REVIEW by Prof Tony Brown

NWR Issue r26

Double Review: Brief Lives: Six Fictions and Christopher Meredith (Writers of Wales)

by Christopher Meredith (stories) and Diana Wallace (monograph)

In the preliminary pages of this new collection of short stories, Brief Lives, Six Fictions, Christopher Meredith admits that ‘several books have been called Brief Lives’, but that he has stuck to it ‘like those composers and visual artists who sometimes take their titles from the common store, partly in acknowledgment that we’re all in this together.’ In fact, the title contains, in its characteristic Meredith punning, a richness of meanings. For instance, what we get in these short stories are brief episodes in the characters’ lives, moments in time and process, haunted in a variety of ways by a sense of life’s brevity. The six stories are in fact arranged in a chronology which is both social and individual. Thus, ‘Averted Vision’, the first story, is set immediately after the end of the Second World War as two soldiers guard a hold-full of Japanese prisoners on an old coal ship, far out in the southern ocean at night. One of the soldiers accidentally injures a prisoner and, to avoid punishment, quietly pushes him overboard. The other soldier, Lovat, averts his eyes and says nothing, though his consciousness of guilt by association is evident when, in response to his fellow soldier’s dismissive ‘He’s only a jap’, he thinks to himself. ‘He’s a jap. I’m a taff. Who the fuck are you?’ In its isolated setting, far out under the stars, the episode is reminiscent of one of James Hanley’s stark, existential stories, but the intertexual echoes are from Coleridge, as snatches of ‘The Ancient Mariner’, another sea-borne tale of moral choice under the stars, drift across Lovat’s mind: ‘The many men so beautiful….’

‘Progress’ is set just a few years later as a young ex-service man considers a return to the south Wales colliery where he had worked as a teenager before the War. He has, however, in these post-war years a sense of wider horizons, of being ‘involved in the flowing of people over the earth in the ordinary processes of life’. In particular, he is conscious of the social shifts, of social progress, following the election of 1945: the colliery has recently been nationalized, and the NHS is already affecting ordinary people’s lives – his young child has ‘been born in a hospital. A real hospital’. There is a moving sense of this individual young man, at this point in history, seeking to define his own route in life as the world shifts around him. There is a similar sense of ordinary lives in the flux of time in ‘The Cavalry’, set at the very beginning of the 1960s, as a young working-class family in a Valleys town celebrates Christmas. The magic of Christmas Day is in part seen through the eyes of one of the little boys – the toy soldiers, the annuals, the lights on the Christmas tree – with an innocent immediacy reminiscent of Glyn Jones’ stories of childhood. The festive domestic world is beautifully evoked, richly nostalgic for those of us, like Meredith, of that generation. Again there is a sense of realities and processes beyond the human; the little boy notices that ‘Christmas didn’t happen outside the house like you thought it would. It was grey and grainy and unmoving and nobody was about. It was like the day went on being itself, as if it didn’ care what it was supposed to be like.’ While there is still a sense of their living ‘After the War’, again the family lives in a world which is changing: they settle down on Christmas night to watch a Charlie Chaplin film on their little television, while outside is the dark and the night sky.

In the most substantial story here ‘The Enthusiast’, an email from a boyhood friend triggers memories in the mind of the narrator, Rob, of his boyhood in a south Wales housing estate. All through the story there is a sense of elusiveness, of our unique individual brief experience of life in time, and how little we truly know of the other people we encounter in that life, our childhood friends, our workmates. The patterns we make as we construct our lives are imagined in the story in terms of the ‘improvised secret’ footpaths the boys create, away from the official roads, as they walk to school; later, as the official tracks of Rob’s work life constrain him, these ‘half obliterated tracks of memory wound intermittently among them’. Again, memories are arbitrary, fluid, unpredictable – like, Rob thinks, the coloured handkerchiefs a magician produces from his sleeve – and the story itself is appropriately non-linear. In a superbly written final scene, Rob remembers a boyhood walk in the countryside with a friend. Reaching a river, ‘We tried to invent a path across like picking out a constellation’; when they reach the opposite bank, they each lie on the warm grass: ‘I listened. I could hear the world again. The river. It wasn’t a roar, but a lot of complicated trickling, a lot of threads, a lot of voices laughing, not in one laugh but in the laughter of many conversations. The threads crossed and joined and parted in a dance of so many rhythms and so many tracks that there was none.’ The whole passage is remarkable, an attempt to capture the flux of life itself. Looking back, the middle-aged Rob wonders, ‘What of any consequence could have happened in the moment that had passed since then?’ Another brief life in the flow of time.

The final two stories are similarly haunted by time and memory. In ‘Haptivox’, science has invented a virtual reality device for use by gerontologists in palliative care. The device enables an unnamed elderly couple in their separate institutions to bring themselves together again in a series of erotic encounters constructed from their memories. ‘Opening Time’ takes us a step further, beyond death into an enigmatic narrative of resurrection. The story is reprinted from Meredith’s poetry collection Snaring Heaven (1990); ‘I’m as certain as I’ve ever been of anything that it belongs in both books,’ he writes intriguingly in his acknowledgments. Emotionally and imaginatively, it is indeed a resonantly fitting ending for a book so concerned with the fluxes of life in time. The unnamed narrator leaves the crowd of people who have also been resurrected, as they tramp across an empty landscape and he arrives at ‘a familiar council estate’ and, unseen, enters a familiar house where a working man comes home to where a young boy is playing. This dreamlike homecoming echoes not only the return in memory of Rob to his council house home in ‘The Enthusiast’, but the return of Griffri, unrecognised, to his home and mother at in the final scene of Griffri (1991) and the return of Jack to his home valley in Shifts (1988). While an awareness of the brevity of the individual’s life in the sweep of time is manifestly a universal one, that awareness is in Meredith’s beautifully achieved fictions an acute one and is given texture and emotional resonance by its being rooted in the personal and the local.

***

Cover of Chris Meredith by Diana Wallace Writers of Wales


Indeed, Diana Wallace’s excellent new book on Meredith in the ‘Writers of Wales’ series, the first book-length study, quotes him referring to the importance of the ‘locatedness of experience’ and Wallace’s exhaustively researched discussion not only describes in detail the familial and social background of this child of the Cefn Golau housing estate in Tredegar, but demonstrates the rich soil which the life of that area and, later Breconshire and the Black Mountains, provided for the roots of the writer. At the same time creativity comes from tension: Wallace quotes an astute review by John Barnie in which he identifies in Meredith, as in other working-class writers educated away from their roots, ‘a yearning to be accepted by the community as one of its own, and a compensating emphasis on memory of childhood days before the crisis was precipitated.’ And we register again that recurring Meredith motif of the protagonist’s return to home.

Wallace organises her chapters so as to parallel the publication of Meredith’s volumes of poetry with the fiction published in the same period. The result is deeply rewarding, not only showing the complex ways in which the two genres interact (particularly Snaring Heaven (1990) and Griffri (1991), whose protagonist is of course himself a poet), but demonstrating quite how sophisticated, challenging and adventurous a poet Meredith is. Wallace’s detailed discussions of both poetry and fiction will be indispensable for future exploration of the author’s work. (Given the quality of Meredith’s achievement, and indeed by now its duration, it’s high time such work was undertaken, beyond somewhat routine discussion of Shifts in its post-industrial context.) Amongst the numerous themes which Wallace perceptively traces, she is at several points especially attuned to issues of gender; Judith is left at the threshold of feminism as Shifts ends, for instance. (Might one add that the almost obsessive sexual banter of the men in the cabin at the steelworks in the same novel is a measure of their own desperate sense of the ways in which their masculinity is being undermined, as the Welsh industrial economy shifts and their role in it, ‘men of steel’, destroyed?) By the time of Meredith’s most recent novel, The Book of Idiots (2012), such roles are gone – Wallace draws tellingly on anthropologist David Graeber’s ‘On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs’ (strikemag.org, 2013) – and Meredith’s novel focuses almost totally on the lives of, and relationships between, men and the stresses of constructing masculinity in the contemporary world. At the same time, Wallace is good on the wider perspectives in Meredith’s work, touched on above: time, process, and the struggle to shape into meaning, in life and in art, the messiness of human experience, the ‘gloopness’ as it is called in Sidereal Time (1998), and Meredith’s acute sense of the arbitrariness of that shaping.

Wallace draws rewardingly on interviews with Meredith (he is an especially alert and thoughtful interviewee) and on his own occasional critical reviews and essays on, for instance, Gwyn Thomas, Alun Lewis and Dorothy Edwards, as well as his engagements with Welsh-language writing. Given the quality of his essays and the acuteness of Meredith as a critic, it is perhaps time that an enterprising publisher encouraged Chris Meredith to put together a selected essays and reviews.

Prof Tony Brown is Professor Emeritus in School of English Literature, and is also co-director of the RS Thomas Research Centre at Bangor University. He was the founder-editor of Welsh Writing in English: A Yearbook of Critical Essays, and is the author of a wide range of publications on English-language literature in Wales, including essays and reviews for New Welsh Review. He specialises in the work of Glyn Jones, including an edition of his Collected Stories from 1999, and in the work of RS Thomas, with Tony’s edition of a study of the poet appearing in UWP’s Writers of Wales series, re-issued by that press in 2013. This spring, a new edition of The Dragon Has Two Tongues by Glyn Jones and edited by Prof Brown, was re-printed by University of Wales Press, having won our New Welsh Readers’ Poll 2018 for the best ever essay collection published in English.


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previous review: Staring Back at Me
next review: Dusty Cut’s Hawaii



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