THIS WEEK’S NEW BOOKS REVIEWED | FEATURE
ELAINE MORGAN: A LIFE BEHIND THE SCREEN
Daryl Leeworthy (Seren)
A Life Behind The Screen celebrates the considerable achievements – writer, broadcaster, lecturer – of south Wales’ Elaine Morgan, Daryl Leeworthy’s detailed narrative providing a real sense of this woman from a working class Pontypridd background. After studying at Oxford on a mining scholarship during the first few years of World War II, the first woman from this region to do so, Morgan’s screenplays were adapted for television and radio, notable credits including 1970s adaptations of Richard Llewelyn’s novel How Green Was My Valley and Vera Brittain’s memoir Testament Of Youth.
A move back to south Wales, after marrying and working as an adult educator in Lancashire, was the perfect setting to begin writing and collaborating – radio broadcasters in Cardiff, television with the BBC. Female screenwriters were considerably rare, with barriers to women’s entry into broadcasting; Morgan, who had immersed herself in left-wing politics at Oxford, fought for equal pay ahead of the women’s liberation movement.
Her later years, Leeworthy relates, saw Morgan retire from the broadcast business at almost 70, after some 35 years. But she continued to write, moving to evolutionary debates – her 1972 book The Descent Of Woman had already gained international acclaim. A return to journalism with ‘The Pensioner’, a weekly Western Mail column, continued into her 90s; she died 12 July 2013, aged 92. Published to celebrate Elaine Morgan’s centenary, A Life Behind The Screen is an informative, well-researched biography that pays homage to a great south Walian woman – one who never lost touch with her Welsh roots and was essentially a Valleys person.
Price: £9.99. Info: here
words EMILY EDWARDS
THE OWL HOUSE
Daniel Butler (Seren)
Daniel Butler has been passionate about birds and wildlife from a young age and has built a successful career as a wildlife writer and journalist on the back of this obsession. The book is focused around two barn owls which chose to nest at his farm and how they came to be comfortable with his family to such an extent that Butler could feed them straight from his hand. His close connection with the owls leads him to consider the nature, history and wildlife of the wider landscape around his local area and beyond.
Butler touches on topics such as reintroducing species and concentrates on the relationship between humans and nature; there are chapters focusing on Welsh raptors, weasels and the importance of conserving wildlife for the future and what we can do to support it in the meantime. It’s clear when reading this book how knowledgeable Daniel Butler is about nature: The Owl House is packed with information that makes this book ideal for anyone, whether they are already knowledgeable themselves or learning about conservation for the first time. A rich, vividly written book about birds, wildlife and nature, thought-provoking and inspiring.
Price: £12.99. Info: here
words SARAH BOWDIDGE
Ann Quin (And Other Stories)
The introduction to The Unmapped Country, a collection of pieces which in 2018 began And Other Stories’ programme of republishing Ann Quin, describes her as a “fiction writer who called herself a poet”. Passages, Quin’s third and penultimate novel, upholds this theory perhaps more robustly than anything else in her brief body of work. Its first issue, in 1969, was into a British literary world not absent of experimental tendencies, but commercially bleak for those so inclined: Quin is often spoken of as a peer of B.S. Johnson, yet having struggled for recognition while active, both died in 1973 of apparent suicides, and have been acclaimed posthumously.
This is a tale which revels in small details, from the precise movements of bodily parts to the contents of strange rooms or the effects of weather on a landscape, while deliberately swerving the large ones. An unnamed man and woman, alternating narrators, are in the Mediterranean, never confirmed as Greece but home to an incident sounding very like the 1967 coup d’etat (myriad allusions to Greek mythology also feature). Supposedly, they are looking for the woman’s brother, but this feels incidental to a chaotic jumble of sexual fantasies, lurid parties and attempted soliciting of child prostitutes, often depicted in a neither-dream-nor-real state of ambiguity.
Paragraphs frequently break mid-sentence, as if a poem is escaping from inside, and dozens of margin notes often serve more as alternate readings of thought-fragments than explanations of them. This is not a novel where empathy or identification with its protagonists is an issue; at its most piecemeal, one may not really think it a novel at all. Passages’ passages are key, though, with many containing extraordinary colour, equally romantic and amoral, and amounting to a remarkable artefact of an extraordinary writer.
Price: £10/£6.99 Ebook. Info: here
words NOEL GARDNER
Elfriede Jelinek (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
Another interesting release from the excellent Fitzcarraldo Editions, Rein Gold is a playful and digressive dissection of capitalism told through a dialogue between reimagined versions of Brünnhilde and Wotan from Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
As the precis suggests, this is a challenging read, one that requires a high level of concentration in order to follow the dense and mostly unbroken text. The dialogue between the greedy God and his disillusioned daughter is written in a heightened, Wagnerian register, and is strewn with references to myths, class politics, and musings about the corruption and greed of humanity.
The book was originally written as a libretto, and in keeping with the Wagnerian tone, it’s not much interested in brevity. Although structured as a dialogue, it rarely feels like a conversation, more a series of meandering monologues from characters with opposing viewpoints. This conceit becomes increasingly wearing, due to a lack of clarity in its execution. Both characters speak opaquely, repeating themselves until whatever points they are trying to make become lost in the muddiness of the delivery. It’s a shame, because with sharper editing and less self-indulgence it could have been a much more engaging book than it is.
Price: £12.99. Info: here
words JOSHUA REES
THE SILENT LETTER
Jaume Subirana, trans. Christopher Whyte (Fum d’Estampa)
Jaume Subirana lives for the moments, for capturing moments and attempting, with acceptance of inevitable failure, to hold them in verse. The award-winning Catalonian poet likens an abandoned dinner table to the passing of a comet; “birds that we don’t see” occupy his thoughts and the ephemeral nature of snow is an enduring image in this silent letter.
Sondheim’s Moments In The Woods famously claims, “But if life were only moments, then you’d never know you had one.” Subirana finds such beauty in working against this maxim, seeing the importance in the subtext and revelling in memories we only realise, too late, are so memorable. This is, perhaps, at its most devastating in Where I Watch Beth Departing All On Her Own To School: “head feet and legs / my hands would hold / jumping along the pavement / that leads children away”.
Subirana’s collection is beautifully presented in the original Catalan, with the English translation on the opposite page. If, like me, you’re not so good at reading Catalan, it’s still a treat to turn the words over in your mouth, with the meaning, so well-rendered by Whyte on the opposite page, bringing clarity. Not that Subirana’s poetry is reading that feels like work. It’s best summed up in the entirety of Buson In Venice, “The gilded splendor of / the sun on stones / tired of being beautiful”. In a time when making new memories worth cherishing presents a challenge, Subirana reminds us such moments are all around us, every day.
Price: £11.99. Info: here
words JOHN-PAUL DAVIES