The Library of Wales' 'So Long, Hector Bebb' by Ron Berry nominated for Greatest Welsh Novel!
Shortly after the nomination of Stevie Davies’s novel Awakening for as a contender for their title of Greatest Welsh Novel, Wales Art Review, who are searching for the greatest work of long fictional prose written by a Welsh author, have nominated another novel published by Parthian, So Long, Hector Bebb by Ron Berry, for this very same award. Altogether, over the course of the year, Wales Art Review’s committee will select twenty-five novels to be long-listed for their Greatest Welsh Novel award and present them in a nominating essay. At the end of the year they will reveal the winner of the literary award.
To come back to So Long, Hector Bebb: On 17th December 2010, a review written by Niall Griffiths appeared in The Independent in which the author describes his first encounters with this classic of Welsh literature in English as well as his rediscovery of the book, and explains how this novel influenced his own style of writing. Sad about having lost his copy and being aware of the fact that the title, which had first been published in 1970, had gone out of print, Griffiths rediscovered this ‘Book of a Lifetime’ in the new Library of Wales series. For him, this novel “has been, and continues to be, a guide and pilot to my genesis and evolution as a writer.” Talking about his first reading experience of So Long, Hector Bebb, the reviewer wrote: “I realised, for the first time, that the ways in which ordinary, non-TV people spoke - their rhythms and elisions, their slang, their ungrammatical but identifying linguistic tics - were important and valuable and uniquely expressive and possessed of a huge communicative power. Ordinary people could be the subjects for books; they mattered. Their lives were worthy of exploring in literature. This was seismic.” Impressed by the distinct characters and the thrill of Berry's language, Griffiths goes on: “It remains an extraordinary novel: 14 different voices tell how Hector Bebb, a Valleys boxer, punches and kills the barman who has been openly having an affair with his wife, and then escapes to a hill farm for five years where he is looked after by an admirer, a one-armed ex-soldier. On discovery, Hector flees further into the mountains, turns feral, and is destroyed during a pursuit by armed police. The plot of a thriller, then, or something like one: but the manner of its telling rings and lingers; the voices capture, perfectly and utterly without caricature or condescension, the rich and swirling interior monologues of the cast. Unmawkish, unjudging, it can only have come from the pen of one completely unafraid to write from the centre of his own culture.”
For Craig Austin from Wales Art Review, So Long, Hector Bebb “is a great Welsh novel, maybe the great Welsh novel, because much like its ultimately doomed pugilist of a protagonist, it defiantly refuses to play by the antiquated rules of its predecessors. This is no work of dewy-eyed, verdant-valleyed whimsy; there are no heroes here, no bleeding hearts of solid Welsh gold, no ultimate redemption, or hackneyed working class valour. It is a work ultimately defined by fatalism and claustrophobic conditions, and given that it was written in the raw aftermath of the Aberfan disaster, by a former coalminer no less, one wholly devoid of the voices of children; an entire generation erased in a single moment of unfathomable catastrophe.”
Ron Berry, the author of the novel, was born in 1920 in Blaen-cwm in the Rhondda Valley and worked as a miner from the age of fourteen. He was also a gifted sportsman who had played for Swansea Town, and an occasional boxer. Austin points out that although So Long, Hector Bebb is a ostensibly a story about a boxer, and boxing itself, in its essence it is no sports book but rather “a granite-hard thriller entirely bereft of romance; a story underpinned by an unholy ragbag collective of lumpen, wanting men and duplicitous, disillusioned women.” Refering to Berry’s style of writing, Austin warns the reader of “the brutally industrial language that punctuates Berry’s prose like ’80s hedgerow pornography”, but adds immediately that despite the rough tone it is precisely Berry’s dialogue which is the real thrill in the novel. He explains this paradoxon as follows: “Words mangled and disfigured by razor-sharp tongues and broken teeth to create a brutal beauty of indeterminate virtue. Even the swearing, and there is plenty of swearing, has its own deliciously delightful appeal. (…) These voices ring true, and the fact that they don’t conform to clichéd museum-piece images of rolling hills, kindly hearts, and earnest noble toil only adds to their aggregated impact upon the reader.”
Let’s keep our fingers crossed that this controversial novel will convince Wales Art Review’s jury at the final vote for the Greatest Welsh Novel at the end of the year.