Sunday, May 07, 2023

Reading group: One Moonlit Night by Caradog Prichard

Warning: some plot spoil.

Two people had recently recommended this book to me, and the group took up my suggestion that we read it. Set in the north-Welsh quarry town of Bethesda in the mid 1910s and portraying, apparently through the eyes of a young boy, the terrible hardships experienced by the population, it was first published, in Welsh, in 1961. Earlier work by Prichard's contemporary Caradog Evans had been disliked in Wales for similarly revealing the hardships and corruptions of rural Welsh life, but One Moonlit Night was apparently warmly received and very popular in Wales. However, an English translation did not appear until 1995, receiving a boost in 2014 when the English-language Welsh Arts Review, in a move to celebrate Welsh literature and help to create a Welsh canon, offered 25 books for public vote, and One Moonlit Night was the winner.

We were all certainly attracted to read the book the moment we saw the arresting beginning:

I'll go and ask Huw's Mam if he can come out to play. Can Huw come out to play, O Queen of the Black Lake? No, he can't, he's in bed and that's where you should be, you little monkey, instead of going around causing a riot at this time of night. Where were you two yesterday making mischief and driving village folk out of their minds?

However, although everyone was very interested to have read it, we did have problems with it.

Commentators, including Jan Morris in an Afterword to the Canongate edition, have expressed the view that this is a work beyond rational analysis, suggesting that this is indeed its appeal. However, I find it hard to read novels without looking for a meaningful pattern, and (as we have discussed before), I think most of the group feel the same. We were all captivated by the voice of the narrator, and riveted by the agonising, grotesque and yet sometimes touching world portrayed, but, since we do indeed read in this way, there was a lot that at the time of our discussion we found confusing and indeed unexplained or unexplainable. However, having looked at the book again more closely in order to write this, it seems to me that there is a rationally intended structure which can be ascertained via rational analysis, and that in fact the book makes much more sense than we felt at the time or than others have allowed. 

Both Jan Morris and Niall Griffiths in a Foreword to the same edition, as well as other reviewers, have taken the book as being told, in Jan Morris's words, 'by a single, unnamed voice'. However Jan Morris does go on to say that it's not quite so simple, since 'although the voice is that of a young boy, sometimes it evidently speaks with the experience of a grown man' (my italics) and she notes that 'three times in the course of the book it is superseded by vatic pronouncements' which she sees as 'of no explicable origin, as though some deus ex machina has intervened.'

This too was how everyone at the meeting, including me, had read the book, and as a result we found the book confusing, and, for me, lacking. (The others were generally more positive than me, since they found fascinating the extent of the hardship with which I - Welsh-born and spending a good deal of time in a north-Welsh ex-quarry village, the history of which I have researched for my own writing - was already familiar.)

I said that I had indeed appreciated the book as an antidote to previous unrealistic romantic representations of rural Wales, but I did have some serious problems with it. Firstly, while I loved the voice with its energetic colloquialism, I had found no discernable story arc or narrative progression, which ultimately made me impatient and a little bored. For a very long time the village and its inhabitants seemed simply to be set out as a tableau, as the boy - who lives with a mother widowed by a quarry accident and thus poverty-stricken and dependent on the parish - first roams the village with his friend encountering its damaged, corrupt and unhappy population, and then walks alone remembering incidents from the past. Secondly - as a result, I thought, of this apparent lack of narrative progression - I became very confused about what happened when, and having lost grasp of the sequence of events, to some extent I also lost interest. Thirdly, I felt there was a obvious error of structure concerning the 'vatic pronouncements'. The first, a four-page lament of archaic poetic language, comes as a shock after the colloquialism of the previous chapters:

I am the Queen of Snowdon, the Bride of the Beautiful One. I lie upon my ascension, eternally expectant, forever great with child and awaiting the hour of his delivery. / My thighs embrace the swirling mists and my breasts caress the low-lying clouds... Though hast enslaved me...

We all felt quite confounded by this. Who or what is the Queen of Snowdon? Who or what is the Beautiful One? What is being referred to by that word 'ascension'? None of us knew, and most said they had skipped these sections, Mark even suggesting that Prichard, who was frequently successful in national eisteddfods, had simply taken the opportunity to insert some of his poetry. It is only later in the book that we will learn the answer to these questions: The narrator relates a walking trip over the mountain with his mother to visit farming relatives; from their fields there is a view of Snowdon in which the slope (presumably the 'ascension') takes the shape of a reclining pregnant woman (forever trapped in place by the mountain itself - the 'Beautiful One'). Without knowing this beforehand, however, we could make nothing of the section in question, which, for readers not steeped in such local lore, makes for a structural error. In any case, there was still a fundamental unanswered question: where does the voice come from? Is it, as Jan Morris suggests, and as it seemed to us, that of some deus ex machina, and why is it there?

Fourthly, a point with which everyone in the group strongly agreed: at the end of the book it appears that the narrator has committed an act which seemed simply entirely unaccountable and unbelievable in the light of what we have experienced of his character, which, as Jan Morris says, is 'engaging ... innocently ready for fun and harmless mischief but precociously tender in his sympathies'. The only explanation is that of madness, on which there is a great stress in this book. Many of the characters, including eventually - and crucially - the boy's mother, with whom he has an especially close relationship, are driven 'mad' by their circumstances, and there are constant references, as in the very first paragraph, quoted above, to people going 'out of their minds'. In the space of the first short chapter and a short afternoon, the boy narrator and his friend Huw encounter a catalogue of damage: the sexual abuse of a class mate, Little Jini Pen Cae, by their beer-stoked schoolteacher, a flasher, epilepsy, domestic violence, the body of a man brought home from the asylum, a woman who, evicted from her house, has shut herself in the coalhouse and is crying like a cat, the dropping down dead of an overworked horse, two men having a fist fight outside the pub, adultery and incest. The chapter ends with this heart-breaking casualness:

And that's all that happened. We weren't anywhere except walking about and I didn't know till this morning ... that Moi's Uncle Owen [the perpetrator of domestic violence and incest] had hanged himself in the toilet and that they'd taken Little Jini Pen Cae and Catrin Jane from Lower Lane to the Asylum.

Later there will be the tragic shunning by the parson of an unmarried mother (the female adulterer); grief as young men of the village disappear off to war and are killed; a marriage foundering on the husband's absence at sea and the wife consequently left dependent on the parish; a dramatic suicide, witnessed by the narrator himself, and in the school toilets of all places; and finally the mental disintegration of the narrator's own mother. 

What sends people 'out of their minds' - an apparent everyday fact of their lives - is, as in that first paragraph, very much at issue. The young boy answers Huw's mother: 

What village folk out of their minds? It's not us that's driving them out of their minds, it's them that are going out of their minds themselves.

 At one point in the latter part of the novel the two young boys seriously discuss the issue. Huw asks:

...I wonder why Will Ellis Porter [the epilepsy sufferer] killed himself?

He'd gone out of his mind, for sure, I said.

Why do people go out of their minds, d'you think?

They lose control of themselves, you know.

 What makes them lose control?

Oh, all kinds of things. Just like you and me get mad sometimes, except they go madder.

They go on to propose various causes, such as Will Ellis Porter's epilepsy, and the drunkenness of others. The real cause, of course, implied though never stated outright in this novel, is the oppression of religion and the conditions imposed by the chiefly English quarry owners - the latter perhaps one reason for the slow uptake of this book in England.

The moon, featured of course in the title, is traditionally associated with madness. At the end of the first chapter the young boy is in bed but can't sleep for the light of the full moon and gets up and watches as the clouds race across it, and it runs as an image throughout the book.

However, to explain the narrator's action as one of madness seemed to all of us a stretch, and I suggested, to the agreement of others, that the problem was that the chirpiness and seeming objectivity (if naivety) of the boy's voice seems to set him apart from everything he observes, at least up to the point that, at the age of ten, he loses his mother to the asylum, and there is no subsequent narrative portrayal of any mental disintegration before his seemingly uncharacteristic act. At the start there seems to be a clear implication that the so-called madness of the people of this village is caused by the social circumstances: the 'madness' of the woman who has shut herself screaming in the coalhouse can be seen as grief and protest at being evicted because she can't pay her rent; little Jini Pen Cae is carted off to the asylum after being sexually abused by the schoolmaster. But when the narrator himself flips so uncharacteristically into what can only be seen as an act of madness, the book seems simply to tip towards the madness it had seemed previously to critique. 

The young boy's voice and character lead Jan Morris to find this a 'sweet-natured' book, which she feels explains its greater popularity than the work of Caradog Evans. Niall Griffiths in his Foreword compares the characters to the 'oddballs' of Dylan Thomas's Under Milkwood and sees some of their antics as 'hugely funny in a League of Gentlemen kind of way'. My own feeling, I told the group, was much more uncomfortable: I felt that the depiction of the characters on the one hand and the high-flown poetic interjections on the other made the book in danger of reinforcing two opposing Welsh stereotypes: the quaintly primitive and the poetically fanciful.

Reading towards the end of the novel before our discussion, I began to realise that as the narrator walks and relates, he is indeed now older - though it wasn't clear to me how much older - and, as a result of the persistent sameness of the voice, this came as a surprise. My main experience of the novel was indeed the 'mistiness' of which Jan Morris writes: 'Sometimes he is one age, sometimes another, and it is both as a boy and as a man that he recalls the tragic circumstances of his childhood... How much is real in the narrative, and how much is hallucinatory we never discover.' We wondered similarly: is he really mad? Did he really commit the act he says he did? Or did he imagine it - and does that in itself indicate madness? At the end of the book, Jan Morris says: old he is, whether he is free or incarcerated, whether he is mad or sane, just about to enter an abyss or recently escaped from one - all these questions are left so mistily unresolved that we wonder whether the author himself ... ever knew the answers.

In other words, she is ready to believe that the author was not in control of his material, but forgives this for 'the sweet pity of it all.'

Having read that Afterword, and settling to write about the novel and our discussion here, I looked more closely and analytically for the points in the novel where these apparent confusions arise. The first chapter consists chiefly of an address to Huw's mother describing what the two boys had got up to the day before. This appears to place us, and the narrator as he speaks, in the time-level of the following day. However, there is already something disorientating, as indicated perhaps by Jan Morris stating, wrongly, that 'where the two were yesterday is to be the ostensible plot of the book', and that 'as the boy wanders the town that day he remembers the events of his life' (my italics). In fact, it is in the 'now' of the following day that the reminiscences begin. Apparently in response to Huw's mother's refusal to let Huw go out to play with him, the narrator begins the next chapter with:

Alright, I'll go for a stroll up Post Lane as far as Stables Bridge to see if I can see Moi [a third boy, their friend].

As he walks up Post Lane, he sees a poster that reminds him of another in the past, prompting the first reminiscence. Yet if we assume that this second day is our framing narrative time level we immediately come up against inconsistencies, which I have to say that on my first reading I didn't notice specifically beyond a slight sense of disorientation. In Chapter One, the boy speaker is living with his mother but here, on the second page of Chapter Two, he refers to her in the past tense: 'Dew, Mam had a good voice.' In Chapter One his mother has 'gone to do the washing at the Vicarage', but in Chapter Two, apparently still walking to look for Moi, he sees the light on in the Vicarage and thinks: 'I used to like going to the Vicarage after school to help Mam with the washing all those years ago.' (my italics.) It is Azariah Jenkins who occupies the Vicarage now, he says, who was preceded by the parson Hughes, who was preceded in turn by the Canon. Later in the book, and on the walk, we will learn that once the Canon died his mother stopped doing the washing at the Vicarage. This places the incidents of the first chapter in the time of the Canon, and thus way in the past, and the only conclusion is that the framing narrative time-level is many years later and the framing consciousness that of the narrator when he is grown. Yet it is hard as one reads to register this, since  at the end of Chapter Two he says:

No point bothering to go over Stables Bridge, even though it is moonlight. There's no sign of Moi and there's no light on in the house

bringing the present-tense voice back to the day after the encounter with Huw's mother. Later we will learn that as a child the narrator, afraid of spirits, always whistled when he went past Stables Bridge, and here he does indeed do that:

I'd better whistle as I pass Stables Bridge, and I'd better keep to Post Lane.

And keep to Post Lane he does, as the entire narrative of reminiscences then takes place over that one walk and, according to the title, on the one moonlit night, along Post Lane.

However, taking this night as that night in childhood is just not possible. Most of what the narrator remembers took place later - the death of Moi from TB, the narrator's mother's descent into madness, his leaving school at the age of fourteen, and his attempt, after his final act, to leave and avoid having to go to work in the quarry. Towards the end of the novel there are hints that a long time has passed. 'This is Robin David's Field,' begins Chapter 10, 'the one on the right here that runs all the way down to the Riverbank.' He recalls incidents that happened there, a near-drowning, a circus and a football match played against an away team. These are described in the lively voice with which the novel began, yet the chapter ends with a sudden change of pace, and a dying fall: 'There's no one playing football on Robin David's field now. Only cattle grazing.' At the end of the book, and the end of Post Lane, the narrator reaches Black Lake. He says. 'Streuth, Black Lake at last. Someone must have pulled this wall down, cos I used to have to climb on top of it to see Black Lake, and now it only comes up to my knees.' It is easy, however, to fail to grasp these shifts, as the overall voice hasn't changed: the narrator appears to continue to speak with the voice of the young boy.

In the course of the novel we learn a lot about the character of Emyr, Little Owen the Coal's Big Brother - more, it struck me when I came to look at the novel again, than I had realised first time round. Emyr is the man whose body has been brought home from the asylum in Chapter One. His mother invites the boys in to view the body, and, although they seem to take much of the grotesquery around them for granted, they are somewhat unnerved by the sight of him. Emyr, the narrator's reminiscences will reveal, is strangely socially maladjusted, rushing indoors if he sees the boys passing the house; he has been seen wearing women's clothes. He sometimes goes missing, and on one of these occasions was found trying to hang himself. One night the boys follow a search party looking for him. To begin with, this is just a bit of an adventure for them, but when they witness him shuffling along Post Lane like a woman, there is something about it that makes them want to hide behind a wall and then go home without telling the search party. Emyr will later be found on his knees in the mud beside Black Lake at the end of Post Lane, his shoes off, and crying for his mother. The boys talk next day about the fact that Emyr was known to interfere, like the schoolmaster, with little girls, and that while he was missing in the night, Little Jini Pen Cae was missing too and next morning was found lying asleep in the wood. It is after this that Emyr is taken to the asylum.

It was on my second look at the book that the significance of Emyr's walk to the Black Lake struck me. As he talks to us, the narrator is in fact following in his footsteps. When he gets to the corner where the boys hid to watch Emyr pass, he says to himself:

Good God, watch yourself in case there are any little devils behind that bank round the corner, watching you and thinking you're going out of your mind (my italics).

He speculates then about what Emyr was seeing as he walked, and, as he too walks, he sees the same view. He wonders if Emyr could hear the Voice - that is, the voice of The Holy Ghost which the narrator's mother told him people heard during the Welsh Christian Revival when she was young. And then - I realised on my second reading - that, although it's not at all immediately clear, since several reminiscences and three chapters intervene, he hears the Voice for himself.

Is this the Voice, I wonder? Or is it just the wind blowing through Adwy'r Nant?

And what he hears is not simply the conventional voice of the Holy Ghost, but a Celtic lament, the lament of Snowdon, of the land and its people 'squirm[ing] beneath the boot of the oppressor.' This is no deus ex machina after all: it comes from the mind of the narrator. And it is a mind oppressed and deranged: the narrator is paralleling Emyr, not simply in his walk along Post Lane, but in his mental disintegration. At Black Lake, like Emyr, he gets down onto his knees and takes off his shoes. His mental breakdown becomes apparent: looking down at the lake he says,

They might be all down there, for all I know. Huw and Moi and Em and Gran and Ceri and everybody. Ah, a wonderful thing it would be if I saw Mam coming up out of the lake now and shouting: Come here you little monkey. Been up to mischief with that old Huw again.

And like, Emyr, he calls on his mother.

Just prior to this, in a kind of rushed ending to his reminiscences, we have learnt that the final act he made as a fourteen-year-old before trying and failing to leave the town involved Little Jini Pen Cae, just as did Emyr's before he was incarcerated in the asylum. Once the parallels are mapped, it is hard to ignore the implication: we are listening to someone who has been incarcerated, who indeed, due to the nature of that act, is likely still to be incarcerated, and making those parallels for himself, so that the 'present' walk up Post Lane is taking place in his own fevered brain.

This would explain those 'misty' slips between time levels: they are the confusions of a disordered mind. I am sure, having looked closely at the novel, that they are consciously calculated by the author to link the young boy of the beginning to his grim fate of disintegration. (I think our group did have some intuition of this, as both Ann and Doug and I said that we hadn't found the set-piece episodes, such as a boxing match, as funny as other commentators have.) After all, the imagery of madness and confusion is in fact planted at the end of the first chapter. As the boy looks out from his bedroom window:

...the moon was zooming through the sky over Pen Foel Garnedd. / No, you silly fool, I said to myself, it's the clouds that are moving, not the moon... 

And that address that begins the novel, 'O Queen of the Black Lake', made apparently to Huw's Mam and apparently with quaint boyish cheekiness,  is in fact the internal cry of an agonised protagonist who will kneel shoeless by the lake and once more hear the Voice. It is now the voice of the Queen of the Black Lake, and her pronouncements are  interspersed by snippets of his mother's voice - Pass me that pot from under the bed . The lament has turned darker: 'My kingdom is the grievous waters that lie beyond the ultimate sorrow'. 

The structure, therefore, is not formless after all as I thought, and the overall voice, rather than simply that of a naive young boy as it has been taken, is a highly sophisticated one, a complex of voices taking place within the memory and imagination of the grown and mentally disturbed protagonist. A clue to this is perhaps the fact that no speech marks are used for the dialogue: the speeches are not meant as replications of what was actually once said, but they are voices remembered and alchemised within the narrator's head. 

'It was a moonlit night just like tonight,' he says of the night the boys saw Emyr shuffling up Post Lane. But although there seem to be several moonlit nights slipping at times one into another - that night of the search for Emyr, the night after the day the two young boys roam the town together, the following night when the narrator goes looking for Moi after being turned away by Huw's mother, and another night long afterwards - they are all encompassed, as the title indicates, by the one moonlit night on which he remembers and imagines it all.

The problem is that all of this is not immediately obvious: there are not enough clues for readers to know how to read this novel and separate the narrator's confusions and loss of control from the intention and control of the author. And even if we see it, there is still I think a problem of credibility. The dominance and persistence throughout of the light, lively and sympathetic voice of a young boy may be meant as an illustration of infantilisation through oppression, but, along with the lack of any portrayal of mental breakdown between the incarceration of the narrator's mother and his terrible act at the age of fourteen, it makes it is hard to believe in the act. Nevertheless, in spite of our lack of grasp of it all, Ann said firmly that she was very glad to have read it, and everyone in the room agreed.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here 


Danny Fishel said...

really pleased to have come across your summary, thank you. I just finished the book tonight and thought it outstanding though I was puzzled by the ending. Your summary throws some moonlight on it! At the end of the day, perhaps the writing of this novel was very cathartic for Prichard and the apparent murder of the girl could possibly be an "acting out" of his revenge on his own mother?

Elizabeth Baines said...

Interesting point, Danny. Thanks for reading!

Philip Mitchell said...

The writing of 'Un Nos Ola Leuad' was immensely cathartic for Caradog Prichard. During his working week, he would write while riding the tube on his way to work and on his way home. While at home, he would lock himself away and would just write, write, write, and write some more – all the time consuming very little food or drink. Finally, when the novel was finished, he stood up from his desk and was like a new man. It was almost as if the world had been lifted from his shoulders.
I don't think either Prichard or the narrator felt anything but boundless love and inestimable sympathy for their mothers and I see no reason for the seeking of revenge.

Dorien James said...

Thank you for writing this! I have just read Un Nos Ola Leuad in Welsh. The book came up in discussion in our Welsh class; our teacher recommended it strongly as one of her favourites, but suggested not to read it in Welsh because the colloquial Northern language would be hard for us intermediate South Welsh students to follow.
Well yes, it was difficult to follow, and I was about to order the English translation to revise all the bits that had confused me. How old is he? What order is this happening in? What are the weird poetic bits? What did his uncle do and what happened to him? And what happened down by the river?
So it was very helpful to read your review and understand that it wasn't the language that was the problem (except in the poetic interludes). Indeed, most of the childish colloquial language flows very easily in the original; several words (vicarage, referee, football, mushrooms) are borrowed from English when a modern speaker would more likely use the "proper" Welsh word. After reading your review, I realise that the bits that were hard to follow were just... hard to follow.
It's one of those books where you get to the end and need to just go back and do it again, ready this time to look out for what I'd missed, like those parallels with the journey of Emyr Brawd Owain Bach Glo that you spotted and I didn't. I did the same with The Sound and the Fury - a book with many similarities - and it's now one of my very favourites. So I'll do that.
Thank you for saving me the price of a translation!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Glad it was useful, Dorien!

Adam M said...

Very creativee post