New English Library, London, 1971
The blurb on the back:
It was Hemingway who once said: 'Only bullfighters and poets live life all the way up.'
Dylan Morgan is a working-class Swansea boy, newly returned from university and certain that what he doesn't want to do with his life is to follow his parents' advice to become a school-teacher; nor does he want the job offered to him as a junior reporter on the local newspaper, learning shorthand and taking night classes in local government. Because if he's ever going to realize his ambition of becoming a real writer, the one thing he knows is that he has to get some distance, some experience, some life behind him. Deciding on a whim to leave for Canada, he abandons his childhood home and his childhood sweetheart to work his way around the world, gradually piecing together the book that he is sure will make his reputation when he comes home: 'a novel that would sweep as a panorama of South Wales valley life'.
The Britain to which he returns, however, presents greater challenges than those he faced when he was roaming the world without responsibility.
It starts promisingly enough. He finds an agent who's convinced his novel will be 'the biggest thing since How Green Was My Valley ... but a much better class of book, of course.' But that's all a long, long way off. Maybe he'll get the definite answer he's been promised by Friday; more likely it'll be the year after next. Because first there are the revisions, the rewrites, the rejections, the endless procession of dashed dreams and unfulfilled promises, the dreary drudgery of survival that comes close to crushing him. Through it all, Dylan struggles to keep hold of hope, barely surviving on the irregular income from occasional book reviews and 15-minute talks on the radio, learning to loathe the hands that toss him these pathetic scraps, and coming to hate himself for falling on them with the appetite of a starving man.
'Why do you forever have to bloody-well dramatise everything so?' his wife asks him, and his answer is simple: 'Because life is dramatic.' For him, it is. Life is a bitter raw wound that he can't help but pick at, unable to let it heal, unable to accept the soothing, comforting balm of stability and security. Feeling himself assailed on all sides by the world, but incapable of destroying that which attacks him, he turns his fight inwards and seeks to destroy himself instead.
His drinking becomes heavier, personal relationships fall apart, self-confidence evaporates until all there is left to him is this book, this thing that he's forced to squeeze out of himself. Even that brings him doubt and despair rather than satisfaction, but he is driven: he knows 'how tired and washed out he was and was it worth it, all this, but what else was there to do ... What else could he do?'
You probably don't need me to tell you that this is - loosely speaking - a fictionalised version of Dylan Thomas, an imaginative reconstruction of the internal landscape of one of the great literary talents of the 20th century. It's not in any way intended as a biography (it's not even set in the same period) but, to my mind at least, it captures the spirit better than any retelling of simple facts could: like the novels about Oscar Wilde discussed elsewhere, this is about one artist trying to get inside the skin of another. There are some people whose lives are so extreme that they can be approached more appropriately through the medium of fiction than that of biography.
This book does just that. The psychology of a romantic poet lost in a materialist world - the rage, the passion, the thwarted celebration of life - is entirely convincing. Dylan Morgan is infuriating and inspiring in equal measure, at one moment wreaking havoc in the lives of those around him, the next being marginalized, left impotent and seemingly invisible. And it's written in a style that derives from but doesn't parody Thomas himself, with long passages of heaped adjectives, repeated nouns and free-form syntax, painting a picture - in this example - of plastic passivity:
Just in case it all sounds a bit depressing, I'd better add that there is also humour here, in the satirical scenes of literary life and in the depiction of the news-room of a local evening newspaper. And, for the historian of modern British culture, there is a wealth of detail that is entrancing. I particularly like the opening scenes in the Morgan family home where his father breakfasts on boiled egg and sliced cucumber, and where the generations are demarcated by cigarettes: Dylan smokes Woodbines, his father smokes Capstan Full Strength. When we move onwards and outwards, the same obsessive observation continues; if you want to see what Britain was like in the late-Sixties, this is a good place to start.
One other thing. It really won't matter too much if you know nothing of Dylan Thomas, or if your only exposure to his work is seeing Michelle Pfeiffer teaching 'Do not go gentle into that good night' to a class of inner-city schoolkids in Dangerous Minds. There's no particular requirement for prior information, but you may well come out of the book wanting to find out more.
In short, it's a damn fine novel. To some extent its subject matter is the act of writing, and it's possibly therefore not as immediately accessible as Summers' extraordinary first novel The Disaster, but don't let that put you off: mostly it's a portrait of an artist as a doomed man. And it's an irresistible read.
ENTERTAINMENT VALUE: 4/5
HIPNESS QUOTIENT: 2/5