Si Hei Lwli / Twighlight Song

June’s reading circle met to discuss ‘Si Hei Lwli / Twilight Song’ by Angharad Tomos.  It was collectively felt by the group that Tomos captures the internal differences which plague present-day Wales within this text.  The novel’s two principal characters, the elderly Bigw and the younger Eleni, embark on a road trip which creates a kind of microcosm of tradition versus modernity within the confined space of a car – a vehicle possibly symbolising the physical space of Wales itself.  The car experiences recurrent problems, e.g. puncture, smoking bonnet, representing Wales’s inadequacy as a modern country. There is an inability to create synergy between youth and experience within the space of the car, as Bigw’s nostalgia for former times leaves Eleni feeling deprived of Wales’s ‘golden years’, instead occupying a hollow present, suffused with the disapproval of bitter older generations.  The idea is effective, but it was felt that, on the whole, Tomos’s novella is a little joyless, and would benefit from an injection of humour.  However, the text could be said to be ‘of its time’ – published in the early 90s, Wales was still deeply bruised by the rejection of devolution, and of being governed by a Tory government in Westminster.

Next month’s text is ‘My People’ by Caradoc Evans, a book which commands attention even one hundred years post-publication.  The meeting will be held on Tuesday July 7, 7pm at the Harp, Bangor.

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A Human Condition

‘A Human Condition’ is a collection of short stories by Rhondda-born Rhys Davies.  Despite growing up in a Rhondda mining community, Davies moved to, and worked from, London, where he remained until his death in 1978.  In London, he wrote largely of the Welsh industrial experience, rejecting the novel genre in favour, predominantly, of the short story.  The group discussed the impact of Davies’s choice of genre, and generally agreed that the format was well suited to capture snapshots of the trials, relationships, and hardships experienced in coalfield communities.

Davies’s themes largely revolve around small town life under a microscope, marriage, relationships, and in particular, the plight of women.  Many of the narratives show a sensitivity to women, trapped by tradition in the domestic setting, looking after men, and maintaining respectable Nonconformist values.  When Davies’s women do veer away from convention, they are punished in some way.  Mrs Mitchel in ‘The Fashion Plate’, for example, likes fabulous fashion and does not subscribe to the misery that is conventional in chapel life, and is subsequently at the receiving end of vicious village gossip.  Sian Prosser in ‘The Darling of Her Heart’ verbally attacks, and actually headbutts (!) the mother of a girl who dared to seduce Sian’s darling son.  Davies captures the predicament of women as the choices available to them include a life of confinement in the home, or face exclusion by society if they choose to behave more experimentally.

As a group, we considered the text from a queer reading critical perspective.  Rhys Davies, as a gay man, would not have been able to write direct accounts of homosexual relationships, as homosexuality was illegal at the time of writing.  Therefore, Davies may have been displaying coded references to queer issues through the guise of a critique of heterosexuality.  None of the heterosexual relationships in his stories are happy ones, indeed, they are manipulative, spiteful and cold at best.

There are many themes which can be liberated from Davies’s short stories when they are read closely and critically.  However, it was agreed by the group on the whole, that whatever level a reader wishes to engage with Davies’s stories, they are sensitive, humerous and rich accounts of Welsh industrial communities.

Cosmic Latte

The April reading group meeting read, enjoyed and discussed Rachel Trezise’s short story collection: ‘Cosmic Latte’.  There was universal agreement that these are powerful stories, told predominantly from the vantage point of displaced voices.  The characters are either geographically displaced from a homeland, or are psychologically displaced by grief and absences.  Trezise juxtaposes humour and warmth with dark undercurrents, creating characters who are multi-layered, fragmented and complicated.  In the first story, for example, there is Welshman Steffan, geographically displaced in Prague on a stag do, but more distantly displaced as a widower in a group of men with partners and families.  Then there is working-class Joanna from Pontypridd in ‘Hard as Nails’, who’s narrative becomes disturbing in the unfamiliar setting of Benidorm, but who is also shown to be an outsider in every day life as she struggles to care for, and understand the needs, of her handicapped child.  There is the grieving wife and daughter of a murdered man in Ireland in ‘The Blue Ruin Cafe’, both displaced by the urge to upkeep the presence of the past in the present, occupying a strange no-man’s land of memory and madness.

The overarching success of the stories is their endurance in the mind of the reader.  Many of the stories end ambiguously and open-endedly, liberating the reader to consider the fate of the characters for a long time after the reading is over.

Next month, we will be discussing ‘The Human Condition’ by Rhys Davies.  The group will meet on Tuesday May 5, 7pm at the Harp. Bangor.  Come along for a fun and stimulating discussion!

‘Oscar’

In the March meeting of the Reading Wales group, we discussed Oscar, by Gwyn Thomas, part of the trilogy The Dark Philosophers.  We used Thomas’s political position as a way into the text, his socialist and anti-nationalistic sentiments opening up the novella to a Marxist reading in which the owner of the means of production, the character of Oscar in this case, is representative of excessively exploitative landowning capitalists.  Oscar is regarded as a grotesque colonial figure, squeezing the life out of Wales, and the reader witnesses the impact of this squeeze through the narrative voice of Lewis.  Lewis captures the predicament of oppression in the South Wales Valleys in realist, blunt terms.  His darkly sarcastic outlook is stylistically expressionistic, with frequent elemental references to water, heaviness and dark/light contrasts, giving the impression of a fluid text where identity, morality and power are ambiguous.  The group felt that Lewis embodies the colonised figure: he is compliant with his own oppression by working for Oscar, and yet he displays an existentialist capacity to be free in his own mind, using language as a way to exercise the liberty of internal narrative.  Thomas uses humour as a coping mechanism, with many of the characters, ‘No Doubt’, for example, temporarily relieving the reader of the heaviness of the subject matter – something which many Welsh industrial texts fail to do.  We considered the position of women in Oscar, with Hannah, in particular creating an image of a Welsh beauty exhaustedly giving in to the advancements of capitalism.  Her ultimate act of complicity, however, sparks Lewis into action when he interestingly kills Oscar, not because of Oscar’s obscene lack of morality, but because he exploits Hannah.  Thomas captures the complexity of life under capitalist rule, showing inner, mental freedom, as a means of preventing de-humanisation.

Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful

The text under scrutiny in the February reading group was Deborah Kay Davies’s ‘Wales Book of the Year 2008’ winning collection of short stories Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful.  The short stories are predominantly concerned with the experiences of sisters, Grace and Tamar, and that of their mother.  Members of the group felt that this was a difficult text to get close to, as the author has made it hard for the reader to develop fondness for any of the characters.  However, further discussion of the stories threw up the notion that, in contrast to the masculine narratives of industry which dominate Welsh literature, this is a new and refreshing voice, giving a platform to women to speak about female experiences.  Davies challenges the scripted roles of femininity by questioning the assumptions held by the reader regarding motherhood, girls, and families.  Grace and Tamar are at times vicious, violent and sexually inquisitive, and do not conform to what society expects of happy little girls.  Davies, it would seem, was ahead of her time in 2008, as the concept of ‘the girl’ as a problematic figure is only recently becoming a feature of popular literary culture in novels such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train.  She also deals with issues of post-natal depression and madness, as well as challenging the issue of disconnection and rejection between a mother and baby.  These are ideas which may be unsettling to read about, but Davies makes no attempt to comfort the reader, and it was felt by the group that this was to her credit, as for too long in literature, women have been made to feel inadequate by unattainable portrayals of girlhood, womanhood and motherhood.     

‘Un Nos Ola Leuad’

The January ‘Reading Wales’ reading group had a vibrant discussion about Caradog Pritchard’s novel ‘Un Nos Ola Leuad’ / ‘One Moonlit Night’.  The general consensus was that this is an exciting text which heralded a shift in Welsh literature towards postmodern tendencies, including that of an unreliable narrator, chronological anti-linearity, and a sense of the uncanny.  Thematic contents were discussed, with particular reference to madness in a ‘gwerin’ society breaking under the strain of unattainable Nonconformist morlaity, and the disintegration of this society as a direct result of industrialisation.  The mythical, some would say, “problematic”, middle section of the text was discussed, where the narrator experiences hallucinogenic imagery of ‘Brenhines y Llyn’, but we remain perplexed as to it’s meaning!  Perhaps, this is just how Pritchard intended it to be.  An unsettling, but ultimately, exciting novel.