The 39th instalment of the Library of Wales series brings a reissue of this classic by Rhys Davies. This is the second novel by Davies to feature in the series which also comprises The Withered Root as its 12th release.
One of the godfathers of the modern short story tradition, Davies is currently less known for his novels, despite having written twenty. The absence of the widespread celebration of this novel and indeed Davies as novelist is a rich mystery. His longer works can justifiably fit into a canon of European high-naturalism of which he could be called a late exponent and his psychological insights and mastery of words are noteworthy. He was a well-connected man with many well-known artist and writer friends yet he still was quietly and confidently committed to the process of writing more than any of the trimmings or distractions surrounding the scene. Never a man to be not drawn by the alternative routes many writers have taken consciously or not to notoriety, the illumination and warmth of which their writing enjoys the vicarious benefits of.
A Time To Laugh is set in a mining valley in south Wales at the turn of the twentieth century and concerns the political burgeoning of the young physician Tudor Morris whose socialist views find a worthy outlet in his support of the local miners strikes. Discontent with the meretricious aspirations of his own middle class upbringing, Tudor befriends the impecunious and enigmatic siblings Melville and Daisy and through their association begins to gain credence as a sincere supporter of the working revolutionaries attempting to correct the class inequality in the valley. “My fight…” Tudor tells a miner ill at ease with this middle class doctor’s inclusion in the inner circle of the movement, “is inside myself, yours outside, but the goal seems to be the same – physical and spiritual ease.”
The falling price of coal and the introduction of the insidious sliding scale system of wage reduction – whereby the miners wages fell in line with coal prices – cause seismic vacillations in the quality of life for the mining families of the valley leading eventually to ever more violent civil unrest and the emergence of the spirit of reform.
Melville spends much of the novel serving hard-labour for the importance of his role in the movement but his spirit pervades the novel and he returns for the final chapter to see in the new year and century with his sister, now Tudor’s wife. Melville is in many ways the talisman of the workers movement and the usher of progress, the most noble character in the novel and a focal embodiment for Tudor’s admiration of the cause.
The history of the miners was a long tale, dark with squalor, noisy with yells, smelly with sweat – from the beginning of the century strike-leaders such a Dick Penderyn and Lewis the Huntsman were sacrificed at the gibbets, to this last year of it when he, Melville, supposed he’d soon be doing a stretch of hard labour for his organising ability.
The narrative builds and sweeps in a calm unhurried but stimulating pace and Davies develops a sophisticated psychological portrait of young man trying to change for better a society which is neatly graphed as the arc is realised. Tudor Morris turns from a callow yet morally and intellectually excitable voyeur romancing over the colour of the working classes to a credible, sympathetic and admirable modern day Culpeper. A man willing to contest the reality of the world and human nature, aware of the peeling boundaries that were falling from the body of the orthodoxy in the late 1890s.
This book is ambitious and does not content itself to paddle in a parochial drama, instead Davies couches the inner lives and developments of his characters against a backdrop of global political, social and sexual realignment that emerged at the dawn of the 20th century. The personalities and exploits of the families and friends he traces run in parallel with the booming motions of the new technological age giving the personal and private revelations, struggles, loves, whims and weaknesses a universal depth and significance.
This is by no means a progressive novel, it is structurally unexperimental and some of its characters display rather unenlightened attitudes to gender, equality and race. Rather it is a novel concerned with progress, the possibility of that notion, and takes this as its topic.
With the evolution of the novel, Tudor Morris’ character matures and his mind and its mechanisms become familiar to the reader. His intelligent forceful disposition and puritanical ethical convictions are reminiscent of the revolutionary characters in Zola. In fact so good is Davies’ writing that pocket-sized fragments of this book could be extracts from Germinal and Tudor brings to mind a little of the radical protagonist Florent in the The Belly of Paris, perhaps with a less intellectual bent.
Davies exhibits that same social conscience, that same praise for forward thinking and conceptual ambition, that same forgiveness of failure and the charitable yet unflinching descriptions of poverty, sensuality and sin that typify Zola. His style is at points just as lucid too. He can unpack narrative with the similar speed, delicacy and acuity whilst simultaneously building the motivations and mores of his characters and convincingly situating them within their wider social and notional underpinnings.
At times his descriptions are as baroque and imaginative as those celebrated scenes of Les Halle marketplace in The Belly of Paris particularly when describing moments of heightened emotion and physical perception: the riots, the gluttonous excess of celebrations at breaking of fast; sex, violence and drunkenness. He is a writer of the marketplace, humanistic and sensual.
If it wasn’t for the strike those dancers would probably be down in the valley dead drunk on beer and stuffed with a celebrating feast of onioned cold poultry and cake…But something had to be done about the death of the old century, the birth of the new: better than nothing a bonfire and a dance, in spite of empty stomachs.
Below, the raw grimy habitations were flung down in corrupt disorder, rotting husks, ugly and mean. But they seethed and sprouted with life, confusion of fertility,rank and vigorous, evil and beautiful. Waste, stupidity and brutality ran in disorder through the place. But also there was a music, a magic, a calling forth of old deep powers, a leaping out of stagnation, a sharp clean thrusting of leaves from grim trees, from bulbs half rotted in the winter cold earth…
This is a finely conceived novel, luminous with rich and idiosyncratic descriptions. Long and complex vignettes and portraits are drawn with strong movements and unique imagery. His deftness in employing the lexical scope of his mind is effortless and the prose unfolds sentence to sentence in the manner of all good writing, as a palette of hotly realised ideas that possess the mind immediately.
A Time To Laugh will please any devotee of classical, smooth expressive prose. It is a meticulously written book which constantly achieves impressive heights of imagination, analysis and linguistic ingenuity and though it has wrongly been overlooked thus far its fineness ensures a durability which will preserve the pleasures and insights of this great work until the season for a better appreciation of Rhys Davies’ arrives.