Thursday, 1 March 2012

World Book Day News

It's both Dydd Dewi Sant / St. David's Day and World Book Day / Ddiwrnod y Llyfyr, so I thought I'd take the opportunity to point you in the direction of some interesting Welsh novels, in either language. I'll do poetry some other time, when I've got several weeks to list all the amazing Welsh poets. I've celebrated World Book Day. oddly, by not getting any books in the post at all, which is unheard of for me!

Joe Dunthorne, Submarine and Wild Abandon. I don't know if Dunthorne's Welsh, and I've not quite got to grips with the Dunthorne's version of Welshness (I'm wondering if there's a paper in it), but these two Bildungsromans are really good. Both follow confused, intelligent and quirky teenagers adrift in a sea of adult troubles as they try to navigate according to their own perceptions. Funny, very interesting narrative structures, very moving. Good novels make you see the world differently - Dunthorne and the other authors I mention do this beautifully.

One of my favourite authors of all is Wiliam Owen Roberts. He writes sinuous, experimental novels which slip between times, narrators and settings in a dialogical, polyphonic fashion. If you don't speak English, then you're limited to Pestilence, translated into ten languages after Y Pla revitalised Welsh literature with its Pynchonesque tale of colonial wars medieval and South-East Asian. Seriously, one of the best books I've ever read. In the middle of an awful lot of writers going on about industrial decline or domestic woes, Roberts takes the entire world and makes it his. The rest of the world desperately needs translations of his other novels, particularly his short stories on Thatcher's Britain, Hunangofiant.

Wiliam Owen Roberts from Wales Literature Exchange | Cyfn on Vimeo.

Kate Roberts: should have won a Nobel prize. Lived into her 90s, ran a printing firm, coped with a wayward husband, fought for Welsh-language education while writing short novels and stories which remind me of PJ Harvey's later albums: down to the bare rock. There are no wasted words in a Roberts story. Adjectives, descriptions, phatic conversations are all absent. Her characters are reduced to the essentials, much as they live their lives. They're gloomy in that twilit Protestant sense, but there's also a rock-ribbed determination about them which is admirable: there are no illusions in her work, just a clear-eyed assumption that endurance is all. Start with Traed Mewn Cyffion (translated as Feet in Chains) or for lighter material, Te Yn Y Grug (Tea in the Heather).

I'm a huge fan of Seren Books' New Stories from the Mabinogion series. The source material is deeply weird anyway, and they've got very hip authors to produce their own novelisations. There isn't a dud amongst them, but I'd start with Gwyneth Lewis's The Meat Tree, a postmodern SF version of the Blodeuwedd story (see also Alan Garner's terrifying The Owl Service), Horatio Clare's The Prince's Pen (tribal warfare plus jihad plus capitalism in decline) and Fflur Dafydd's The White Trail. Dafydd's work is generally brilliant: few people manage to combine a deep connection to Welsh cultural rootness with a lightness of literary touch.

Who else? I'm a massive fan of Chris Meredith's English poetry and novels: Sidereal Time slips easily between fantasy, dashed dreams and quotidian tedium beautifully, while Shifts lays bare the failure of stable masculinity as the South Wales valleys become post-industrial work-houses. Griffri is also a stunning novel. There's a new novel coming soon: The Book of Idiots, of which there's an extract in the current New Welsh Review.

And there's Niall Griffiths: the Welsh-Liverpudlian Irvine Welsh, interested in borders, subcultures and the lumpenproletariat - those marooned between cultures or living in a post-cultural twilight: Wreckage is a good place to start, and I love Grits too.

Amongst the established and dead authors, I will always rave about Gwyn Thomas's mordant, absurdist, utterly unique novels - particularly Sorry For The Sons, The Dark Philosophers and Where Did I Put My Pity?. I wrote my PhD partly on Sorrow, and reread it often. I also wrote about Lewis Jones's Cwmardy and We Live, two mining-and-communism novels which have a reputation amongst friends and supporters alike of being 1930s proletarian propaganda. WRONG WRONG WRONG WRONG WRONG. Read them, come back to me and I'll tell you why. I intend to get into print in the near future to point out to Dai Smith and his mates exactly how WRONG they are.

Also highly recommended: Emyr Humphreys. Seemingly immortal novelist and poet in both languages. His classic is A Toy Epic and the Land of the Living series, but I'd recommend Outside the House of Baal and Old People Are A Problem for their conflation of subtle wit and profundity. I'd also point you in the direction of Raymond Williams of course, and Glyn Jones. I also rate Siân James' A Small Country, Menna Gallie's You're Welcome to Ulster, Gwyn Jones's work, Lloyd Jones, the incomparable psychogeographer Iain Sinclair, Owen Sheers to some extent, Jan Morris (huge soft spot for Our First Leader) and Catherine Merriman.

English people seem not to know much about Wales (I can see Wales from my office window, but one of my local students did not know it existed), and don't read enough literature in translation. So perhaps Welsh literature is a good place to start?


Emma said...
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Emma said...

That's the second time in a week someone has recommended the Owl Service. Read it (several) times as a kid and loved it.