Dylan Thomas is largely known for a few lines of scintillating poetry (“the force which through the green fuse drives the flower”, “do not go gently into that good night”) which encrust a large slag-heap of incomprehensibility; but very little is ever mentioned of his prose works. These, it seems to me, fall into two categories: there are the pieces (for the most part longer) which he wrote without much thought or care, and which generally aren’t up to much; and then there are the pieces (generally shorter) which he worked on painstakingly, and which are amongst the best pieces of writing in English in the twentieth century.
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog seems to fall somewhere between the two: the first stories and the last seem to have great care lavished on them, whereas the middle stories have the feel of something added merely to fill the work out a bit (it’s still only 128 pages long).
As the name suggests, there’s a reminiscence here of Joyce: the book manages to combine the structures of both Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, though omitting in doing so much of the dull realism of the former and the tedious hell-fire religion of the latter: that is to say, Thomas writes a series of short stories about a young poet growing up in Wales. The early stories involve a young child and the child’s imaginative vision of the world, which in their way – rather like that Salvador Garmendia novel we read last year – drift towards a what might almost be called a magic realism – but that specific magic realism which is never absent from the child in his encounter with the world.
Here is the young Thomas at the beginning of the story “Patricia, Edith, and Arnold”, at a moment when his child’s imagination is in collision with the real world:
The small boy in his invisible engine, the Cwmdonkin Special, its wheels, polished to dazzle, crunching on the small back garden scattered with breadcrumbs for the birds and white with yesterday’s snow, its smoke rising thin and pale as breath in the cold afternoon, hooted under the wash-line, kicked the dog’s plate at the washhouse stop, and puffed and pistoned slower and slower while the servant girl lowered the pole, unpegged the swinging vests, showed the brown stains under her arms, and called over the wall: “Edith, Edith, come here, I want you.”
Edith climbed on two tubs on the other side of the wall and called back: “I’m here, Patricia.” Her head bobbed up above the broken glass.
He backed the Flying Welshman from the washhouse to the open door of the coal-hole and pulled hard on the brake that was a hammer in his pocket: assistants in uniform ran out with fuel; he spoke to a saluting fireman, and the engine shuffled off, round the barbed walls of China that kept the cats away, by the frozen rivers in the sink, on and out of the coal-hole tunnel. But he was listening carefully all the time, through the squeals and whistles, to Patricia and the next-door servant, who belonged to Mrs. Lewis, talking when they should have been working, calling his mother Mrs. T., being rude about Mrs. L.
A lot of the stories have perhaps a certain triviality to them, as we feel at times with Kipling; and as we feel at times with Kipling, perhaps this is only because the story is told for the sake of the skill in telling.
As often, Thomas is at his best describing some everyday scene or festivity, such as this beach scene from the last and best story, One Warm Saturday:
In a huddle of picnicking women and their children, stretched out limp and damp in the sweltering sun or fussing over paper carriers or building castles that were at once destroyed by the tattered march of other picnickers to different pieces of the beach, among the ice-cream cries, the angrily happy shouts of boys playing ball, and the screams of girls as the sea rose to their waists, the young man sat alone with the shadows of his failure at his side. Some silent husbands, with rolled up trousers and suspenders dangling, paddled slowly on the border of the sea, paddling women, in thick, black picnic dresses, laughed at their own legs, dogs chased stones, and one proud boy rode the water on a rubber seal. The young man, in his wilderness, saw the holiday Saturday set down before him, false and pretty, as a flat picture under the vulgar sun; the disporting familes with paper bags, buckets and spades, parasols and bottles, the happy, hot and aching girls with suburn liniments in their bags, the bronzed young men with chests, and the envious, white young men in waistcoats, the thin, pale, hairy, pathetic legs of the husbands silently walking through the water, the plump and curly, shaven-headed and bowed-backed children up to no sense with unrepeatable delight in the dirty sand, moved him, he thought dramtically in his isolation, to an old shame and pity; outside all holiday, like a young man doomed for ever to the company of his maggots, beyond the high and ordinary, sweating, sun-awakened power and stupidity of the summer flesh on a day and a world out, he caught the ball that a small boy had whacked into the air with a tin tray, and rose to throw it back.