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 Summer Day and Other Stories

Roberts, Kate

Kate Roberts was one of a very few women writers in Welsh to achieve prominence in the rather oppressive atmosphere of mid-twentieth century Wales, and this volume clearly demonstrates why she was able to make that breakthrough. Although the stories here were originally published in Welsh-language periodicals from 1925 to 1937, it was 1946 before this volume of beautifully-crafted translations brought them to the notice of a wider audience in Wales and outside. These are not proto-feminist texts, but they are written out of specifically female experience and no male Welsh writer of the time



understood or conveyed as Roberts does the hidden heroism and tragedy of working-class women’s existence in the quarry districts of north-west Wales.

These women show no self-pity, only endurance. Hemmed in by circumstances and narrow gender roles, Roberts’ characters manage to achieve small moments of pleasure through simple things — paying off pa..READ MORE

Autobiographies [Neb]

Thomas, R.S.

[This autobiographical work does not fit precisely the Babel Guide scheme but is included for the importance of the writer. RK]

Asked to name two great Welsh poets of the twentieth century many people would mention Dylan Thomas and R.S. Thomas. As it happens both were born within a year of one another: Dylan in 1914 in Swansea and Ronald Stewart in 1913 in Cardiff. When Dylan Thomas died notoriously in Manhattan of an ‘insult to the brain’ in 1953, this was still three years before R.S. published his acclaimed first major collection, Song at the Year’s Turning (1955). It was John Betjeman, in a generous introduction to this work, who said that R.S.  Thomas’ poetry would outlive his own. Whethe..READ MORE

The Awakening [Y Byw sy’n Cysgu]

Roberts, Kate

A woman’s world within the man’s world of the little quarry town of Aberentryd just after World War Two. We become witnesses to the exploding boil of a marriage break-up with its repercussions for all those involved.

Kate Roberts delivers us an X-ray plate of a household in a close-packed terrace, part of a small-scale, personalistic and familial world of So-and-So the teacher and Jones the lawyer. Although written from within the female character’s point of view, even resorting to diary pages to give us (‘the abandoned woman’) Lora Ffenig’s inner voice, somehow the male characters are more enjoyable. There’s Uncle Edward ‘wearing the same clothes he’d worn at the beginning of the century’, whose mockable retro country manners and opinions warn of a fundamental division between town and country, or Lora Ffenig’s brother-in-law Owen, whose tolerance and open-mindedness contrasts with the personalities of a group of rather rigid and dissatisfied female folk, and even Iolo the strayer who, one senses, will not find long-term joy with attractive husband-thief Mrs Amroth, ‘as hard as Spanish iron’.

..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

Border Country

Williams, Raymond

Raymond Williams is a writer better known for his work in literary and cultural studies than his fiction, but his often overlooked novels are nonetheless important and interesting. Border Country, Williams’ first novel and part of a border trilogy, is the story of the experiences of Matthew Price, a London-based lecturer, on his return to his family home in Glynmawr in the Welsh Marches. His visit is prompted by his father’s poor health, and his return home causes both characters to (re)consider aspects of their lives and their relationship. Their exploration of their shared memories — especially those of the 1926 General Strike — reveals both personal histories and the social history of mid-twentieth century Wales.

Borders are a central motif of this novel — it was completed at the end of the 1950s, a time when the boundaries between literary and cultural theory were becoming more permeable. ..READ MORE

Brothers

Rubens, Bernice

My maternal grandfather, like one of Bernice Rubens’ grandfathers, grew up in the Tsar’s Russia and passed on three things from his life there: a gleaming brass samovar — the sine qua non of Russic domestic pride; my mother’s frankly rather broken Yiddish, faint echo of a thousand years of Jewish Europe and one single, short but deafening item from the word-horde of the mighty Russian language: pogrom.

If anyone doesn’t quite know what a pogrom was, then see Rubens’ evocation here — description would be too bland a term — on pages 111 to 123.

..READ MORE

Classic Welsh Short Stories

Jones, Gwyn and Elis, Islwyn Ffowc eds.

Classic Welsh Short Stories is a collection of twenty–five stories from the twentieth century and includes fifteen stories originally written in English and ten translated from Welsh. There is a striking vitality to these stories, which offer a good insight into Welsh culture and the breadth of its literature.

Traditionally the Welsh story is seen as a tale about the exploits of some colourful character living in an agricultural or mining community. In this vein Rhys Davies’ entertaining ‘Canute’ describes the events when a group of men leave a south Wales valley for London, off to see the England vs. Wales rugby international: ‘You had the impression that the place would be denuded of its entire male population, as in some archaic war. . .  In black mining valleys, on rustic heights, in market towns and calm villages, myriads of house doors opened during the course of the night and a man issued from an oblong of yellow light, a railway ticket replacing the old spear’. Davies has affectionately set up the men for s..READ MORE

The Colour of a Dog Running Away

Gwyn, Richard

1990s Barcelona, a surreal and postmodern landscape peopled by rooftop raiders, English teachers, artists and fire-eaters. A city that is both menacing and inspirational. The majority of the narrative takes place in the atmospheric Gothic quarter with its narrow alleyways, medieval churches, hidden squares and shady bars, the latter frequented with zealous regularity by the improbably named Rhys Morgan Aurelio Lucas and his displaced friends.

Lucas is a thirty-three-year old translator and aspiring musician whose story begins with his witnessing a mugging one May evening. The next day a mysterious postcard arrives leading him to the beautiful Barcelonesa, Nuria, with whom he begins an intensely passionate affair.

Nuria seems to provide Lucas with stability and meaning in a world of fleeting attachments and constant movement. But nothing is as it seems in this city where the ‘abiding attraction lies in its relentless powers of reinvention, a ruthless creativity that rubs off on people after the brief..READ MORE

Corner People

Jones, Harri Pritchard

Corner People is a collection of thirteen stories by this doctor, translator and Welsh-language novelist, short-story and script-writer. ‘Exit’ is the reminiscence of a (rather banal) theatrical career, ‘Venturing Forth’ the account of a schoolmistress who has dedicated herself to marking and her ‘tada’ (‘dad’) — a firm chapel man: ‘With tada I could idolise him, love him body and soul, without there being any lust involved’.

‘Matinee’ is clever and intriguing; an ageing actress is called to witness her experiences with a (deceased) great poet whose biography has been commissioned. She aims to have the pleasure of ‘writing’ a bit of personal and poetic history all to suit herself and this will be her greatest performance. In fact the poet was ‘a creature set apart’, definitely not one of the gang and his relationship with the actress was not so wonderful for her. This is a short but very clever essay on reminiscence versus reality (‘falsified memory syndrome’ anybody?) but intensely sympathetic – as is ‘Venturing Forth’ to i..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

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

The Element of Water

Davies, Stevie

The twin narratives of The Element of Water take place in 1945 and 1958. Following Hitler’s suicide in the last days of World War Two in Europe, Admiral Dönitz is pronounced head of state, and establishes the headquarters of the shattered Reich at Ruhleben naval camp on Lake Plön. As the Allies approach, Dönitz’s remaining forces flee, throwing their medals and weapons into the lake’s dark waters. Thirteen years later, the building has become a British forces boarding school (which, we are told in a foreword, the author herself attended). Michael Quantz, a former Nazi intelligence officer based at Ruhleben during Dönitz’s time, and his adult son Wolfi are now music teachers at the British school. Both men are haunted — Wolfi by the death of his mother during an allied air raid, his father by the atrocities he witnessed during the war, particularly those perpetrated by his childhood friend Paul Dahl: ‘From a seraphic Lutheran chorister, Paul had ripened to the purest filth’. Wolfi, a shy,  awkward young man, struggles with the burgeoning contempt he and his peers have for the complicity of his fath..READ MORE

From Empty Harbour to White Ocean [O’r Harbwr Gwag i’r Cefnfor Gwyn]

Llywelyn, Robin

Robin Llywelyn’s second novel speaks with a voice both homely and profoundly alien. The characters, whether at home or in exile, are detached from their roots and yet carry them with them, like it or not. Gregor Marini, a trainee architect with no prospects, is sacked from his job as wine waiter in a posh hotel so decides to leave his middle-class girlfriend, Alice, and take his chance as an illegal immigrant to the country across the sea. There, in a dangerous city dominated by a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, he meets a rag-bag of characters. Some with Welsh nicknames, others with names that would be at home anywhere in Europe, they include the sly beggar, Llygad Bwyd, a slipshod landlady and her sinister bully of a son, Adam Laban.

Armed with false papers, Gregor finds a job as assistant to the Du Traheus, a character filched from a medieval Welsh story. Now turned municipal librarian, he guards his subterranean kingdom of endless bookshelves where the cobwebs are thick enough to engulf a man. Gregor’s new boss is originally from the country across the border, a country whose traditional way of life is threatened by its aggressive neighbour. Ethnic cleansing and economic collapse have left only the..READ MORE

The Master of Pen y Bryn [Gŵr Pen y Bryn]

Davies, E. Tegla

Subtitled ‘A Story from the Period of the Tithe War’ (referring to a public campaign, with riotous interludes, in the late nineteenth century against enforced contributions to the Anglican clergy in Wales by its largely Nonconformist non-Anglican population) this is not, however, the dramatic account of rebellion and national struggle one might expect. Rather it is a morality tale centred on the lives of two men, John Williams ‘Master of Pen y Bryn’ and his adversary, Hughes, and seems to represent a shift from a worldview of rule-book Protestantism and chapel morality to a Romantic view of Natural Beauty and Love as inspiration for redemption and moral regeneration. As Marcus Aurelius put it well before the Christian age: ‘overcoming the obstacle to a task becomes the task’. The ‘task’ here is the overcoming of petty anger and vengefulness and the resultant improvement of the soul or character. But it is not the bleeding Jesus on the cross that inspires the morally improving protagonist Hughes but a vision of romantic and erotic bliss, a lovely scene of young love, the young love that Hughes himself largely missed out on when young.

Edward Tegla Davies (a Wesleyan minister and a pr..READ MORE