A nation with two literary languages but one soul that speaks passionately through its writers - here is the guide to the modern literary scene covering circa 100 works that sum up the currents and corners of Welsh life from the 1920s to the present. This little book puts the lot at your fingertips.

Contributions by Ray Keenoy, Rhian Reynolds and Sioned Rowlands

Guide

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New Penguin Book of Welsh Short Stories

Richards, Alun ed.

Here we can find twenty-eight stories by twenty-eight authors sourced from both of the literary languages of Wales.

The anthology should be considered as an addition to rather than a substitute for the original Penguin Book of Welsh Short Stories, which was based around an older generation of writers. Only one story is carried over into this more recent volume. The Penguin short story collections of this type represent a continuation of a great tradition of accessible literary culture and thought from Penguin Books, a key educational and mind-broadening instrument in its heyday.

Highlights include a story by that Chekhov of the Welsh sitting-room, Kate Roberts, with her extraordinary sense for objects and places and her frequent demonstration of emotional absence or unexpressed feeli..READ MORE

Re-imagining Wales: Contemporary Welsh Writing [Literary Review v44n2]

Curtis, Tony and Meredith, Christopher eds.

Since there is so little Welsh-language writing available in English we are unusually (for this series) including a book-style publication, a special issue of the American (New Jersey) Literary Review entirely dedicated to writers from Wales. Like this Babel Guide the collection ranges over both Welsh and English works by Welsh authors, comprising ten short stories or novel extracts, some reproductions of Iwan Bala’s art and much poetry.

The fifteen poets represented include Dannie Abse, a major name in his era. Peter Finch’s ‘Chew My Gum and Think of Rifles’ cited below is a wry and witty ..READ MORE

White Tree [Y Goeden Wen]

Edwards, Sonia

White Tree is the English translation of the Welsh-language text Y Goeden Wen, translated by the author herself, Sonia Edwards. This is a sophisticated, innovative work that came a close second in the coveted prose medal competition of the National Eisteddfod in 2002, of which the author is a previous winner. As is characteristic of prose works tailor-made for this competition, it is perhaps most aptly defined as a novella and could be read in a single sitting. Which is not to say that its effect is short-lived, for it is the kind of book that lingers long after turning the last page. Its brevity is a testament to the clarity and control of the writing, and it is a guaranteed light and sprightly read, even for the most reluctant.

The White Tree..READ MORE

Big Grey Water [Y Dŵr Mawr Llwyd]

Llywelyn, Robin

A reviewer should not read too much from biography into a writer’s work but irresistibly for someone who visited it at an impressionable age (both physically and televisually through the cult TV series ‘The Prisoner’) the fact that Llywelyn is the manager of Portmeirion, an unusual Italianate fantasy-village constructed by an eccentric architect in mid-Wales seems to explain his comfort with the surreal in his work. In this collection of twelve stories (two of which have not been reviewed as only a partial advance copy was available before publication) things veer between comic and sinister. Llywelyn is seen as a near-revolutionary force in Welsh writing, and his novels, with elements of both fantasy and shock-tactics have caused a rumble in Wales and beyond. Two of these, Seren Wen ar Gefndir Gwyn and O’r Harbwr Gwag i’r Cefnfor Gwyn, have also been published in English as ..READ MORE

Sun and Storm and Other Stories

Roberts, Kate

This little collection is mainly composed of rather engrossing stories about a young Welsh maid, Winni, the classic naïve country girl, written no doubt from Kate Roberts’ own rural background. Although Christmas puts in an appearance these are not sentimental tales: Winni’s violent drunken father — an exultantly bad character — actually mugs her on the street for drinking money.

Winni’s life centres on her affectionate relationships with her little half-brother and with her friends. Roberts shows us a hard-working put-upon life brightened only by the few hours spent with people she loves and by nature’s beauty.

In ‘Starting to Live’ we meet a young married woman, Deina Prys, in her first weeks in her new cottage with her husband, a quarryman like the author’s own people.

‘Emptiness’ is a story of Kate Rob..READ MORE

Two Old Men and Other Stories

Roberts, Kate

This special illustrated edition of a handful of Kate Roberts’ stories was produced in honour of her ninetieth birthday. Kyffin Williams’ fourteen or so accompanying linocuts can be described as both warm and slate-like in their solidity and flatness. There is also a short laudatory introduction by John Gwilym Jones that breathes those most revered names of classic shortstorydom, Maupassant and Chekhov. He also reminds us of Roberts’ ‘intuitive recognition of human relationships’. Perhaps Kate Roberts is not quite as subtle and witty as The Big M or Even Bigger C but she sat closer to the ordinary mortal. Her stories are as soft, warm and delicately healing as Williams’ best images.

The title piece ‘Two Old Men’ seems simple and straightforward at first — but is it a morality tale, an aperçu of a writer’s life, or a vision of ageing and loneliness?

..READ MORE

A Small Country

James, Siân

This is the story of a Welsh farming family in the process of dissolution, both sentimentally and socially, in the period just before World War One. While the setting is idyllic enough — ‘it was a still, silvery morning, doves murmuring from the huge chestnut trees outside the windows’ — this large house with its small staff of loyal retainers is struck with great unhappiness as the head of the family, Josi, runs off with a young(ish) female teacher he encounters by chance one day.

There are echoes of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (a work whose importance has been traduced by its notoriety) in the foregrounding of sexual passion in the lives of the main protagonists and it is set in a similar period.

There are echoes too in the figure of t..READ MORE

The Plum Tree and Other Short Prose [Y Goeden Eirin]

Jones, John Gwilym

Reading these short stories by John Gwilym Jones when they were first published in 1946 must have produced a shock similar to that experienced by the first readers of James Joyce’s Dubliners. The settings, in a semi-rural, semi-industrial quarrying district in north-west Wales, would be familiar enough, whether from personal experience or from reading the pre-war stories of Kate Roberts. But the modernity of content and form caused considerable discomfort. Like the stories of Joyce (whose influence Jones acknowledged in an interview reproduced here) or Katherine Mansfield, these are not so much narratives of external events as studies of a psychological state or reaction to specific events or circumstances. In the story that provides the title, for example, identical twins, Wil and Sionyn, share as children the same experiences, thoughts and feelings to the extent that they seem to be a single person in two bodies, yet as adults their paths completely diverge. It is only years later that Sionyn realises that his fall out of the plum tree when they were growing up bro..READ MORE

There Was a Young Man from Cardiff

Abse, Dannie

Abse’s book is an unusual mixture of short stories and diaristic pieces along with a few examples of his poetry, the form of writing he is best known for. As the book largely has a family focus we inevitably meet some larger-than-life members of a Welsh–Jewish family, like Uncle Eddie the dodgy entrepreneur (‘count your teeth. . . after you’ve seen Eddie’) as well as more ordinary family members in their larger-than-life moments.

The frequent humorous passages of There Was a Young Man from Cardiff (which follows on from a related work Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve) are often shaded by Chekhovian darkness as menace and mystery slide out of the ordinary like the mist rising from the sea at Abse’s beloved Ogmo..READ MORE

My People

Evans, Caradoc

Hailed as the father of ‘Anglo-Welsh’ literature, Caradoc Evans rose to notoriety with this controversial first collection, My People. First published in 1915, the fifteen stories are all set in the fictional village of Manteg and are also unified by recurring themes and characters. The stories depict a rural, Welsh-speaking and religiously Nonconformist community peopled by half-wits, social misfits, lecherous misogynists and oppressive Methodist ministers, all of whom share an obsessive and hollow materialism. Their motto is ‘keep your purse full and the strings tight, and nothing will fail you’.

Each story is set within the dominant institution of the place, Capel Sion (‘Zion Chapel’), ruled with self-interest and sham respectability by the chapel



..
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Tea in the Heather [Te yn y Grug]

Roberts, Kate

Set against the backdrop of the slate-quarrying heartland of Gwynedd at the turn of the twentieth century, Tea in the Heather is Wyn Griffith’s accomplished translation of Te yn y Grug, one of Kate Roberts’ finest achievements. First published in 1959, it is a masterful work that can be considered as both novel and short-story collection, with an episodic structure charting the development of young Begw Gruffudd between the ages of four and nine years old. Begw is a young child coming to terms with the harsh realities of rural life in the Wales of her time and her brief confrontations with death, disappointment, loss and estrangement mark the beginnings of her adulthood with the gradual realisation ‘she herself would have to stand on her own two feet one day’: a rather frightening premise for a young child.

..READ MORE

A Taste of Apples [Ienctid yw ‘Mhechod]

Rowlands, John

The scandal of a passionate affair between a married minister of religion and an attractive young woman from his congregation is still a favourite with newspapers, but in chapel-going Wales in 1965 it was nothing short of dynamite. In this short novel Emrys, trapped in his loveless marriage with the frigid Gwen, becomes sexually obsessed with Elsa, to the extent that he begins to question his faith and the purpose of his ministry. At the same time he manages to convince himself that what he feels for her is not simply lust but real love and that he somehow has God’s approval for his behaviour. Pastoral visits to Elsa’s bedridden mother provide opportunities for the lovers, demonstrating how far his relationship with her has taken him from the straight and narrow: the scene where they make love on the parlour floor while Elsa’s mother lies dying upstairs retains its power to shock even today. The old woman’s death that night brings Elsa to a sharp realisation of her situation and, poignantly, of the wrong she is doing to Emrys’ wife. Through Elsa’s brave efforts, she and Gwen become reconciled whilst Emrys collapses into a breakdown.

With hindsight, we can see that traditional Welsh soci..READ MORE

The Dust Diaries

Sheers, Owen

The Dust Diaries is the ambitious and accomplished first novel of poet Owen Sheers. It is a multi-faceted work on the life of the Reverend Arthur Shearly Cripps — at once a novel, a biography, a memoir, a travelogue, an account of social history, war and imperialism and a love story. Sheers describes Dust Diaries as ‘the story of Arthur Cripps’ life reflected through my imagination’ but it is based on extensive research into the life and surroundings of this socially aware missionary to the Shona people of Zimbabwe.

The book is constructed from intricately layered narratives — the novel spans the twentieth century as author Owen Sheers’ experiences of contemporary Zimbabwe are interspersed with accounts of Cripps’ last days, memories of his time in Africa as well as of the life he left behind in Britain. Cripps’ ..READ MORE

Deadwater

Burke, Sean

Sean Burke’s striking debut novel is set in Cardiff’s notorious Butetown district in 1989, prior to the massive redevelopment which transformed that part of the Welsh capital. An urban thriller in the tradition of George Pelecanos and James Lee Burke, Deadwater begins with the gruesome murder of prostitute Christina Villers. Pharmacist and alcoholic Jack Farissey wakes the next morning, covered in blood and with no memory of the previous night. What follows is an odyssey into an anarchic world of pool halls, seedy pubs and rundown cafés, a blighted place of poverty, drug abuse, prostitution and gang violence.

Jack Farissey is complex, morally ambiguous and contradictory: at once negligent and protective, selfish and compassionate, he provides handouts of medicine to needy locals, recreationally consumes some of his stock himself ..READ MORE

Mr Vogel

Jones, Lloyd

This novel in three distinct sections — the symbolism of which only becomes clear at the end — is itself, as the author describes the land of Wales, a bag of tricks. Once opened it fascinates with its rush of styles, characters, temporal shifts and mythical proportions. A book with a dark secret but ultimately hopeful in spirit, in it we make a breathtaking journey that begins with the discovery of a manuscript.

With a flourish, we are thrust into an anachronistic fairytale world set in and around the infamous Blue Angel pub with narration supplied by its quirky bartender. A motley crew of characters frequent the place, including explorers like George Borrow and Thomas Pennant. Humboldt’s parrot is also in residence and a Welsh Don Quixote drops by regularly. The narrative explodes outwards to eventually encapsulate Welsh history in a cleverly exploited world of make-believe, set in a handy time-warp that allows past and present to converge.

This is the ‘second home’ of Mr Vogel — a solitar..READ MORE

William Jones [William Jones]

Hughes, T.Rowland

This novel was written in Welsh and is largely set in south Wales. A humorous work, it recounts the story of a north-Walian slate-splitter or quarryman who decides to escape a domestic situation quite devoid of bliss — his wife Liza is a caricature ‘bad wife’ who dishes up tinned food and spends his money hanging out in the cinema with Ronald Coleman, Gary Cooper et al.

Amidst the Punch-and-Judy of an awful marriage is a fascinating description of the small world of north Wales in the 1930s. Small world seems to translate as ‘small-minded’ as doughty William Jones explores the naughty world of south Wales, shown as having quite different mores. In fact the south seems gay and libertine t..READ MORE

Mr Schnitzel

Knight, Stephen

Winner of the Arts Council of Wales ‘Book of the Year Award’ in 2001, Mr Schnitzel evades categorisation: it’s a novel, a book of fables, a memoir, even a travelogue. Despite this ambiguous and sometimes fragmentary format, it has an impressive coherence and gravitas.

Night after night, while Stefan and his family are visiting his mother’s aunt in Austria, his father (the eponymous Mr Schnitzel — ‘an honorary title’ bestowed on account of his fondness for that particular dish) tells him fairytales about the Austrian Navy: ‘Stories for a five-year-old unsettled by sleeping in a strange bed in a strange country’. Among the characters Stefan is introduced to are Elfrieda the heartbroken pirate, bent on revenging her husband’s murder; compulsive potholer Thomas von Gammon and his doomed exploration of Europe’s subterranean canals; and Count Otto von Otto, First Admiral of the Austrian Fleet and ‘an excellent swimmer’, dispatched to sc..READ MORE

The Tower

Hughes, Tristan

Place has been defined in one contemporary version as ‘space to which meaning has been ascribed’, and it is the meanings that we apply to land and space that Hughes considers in The Tower. The book is a collection of seven beautifully written and interwoven short stories that look at the same ‘small patch of land’ on Ynys Môn (the Isle of Anglesey). As well as exploring how this specific place influences — and indeed is influenced by — a cast of diverse characters,



Hughes also considers wider issues of place and the importance of the notions of ‘here’, ‘somewhere’ and ‘nowhere’. Some characters seem stranded on the
ynys, unsure of ho..READ MORE

Shadow of the Sickle [Cysgod y Cryman]

Elis, Islwyn Ffowc

This enormously popular novel first appeared in 1953 and heralded a new phase in Welsh-language fiction — a phase of novels featuring a young, confident, even rebellious generation. In 1999 it was voted the best-loved Welsh-language novel of the twentieth century.

It tells the story of Harri Vaughan, the son of a gentrified farmer in central Wales, who is a research student at Bangor and something of a heart–throb. He is engaged to be married to the rather dumb daughter of a well-to-do farmer, and it seems ‘a good match’ in the eyes of local people. At university, however, Harri is swept off his feet by fellow student Gwylan, a staunch member of the Communist Society, and he is converted to Marxism. This causes a painful rift between him and his family of pious Nonconformists. He declares his enmity towards the conservative values of his father, and brandishes a symbolic sickle above his head. Harri is not content just to preach this new gospel, but wants to live it out as well, so he refuses to live at Lleifior, the family home, and finds lodgings in the house of a counc..READ MORE

A Bloody Good Friday

Barry, Desmond

1977. The Queen’s silver jubilee; skinheads; punk; high unemployment; civil and industrial unrest; the year of the four-month-long bread strike in south Wales. Storm clouds are gathering above Merthyr, a (soon to be former) mining town already in sharp decline. Against this backdrop, Davey Daunt, known in the pre-politically correct environment of the 1970s Welsh valleys as ‘Spazzy’ on account of a leg withered by polio, recounts the intertwined stories of a number of dodgy local characters as their paths cross, re-cross and finally badly entangle in the late hours of one fateful and extremely bloody Good Friday.

Macky, Davey’s best mate, released from prison just that morning, is out, along with fellow hard cases Morgan and Gerry, to paint the town red. Blood red. Bunyan, Davey’s childhood abuser, heads towards the high street curryhouse in a drunken stupor. In the ghetto that is the notorious Gurnos housing estate, Gripper, the leader of a gang of skinheads known as the Shop Boys, is arrested and his second-in-command, keen to prove his yobbish credentials, steps in with a rallying cry of anarchy and recreational violence. He leads the delinquent mob on a rampage down to the town, leavi..READ MORE