The following essay is adapted from the introduction to my thesis in creative and critical writing, for which I was awarded a doctorate by Portsmouth University in 2005. Quotations are taken from The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981).
An Essay on the Short Story in Wales by Rob Mimpriss
The Search for Form
There is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, ‘The Voyage,’ which has shaped my consciousness as a writer. Set between the hours of darkness and dawn, it concerns a night crossing between the two islands of New Zealand undertaken by Fenella, a child perhaps eight years old, and her grandmother.
It is implied that Fenella has lost her mother, and is going to stay with her grandparents near Picton while her father stays on North Island. The gravity of this quayside parting, and the child’s partial incomprehension of the event, are used to lend significance to the journey, and the voyage itself is described in Stygian terms on a boat that ‘looked as if she was more ready to sail among stars than out into the cold sea.’ The crossing is made stranger by the old woman, her unfamiliar clothing and her piety and prayer, and her reminder to Fenella that ‘Our dear Lord is with us when we are at sea even more than when we are on dry land.’ Met by a driver on the other side, and taken back to the house where her grandfather is waiting, Fenella sees ‘a big text in a deep black frame: / Lost! One Golden Hour / Set with Sixty Diamond Minutes. / No reward is offered / For IT IS GONE FOREVER!’
The story is instantly appealing because of the beauty of its descriptions and the strength of its atmosphere, and for its unaffected understanding of the psychology of a child. Moreover, as a single incident bounded by a single night, the confines of a ferry, and the interactions between two main characters, it nevertheless depicts the change that has come over Fenella’s life. But its use of form is remarkable, both in Mansfield’s work and in the short story tradition as a whole. Beginning with parting and darkness, and ending with meeting and light, it consigns the male characters to the land at the beginning and end of the story, so that only Fenella and the old woman experience this Stygian underworld, where God is with them more than when they are on dry land. But as infant child and aged grandmother, they represent the two ends of the female life-span, and perhaps therefore also the secret of birth that they carry inside them. A simple, well-written story about a single incident in the life of a child resonates with primal myth about human life on earth.
It has been noted by readers of the short story form that its concentration in time and space gives it a mythical, mystical vision. I have myself found that as the short story homes in on the single incident, isolating it from related events in the future or the past, the incident must be understood in relation to itself, or to the form that contains it, or to some mythical or cosmic view. Aware of the brevity of the reading experience, and of the unity of beginning, middle and end, the reader may seek some sense of significance not bound by the character’s happiness or progress, but underlying it. The short story is set not in some society which affects and is affected by the desires and activities of its citizens, but in a universe which we cannot hope to change, and which we must try humbly to grasp with our minds.
The Search for Tradition
If the short story is fatalistic, mystical and lonely, it is not surprising that it has enjoyed greater success in Wales than in its more populous and prosperous neighbour, England. The mystic’s requirements of loneliness and leisure are easier to find in the countryside, where a readier experience of poverty and a readier access to natural beauty can make people less materialistic in their thinking. There is also a thread of fatalism running through Welsh literature from the time of the Anglo-Saxon expansion. While Beowulf follows its hero from victory to victory until his death as leader of his people, Aneirin’s great poem, The Gododdin (6th Century A.D.), has despaired of narrative. Since the army sent out to liberate Catraeth from the Saxons has failed, since three hundred heroes and warriors lie dead, nothing remains but to name and describe them, to pray for the souls, and to consider what their passing means for the future. The Gododdin resembles more closely a collection of short stories or lyric poems than it does a unified and orderly narrative.
Owen Wynne Jones (1828-1870), often known as Glasynys, used his short stories to record the customs and folk tales of rural Wales, the ‘innocent pleasures’ of music and dance, ghost stories and fortune-telling, that he saw as threatened by ’the surliness and dishonesty, pride and excess’ of Wales under Methodism and industrialisation, while Daniel Owen (1836-1895), the Methodist preacher and novelist, placed true ‘fireside stories’ of farm and chapel life in the mouth of his kind-hearted, talkative narrator, Uncle Edward. Later, T Gwynn Jones (1871-1949) and R Dewi Williams (1870-1955) brought kindliness and and lightness of touch to what T Gwynn Jones called the ‘home-spun cloth’ of short fiction, while Richard Hughes Williams (also called Dic Tryfan, c.1878-1919) found powerful material for the short story among the quarrymen of Caernarfonshire.
Yet the writers before Dic Tryfan show a lack of ambition regarding the short story as a form, and it is only later, in the work of Kate Roberts (1891-1985), that the form seems to meet its match. Writing again about the quarrying communities of Caernarfonshire, she provides her characters with some brief leisure during which to survey the poverty and drudgery and brevity of their lives. Their courageous awareness of the grimness of life sets them apart from their neighbours, and aloof from their malice and dishonesty. Despite her Welsh Nationalism, and her importance in the early Welsh Nationalist movement, Kate Roberts relates Welsh poverty and oppression more to the conditions of human existence than to particular economic or political circumstances: poverty and injustice are accepted as inevitable, and this itself gives the stories their universality.
As a writer she seems the equal of a Chekhov, a Turgenev, a Maupassant, or a Giovanni Verga, capable in her own right of founding the short story tradition in Welsh, yet perhaps for that reason leaves it faltering. In the stories translated and anthologised by Meic Stephens in A White Afternoon and other stories (Cardigan: Parthian, 2000) one feels an uncertainty of intent, a greater need to display postmodern technique than to probe the humanity of the characters, and one may feel, to echo Kate Roberts, that while some of these writers have had ideas for short stories they have yet to develop a writer's idea of life. To a writer from north Wales, the best Anglophone short-story writers seem to continue a distinctively south-coast tradition very close to the work of Glyn Jones or Dylan Thomas: lyrical stories, often of childhood, suggest writers asserting themselves in a new language, or yearning for a country they left in youth for betterment elsewhere. In the north, where linguistic battles are still being fought, to write in English both inspires and embodies a debate which is at times tense, even acrimonious. Linguistic self-hatred might inspire the austere, uncompromising poetry of R.S. Thomas; in prose it might engender conventions not dissimilar to those of the American so-called ‘Dirty Realists.’
Viable models for the Welsh short story do indeed come from America. Bernard Malamud strikes the Welsh reader with all the force of Kate Roberts, a writer equally immersed in society and tradition despite his setting, the immigrant communities of New York. Richard Ford is aware of rural poverty and its effects, while Raymond Carver writes about the loneliness of life in suburban wastelands, a life that differs little, it seems, between the urban corridor of the North Wales coast and the towns of Oregon and Northern California. William Maxwell celebrates family life in quiet country houses, enriched by a sense of family tradition, benevolent ownership and hospitality.
My own writing over the past ten years has applied lessons learnt from these writers to stories set in rural Wales. Commonly, some rumour or memory or observation causes my characters to consider the limits they have set on their own opportunities. They are not victims of fate, but are willingly guided by their own temperaments into circumstances with which they must learn contentment.
The title of my first collection reflects my reading of the Stoics, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, and of Plato, whose Republic is quoted in the epigraph and paraphrased at the end of the last story, ‘Brân.’ It also contains a translation of some of the reasoning of Morgan Llwyd (1619-1659), the Cromwellian and Puritan whose prose is so influential on the culture and literature of Wales. For Plato, the Stoics, and the Puritans alike, a belief in the goodness and sovereignty of God necessitates contentment with circumstances, and God’s goodness and sovereignty are discovered by reason and a searching of the heart.
My short stories seek to praise ‘the gods and... good men.’ Good men are defined by their acceptance of their circumstances and their commitment to moral self-discipline. Reasoning also takes place between two moral systems, between the Platonic idealism of this smaller number of characters, and the pragmatism and self-interest of other people. The Platonic good man must learn sympathy and respect for the people around him, accepting that the one who judges others will pay the price in the loneliness he fears. Plato did not teach the hatred of pleasure, but he taught the discipline and dignity that are needed to be human in a difficult country, or in difficult times.
And our times are most difficult. It is estimated that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels will double during this century, that species of land mammals will be reduced by half, and that at least half the world’s languages will also be wiped out. The hominid experiment itself is under evolutionary threat, reduced to a single species perhaps by the hand of this sole survivor. The novel, concerned to achieve the individual’s progress through his willingness to compromise and adapt himself to society, seems poorly equipped to engage with mankind in extremis, or to offer consolation; but the short story, with its mysticism and fatalism, its acceptance of hardships and discontents, its ability to see individual and human concerns in the context of the universe as a whole, perhaps embodies the attitudes we need. If so, the form gains an importance beyond its popularity: not merely a voice, but a burden, a purpose as well as a place.