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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Martha, Jack and Shanco [Martha, Jac a Sianco]

Lewis, Caryl

This is a tight, close-up little drama with rural characters, including the slow Shanco who ‘keeps his terrier under his jumper at all times’. Their farmhouse is Graig-ddu (‘Black Rock’): ‘The orchard came right up behind the house, making it dark and damp; the wallpaper’s original light blue a distant memory, since by now it was blackened by smoke’. This is no rural idyll, but Lewis’ eye for detail gives us pleasure amidst the squalor and ‘unpleasantness’ (as those who romanticise rural existence might see it).

Her eye is an eye for humour too: ‘As she put the teapot on the table, Jack pulled off his hat and gave it to the pot to wear while it brewed the tea’.

Staccato chapters envision the repetitive, uncomfortable moments of these isolated farming siblings’ lives, frying bacon and potatoes, slaughtering turkeys or training sheepdogs. But there is a grand drama unfolding here about marriage and property as in the best Jane Austen.

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Monica [Monica]

Lewis, Saunders

This short novel was the first of only two which Saunders Lewis published, yet he is widely regarded as the doyen of modern Welsh-language writers, not primarily for the novels, but mainly on account of his many plays, poems and a vast output of literary criticism, journalism and political writings. Although his novels may seem like byways, they are nevertheless ground-breaking works, and Monica in particular is a milestone in the history of the Welsh-language novel.



When it was published in 1930, it received little acclaim, and was largely reviled by the critics — the main reason being that it dealt with a then taboo subject in Welsh Nonconformist circles, namely the eroticism of romantic love. Wales before the Methodist Revival of the eighteenth century had not been so shy of physical desire. Dafydd ap Gwilym in the fourteenth century had celebrated it, and even the eighteenth-century revivalis..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

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

White Star [Seren Wen ar Gefndir Gwyn]

Llywelyn, Robin

White Star is a political allegory set in the future. The Welsh title (which translates as ‘White Star on a White Background’) is an allusion to the flag — ironic  and apolitical — adopted by the embryonic state of Llawr Gwlad (‘Lowland’) as it emerges from a period of occupation and cultural humiliation.

In the book, the alien forces of the great Gwlad Alltud (‘Land of Exile’) see their supremacy challenged by an alliance of the lesser provinces. These include Tir Bach (‘Little Land’), Haf heb Haul (‘Sunless Summer’), Gaeaf Mawr (‘Great Winter’), names which reflect the geopolitical climate of the age.

Both the provinces and Robin Llywelyn’s novel are peopled with exotic and often diabolical characters. Tir Bach is ruled by the amorphous Llwch Dan Draed (‘Dust Under Foot’), a typically Llywelynesq..READ MORE

Melog [Melog]

Morgan, Mihangel

A mysterious young foreigner, Melog, intrudes into the life of a retiring academic in a small place in the Welsh valleys. Using a moderately playful literary format (with many references to actual and imagined books from the Welsh and European past creating a puzzle-book pleasure) there is also an extended Sci-Fi metaphor for the relationship between England and Wales or between other unequal partnerships of coloniser and colonised. This metaphorical exploration is embodied by the Candide-like Melog who sees, finds and even creates wonder everywhere he goes.

Apart from his own eccentric appearance and behaviour, Melog’s Wales is  fairly everyday, albeit mainly populated by roughnecks, a predominately sub-proletarian world of people on the dole with a 1970s flavour. This is either Morgan’s jaundiced view of his country (or the valley towns where Melog is set) or satirical as in the clever chapter ‘Public Executio..READ MORE

One Moonlit Night [Un Nos Ola Leuad]

Prichard, Caradog

One Moonlit Night doesn’t have a clear-cut, linear narrative, as it is based on seemingly jumbled-up memories which pour haphazardly onto its pages. Yet a strong framework is provided by the moonlit night of the title, as the protagonist is a grown-up man who has returned to his native village after a period of incarceration for murder. As he walks around the village one night various places evoke scenes from his childhood and adolescence, and gradually his story builds up. An aura of mysteriousness surrounds him: he is unnamed, fatherless, and obsessed with his mad mother who spent the last part of her life in an asylum. The main character himself seems deranged (and the title is suggestive of lunacy), so that we seem to be looking into a cracked mirror where the image is all awry.

Although the story is narrated by one character, the perspective changes from time to time, which is both unsettling and exciting. At times the style is an adolescent’s stream-of-consciousness, at others the voice of an adult narrator and yet again there are highly-charged, psalm-like, ..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’.

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Feet in Chains [Traed Mewn Cyon]

Roberts, Kate

Feet in Chains by Kate Roberts is one of the most enduring Welsh-language novels of the twentieth century. In it, as in the entirety of her work, the author succeeds in capturing and committing to print the memory of a society destined to pass. Set in Roberts’ native Arfon, which was a practically monolingual Welsh-speaking community until after World War Two, Feet in Chains records some forty years of the daily struggle with penury of a young couple, Ifan and Jane Gruffydd. Theirs’ is the fight to rear a family on a modest quarry wage supplemented by subsistence farming. As with the other men-folk of the vicinity, Ifan’s days are punctuated by the ringing of the quarry bell, while wife Jane labours season in season out to bring light and joy to the homestead.

Education provides the key for the next generation to escape a ..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

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

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.

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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?

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The World of Kate Roberts: Selected Stories 1925–1981

Roberts, Kate

This is a definitive collection of Kate Roberts’ stories compiled shortly after her death in 1985. Rather than being the work of a major British publisher, proud to have this flag-bearer and innovator of Welsh literature on their list, it comes from Temple University Press in New Jersey who have a strong international and translated literature list. Copies both new and used are easy enough to find on the Internet but library copies are infrequent in the UK. This is an essential book for anyone with a real interest in Welsh-language fiction because here one can see the breadth and development of this important and genial author.

Her translator, Joseph P. Clancy, notes in his introduction that Kate Roberts is exercised by cultural and spiritual impoverishment as well as the economic kind. This makes her almost uncannily relevant in this period of dumbing down and global-disposable culture.

The volume starts with autobiographical excerpts, lamenting the impoverishment of the Welsh spoken in Denbigh wher..READ MORE

Pestilence [Y Pla]

Roberts, Wiliam Owen

Wiliam Owen Roberts’ Pestilence is a work whose vision and depth has rarely been equalled in modern Welsh writing. A historical novel set in the mid-fourteenth century, it is a study in the instigation of change, the forces which cause change, and ways in which people and society react and adapt to change. The context for this study is, on the one hand, feudal Wales, and, on the other, a Europe prey to the Black Death, ruled by insouciant monarchs, and animated by apocalyptic religious zeal.

The reader is invited to explore the lives of Welsh serf and lord, sheriff, soldier and clergyman in the time after Edward II’s conquest of the country, and the demise of the indigenous Welsh princes and their authority.

The context is of disenfranchisement and a polit..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

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 Old Farmhouse [Hen Dŷ Ffarm]

Williams, D.J.

Here is a seemingly simple stream of reminiscences of rural life in north Carmarthen in the late nineteenth century: lyrical evocations of a lad’s first six years on the family farm. The six-year-old’s eyes record and recreate a world and a way of life but the adult narrator simultaneously re-enacts the loss of it. We become aware of the disjunction between an ‘all one long today, dateless, endless and carefree’ and ‘the day we left Penrhiw [the family farm, Ed.] at the beginning of October 1891’, made all the more poignant because the narrative’s past, present and future is already lost for the twenty-first-century reader.

D.J. Williams’ easy and intimate storyteller’s style recreates what he sees as the lost values of belonging and community in a rural idyll overtaken by industrialisation’s disconnection and dislocation. Rather than being a homily, The Old Farmhouse is a rooted, earthy celebration. The narrative is full of naming sequen..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

The Hiding Place

Azzopardi, Trezza

Set in the old Cardiff docklands of Tiger Bay, Trezza Azzopardi’s Booker shortlisted novel The Hiding Place is the story of Maltese immigrant Frank Gauci, his Welsh wife Mary, and their six daughters: Celesta, Marina, Rose, Fran, Luca, and Dolores. Through the eyes of the youngest daughter, Dolores or Dol, a vivid picture of Cardiff’s seedy 1960s underworld is painted: its vibrant immigrant community of gangsters, gaming rooms and betting shops, cafés, clubs and back-to-back terraces. But Azzopardi’s main focus is the troubled family life of the Gaucis themselves, the harrowing memories of abuse, deprivation and loss that, even thirty years on, refuse to fade for Dolores and are brought sharply into relief when, after three decades of absence, she returns to Cardiff on the news of her mother’s death. Confronted once more with her troubled past, Dolores finds herself locked in a struggle with both the willed amnesia of her sisters and her own uncertain memories — not to mention the literal erasure of place by Cardiff’s dockland developers — to salvage from this past something meaningful for the future. To what extent she succeeds in this is ..READ MORE