As a young man in rural Wales in the 40’s, Richard Jones says that he experienced art as “simple communication.” Poetry was as commonplace a part of life as the sermon in Puritan Massachusetts. When the man next door wrote a new volume, everyone had it on his table. Jones knew several examples of the type which has proliferated so many parodies in our own time: the Welsh poet who stalked the hillsides in a raincoat, composing while he walked. If someone praised a rival while he was sitting in the kitchen with friends, he withdrew his latest work from inside his coat and declaimed it, accompanying himself with bardic gestures.
It is hard to find any contemporary analogy to the world that tutored Jones in his ideas about culture and his expectations as a writer. In the Wales of his youth, he came to regard art “as an intense conversation among friends overheard by the world.” What this meant for him was literally listening to people who’d known each other for a long time, who had always been in and out of his family’s house, who cared deeply but naturally about poetry as a form of human expression. Our approximate equivalent is watching Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer punch each other out on TV. Commercial publishing creates an artificial world of letters, ruled by movie stars and sustained by an amazing machinery of distribution. But the people who share the best seller list do not share the same human circumstances; nor do the authors who share critical acclaim have more in common than that their books are reviewed in the same magazine. Jones, for instance, has had a lot to say in his work about the influence of the media on private lives, but his work has never received much attention from the media; hence this examination of the themes and problems of his career.
He left Wales when he was 30 (in 1956), before he had published anything, carried away by the economic mainstream which, in our world, draws the talented out of their native habitats into the larger, uprooted community of decent salaries. To support his family, he worked for Reuters and the BBC. His first novel, The Three Suitors, appeared in 1968; since then he has published four others. There is not enough sense in the rise and fall of commercial reputations to dwell on Jones” lack of reception. Suffice it to say, he has had a lot of bad luck, culminating in the publication of his most recent book, Living at the 25th Hour, during the 1978 newspaper strike in New York City. If there is no real way to account for the success of some authors and the frustration of others, there is still a special poignancy in the absence of a properly intelligent response to Jones” work.
His novels seem to me to be primarily concerned with the problem of identity in a world that has lost its sense—to use his phrase—of a “moral North Pole.” For Jones, human danger begins with uprootedness, which he takes to be a given in our time. In his vision of our general exile, smaller countries such as Wales (but larger European nations as well) can only retreat into parochialism or take the plunge into the wave of Anglo-American culture washing over the Western world. Although he regards the dominant cultural influence as Anglo-American, he has no illusions about the British Empire. In fact, the problem of identity in his work reflects the confusion accompanying the decline of what was once a “great purposeful power.”
Between his first and his most recently published novel, the uprootedness which is at the root of his fiction has grown more and more drastic. In The Three Suitors, uprootedness is the road to a new world; and while it involves painful change, the best of the past is finally brought into alliance with the best of the future. Living in the 25th Hour, however, portrays uprootedness as a desperate condition. The past is almost entirely lost or destroyed, and the future looms increasingly as a threat. In three of his novels, Jones measures lostness by a character’s relations to art or even letters in general. This essay is primarily concerned with these books, though it means omitting discussion of both Supper with the Borgias and The Tower Is Everywhere. According to Jones, Supper with the Borgias was written in conscious reaction to reviewers who praised The Three Suitors, but who criticized it in effect for being naïve: “In his novel, Jones reveals himself as a late-Victorian suddenly come to flower in a backwater.” Supper with the Borgias is a sophisticated book, both in its portrait of politics and its frankness about homosexuality, but precisely because politics is the novel’s medium, it lies outside a discussion of art and identity in this Welsh writer’s work.
The Tower is Everywhere also falls outside the scope of this essay, though just barely. The heroine, Marion Thomas, is a clever, attractive, lost person. Her life is divided between the Welsh countryside, where she has been raised and London, where she goes to art school. This division is not simply between the old and new worlds. Her parents are well-educated people who spent much of their own youth in London. They represent a sort of land-owning intelligentsia more familiar to us in its Russian or Irish form but depicted here in its Welsh variation. The Morrises, a farming family, are closer to a traditional country life which is disturbed by Marion’s return for a prolonged stay at home.
Both Marion and Nichol, her boyfriend, are moved by the glamor of art, though neither has proved him or herself by any artistic effort. Her mother asks what Nichol does for a living. “Marion was unsure; she thought he was in business with a friend. What sort of business? She thought it was commercial photography. Of course, his real ambition was to be a painter and so far as she was concerned that was what he was.” (My italics)
Both of them take refuge in the roles of artistes; in their own innocent ways, they are among the parodies of the Welsh poet who stalked the hills in his raincoat. He, at least, actually wrote poetry. Marion and Nichol may be artistic, sensitive, and deep, but neither of them has any real work. The problem of work is finally what forces a crisis in their lives, separately and together. Nichol is lucky (and grateful) to get a job running a handsaw with a timber company. For Marion, the problem of work is somewhat different because it’s inseparable from her attitude toward being a woman. Simply put, the issue of earning a salary will only arise if she does not marry.
The complications which follow from this have been the subject of much social change and a good deal of fiction in the last century. It is a credit to Jones that he has made us feel anew the confusions and frustrations of the Woman’s Problem through Miriam’s experience of it. Her parents would like her to settle down—either by finding employment or by becoming a wife. Nichol wants to marry her, but neither her parents nor her boyfriend put pressure on her. She has many options, along with complete freedom to choose. She makes a beeline for Robert Morris, a man who is socially unacceptable, already married, inconsiderate of her feelings, and who, because of these negative qualifications, is sexually irresistible. There is some moral in her perversity, a comment on what happens when the rock of childbearing is lifted off a woman’s life. It’s as if Miriam is drawn to Robert because of the burden he poses, the crushing blow to the parents, Nichol, and to her own self-respect. As if she substitutes selfdestruction for the older tradition of female self-effacement. Or perhaps, because of the impossibility of the relationship, her perversity is a child’s playing with fire, a refusal to choose childbearing though it is clearly one of the desirable, responsible opportunities offered to her. In any case, though she is a heroine whose identity is in crisis, her problems are tied to sex. Her pseudo-bohemianism is a symptom of her dilemma, but art is never a solution, never a measure of how far she has strayed.
In The Three Suitors, however, a public man’s diaries float as a kind of cultural coin; their value goes up and down, depending on which character wants them for which purpose. The moral health of the community depends on the proper placement of Sir Arthur Benson-Williams” papers, somewhere along the line between cheap commercialism and absolute integrity. (The problem with the latter is that silence is its most perfect, if not its only expression. ) The character whose identity is at stake is Mignon, Sir Arthur’s widow, a sort of Welsh Mother Courage who takes the risk of seeking out a publisher. As representative of “the old world,” she becomes a gauge of the possibilities for its values in the new.
“Old world” has to be enclosed in quotes because Mignon’s Wales is a complex social entity: bound up with English power and politics but also beleaguered by the colonial’s frustrated sense of oppression. Mignon’s father, Daniel Samuel Roberts, was the M. P. for Caerifor and known as “The People’s Friend” because of his role in upsetting the local landowners” power. As a member of the Cabinet Secretariat, Mignon’s husband, Sir Arthur, was part of “the Inner Circle,” his own phrase to describe the few interlocking groups that rule Britain. Her house, which had been in the family for several generations, “had once been sure of its values and its purpose too. It was a museum of those heavy, massive realities—ponderous, often clumsy, but central . . . in the British tradition—that were out of favor at the time.” Through her father and her husband, Mignon is connected to the Victorian and Edwardian eras. A sense of history informs the heroine and her circle, but for the reader, the real role that history plays is as a contrast. Though the distant past is discussed, so that we are aware of the action’s place in a continuum, the 19th century clearly dominates as the real measure of the novel’s drama. The moral insecurity of the present comes into focus when seen beside the period which fathered it: an age when class, manners, and virtue were an actual trinity.
We associate Mignon with older values through her association with men (particularly her father) who were active in the service of these values. Through her brother, Freddy, she is also allied to the narrowing possibility for provincial Wales in the present. He is a clergyman, writing poetry in Welsh, discharging his pleasant duty to culture. “Here it simply means a poet in his own region, a poet in and out of his country and it means that we have a social function.” Freddy is the sort of artist for whom art is “simple communication,” a character of great sweetness, even distinction; but he is also provincial and a figure of fun in a way that Mignon never is.
As a woman, her freer social role allows her greater breadth of spirit. For Miriam, freedom is the proverbial rope with which she hangs herself. But Mignon’s freedom is still clearly defined in terms of childbearing and marriage; it is a space in which to deepen. At the start of the book, when Mignon and Freddy watch a train cross the landscape at sunset, she is given the stature of an actress and the possibilities of a great heroine.
With their hands raised to their eyes, Mignon and Freddy summed up old age abandoned, archetypal old age waiting for the long-lost traveller’s halloo; and under the spectacular sunset, which struck cloths of gold in the farmhouse windows, they became heroic in their fidelity, tragic in their passionate scrutiny. Then, as they moved homewards, one carrying a bundle of firewood, the other an apronful of crab apples, they were diminished. They were simply two old people, the last of a large family and a generous tradition, living out their years in seclusion; one might have said abandon. Was this all? she asked herself; but the question might have been addressed to the clouds piling up over Caeforshire, to the fir plantations and windbreaks below them, to the last light caught on the surface of the mid-August floods, to the sweep of the pearl blue sky where, beyond the golden tumults and ribbons of vapour, the new moon trembled. It was the hour of reconciliation and homecoming for everyone but herself.
It is worth quoting at length, partially to draw attention to the author’s gift for natural description, but more especially to look at Mignon’s starting point. By using such words and phrases as “archetypal,” “cloths of gold,” “heroic,” “fidelity,” “tragic,” the author evokes emotions that are both ancient and timeless. There is some echo of heraldic pomp, some touch of Christian splendor which, among other things, calls on the gifts the Welsh poetic imagination has bestowed on language. But it is also a vocabulary that identifies its heroine with an older, nobler world, and, at the same time, asks on her behalf whether her life has been meaningful. The question is a challenge to the way she’s lived; it forces her out into the contemporary world, where her inexperience renders her no different from any other innocent youth.
She and Freddy are living out their days in a house they can no longer maintain. Mignon’s vinegary clearsightedness causes her to dismiss intimates as much as her generosity impels her to embrace them. Honesty is the link between her moods and the quality most threatened when her nephew, Edward (Professor Lloyd-Ballantine), interests a publisher in her husband’s letters and diaries.
No one among Sir Arthur’s family has any illusions about the literary merits of his papers. They are “deadly dull,” according to his wife; according to his illegitimate daughter, Rohama, Sir Arthur was the “driest letter writer since the long drought.” But the whole point of the cash economy is that nothing has inherent value. Money makes mountains out of molehills and as such is a power which can destroy by empty inflation. Mignon’s truthfulness is a personal quality, but because her person carries forward the world that shaped her, twice as much is threatened by her rendezvous with the pound sterling. It is precisely her need for money that sets her in motion, starts the adventure which produces the answer to the question bothering her. It is also money that challenges her moral nature and yet also finally provides a happy ending.
Because money is a taboo subject for Mignon, it is also magical, transforming. The possibility of acquiring it at first changes her into a vain, falsifying ninny. Did she once say no public servant’s papers should be published? (“Because well spent lives are dull. That’s the hardest fact to accept, bar none!”) She changes her tune, starts saying, “Arthur’s papers belong to the nation.” She develops “all sorts of modern nervous gestures,” and when Charles Milford, the first suitor, a young assistant editor, comes to stay, Mignon covers herself with lipstick, grows “coy and girlish.”
Milford is a marvelously drawn character, striking literary poses right and left, but he is also a genuinely intelligent, sensitive boy who naturally finds it hard to call a spade a spade to the people who will be hurt. Nonetheless, Milford is not an appropriate suitor because Heinz, his publishing house, is too good for Sir Arthur’s diaries. Heinz is like Knopf, and Sir Arthur would have to be a Harold Macmillan to have his papers accepted there. Milford beats a hasty retreat, having realized he cannot give his changeable hostess what she wants. But even before he departs and behind his back, Mignon, in her guise as a wheeler-dealer, writes to the Sunday Age, hinting at a big editorial project and trying to seduce the newspaper into buying Sir Arthur’s papers for serialization.
If aiming for Heinz is aiming too high, the Sunday Age is aiming too low, and the second suitor, Jack Cappland, is as cheaply commercial as Milford is highfalutin. It takes Cappland no time to realize that the papers are hopelessly dull, but he sticks around to enjoy the local sights, smells, and women. A shameless opportunist, he rips off a few of Sir Arthur’s letters to famous people, encourages Freddy to believe there is a chance he can get his poetry published, and stumbles at the sink so he can get his arm around Rohama’s waist. Mignon shamelessly caters to him, and while he is there, she treats her brother and daughter badly. The further out on the limb she goes to sell her diaries, her house and kitchen, herself—anything Cappland might be willing to buy, the lower she sinks humanly. When it becomes clear that he used Mignon’s hospitality and house, that he has no real interest in doing anything about the papers—after he has brutally rejected Freddy’s poetry because it is written in Welsh, Mignon admits her error.
To have debased herself and her family at the end of her long life and to have tried to turn the lives of all those who were most dear to her into a commodity was all that resulted from her attempts to interest publishers in her husband’s papers. She knew, too, that to make these commodities more interesting to the buyers she had falsified values, suppressed facts and given prominence to others that had only a small part in the general picture. In trying to turn her own family and its traditions, such as they were, into marketable commodities she had fallen into the worst modern vice which, in a society of consumers, likes to put a price on everything; and, after all this specious selling, what would have been the result: £250—£500.
In true fairy-tale style, before Mignon gets what she wants, she loses everything, including her desire for what she set out to win. The money which once seemed so crucial has lost its charm, and with it, she feels she has lost her honor as well as her hope. But what has really vanished is her will. Once she stops interfering and recovers her honesty, then the very thing she wanted and gave up hope of getting falls into her lap. Robert Couzens arrives in a cab, ready to do business on behalf of an American college. He is the right man at last, and the book ends happily with the marriage of Mignon’s gifts to the New World’s possibility.
We are not used to happy endings. According to the literary conventions of our day, novels usually begin with an ordered world which goes to pieces in the course of the book. As events hurtle toward dissolution and disaster, the original order comes to seem like a bygone phenomena, belonging to a lost period of history such as the one in which Jane Austen wrote. All of her novels end happily; and if this makes her seem implausible by our standards, then it should be noted that her books begin with a problem and move toward its solution. From our own experience, we can accept this as a natural outcome, in time, for a difficulty that people are working on; for the same reason, we should not forget that the disorder our novels reflect may only be a temporary loss of clarity, prefacing a period in which society once more has hold of workable answers. In reading Jones” work, it seems necessary to raise the problem of the happy ending because his first novel might have been dismissed as old-fashioned or naive if his happy ending had been a willful, literary imposition.
But beneath the artificial conclusion, things are still ceaselessly changing, In fact, change is what the novel has been about all along—change and the changeless human capacity to discover new forms of genuine fulfillment. Jones” characters are all individuals, but they are also eternal types. Even ones like the sex-obsessed Cappland, who is deliberately portrayed as a modern fly-by-night, even he seems like a person who has always been and always will be an actor in the human cast.
In Jones” view, change cannot touch essential human nature, but it can improve on our errors. At the end, while Couzens is courting Mignon, she talks about her own mistakes in her marriage, about her sexual frigidity, which led to her husband’s liaison with Mrs. Benjamin (mother of Rohama). As she talks, revealing herself with the greatest candor, Mignon is implicitly criticizing the Victorian order with its taboo against physical pleasure; she is going back and unhooking an enduring, but negative tie to the past. Because she has finally achieved what she wants, she can let the old world go. The safety of the happy ending may undermine the moral risk in her retrospective cutting loose. Nonetheless, the fact that she accepts forward motion—this fact contributes to the literary plausibility of the happy end. Part of its perfection is its self-contradiction, its inclusion of the seeds of its own undoing.
In A Way Out, the hero’s refusal to change literally brings on his death; and though he is blamed for his own stubbornness, the author’s progressive optimism has also begun to erode. Mignon was a willful woman, but there was a dynamic relation between her assertiveness and her community as well as her fate. She dished it out, but she also took it; and she learned from people’s reaction to her. Lewis Griffin, the protagonist of A Way Out, is determined to be an artist, though he does not really have the talent. Even after it is clear his career has failed, he willfully clings to the role of artist.
Lewis is from a blander, more modern Wales than Mignon, one which is stripped of its special history—which, as Lewis says, is a “cosmopolitan mish mash.” Mr. Griffin, his father, is the Town Clerk; though his job may have had this title for centuries, in our time it has come to have the sinister ring of bureaucratic officialdom. Mr Griffin is, however, so friendly, cheerful, and humane that his person dispels all the dreary connotations his job evokes. Lewis” opinion of his father—of his whole family—as the blind bourgeoisie might be understandable as an adolescent gesture of defiance; it is just wrongheaded as the basis for a lifelong rebellion. If the social world of Lewis” youth is uninteresting, uprooted, adrift, his family is rooted, kind, fun-loving. They are not perfect—his mother is insensitive to his early artistic attempts—but Lewis” failure to distinguish between his family and the world at large is the sort of failure which is the mainstay of his pigheadedness. It is a failure of attention, and it leads, through its ignorance of facts, to a failure of self-knowledge. Lewis” sister understands about him “that adolescents with wit and imagination believe that the stirring within them of the richness and excellence of life is the birth of a major creative talent.” But if Lewis is self-centered enough to feel he is special, he does not look so deep as to see or admit his lack of gifts as an artist.
He leaves his unsympathetic hometown, Port Rydal, and goes to Paris which, he says, “was everything I wanted after Port Rydal and the dimness of Oxford. I can’t tell you how those early months were wonderful. After my senses were so starved in Port Rydal, where one had always to be on the defensive about one’s ideas and tastes, because other people were always on the lookout for signs of affectation or stupidity, it was wonderful to relax. . . . The evenings were full of an impossible promise and joy. It was an intuition of joy which never came, it was shown to me only to be taken away.” His work never pays off; he never sells a painting, and though he knows when he should face facts and quit, he won’t.
Lewis quits both work and school. He neglects his pupils. Slowly but surely, he sinks, borrowing money from friends, wondering if he could save himself by staging a nervous breakdown. Finally, he falls ill, ends up in a hospital where he meets Cecile, a Canadian woman who takes him on. She writes his family about his sickness; his sister and her new husband come to take Lewis home. If he is now broken, he still has the power to represent important things to other people. In addition, he has the negative power of making others unhappy.
Although he has failed in his attempt to escape bourgeois restrictions, he still stands for the idea of artistic rebellion. Because that idea is hostile to middle-class life, middle-class people like Lewis” brother-in-law, Roger, are horrified by him. Roger is enough of a prig so that his horror is easily dismissed. But once home, Lewis goes out of his way to hurt his parents, to offend the local librarian, and to show his ingratitude to Cecile, who has done nothing but give of herself and her resources. By the end, his isolation is complete; when he dies, it’s almost as if he is disappearing into the thin air of his wholly negative view of the world.
Much of the responsibility for his self-destruction belongs to Lewis alone, yet he is still part of a society which has helped to undo him. Jones criticizes Lewis for rebelling in passe 19th-century terms, yet he also seems to be criticizing the world Lewis backs into for being in disarray. In fact, the world beyond the 19th-century cliche of the rebel-artist is in such disarray that there is no sane measure by which Lewis could correct himself. He soon discovers that the romance of the starving artist is not at all romantic, that the day of a cosy, pseudo-socialist brotherhood of working, suffering, inspired painters is gone. In its place is starvation and loneliness and hodgepodge in the arts. The myth of the 19th-century artist, glamorized as it became, was at least based on a real community, sharing real ideas. Even if the myth itself was questionable, even if the Impressionists were nowhere near as colorful or as coherent a group as we imagine, still it is accurate that their work was based on a revolution in the way painters looked at the world and used their materials. The people imitating their experience—like the parodies of the Welsh poet and like Lewis—find themselves adrift in a culture which has taken fragmentation to its logical (and absurd) conclusion. Lewis” paintings are not successful, but the abstract canvases which speak only to a very tiny audience.
When Lewis awakes from his dream of rebellion, he comes to in a nightmare of social and artistic disorder. He has too thoroughly uprooted himself to go back, but neither is there anywhere else for him to go. Again, this is his own fault. He could settle down and teach painting in a school. There is no large idea for him to serve, however, even as a fringe devotee. His moral impulse, such as it is, is beached on the isle of his isolation. At the end of the book, shortly before he dies, Lewis and Cecile encounter Mrs. Whittacher, a painter living apart from the world on an island in Northern Wales. Among other things she says (some of them quite foolish), she makes this statement:
Most of the recent work of painters in the so-called modern movement, including most abstract artists, is the product of spiritual adolescents. . . . It’s all due to the historical blunder which worked well for a time but is now taking its toll. I have my own theory that the Renaissance and the Romantic movement were essentially aberrations. This is from the point of view of the artist as craftsman. As I see it we ought to work in humble anonymity: craftsmen to the core, working impersonally, un-self-consciously within the framework of something we all believe—work within a shared experience of belief. . . . All the contortions, the twistings, and the deliberate visual jokes are the last twitch of the Renaissance/ Romantic artist: everything worn out but the urge to hold to the illusion of empty, false individuality.
The role of the Renaissance in Western art is an idea which haunts Jones; it recurs in Living at the 25th Hour and is a cornerstone in the author’s analysis of why and how Lewis went astray: his attempt to enter the world was frustrated by the world’s uninviting view of experience. Lewis’s selfcenteredness comes from the art he grew up with, an art which literally throws him back on himself. His education gives him a poor start in life, one which is so undeveloped and primitive he cannot find useful employment.
If Jones has a practical attitude toward the necessity of making a living, he also believes that there is a public who want to be pleased, who will support an artist whose work nourishes the soul. In A Way Out, the author deplores the fragmentation of culture into a thousand individual artists, but he also seems to regard Lewis as the height of absurdity, the last possible (and almost tragic) gasp of an historical drift which will correct itself. Some of Jones” optimism from The Three Suitors lingers on. In A Way Out, his faith in an unchanging human virtue is not so much expressed in the drama itself as in the criticism of Lewis, which implies that there is a better way to do these things. Actually, the implication is that there used to be a better way and that this way, involving a sense of community and self-control, will return via the eternal strengths of the human race.
Between A Way Out, his third novel, and Living at the 25th Hour, his fifth, Jones” vision of the present has become more filled with disbelief and despair. Though the narrator of the latter work is conscious of the past, few of his fellow characters are; and the past the narrator carries in his head is not an historical past, not a sense of particular English dates or unfolding destiny in which he plays a part. His sense of the past is almost pure loss:
. . . I was aware that somewhere underneath the platforms and rails, perhaps seventy feet down, the waters of the Honey Brook, one of the lost rivers of London, flowed through culverts to the Thames; and that the area covered by utilitarian housing had once been watercress beds and lavender fields; that, poking down shabby streets, I had found the remains of former carthouses, real country cottages become storage places, old gardens hidden by rubbish; all of these places fragments of the old village: the place where Londoners came to by fresh vegetables and dairy produce, or took tea before walking back to the city. Like others of my kind, I held these fragments in my mind because I derived some sense of community from them: they nourished me. I could not accept what had come after: the shoddiness, the dinginess, the limitation of scope. On the contrary, the human error seemed so great that I held the eventual disappearance of these streets as an article of faith.
Once more, it seems important to quote at length for the sake of the style. In its language, the book is clearly the descendent of The Three Suitors; in its wit, its insights, and frequent touches of beauty, the style displays its kinship to the author’s first book. But here nostalgia governs, a haunting poignancy which underlines what has happened to the author’s view. In the opening description of Mignon, the vocabulary comes directly out of identifiable traditions, drawing its power from Christianity, Welsh poetry, the history of the English kings. In the paragraph just quoted, the language calls on vaguer memories, a purer but also more primitive time. It is as if the narrator recalls the past as a dream, as if in the ruin of his civilization, he dreams the past as an archetypal source of hope and renewal.
In Living at the 25th Hour, Alan Lang leads a double life. He is a lawyer and a writer; he is happily married, father of two girls, but, at the same time, he is the free-lance observer of decadent London social life; as an Englishman, he is involved in his own culture, but through his marriage to Irina, whose parents were refugees from Eastern Europe, Lang has social and literary connections with the Balkan community. This last duality produces a real conflict of cultures. On the one hand, as a Westerner, Lang belongs to a free society which, in its moral confusion, is producing an increasingly spineless culture—one that is more and more defined by empty Hollywood terms and tyrannized by money. On the other hand, through his connections with Eastern European writers, Lang is conscious of the moral power of literature under repressive governments. The contrast between his experience as a Westerner and his observations of the East make him debate whether it is better to be lost and free or found and jailed.
Not that he had much choice in the matter. The problem of responsibility and freedom is—willy-nilly—his problem, and it is at the bottom of all his dilemmas. At the end, what he does with his freedom inexorably involves him in a failure of responsibility. His doubleness puts him in danger from the start, particularly his professional two-sidedness. Or, more likely, his two jobs express different parts of a character that is in trouble when the book begins. Lang is a subtly rendered character—a man with real spiritual awareness. At the same time, what is kind, perceptive, and generous in him is also on the verge of an unprincipled neutrality. His moral tolerance is what links his understanding with a less attractive quality—his potential as a voyeur. From the start, his acts are touched by an ambiguity which slowly but inevitably draws him into the horror he deplores in modern life.
A Mrs. Thorn seeks Lang’s advice as a lawyer and, through her, he becomes legally and personally acquainted with Harry Hibbert, Mrs. Hibbert, Josh Hibbert, Ella Winsmoor (Miss S.W. 84 and Miss Magic), Jimmy Ward, and other assorted seamy characters. Their story starts in farce and ends in tragedy, beginning in sex and ending with murder. Miss Magic, a television personality with no talent and plenty of ambition, is at the center of that drama. She wants to be a movie actress, though her only claims to fame are good looks, a certain sweetness, and the willingness to sleep with anybody. These gifts find expression in a pornographic movie that includes shots of one of Lang’s unsuspecting clients, Harry Hibbert. Lang defends the man who was unknowingly filmed in the act with Miss Magic. Though the defendant is acquitted, through Miss Magic’s avowal of his innocence, everyone’s guilt is dramatized at a party following the trial. Under the influence of drugs and alcohol, several of the men join Miss Magic in an orgy; an ex-lover, her former doorman, appears with a gun and kills her while she is in the midst of an acrobatic sexual performance. Lang witnesses the murder but leaves and later pretends he saw nothing.
Lang’s relation to Miss Magic is personal and legal, but it is also artistic. Her character and her circle provide him with material; they are at the center of the social, as well as the business world of London: the last word in free expression. It is his responsibility as an author to seek out knowledge of these people. Yet their bankruptcy, and Lang’s depiction of it, is a comment on the poverty of contemporary life and literature. In his portrayal of the author and his society, Jones depicts a kind of national suicide in which culture and moral identity take the leap together. It is a world in which the serious artist, Lang, is in doubt about who he is and thus in no position to help other people know who they are.
It is, moreover, the world in which Jones has published his books; and if it is not surprising, it is still disappointing that an author with such insight has been so little rewarded. When I asked him what his model for his expectations as an author were, he described the Wales of his youth. Not only has that community disappeared, but Jones has also lost his sense of national identification. At one time, he was elected a member of the Welsh Academy, but he finally resigned because of its nationalist attitude toward writing in the Welsh language. From Jones” point of view, the Academy’s enthusiasm about writing in Welsh involved a denial of what was really happening in the world, and that denial extended beyond language to the problem of politics and living. Jones left the Academy but not without a sense of frustration. Though he says he could no longer write a book like The Three Suitors, he still feels rooted in Wales. Yet because he does not write in the language, and increasingly writes about the problems of big cities outside of Wales, he is not regarded by the Welsh as one of their own. Part of his message as an author is that once these specific roots are lost, the writers and readers alike are at the mercy of profit-obsessed commerce which parodies true human relations. Jones” novels are fully aware of their status as orphans.
Ideally, the author’s intelligence and disinterest would be welcomed by the system. A proper place at the table would await him. No such welcome exists, however, and it is finally fruitless to bemoan the situation. Even if the publishing system has become inhuman, fiction is still a human activity. As long as human readers need fiction, human writers will produce it. The relation of fiction to the commercial system may get out of whack; it already is. Many excellent writers get crushed, and many authors like Richard Jones do not reach the audience that would enjoy his work and profit from it. Still, here is an essay in appreciation of his work, testifying to the independence of the life of fiction, its capacity to find byways outside and around established avenues. I hope that it also testifies to the strengths of this novelist’s books and that readers will go out and read them.