The following essay draws in part on the concluding chapter of my thesis in creative and critical writing, for which I was awarded a doctorate by Portsmouth University in 2005.
Of the Making of Books: A prayer at the end
I have written about Chekhov’s ‘The Student’ before, and it is useful to those who think about the short story. It concerns a young theology student, coming home on Good Friday after a day shooting, who stops to greet a peasant woman by the fire, and listen to her chat about her long life and career as a wet nurse. The story darkens. The student begins to describe the arrest and torture of Christ, comparing his sufferings with those of Russians today, and the faces of the woman and her younger daughter show signs of hidden distress and pain. The student moves on. But rather than feeling discouraged that his narrative has spoilt the good mood of these women, he feels a joy in the power of the story to unite human beings and awaken their consciousness.
The story is important as a celebration of narrative itself, and it is therefore appropriate that Raymond Carver resurrects and revises the story, using a conversation between a student and his wife to compare the kind of stories he regards as significant with her mundane account of a dream and her wishes for their children. Yet in one of my short stories, also, the daughter of a neighbour tells the protagonist about a train crash in which her parents’ lodger may have been involved. The basic story, in which one person tells a story that reminds another of their shared capacity for pain, is discovered, and then used and reused, as the potential of the form is explored.
I was still at work on my first collection — it had not yet even become a collection — when I found the same fictional characters beginning to recur. And as I groped towards a set of themes, exploring the virtues of a Platonic ‘good man’ enduring the pain, as Anthony Conran put it, of living in ‘a dying culture,’ the quality of Reasoning no longer seemed enough. Courage was also needed if the Platonic man was to be good, and a third quality, if it exists, to which I grudgingly gave the name ‘prayer.’
Christopher Booker in The Seven Basic Plots describes an archetypal story of voyage and return. It does not, like the quest to slay a monster, end in victory, or like the quest to recover treasure, end in well-being and completeness; when the hero embarks homewards, it is with a sense of loss: the thing he has failed to grasp or retrieve is a part of himself. Laurence, in Reasoning, returns to visit the family home where he was once a lodger, and hoped to become a son-in-law; in For His Warriors he stays, when briefly homeless, with the man who ended their intimate friendship for the sake of peace with his wife.
Ffion Lloyd in America, her father’s anima, goes to San Francisco as an au pair, has an affair with her employer and returns to Wales as his marriage breaks up; her father, Gwilym, who goes to collect her at Heathrow, seeks intimacy with his daughter — a reason to forgive her — and fails to find it. Over four short stories in three collections he often goes to collect her, goes as far as the Alps to meet her and dissuade her from marrying a man he does not trust. In the last story in which she appears, in Prayer at the End, she returns to north Wales with her son, finally to be asked by her parents, now old, to leave them.
If the children leave Wales, then Welsh culture dies, and the children who are best educated, who inherit the most from that culture, are the ones most likely to seek betterment elsewhere. I give Gwilym a richer religious faith, and a closer relationship with his wife, as he finds the grace to let Ffion go, and at the same time to be reconciled with her as part of himself.
Seventy-three short stories now span three collections, in a series I hoped would unite reason, courage, and something like prayer. The earliest of them date back to 1999, the year the Welsh Assembly held its official opening. Now, in 2015, Welsh MPs are rendered second class, in return for a Wales Powers Bill that gives to Wales with one hand while taking with the other, and at a time that could only cause the deepest pain and offence. The last census suggests that the Welsh language is once again in decline.
While writing these collections, I tried to be fair. I aimed to be critical yet respectful of the faith of my fathers, to give unionists as well as nationalists a voice, and to acknowledge, with translations from the work of Angharad Tomos and Gwenallt Jones, that our ideals and principles can become our prisons. In seeing Britain from the edge, I saw it anew, finding worthwhile themes and historical significance in an event to which most English readers would be oblivious, the Cornish-language revival. Yet as it sinks in that Wales is still one of the poorest countries in Europe, a priority for European aid, I find my peripheral circumstances less purely the result of choice.
I was influenced by the Dirty Realists, by the work of Raymond Carver and early Richard Ford, but that influence waned, as I found it more fruitful to combine compression of language with lyricism. I did not try to make my work ‘gritty’ any more than to make it ‘hip’; my characters are not like Hubert Selby’s, criminals or pimps. If they live in isolation or hardship, they survive, and so do I still survive.