John Rowlands: Author who eschewed popular taste in order to explore the human mind and his own inner life

Playing the piano was a passion for his entire life and in all of his novels the role of music is paramount

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Among the prose writers who began making names for themselves in the 1960s, when the novel was enjoying a new vogue in Wales, John Rowlands ploughed a lone furrow. Instead of trying to appeal to popular taste, he made the exploration of inner life his priority. The consequence was that his seven novels, though admired by his peers, were thought “difficult” and “highbrow” by those who wanted merely a good yarn or easy read.

Born and brought up on a small farm near Trawsfynydd in Merioneth, Rowlands was encouraged by his parents to read and discuss literature, and to take every opportunity of competing at local eisteddfodau. His mother was a fine memoirist and his older sister Catrin, also to become a novelist, was already writing competent prose, and for that reason he tried his hand at verse. But the language of the County School at Blaenau Ffestiniog, where he was a contemporary of the poet Gwyn Thomas and the novelist Eigra Lewis Roberts, was English – and, coming from a Welsh-speaking home and district, he made little headway. Instead, he turned to music. Playing the piano was to remain a passion for the rest of his life and in all of his novels the role of music is paramount.

It was while he was an undergraduate at the University College of North Wales, Bangor, where he took first class honours in Welsh, that Rowlands became a writer. There he fell under the spell of the playwright and critic John Gwilym Jones, who nurtured in him the talent that was to blossom almost immediately. His first novel, Lle bo’r Gwenyn (“Where the Bees Are”, 1960), was written in Bangor, as was his second, Yn Ôl i’w Teyrnasoedd (“Back to His Kingdoms”, 1963). Both these books reflect their author’s fascination with human psychology and a bleak contemporary world in which the individual is often seen as isolated, introspective and vulnerable.

His next novel, Ienctid yw ’Mhechod (“Youth Is My Sin”, 1965), caused a fluttering in the dovecotes of literary Wales, but for the wrong reason. His publisher, Emlyn Evans, had steadfastly refused to publish it on the grounds that it contained explicit descriptions of sex between a minister and a member of his congregation, only to find on his return from holiday that the owner of the press, the bullish Alun Talfan Davies, had ordered the book to be printed, whereupon Evans resigned. The passages that offended Evans are, by today’s standards, only mildly lubricious – but in 1965 they caused as much stir in Wales as had Lady Chatterley’s Lover in England five years before.

From Bangor, Rowlands went to do doctoral research on the poetry of Dafydd ap Gwilym at Jesus College, Oxford, by which time he knew himself to be a novelist who would explore the human mind in all its aspects. “The mind is wide,” says one of his characters, “as wide as the material universe or wider. It’s a man’s duty to think and discover a purpose to all things, especially his own life.” While at Trinity College, Carmarthen, where he was lecturing in 1968, he wrote Llawer Is na’r Angylion (“Much Lower than the Angels”), in which the chief character yearns for personal freedom from the suffocating traditions of rural Wales, particularly chapel hypocrisy and village gossip.

In his next novel, too, Bydded Tywyllwch (“Let There Be Darkness”, 1969), the heroine who escapes to a life of promiscuity in London asks, “What is normal?” The pleasure of reading these books is almost wholly cerebral and many readers were put off by the dark world they explored.

An even more complex theme is expertly handled in Arch ym Mhrâg (“A Coffin in Prague”, 1972), which is about the political aspirations of young people in the Czechoslovakia of 1968. Rowlands, by now a lecturer at St David’s University College, Lampeter, happened to be in the country at the time of the Soviet invasion in 1968 and returned, with the help of a Welsh Arts Council travel grant, in the summer of 1971.

Rowlands moved to a lectureship in the Welsh Department at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, in 1975. His seventh novel, Tician Tician (“Ticking Ticking”, 1978), explored the crisis faced by the Welsh language even in one of its last bastions, in particular the effect the prospect of its imminent demise has on the mind of a young lecturer who is almost certainly meant to be Rowlands himself. A shy man who would blush profusely when addressed in conversation, he nevertheless felt the threat to his language very acutely and was stout in his defence of students who broke the law in a bid to secure a degree of legal status for it.

His academic work was of the first water. In the volume Dafydd ap Gwilym a Chanu Serch yr Oesoedd Canol (“Dafydd ap Gwilym and the Love Poetry of the Middle Ages”, 1975), which he edited, he re-examined the topic of his doctoral research. The symposium Sglefrio ar Eiriau (“Skating on Words”, 1992) brought together eight leading critics to discuss various aspects of contemporary Welsh literature. Y Sêr yn eu Graddau (“The Stars in Their Courses”, 2000) dealt with the modern Welsh novel and appeared in the series Y Meddwl a’r Dychymyg Cymreig (“The Welsh Mind and Imagination”), edited by Rowlands, which includes some of the most advanced writing to appear in Welsh in recent times. He was awarded a personal Chair at Aberystwyth in 1996 and, after his retirement in 2003, was made Emeritus.

Rowlands made only two excursions into English. He contributed an elegant monograph on the popular novelist T Rowland Hughes (1903-49) to the Writers of Wales series (1975), and with Glyn Jones wrote a visitor’s guide to writing in 20th century Wales, Profiles (1980), from which, typically, he excluded himself. It was left to his co-author to ensure that a note about him appeared on the back flap.

He co-edited Taliesin, the magazine of the Welsh Academy, from 1993 to 1998, and wrote a food column for the journal Barn (“Opinion”), often garnishing his restaurant reviews with literary references. For a few years he and his wife turned their home near Groeslon, Gwynedd, into a restaurant, at which he would serve at table. The place was called Y Goeden Eirin (“The Plum Tree”) in tribute to John Gwilym Jones, author of a celebrated collection of short stories with that title, who had put him on the road to becoming a writer.

John Rowlands, novelist: born Trawsfynydd, Merioneth 14 August 1938; married Eluned (one daughter, two sons); died 23 February 2015.

Comments