Old People are a Problem By Emyr Humphreys

Old master: Jan Morris celebrates a deceptively parochial short story writer
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The Independent Culture

This is an old man's book, and all the better for that. Emyr Humphreys is often described as the doyen of Welsh novelists. He is certainly one of the most distinguished, and his books, unlike those of some distinguished novelists, have only grown more distinguished as the years have passed. At 83, having lived life as an academic, a broadcaster, a poet, a playwright and the author of more than 20 novels, he now displays in his art all the advantages of steady and unflinching experience. It is a profoundly contemplative, analytical sort of art, given extra assurance by an absolute conviction of identity.

Like nearly all his books, and as its title implies, Old People are a Problem has transcendental resonances. It deals with relationships, affections and conflicts that we all experience, whoever or wherever we are. It is, however, rooted in Humphreys's own particular concerns. He is a Welsh-speaking Welshman, a Cymro Cymraeg, and he nearly always illustrates the matters of humanity at large through the microcosm of his own small corner of the world.

Many Welsh artists find their art at once circumscribed and enlarged by a devotion to their land and its culture unknown to most of the contemporary English. Humphreys actually served a term in jail, back in the 1970s, for his love of the Welsh language. Never again, we may hope, will a Welshman be obliged to make so dramatic a sacrifice, but there are many, many artists in Cymru who could lead their lives a great deal more easily if they would compromise their principles or their instincts, and abandon Welshness for a more lucrative posture.

Some do, of course. Some go the other way, and even refuse to have their poetry translated into English. Humphreys's position has not wavered. Although he writes mostly in English, his art is filtered always through the screen of his own Welshness, his Cymreictod, and his characters too are all too often enmeshed in the various predicaments of the Welsh condition. His major work of Welsh cultural history, published in 1983, was called The Taliesin Tradition and was specifically based upon the conviction that the Welsh national identity was based upon the poetical myth of Cymreictod itself.

When it comes to fiction there are, I think, artistic snags to these literary attitudes. To Welsh people, of course, the illustration of universals by familiar Welsh specifics is fine, but to outsiders it may well seem more an obstruction than a conduit. I feel the same when I read most English or American regional novels, and wish their local allusions, dialects or references didn't get in the way of their greater themes. I might prefer Faulkner away from Oxford County. I am put off by most North Country narratives. Even Hardy's Wessexness sometimes seems to me a screen that has to be penetrated before the majesty of his themes reveals itself.

So it is with Humphreys, The eight longish stories in this collection are all set in northern Wales, and of course to locals like me their settings greatly add to their effectiveness. Others may have to change mental gear, as it were, before they realise that the parochial plots are deceptive. The title story indeed tells the tale of a solitary old Welsh lady whose senility affects an entire community, but it is really a subtle examination of that ubiquitous problem of our time, what's to become of the aged. When Humphreys writes about an unmarried mother or a gypsy immigrant, he is writing about all single parents, and all illegal immigrants. Prejudice, materialism, snobbism, affection, jealousy - all are analysed here in a Welsh context, but with a pan-human range of implication.

Here's where an old man's book comes into its own. Humphreys has been doing this for a very long time, and he long ago learnt how subtly to distil the particular into the general. His proud patriotism (or culturalism, as I myself prefer to call it nowadays), has cherished its own humanism, and what he sees and feels in the Wales around him he knows to be, though no less exact than it ever was, of a grander meaning too.

There is a fictional character in this book who seems to have expressed in herself the author's own purposes. She painted very little but the rocks and stones of Wales, but she knew "the depth of understanding that came from struggling to explore the depths of one particular place". Emyr Humphreys knows it too, and it is the glory of his life in letters that ever since his triumph with his early novels, which made him famous more than half a century ago, he has pursued that depth of understanding with such honourable integrity.