Title #39 in the Library of Wales series is revealed...
March 2014 saw the release of the outstanding Story anthology, the first volume of which contains six short stories written by Rhys Davies – the highest number of contributions from any author across both volumes. Therefore, it should be of no surprise that the Library of Wales has selected Rhys Davies’ 1937 text A Time to Laugh to be number 39 in its series of classic Welsh fiction.
The release, scheduled for fall 2014, follows on seven years after his last entry in the series – 2007’s The Withered Root – was published, and is the second novel in Davies’ critically acclaimed Rhondda Trilogy, which biographer Meic Stephens has called ‘the most sustained literary examination of Welsh industrial history ever published and certainly the least ideologically distorted’.
A Time to Laugh is set in a coal-mining valley on the eve of the 20th century, and takes place against a background of industrial unrest and social change. The old certainties of pastoral Rhondda have given way to a new age of capital and steam, and life in the Valley has been transformed by strike, riot and gruelling poverty.
The central character is Dr Tudor Morris, whose ancient estate has been sold to one of the railway companies opening up the Rhondda for the purpose of extracting coal and taking it down the Valley to the docks in Cardiff. The doctor abandons his class and seeks personal salvation among the poor.
About Rhys Davies
Rhys Davies (1901–1978) was one of the most prolific and unusual writers to emerge from the Welsh industrial valleys in the twentieth century. Born in Clydach Vale, a tributary valley of the Rhondda arising from Tonypandy, he was the fourth child of a small grocer and an uncertified schoolteacher. He spurned conventional education and left the valley, which was to be the basis of much of his work, at the age of nineteen, settling in London, which was to remain his base until he died.
Early in his literary career, he travelled to the south of France where he was befriended by D. H. Lawrence, who remained an influence in his writing. Though sex remained, for Davies, the primary determinant of human relations, he differed radically from Lawrence in that he saw the struggle for power rather than love, either sexual or emotional, as the crucial factor.
Though the bulk of his work was in the novel he achieved his greatest distinction in the field of the short story. Having few predecessors, Welsh or English, he drew his inspiration and models from continental European and Russian masters; Chekhov and Maupassant, Tolstoy and Flaubert. His view of humanity was Classical in that he saw people as being identically motivated whether in biblical Israel, Ancient Greece or the Rhondda valley. Much of his output was concerned with women, who would almost invariably emerge triumphant from any conflict.
He was a gay man at a time when it was difficult to live openly with his sexuality. He lived alone for most of his life and avoided relationships which seemed to betoken commitment on his part. His closest friendships were with women. He avoided literary coteries and groups, though he might have joined several, and held no discernible religious or political convictions. He lived, to an intense degree, for his art.
As has already been mentioned, Davies is no stranger to the Library of Wales, and his 1927 classic The Withered Root was the twelfth release in the series. The novel recounts the troubled life of Reuben Daniels, reared in a South Wales industrial valley, in the bosom of the Nonconformist culture. Therein lies his downfall and that of his people, for The Withered Root is as thoroughly opposed to Welsh Nonconformity as My People (Caradoc Evans), though for different reasons. Revivalist passions constitute nothing but a perverse outlet for an all too human sexuality which chapel culture has otherwise repressed. Nonconformity has withered the root of natural sexual well-being in the Welsh, and then feeds off the twisted fruits.
In his article on the novel for Wales Arts Review, Jon Gower writes that 'The Withered Root is a rich evocation of a time when religion swept like wildfire through Wales. At times the author’s imagination blazes incredibly brightly, setting the very pages on fire. Rhys Davies really is one of our very best Welsh writers and almost criminally neglected.'
Last autumn also saw the release of Meic Stephens’ comprehensive biography of Davies – Rhys Davies: A Writer’s Life. Such a man, such a writer, presents challenges for the biographer which Meic Stephens accepts with alacrity. He describes the writer’s early years as the Blaenclydach grocer’s son, his abhorrence of ‘chapel culture’, his bohemian years in Fitzrovia, his visit to the Lawrences in the south of France, his unremitting work ethic, his patrons, his admiration for the French and Russian writers who were his models, his love-hate relationship with the Rhondda, and above all, the dissembling that went into Print of a Hare’s Foot (1969), ‘an autobiographical beginning’, which he shows to be a most unreliable book from start to finish.
This is the first full biography of an important Welsh writer and a milestone in Welsh biographical writing. Drawing on hitherto unavailable sources, including many conversations with the writer’s brother, it provides a perspective in which his very real achievement can be more easily appreciated.
The Spectator states that ‘[Meic] has done more than justice...to the black humour of Davies’s writing and that of his life. This is a delightful book, which is itself a social history in its own right, and funny’, an opinion shared by Wales Arts Review, who agree that, 'in writing this informative, intriguing biography, Meic Stephens has done the reading public a great service, as Rhys Davies is clearly a writer who should be read more of by people not just in Wales but everywhere.’
A Time to Laugh will be released in autumn 2014.