Continuing the search for the Greatest Welsh Novel, Gary Raymond argues for the classic On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin.
The story of the Jones boys is the moment of beautiful subtlety and poignancy from a writer who always liked to go big and bold, who was a showman, a bon vivant. When Chatwin died in 1989, his funeral was, as someone cheekily noted, the literary equivalent of the Charles and Di wedding. It was ‘an event’, and Chatwin was a figure who lived to be at the centre of events. There is, of course, the ‘scandals’ around Chatwin’s most famous non-fiction works. How much of his non-fiction writing was authentic and how much was fabricated for effect? His books about Patagonia and Australia, though regarded as highpoints of their form are also looked at with a sideways glance. There are clearly more than blurred lines here, and Chatwin’s reputation has always been somewhat dependent on whether you can admire a writer who employed fiction in his non-fiction. We could argue all day about Chatwin’s worth as a documentarian, but one thing will be left when the dust settles, and that is his vital prose, his dauntless authorial voice, and, well, his character. Chatwin is a writer like few others, whether you like him or not.
And so it is a relief that he managed to contain in his life cut short a moment of his considerable irresistible talent into a book that courts none of that controversy. On the Black Hill is the finespun, still novel of a man who had soul at the centre of his bluster and theatrics, who had real heart beneath the Italian silk and Parisian moleskines. It is the life story of Lewis and Benjamin Jones, twins who are born, live and die on their farm, ‘The Vision’, on the borderlands of Wales and England. In the book Chatwin cuts deep into a notion of Welshness, of rural isolated living, of an almost Druidic connection to the breathing earth. Although an Englishman, Chatwin is a mighty specimen in the pantheon of outsiders who have taught a culture more than a thing or two about itself. Chatwin looked in and saw a great deal. On the Black Hill is a marvellous novel, but it is also a very important one.
We are here in a land full of sharply drawn memorable characters, often of an identifiable Welsh picture of a bygone era. But forget the flashes of Under Milk Wood; this is a fully formed narrative that has equally weight and depth, not a series of frivolously compiled snapshots masquerading as a dynamic portrait gallery. There is perhaps the influence of the Cwmdonkin boy in On the Black Hill, but Chatwin’s novel is unified and enriched with such greater purpose, such towering maturity, compared to the eventual radio play. Here Chatwin is drawing on a grander tradition of World literature – the works of the Russian folkists like Gorky and Turgenev, but also of classic rural English literature. Hannah Jones, the boys’ grandmother, not ‘an agreeable woman’, has a mouth as sharp and twisted as ‘a leaf of holly’; Sam the Waggon with the face of a sad clown, ‘fifty years of fisticuffs had flattened his nose’; the Reverend Thomas Tuke – ‘A tall bony man with a mass of curls, he had a habit of fixing his parishioners with an amber stare before offering them the glory of his profile.’ Such incisive writing is typical of a book that doesn’t like to linger. Chatwin draws characters often with the one Tolstoyan essence and then allows them their weighty presence in the room.
On the Black Hill carries its forefathers extremely well, and the unlikely humility of Chatwin in its composition makes for a warm but still weighty read. The prose resonates out from the pages. In here is Lawrence and Hardy, the watermarks of great rural English literature, and also flashes of the gods, Tolstoy and Eliot. But the framework of the novel is cinematic as well as literary. Chatwin creates a masterpiece of temporal flow, giving over entire chapters to snits of time, whereas whole years will pass within a subclause of a trailing sentence. Structurally, the novel is quite simply perfect.
Emotionally engaging, structurally perfect, and prosaically endearing and impressive – what of its Welshness? The book has pre-Raphaelite mysticism to it – a Holman Hunt engraving hangs in the farmhouse and watches over much of the action – that enhances Chatwin’s ideas on Welshness. On the Black Hill is a book about people to whom the ‘world of men’ is at most an irrelevance. There is a crackling sense of the old world – the old world the Romantics looked to, as well as the one nostalgia gives to us. Wars go on away from here – after the boys bury their mother, her memory unites them, removed as they are from the fact that ‘Europe was in flames’. One of the final images of the book is of Meg the Rock, neighbour to the Jones boys, a demented figure to the encroaching civilised world, as, tattered and caked in mud, she whispers to the creatures of the wood. There is more heart in the observation of Meg than there is in the new video game that has appeared in the local pub, there is more heart, essentially, in what is being lost. Of course, Meg, like the Jones boys, will never be won over, they will be built around. And if you’d like to read one of the dichotomies of the novel as of that between Wales and England, then Chatwin’s message becomes even more interesting.
That Wales and England come up against each other here is obvious – The Vision, the farm where the Jones Boys live for their eighty-odd years, is bisected by the border of Hereford and Radnorshire. Lewis and Benjamin, connected almost telepathically at times, are also to an extent mirror opposites. They come to be defined as individuals entirely on what differentiates them from each other, not by what they solely encompass. Apart from those instances they are the same, they move as one and even share dreams and wounds. Benjamin and Lewis are like earth-myth versions of Vonnegut’s Wilbur and Eliza, the giant genius twins who live in the ruins of the Empire State Building in Slapstick (1976). But whereas Wilbur and Eliza, who share a brain but use separate sides, represent a garish satire on science and art, Lewis and Benjamin are the push and pull of nation neighbours who may spend a great deal of time resenting one another, but are too tightly entwined to ever be wrought apart.
All around the static journey of the Jones boys are fascinating cameos – other characters and the potential of their own stories splay outward from the pages – Chatwin observes his characters as the astute do the passing of strangers in life. And with just a swift swish of his brush a wider world, a wider Wales, is on show. When Hannah and Amos first purchase the farm, for example, Chatwin notes the previous ‘tenant had died in 1896, leaving an old unmarried sister who had carried on alone until they fetched her to the madhouse.’ Here we have a glimpse at the dangers of seclusion, and also at a moment in time, a suggestion of a story perhaps even more interesting than the one we are presented with. But Lewis and Benjamin will never be left alone to go mad. They have each other.
There are countless other moments. Professor Gethyn-Jones, with his bad breath, coming to get a good price on the books of a dead friend – but does he also have a passing interest in Hannah? Whatever, getting a deal on the books is the priority.
Chatwin, over and over, reminds us that communities are built up of stories, of characters: a communal identity, a national identity, used to be about the sum of its parts, not its television output nor its economy. It was a thing apart from that. The reason why On the Black Hill should be considered for the accolade of the Greatest Welsh Novel is because it separates our notions of national identity from crude modernist ideas of commerce, and the crude modernist ideas of commodified tradition. In On the Black Hill you will find Wales in all its complexity and colour.
Gary Raymond is a novelist, critic, editor and broadcaster.