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Customer Review

3.0 out of 5 stars Can one speak Welsh in English?, August 14, 2012
This review is from: Emyr Humphreys: A Postcolonial Novelist (University of Wales Press - Writing Wales in English) (Paperback)
Embattled cultural and linguistic identities from Wales conveyed through our dominant language capture this novelist's struggle for articulation. Diane Green, basing this on her doctoral thesis on "narrative patterning," stops in 1998, but five decades out of the six that still see him writing provide plenty, given his steady output for a man born in 1919, for her 2009 study.

Its postcolonial contexts comprise the theoretical foundations for Green's explanations of how myth-- not only Celtic but Etruscan, set in Wales but also in Tuscany and Benin-- combines with history, often filtered via discontented intellectual males caught between a secularized homeland and relentless anglicization. How can one live in Wales as Welsh? His breakthrough novel, A Toy Epic, (1958) contrasts the rural, impoverished religious pacifist Iorwerth with Albie the ambitious, assimilating, Marxist emigrant, and Michael as uprooted intellectual.

Humphreys given his own status as a teacher and BBC producer may represent a combination of Michael's social mobility with Iorwerth's organic and linguistic allegiances. Learning Welsh as a young man, inspired as a teenager by the Penyberth burning of the bombing station by three Welsh activists in 1936, Humphreys chose to write in English to educate and appropriate the best of what Welsh identity could transmit to a wider audience. Green emphasizes the difficulty of using the "language of the oppressor" (15) to proclaim the "language of the tribe" (12). Fiction offers, citing Humphreys, a "supranatural language which is detached from the cultural problem" as "one of the escape routes" (27). The tension between "his political ideals and his creative talents" energized his long series of novels in which he delved into the same conflicts within his Welsh characters.

This entry in the Writing Wales in English series expects close familiarity with a body of work not well known even within Britain. His books from 1946 to 1991 were printed in London. However, as the 1990s progress his new novels get published only in Wales, and his older ones depend on reissues by the University of Wales Press. Humphreys may have sensed this fall-off in broader support when in 1987 he wrote an essay "The third difficulty."

He explains how he chose the role of "People's Remembrancer." He gives his readers the feeling of Welsh through English. He uses the novel, already feared as giving way to other mass media, as his method of proclamation. He figures that Welsh culture within British society for him can best be transmitted by fiction. Still, confronted with a formidable series of interlinked novels demanding considerable grounding in mythic archetypes, the result of a small-press minimal audience for his works may not be surprising.

Bonds of Attachment (1991) includes episodes from the controversy over the investiture of Charles Windsor in 1969. This novel offers rich material for investigation, but Green prefers to pursue the mythic and historiographic aspects. She largely limits her study to postcolonial theory. Given this book presumably represents a revision of her dissertation and not a reproduction of it, this narrowed focus may not satisfy a reader seeking cultural relevance as well as critical theory.

Green elides a more pressing and less academic application. This analysis lacks attention to the political contexts in Wales at this time when the Penyberth impact, however long delayed, threatened to burst into renewed protests. These continued what Saunders Lewis, at Penyberth in 1936, called upon his countrymen to continue, and they broke his heart when none rose up. This episode was fictionalized in Humphreys' début The Little Kingdom (1946).

The complexities of a peaceful Christian ethos that may have led to the relative marginalization of Welsh republicanism as opposed to its physical-force Irish variety surely must have factored into Humphreys' fiction more than Green's work establishes in a few asides, mostly very early on. While the slow disintegration of non-conformist religious conventions surrounds Outside the House of Baal (1965), the pacifism and Christian idealism Humphreys shared with Lewis and other nationalists appears very muted in Green's critique. For study in literary criticism, her book fills a need. But it may leave an inquirer still wondering about Humphreys' semi-imaginary plots in relationship to the real-life Welsh predicaments faced by his neighbors and colleagues and readers since Penyberth. Three decades of frustration erupted into protests in 1969. (See my review 8-14-12 of John Humphries' "Freedom Fighters? Wales' Forgotten War.")

Bombings, jailings, censorship, arson against holiday and second-homes, marches demanding rebellion, calls against terrorism: these rocked Wales if on a small scale the past few decades. This is where the force of myth, after all, lands heaviest. History as lived and not only dramatized must run through Humphreys' work, determined as it is to convey Welsh implicated in postcolonial society. The subject of Green's work deserved more attention as a chronicler of these decades. The Taliesin Tradition (1989; see my 1-11-09 review) delves into the place of Welsh nationality within culture and language; Green understandably concentrates on the novels rather than this elegant study, but if she had expanded its role as a summation of Humphreys' ideological evolution, it would have enriched her theoretical and literary bases.

How did Humphreys invest his energy-- not only as mythologized, historically framed, or channeled overseas-- within his fictional inquiries about his native land under such pressures? Did Humphreys weary of protest and step aside into fiction as an escape? Did this "supranational language" succeed or fail him over half a century's output? How did his Welsh colleagues and English critics react to his efforts over these changing decades? What growth or retraction did his readership show? Her book elides such questions; it leaves one wondering the worth of some installments in a long series of demanding novels for an apparently small audience.
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Review Details



John L Murphy

Location: Los Angeles

Top Reviewer Ranking: 528