans, so is Cilmeri to Welsh patriots. Imagine, moreover, that five centuries had already passed before the Year of the French, 1798, appeared with ironically a false hope for the French eager to aid the Celtic rebels to overthrow the British, the forces who landed ignominiously at Fishguard/ Abergaun as well as those who managed early victories at Killala and Castlebar.
Sharon Penman and Edith Pargeter have both produced series of historical novels based on the events around Llewelyn the Last and his family. Here's the facts best as we can figure them out over seven centuries later. Dafydd III did not die, I learned, until the following June of 1283. His brother, Llewelyn, on 11 December previous had been separated from his troops. Two accounts of his death clash. The Cilmeri website appears to favor the latter, and the former may be based on a story from the Scots battle of Stirling. Both support Mr. Jones' explanation that technically the prince did not die in battle. Either Llewelyn was killed single-handedly by a lancer while attempting to rejoin his army after hearing the sound as the battle started, or he was betrayed by a false promise of homage from knights; along with eighteen retainers the prince was harried into the woods. There Llewelyn was ambushed at dusk. He asked for a priest, revealed his identity, and was killed. Decapitated, his head met the public desecration that I discussed on this blog last week. His body may have rested with more dignity among the Cistercians at Abbey Cwm Hir.
Cilmeri lies in Breconshire in the southern third of Powys, near the center of Wales. You can find out about the commemorations (last held on 8 and 9 December, 2007) and read the medieval chronicles about the life and death of Llewelyn at
The image is of the cairn at Cefn-y-bedd memorializing he who the Cilmeri website explains as bearing the name of "Llywelyn ap Gruffudd ap Llywelyn ab Iorwerth. This Llywelyn is known as Llywelyn ein Llyw Olaf - Our Last Defender, or Llywelyn III rd."
Saturday, January 19, 2008
Tre Gwernin: "Medieval Welsh storytelling for the modern age"
G. R. Grove corrected my post yesterday on D. J. Williams which segued into Welsh princes that I erred in Llewelyn the Last's death; I realize that I erred when I consulted Peter Sager's "Pallas Wales." On the same page Sager had discussed the Statute of Rhuddlan in 1284. But, the true prince of Wales died at the end of 1282, and Dafydd III soon after in what must have been a cruel winter.
(Note the footnote below for a serendipitous tie between Llewelyn and today's blog illustration.)
I googled my blog's URL today, curious, to see a mention for Tre Gwernin-- which in my infant Cymraeg means the likes of House of Gwernin-- who's the protagonist of GRG's tales. And, investigating the link, who do I find but the same G. R. Grove? Denver-based, author of two books-- information at the website, of course-- and an "amateur historian," I happily note.
The site, in addition to Grove's own work, contains reading lists and scholarly archives on not only Welsh but a few Scottish and even an Anglo-Saxon word-hoard. The SCA also earns its own signposts. Society for Creative Anachronism for those non-medievalists in the crowd. I told my wife that she should follow the lead of a blogger whom GRG may already know well, Welsh- and Irish-speaking Oxford don-in-training and new Ph.D. Bo over at "The Expvlsion of the Blatant Beast." It's a featured link from my blog home page. Bo through Google Analytics traced readership of his Blogspot. Not sure if I can repeat his feat; he composed a poem in Sindarin, after all.
Neither of us at CasaMurphy can boast the reach of our more academic, prolific, or erudite bardic colleagues. Our conjugal aspirations at present about Welsh matters total the desire to craft a choice rejoinder for my wife to repel the fierce commands of her stereotypical gym coach, daughter of Cardiff bakers, moonlighting in L.A. as P.E. coach. But I do share the delight of such as Bo and GRG in spreading so much knowledge and lore about Celtic, medieval, and/or medievalist pursuits. Proof that the life of the mind and the nourishment of the spirit can persist outside the shelves of ye olde New Age magick shoppes, tenured lairs of theorists, and those nutcases you hope don't sit next to you on the bus.
I want to mention another couple who have added much not only on the Web but to our world. They too are linked at the right on my blog homepage. The Blanket has been revived for a periodical if no longer bi-monthly shaking out, and now its co-editor has "The Pensive Quill" for his own musings on issues related to a different Celtic domain, that of the Virtual Republic amidst the partially realized Irish entity.
GRG's a generous sort, too, in the best spirit of the Web. Creative Commons licenses allow dissemination of the books Storyteller and Flight of the Hawk. They can be obtained in hard copy from Lulu; I bought Garry Bannister's trio of Gaelic Idioms, Irish Proverbs, and Essential Irish from that publishing co-operative. While the last Bannister book did have some pages printed badly and out of margins, on the whole, given the price, the costs were fair considering the expense for such titles with a limited readership, compared to standard presses. The large format was attractive but this may have caused the glitch; at Oideas Gael the Essential Irish book had been sold but in a far smaller pocket-sized edition for 10 euro.
Back to GRG, why not visit this treasure trove for yourself? I added TG on the right side. Scanning the Tre Gwernin site, I see my blog linked, and dutifully return the favor on my own today.
Image credit: link from Tre Gwernin to Digital Library of Wales. Peniarth MS 28 f5r, Nat'l Library of Wales. "The pencynydd, chief huntsman, with his horn; a kissing couple, a scene suggested by the nature of the duties of the officials mentioned in the next section - the servant and maidservant of the chamber."
Here's Daniel Lews comment at the Digital Library about this MS.:
"[...]this was the very copy of the law of Hywel which was cited by John Pecham, archbishop of Canterbury, when he wrote his denunciatory letter to Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, last of the independent princes of Wales, in November 1282."
Friday, January 18, 2008
D. J. Williams' Poetic Justice & The Prince of Wales
Menna Gallie's "Strike for a Kingdom" gained my attention in the last blog post here; I noted how one of the main characters, "Davy" or D.J. Williams in her novel's characterized as a poet and magistrate. I also called him "real-life" in my review. Looking up information about him in Meic Stephens' magisterial "New Companion to the Literature of Wales" I found that D.J. never published poetry, nor was he a magistrate. So, given Gallie's poetic justice, so to speak (I like my pun!), who was the "real-life" Williams?
A writer, but not a poet; nationalist studies, short stories, and a memoir about his celebrated "square mile" of Rhydcymerau in Carmarthenshire. 1885-1970. Apparently a shrewd portrayer of character, a trait Gallie shares, as well as a love of animals, especially horses. Down the mines at sixteen in the Rhondda. Four years later, school led him to degrees in English at Aberystwyth and Oxford. (Jesus College, of course.) Turns out my vague hunch that he was a nationalist activist certainly's proven. Like Gallie's Davy, D.J's hauled before the Majesty of the Law, or His Majesty's.
Williams was one of three charged with the Tân yn Llŷn (Fire in Llŷn). A Penyberth cabin historically linked to poets for centuries had been demolished. In its place, the RAF erected sheds for a training camp. These were bombed in 1936-- the delayed spark that would ignite a later generation of Welsh radicals in the 1960s and 70s. Nine months in Wormwood Scrubs after an English jury convicted the trio following a Welsh-speaking jury's acquital in Caernarfon before a judge who knew no Welsh. He ordered another trial. After protests at that assizes, the proceedings were moved to London. At the Old Bailey, Stephens reports: "D.J. Williams alone was allowed to speak in Welsh in court as it could not be proved that he was able to speak English." (581) I must find out more: this despite his two degrees? D.J. was one of the founders of Plaid Cymru in 1925, so definitely Gallie's story, taking place the following year with no mention of the party's establishment let alone D.J.'s role on the national scene, takes liberties with the real man. Nothing wrong with that, but now the divergence of biography from tribute I better understand.
Stephen Knight, the same scholar who I read so avidly in my grad school pursuit of medieval literature, and who since then has delved into areas as diverse as Freemasonry, Robin Hood, crime fiction, and Anglo-Welsh writings, notes in his "A Hundred Years of Fiction: Writing Wales in English" that Gallie based Williams on her own uncle "W.R." but changed the initials as an homage to this patriot, once a collier himself. Knight rightly regards D.J, as the novel's "consistent focus" (as the story features an ensemble cast rather than one protagonist) and suggests a reason for the title. Like D.J., Gallie merges almost too well the cadences her native language (in which throughout the plot D.J.'s been laboring to craft in his mind a poem) with the industrial culture for which the miners have been struggling, being out of work over half a year along with much of Britain. Although the novel's in English except for a phrase or two, and only consistently in a few lines of stark poetry uttered by a dying woman, the rhythms hint at Welsh-- in which P.C. Glyndwr Thomas must reluctantly (if reported to us only in English) negotiate during a verbal standoff with the splendidly rendered, utterly recalcitrant woman farmer Peci-- and this dual identity surfaces in the tensions of the Cilhendre community.
Knight suggests: "Gallie, often more subtle than she chose to seem, may well be thinking of a coherent Welsh nation-- its own kingdom-- that was significantly greater, and more independent, than the principality to which it had under colonial power been reduced." (130) This in turn needs explanation for foreign readers like myself. Last weekend, reviewing here Peter Sager's excellent "Pallas Wales" guidebook, I mentioned that Sager finally summarized why there's a Prince of Wales.
Prophecies have a long life. Merlin claimed a Welsh prince would be crowned in London. After Llewelyn the Last in 1282** was killed at Cilmeri, he was decapitated, and his head spitted and carried through London. Such was the victory march, the severed head, the totem so potent in Celtic lore, hoisted high on a spear, topped with an ivy wreath. Such the cynicism of the English in their defeat of the Welsh.
Edward I foreshadowed later Lancastrian and Tudor claims by the English that they inherited through an admixture of Welsh blood a justification of this inheritance. They may have been ironic in their procession, but continued to be wary of the Welsh resistance. Symbols certainly persist on both sides in folk memory.
Cilmeri, site of Welsh activists for whom such defeats did not eradicate hopes even today, possesses its own aura. So too does the figure of Owain Glyndŵr. Yet doubtless many of his Border March rebels like himself-- nearly by default-- had Norman ancestors. In such situations, the Anglo-Norman-Saxons needed psy-ops and their version of photo-ops to win over the restive populace.
Sager sums up the strategy by King Edward. "He had conquered Wales, and so as well as taking over the land, he took over the title of a native ruler. From now on, there could be no Welsh pretender to the throne, for Wales was a 'Principality' to be inherited by the legitimate heir to the English throne. It was a classic example of how power can authorize itself. An old right had been destroyed, and a new one took its place. This constitutional injustice inaugurated the long line of Princes of Wales." Sager adds that while the emblematic ostrich feathers (and as a German he gives us the background on the "ich dien" motto and odd symbol relating to King John of Bohemia) and title may be taken for granted, they represent lasting humiliation for at least a few Welsh-- and I might add those of us Celtically aligned with republican grudges, sympathies, or ideals. He reminds us of the end of Prince Llewelyn; his brother Dafydd III soon after** met a grim end at Shrewsbury: hung, drawn, and quartered.
Supposedly, Edward I presented his first-born son to the natives soon after their subjugation. "I give you a prince born in Wales who could speak never a word of English," Sager tells us, "followed by the ominous 'eich dyn'-- your man." (405) He narrates how this supposed corruption became 'ich dien" before recounting the transfer of the motto to the Black Prince, son of Edward III, from the fallen Bohemian who fought with the French against the again victorious English at the Battle of Crecy in 1346. He picked up King John's headband of three feathers, put it on, and used the Teutonic "I serve" as the slogan for the usurping Prince of Wales. (I recall Dafydd Iwan's song "Carlo Windsor" also noted by Sager-- that first name popular among the Welsh as a sheepdog's moniker.)
Sager concludes: "This is the real background to the investiture-- not the picturesque ruins of Caernarfon Castle." (406) It was not the Celts who built the crenellations and portcullises that tower still over so many of their lands, most of which still in thrall to the Crown. Heraldry coupled to the Lion the Scottish Unicorn upon their royal 1707 Union. The two beasts hoist a shield quartered with a harp for the Irish and a dragon for the Welsh. No dragon rears rampant as a third mascot to support the British Coat of Arms. This reminds us that England incorporates rather than unites with Wales. Wikipedia tells us that it "was never a separate kingdom." Over the 'constituency' of "England and Wales" ethnocentric assertion reifies itself as the law.
P.S. I still like Twining's black-labelled "Prince of Wales" tea blend, however, speaking of other colonial and cultural connections for British, Celts, and millions more of us gratefully oppressed under the Gold Standard. Penyberth & Cilmeri vs. Caernarfon Castle: symbols still.
Image credit: Unlike the Chicago 7, with Welshman Sasha Baron Cohen starring as star-spangled Abbie Hoffman, they may never get the acclaim of a Spielberg movie, but here's in sepia The Penyberth Three: Baptist minister Lewis Valentine, Plaid Cymru's president Saunders Lewis (more about him to come), and D.J. Williams, one-time schoolteacher until retirement in 1945 at Fishguard-- the first, and so far given my single weekend mad-dash motorway-majority visit to Wales only nearly thirty years ago, place I heard Welsh as she is spoken. Although I must learn a few sly phrases to teach my wife so she can berate her domineering Cymraes who thunders at her-- in Saesnag-- during her Griffith (Welsh name again) Park workouts toting that medicine ball uphill past gaping coyotes at dawn's early light.
P.P.S. I had mixed up chronology with the Statute of Rhuddlan, 1284. Thanks for the correction by GR Grove who told me the date I had listed of 1284 for Llewelyn's death was incorrect, and that Dafydd died the following year. More about this in a follow-up blog post.
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
Menna Gallie's "Strike for a Kingdom" Book Review
Although this has been reissued by the Welsh press Honno, with an introduction by scholar Veronica John, I read the only copy available in American libraries, the original 1959 printing, with a curious cover. A series of blurbs by "famous writers," among them Norman Thomas, Jacques Barzun, and Eleanor Roosevelt comprises the image, while a drawing of stylized skeletal miners marching at night takes up the entire back jacket design. The inside promises a mix of mystery and mischief. This 1959 edition was Gallie's first novel, and as Time magazine summed it up in a favorable reception the following year: "The language has a strong, sly wit, and the story—of a troubled, strikebound village—is told with force and skill. Welsh-born Novelist Gallie is able to give her sympathy to the strikers without the posturing of protest literature, and to evoke the gamy folk flavor of her villagers without being cute or condescending."
The anonymous reviewer's correct: this novel carries itself out of the whodunit genre by its carefully composed sentences, its ability to shift mid-conversation among its multi-dimensional characters from their own indirectly conveyed perspectives to an omniscient voice that's both gentle and severe. Gallie keeps this tone, much easier to describe than fulfill, throughout this short account, which somehow manages to offer depth and density without feeling labored, self-important, or stylized as it tells us about a few of the inhabitants of a splendidly rendered, yet carefully delineated, Welsh village during the 1926 General Strike all over Britain.
A couple of samples. D.J. Williams, a real-life poet, here enters the action as a rather unwilling magistrate and fellow striker. He. amidst the tensions of the unsolved case at hand and the pressure of the strikers who are gathering that evening for a protest march, ponders the fate of a neighbor woman as she lies on her deathbed. "Men, he thought, were not much use at the beginnings and ends of life, but they saw to it that they dominated its little midday business." The next page: Here was the threat and promise of death with him in the room and his mind must keep running off to transient things like speeches and committees and organizations and murders. Why did the big subjects always take second place; were they in truth boring? Perish the thought." (33-4) As a line later puts it: "it was too realistic to be true" (168)-- this novel immerses you in such a place and such a fiction.
Policeman Glyndwr Thomas spars with a gung-ho Inspector. "'There's one good thing about this strike, Thomas. None of our suspects can run away before tomorrow. Nobody's got any money and they wouldn't get far on foot.' 'No, that's right enough. Not unless they steal your car,' Thomas said, with a flash of hope in his eyes.'" (165) It's the only car in the village of Cilhendre, by the way. Such moments balance the poverty and the humanity of the people there, none of whom fall into stereotype. The humor of the two lawmen's visit to Peci's farm and then that of Old Williams shows the depth of identification Gallie, from a small locale herself, could share without edging into caricature.
Likewise, as with D.J. or many of those suspected by the Inspector, their own half-sensed foibles and subconscious hesitations manage to engage us with empathy rather than ridicule or disdain. The ending to the case comes if not totally surprisingly, at least poetically. Gallie handles the climax and resolution confidently and gently. She, like her reader, deals with Cilhendre's characters and we realize that while we have read in this tale of more than one protagonist, the expected antagonist eludes easy identification. The generosity of the author and her villagers ensures this.
(See Amazon & my blog for my review of her "You're Welcome to Ulster," one of the first Troubles novels, as well as Caradog Prichard's "One Moonlit Night." Gallie had earlier translated this than the Philip Mitchell version I posted on in both forums a few days ago; Gallie had given the novel the title in English "Full Moon.")