Book Review: The Dark Philosophers – Gwyn Thomas

Chekhov with Chips’ – that’s how the author himself attempted to characterise his own novels when asked, and I’d be loathe to disagree much with that assessment.  Thomas (1913-1981) grew up in the Welsh Rhondda Valley, before gaining a scholarship to study at Oxford but it is evident in his writing how formative his experiences as a young man were to his personality and politics. In these stories first published in 1946, one senses a strongly autobiographical element bolstering the lives lived and explored in an impoverished South Wales neighbourhood – or The Terraces – as they are consistently known. That he would regularly choose to adopt the first person plural – we- as a narrative device attests to to a forceful identification amongst those of whom he is writing.

As one might expect of book set in these times the world inhabited in this pages is certainly bleak: containing variously elements of violence, revenge, bitterness, abuses of power –  physical and spiritual – and a population that is struggling to get by on not very much at all – and in Thomas’ view, even that ‘not much at all’ was still still rather too much for the more objectionable personalities in power quite taken in by a stately greed. Yet, there is a welcome counterbalance to the destitute setting, in its rich wryness of humour, that is as affectionate as it is sharp.

Within each tale there may lie monstrous tyrants, but there is also no small amount of warmth to be found in certain of those who survive there. The eponymous friends in the middle story – Ben, Walter, Arthur and John ( the narrator ), along with Idemeno the Italian cafe owner, Willie and Margaret are infused with a form of stoic tenderness for example. The stories also feature the familiar association of welsh valley boys who like to sing – a feature most explicit in the final novel Simeon too.

In addition to the more appealing characters available,  the dry humour serves a style that is as distinct in it’s tone as in it’s structure, one allowing a sardonic voice that belies a savage anger at the warrantless cruelty of authority – both men and state – whilst equally offering up a Camus-esque sense of the absurd, of the irrelevance of notions of choice for those living here.   There is a verbose precision to the style, conveying a meaning efficiently, whilst maintaining a full bodied structure to the sentences; eschewing any form of slang or diminutive language formation. As an example, here’s an excerpt from book two, ‘The Dark Philosophers’:

We found Mrs Radnor’s house to be one of a group of small houses in the top but one Terrace. The woodwork of the house looked as if the landlord thought paint was a deadly poision to be obtained only after getting a note from the doctor, and not even then if the tenants lacked the means to burn down the woodwork and move off to some quarter that had a fresher look.

While waiting for the door to open, Willie, whispering in a very important way, told us that the two rooms of this house, that were not occupied by Margaret and her mother, where lived in a voter called Hector. We knew this Hector by the back. A backward element who looked like an ape and acted like some animal that had not been found yet and has not been named for that reason; unless you want to take a short cut and call it Hector.

The  portrait of the house is indicative of a subtle but effective means of satirising the climate of the Terraces, both understated but also -taken as part of the whole – damning of the living conditions.  Politically, almost every character large or small in all the books are introduced as ‘voters’, which can  be viewed either as an ironic suggestion that these individuals are genuine agents of their own future destiny, or that they are complicit in their own fate. At any rate, it always keeps the spectre of political change, however futile it may be, at the front of the readers’ consciousness. The term element is also ubiquitous to the book, and both a method of distinguishing Thomas’ voice in the writing. It can underscore how each individual is both remarkably insignificant in the world, a disparate disconnected soul who taken on it’s own can offer up nothing on his own, but in parallel to that it also invokes it’s opposite too – the coalescing of elements creates a more unified and stronger whole – which given the Marxist politics of Thomas would certainly be appropriate to his line of thought.

 Oscar

The first of the tales then is full of political allegory – the Mountain and Oscar are synecdoche’s for a distant government’s crushing policies that have disenfranchised the communities, and left it in poverty and ruin. The narrator Lewis is a young man who takes work with Oscar, like many others in the tale, simply as it’s the only expedient option available to procure any form of wage. Through his eyes, and interactions with Oscar, his friend Danny and assorted local characters we have a window into the world of The Terraces.  He is the detached yet clearly troubled embodiment of the next generation who has grown up in this environment, learning and accepting that pragmatism in survival comes with a moral cost, yet the alternatives as seen through the weakened and destitute characters such as his neighbour and friend Danny indicate a lack of viable options available, life in the welsh valleys in the 20s and 30is about surviving, and even that’s a tricky business.

As mentioned above, despite the bleakness of the surroundings there is an absurdity  in the bleak humour of the existence. The Harp’s Landlord plainfaced concern over the missing Moral Sense is amusing coming from a man who watches over many insalubrious acts within his pub, one that regularly hosts the greatest source of local misery for the populace –  Oscar – attending to his rapacious desires for women, food and drink. Oscar’s overwhelming and overbearing presence pores into every area of effectively his own little dominion from start to finish, here but the resident wry humour applied to the narrative, creates tentative hope for rebellion.

The Dark Philosophers

A more established tale that’s overtly political and philosophical in it’s treatment of the characters and the environs in which these voters resides, Thomas is more explicit in aligning himself with the story, with the use of the ‘we’ pronoun. It serves to help establish a link to the reality that is described, lending a more personal vision to this imagined world having a very real sense of place in Thomas’ past. The frequent references to the Terraces’ and the poverty therein has a very acute sense of familiarity about it – not least as seen in the unavoidably polemical tone the book has in it’s opposition towards certain traits possessed by Mr Dalbie and Reverend Emmanuel. The latter in particular holds the “Philosophers” ire due to the volte-face in attitudes he displays from his pulpit once his sponsor Mr Dalbie – a coal-owner – criticises the younger Emmanuel for calling attention to trivial issues such as the abuse of labour and the impoverished state of the “voters.”

The eponymous characters chiefly feature the narrator himself (John), and friends: Ben, Arthur, and Walter who congregate at The Library and Institute and act as the weary observers of life in the valley, enjoying respite from the ardours of work and life in a cafe. They are a community unto themselves, held in suspicion by many others, for not subscribing to the doctrines and sermons preached by the now much-changed Rev. Emmanuel, whose absurdist spin on the troubles on the region reflects statements that do meet with experiences of those who are living through this period. As they chew the fat in the cafe – run by a friendly but broke Italian named Idomeneo – they come into contact with young Willie, whose naivety clearly contrasts with the dry-witted cynics. Willie’s courting of a young girl – Margaret – jump-starts a narrative that intertwines the lives of all of the main characters with that of the Rev. as past histories are brought to a darkly apt. climax.

Simeon

The shortest of the three novellas, but also the darkest. The humour and one-line wit remains, but the brutality – and his revolting abuse of power – physically, sexually and mentally of the eponymous character tips the ballance into a bleaker more savage tone. Colenso, Emrys and the narrator – Ben – are a younger group of friends, around 16 – and a generation removed from the Dark Philosophers but between possess the similar qualities of naivety – Ben – and hardened experience – Colenso and Emrys. The trio know Simeon as a man who gives them some money in exchange for hearing them sing a few songs, until one day Simeon offers Ben a job working for him, an offer that appears infinitely preferable to Ben’s current occupation. It doesn’t take too long to realise though that all is not as it seems in the household and with Simeon himself.

It was not a surprise to read in the introduction by Elaine Morgan that the Gollancz were unwilling to publish at the time – late 30’s, due to it’s bleakness of tone, but it didn’t stop many reviewers on it’s release in 1946 also finding his voice distinctive and original, and certainly as a social critic, with Thomas’ own characterisation in mind you can see the Russian style inflecting his commentary on the times, but the peculiarly Welsh voice stands above this classification and certainly well worth a wider audience.

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Dostoevskys ‘White Nights’ In Film: Comparative Adaptations

Ok, so here we go with the first of the film adaptations. I preface with the obvious caveat of being no professional critic, and it’s all still very much learning-on-the-job as it were. I will look at the literary source material briefly first then, look to practice weaving together some assessments of its translation into the film genre through two different films.

Of the Dostoevsky I have read, ( not enough by any means, the big classics still await ), I always relish the fashion in which he constructs the spirit of his characters upon a proto-Freudian psychological framework, not to mention the ease with which he manages to infuse his Russian neighbourhood with all its idiosynchratic charm.  White Nights, whilst a novella, reveals clear traces of these themes he would later deploy in his grander works. Written in 1849, when Fyodor was in his late 20s, it also contains a romanticism that would not last into his later works.

To provide a brief overview, and with a SPOILER alert at the ready,  we start with the 1st person narrator ( who remains nameless ),  who reveals his life in voluntary solitude, who has both an intimate connection to his environment, and takes comfort in the presence of other people within it, yet speaks to no-one, taking happy refuge in the fantastical realm of his preferred imagination.  One evening he meets a young woman, visibly upset, and emboldened by a masculine duty-bound sense of ‘rescue’, escorts her home to avoid the attention of some ne’er-do-wells. The briefest of acknowledgements by her provokes a melodramatic expression of emotion in him at this real-world contact, and she agrees to see him the following evening.

Over the course of the following 3 nights the tales of both restless souls are exchanged in their nocturnal encounters. The male lead expands further on the boundless beauty within his fantasy-world – for example he has ‘met’ and loved his perfect woman many a time, though of course she doesn’t exist – and his self confessed awkwardness in the real world, whilst on her side she reveals a typical tale of the trapped lady – literally pinned to her blind grandmother, lacking in social excitement, and thus when the ‘new’ lodger comes in proves to be a cultured and attractive slightly elder fellow, she is immediately drawn to him and the prospect of escape. Any romantic escapade is cut short by his announcement he has to go away for a year. They make a pact, that if she is still free in a years time, they will meet up by the canal and marry when he returns.

Fast forward to the present and her waiting for her ‘man’. She confides her woes in the friendship of our narrator, who rather predictably is falling for her. However he looks to help her discover whether this man is in town and if so why he hasn’t been to see her through writing a letter.  His idea of ‘self-sacrifice’ as the friend-helper is more revelatory of Dostoevskys awareness of the psychological ‘duality’ or conflict between the felt and the expressed; it is arguable that our narrator takes a perverse masochistic pleasure in his ‘chosen’ mindset, that in fact energises his spirit in a fashion. As the novella is closing it seems the woman has abandoned her first love, in realisation of her affections for the very present narrator, and communicates that if she will learn to forget her old love she will replace it with one for him, and then the predictable twist arrives as her old lover finally enters the stage, and she then rushes into his arms (not before giving an embrace to the narrator), leaving our nameless male lead to muse that perhaps that one ‘real’ moment of happiness can sustain a lifetime or as FD puts it :

God in heaven!! A whole moment of bliss! Is that not sufficent even for a man’s entire life?…

It’s a brief tale of 55 pages, yet very enjoyable nonetheless. I can’t help but admitting identifying to a a certain extent with the inveterate dreamer, and the cautionary warning against living in the fantasy world! It’s also wonderfully rich with allusions to this unconscious realm that FD is only partially aware of; the text hints at a duality of internal discourse in his expressions of how he interacts with his world, whilst in another scene, takes comfort in the hidden corners from which he can create and control worlds of his own,  risk-free.

Moving onto the film adaptations then, it is interesting to note the different styles adaopted by Luchino Visconti’s Le Notti Bianche a stylised 1957 tale, and Robert Bresson’s 1971 French version ‘ Four Nights of a Dreamer’. Both contain a degree of fidelity to the structure of the plot and contain similar scenes yet they have produced markedly different versions.

Thematically, the consideration of the split-subject of the nameless narrator is, in my view,  critical to Dostoevskys text, yet Visconti’s version discounts it entirely – indeed we view the film entirely through the female lead, and creates an entirely different perspective for the male lead. Indeed, one can’t help but think how very ‘Italian’ this male lead is, the rescuing of the ‘damsel-in-distress’ – for whom melodrama appears to be something of an understatement, and who believes he knows best in terms of the interest of the lovelorn girl. In this version instead of writing the letter to her absent future-fiance, he tears it up, and strongly suggests she learns to move on, and not waste her life upon a man she hardly got to know. By contrast the Robert Bresson version equally evokes a national prejudice of ‘how very 70s French’. Bresson’s minimalism is well applied here to the psychology of the main character, who uses a tape recorder to narrate his experiences and thoughts, and desires for the lead lady ( here called Marthe ), which becomes interpreted as a creative source for his work – he is an artist in 1971 Paris. The emotional split is suggested here as mere essential functionalism.  In a closing scene, he quotes the final lines ( see above ) verbatim from the source text, and plays it back to himself whilst he is painting his canvas.

The Bresson version also quotes more precisely from the novella than Visconti’s, yet only sparingly so. Personally I found the reduction of emotive, yet sprawing, first person narrative to simple glances, and silent actions to be disconcerting. Of course, a mere voice-over of his thoughts would have been too simplistic, but in the portrayal of this character, the lack of dialogue for me ensures he comes across rather more as a disturbing pervert when he spends time staring at women through shop windows and following them in a stalker-like fashion.  It goes beyond a sense of social awkwardness. It impacts further on an implausible encounter on the canal with Marthe, where given the limp nature of his persona, her supposed affection or welcome for his assistance comes across as faintly ludicrous.

In this respect the Italian version succeeds, helped I suspect, by a broader local cultural predilection for dialogue that enables a more immediate rapport with both characters from a viewer-to-character and character-to-character interaction.  When they both meet, again at the canal – one of the constants across all texts – it comes across as genuine. Yet once more there is a difference in the image of the female lead. From reading the book, whilst one reads a naiviety and youthfulness in the lady she still is as at least the equal of the male protagonist.  In this regard Bresson succeeds (I care equally little for both) ,  but Visconti’s lady is ridiculously melodramatic ( Maria Schnell ), and whilst the text does encourage emotional excitement, intrigue and the pain of possible unrequited love, here it comes across as peculiarly over the top – but again, I’m a 21st Century Englishman, not a 1950s Italian – perhaps thats more a reflection changing cinema tastes. However, in spite of this, the development of the relationship of Visconti’s film is far, far more enjoyable than Bresson’s, the latter of which emphatically emphasises the ideas of unease and social awkwardness between the two. Whilst the latter is closer to Dostoevsky’s text, and admits deeper analysis, the more ‘traditional’ coupling of Mario and Natalia in Italy enjoys the sparkle of well crafted chemistry that will always draw the viewer in.

In his adaptation Visconti does to an extent transpose merely the structure of the original, and plays out the romance and social commentary of his own choosing. I’ve already mentioned the total change in the lead male character for example, whilst there are alternative ( yet equally stereotypical ) figures of women involved – after blonde, child-like Natalia pushes Mario away when she realises she’s late for her evening possible rendez-vous, Mario accepts comfort from a dark haired prostitute who has been regularly walking in the background of canal scenes previously.  Going under the bridge, barely lit in the backdrop are shots of the homeless, and he nearly engages in some underworld activity of his own, eventually getting himself into a scrap when the spurned prostitute accuses him of assault through spite. Furthermore there is also the maternal image of the woman, in his housekeeper who yells at him to sort himself out in another sequence.

Bresson though, whilst the film is altogether not as enjoyable as Visconti’s is more faithful to capturing an essence of the original in terms of the psychology of the character, and in twisting it to link it in to suggesting the emotional suffering was fake, or artificial in its functionality for art does frame an interesting re-reading. Just a pity the film is generally unwatchable. It’s not Bresson – his film A Man Escaped is an absolutely fantastic study of a prisoner who gradually plans and executes his plan to escape a prison cell in Lyon – but here, whilst there is a philosophically interesting point to be made, the film itself falls away into needless esotericism.

Right, next up for analysis, Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum. Sneak peak – book is utterly fantastic :p