REVIEW by Amy McCauley

NWR Issue 107

The Three Lives of Dylan Thomas

by Hilly Janes

Published in the year of ‘Thomas ubiquitous’ (2014 was the centenary of the poet’s birth) this is one of a glut of books about Wales’ most loved (and loathed) literary son. While many writers have compulsively pored over juicy anecdotes and bawdy tales of excess, Hilly Janes is altogether more sensitive to the many sides of Thomas.

Her sensitivity extends to the group of artists who surrounded the poet throughout his life – the Swansea group Thomas referred to as the ‘Kardomah gang’. This gang included Janes’ father, the artist Alfred Janes, composer Dan Jones, Charlie Fisher, Mervyn Levy and later, the poet Vernon Watkins. The enduring friendship between these men provides the spine of Janes’ Three Lives so that Thomas is never viewed in isolation. Instead, Janes offers a fascinating glimpse of the lives and struggles of a group of Welsh artists which is both deeply personal and firmly rooted in the social and political context of the time.

She describes the lively exchanges, horseplay and debates which fuelled their artistic friendship; also, their family activities, meals and domestic circumstances. Janes considers the many, often conflicting sides of Thomas: Thomas the man, the artist, the friend, the lover, the drunk. But in Janes’ hands this is no mere rhetorical strategy: it is an act of empathy which allows the poets’ conflicts to exist side by side. Her sympathetic view is a credit to her subject, and the result is a profoundly humane portrait of a man so dogged by sensational headlines we might think we already know everything about him.

The structure of the book works extremely well. The ‘three lives’ of the title refers to three paintings by Alfred Janes – all portraits of his friend Dylan Thomas. The first was made in 1934 (just before Thomas’ first book of poems was published); the second almost twenty years later in 1953 (the year Thomas died in New York); and the third in 1963. Taking each of these portraits as her cue, Janes examines Thomas’ life (and legacy) through the lens of the circumstances surrounding the paintings’ creation. This enables her to do a number of things: examine the development of her father’s artistic practice; reflect on Alfred and Dylan’s friendship (as well as harnessing a vibrant cast of characters, including their wives, friends and lovers), and trace the trajectory of their artistic and personal lives.

While this sounds like an awful lot to achieve, Janes carefully and sensitively weaves the threads together. Perhaps most impressively, she lets Thomas’ myriad contradictions speak for themselves and refuses to sensationalise his restless, exuberant, and unpredictable lifestyle. Equally, Janes refuses to romanticise the poet. Instead, she paints a picture of an artist who was most productive in the quiet of domestic routine; a man who was flawed but gifted and ambitious.

Overall, Janes’ achievement lies in her fluent prose and the grounded sense of real, lived experience she evokes. The nitty-gritty of daily life – the earning of money, washing of nappies and eking out of food rations – is as important as the public suppers, barroom brawls and readings. She even finds time to reflect on the arduous process of drafting and re-drafting poems. Ostensibly, this is a biography of Dylan Thomas; but it is also a biography of Alfred Janes and the ‘Kardomah gang’, a book on social history, and a fascinating exploration of the creative processes of the artist. Following a year in which writers and critics have felt duty-bound to pledge support for (or denounce) the genius of Dylan Thomas, it is invigorating to read a book with no cause to advance. This impartiality encourages the reader to forget the headlines and consider Thomas afresh.

Janes’ angle on Thomas is thoughtful, unromantic (in the best possible sense) and atypical. The Three Lives of Dylan Thomas is grippingly written and refreshingly unbiased and deserves to be widely read.

Amy McCauley is Poetry Submissions Editor of New Welsh Review


previous review: Second-Hand Rain
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