REVIEW by Vicky Mackenzie

NWR Issue 104

A Pearl of Great Price: The Love Letters of Dylan Thomas to Pearl Kazin

by Jeff Towns (ed & intro)

What is it about other people’s letters that make them such fascinating reading? Perhaps it’s the way they offer an insight into the writer’s life in a more direct way than biography or even autobiography. However, the publication of personal letters raises questions about the writer’s right to privacy, particularly when the letters were composed with no thought to posterity.

Published in the centenary year of Dylan Thomas’ birth, this collection of love letters from Thomas to his mistress, American literary editor Pearl Kazin, is a case in point. Kazin herself experienced a crisis of conscience about selling the letters and stipulated that they weren’t to be published in her lifetime. An American bookseller convinced her to part with them on the grounds that, ‘important original material that adds to the understanding and knowledge of an author […] should be preserved properly for future study.’ So what do we learn from these scant six letters from Thomas to Kazin?

Written between June 1950 and February 1951, just two and a half years before Thomas’ death, the main concerns of the letters are Thomas’ pining for Kazin and his lack of money (despite his popularity as a writer at this time). The final letter is written from Persia where he was writing a film script, and is more of a rant against his locale than a love letter. Kazin was one of several mistresses that Thomas had in his short life, though he remained with his wife Caitlin to the end. Editor Jeff Towns suggests that the letters show the relationship with Kazin had a profound effect on Thomas, but it’s hard to glean any sense of this from the letters themselves: as early as August 1950, Thomas was sufficiently detached to write, ‘there isn’t any future for us’.

The occasional moments of passion in the letters are as beautiful as Thomas’ finest poetry: ‘I feel, some times, so close to you that the earth stops, the seas dry up, and across the deep dust I can kiss you.’ There are also lovely humorous touches: ‘The waiter, aged one hundred & nine, is bringing me a hot, flat beer: that is, he is shaking it over the carpet, and giving me the empty glass.’ There is self-deprecating charm, as when Thomas describes himself as ‘small, red, fat, and in love’, alongside the odd glimpse into the chaos of his life – ‘I slept outside in the rain one night’.

A writer’s letters may be of value because they offer further understanding of their working life. However, these letters make little reference to the craft of writing. Although Kazin played an important role in furthering Thomas’ American career by accepting ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’ for Harper’s Bazaar, the piece had already been published elsewhere and Kazin hardly plucked Thomas from obscurity.

Towns is clearly a Thomas devotee, describing himself as having been ‘pursuing and dealing in the books, manuscripts, letters, iconography and ephemera surrounding Dylan Thomas […] for over forty years’ and much of A Pearl of Great Price is taken up by Towns’ introduction. There is an afterword, ‘A Life of Pearl Kazin’, by her son David Bell, and the final third of the book is a short story by Kazin, ‘The Jester’, previously published in a literary journal in 1952. The reason given for the inclusion of this story is that critics have suggested the main character owes something to Thomas’ personality.

The edition is an attractive hardback but the presentation is let down by a smattering of typographical errors, and the overall impression is of a small amount of original material stretched thin. A slice of Thomas’ and Kazin’s private life has been made public for the first time and although the letters offer some new gems for the enjoyment of fans, it’s doubtful whether they offer a significant contribution to our understanding of either the work or life of Dylan Thomas.

Vicky Mackenzie lives on the east coast of Scotland and is writing a novel about John Ruskin. Her review of Andrew McNeillie’s Winter Moorings appears in the autumn edition of New Welsh Review.

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previous review: Graham Sutherland – From Darkness Into Light
next review: Six Pounds Eight Ounces


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