The Genre of Silence by Duncan Bush Greatest Welsh Novel

The Genre of Silence by Duncan Bush | Greatest Welsh Novel

Robert Minhinnick explains why he’s casting his vote for The Genre of Silence by Duncan Bush as the Greatest Welsh Novel.

‘Good novelists extend not only their own fictional universe but the possibility of fictional forms.’

Jay McGill, ‘Paragliding and the Art of Serious Fiction’, The Amsterdam Review, Issue 1 (2004)

The Genre of Silence is a one hundred-page volume of prose and poetry by Duncan Bush, published by Seren in 1988. The back cover of the first edition explains:

Duncan Bush’s new work brings to life, at times painfully, the work of the Russian poet, Victor Bal, who ‘disappeared’ under Stalinism. This surprising and original new book recalls the period by an intermingling of history and fiction which imaginative writers have always understood but that historians have rarely admitted.

Note that ‘intermingling’. Victor Bal seems an entirely fictional character, although created by Bush’s readings of Russian history. And Isaac Babel, another character, who exists in memory, including that of Bal, was very much a real-life writer, whose collected stories have recently been published.

Around its publication date I was immersed in working for Friends of the Earth Cymru, in being a father, and certainly in attempting to function as a writer, working on my own poems and first prose essays. New books by contemporaries were secondary to all this, and The Genre of Silence was one with which I meant to catch up. But failed.

Of course, I was familiar with poems by Duncan Bush that seemed to fit in with the overall intentions of The Genre of Silence. (Crocuses was one such, published a little later, but surely belonging there, and The Galley another, included.) But work in the environmental movement was too demanding and I don’t think I attended any of the launch events for Bush’s publication. Chernobyl, acid rain and opencast coal mining saw to that.

But let us return to The Amsterdam Review. Issue 1 contains Duncan Bush’s prose work ‘Death will come and it will have your eyes’, a reflection on Cesar Pavese, with Bush’s own translations of seven of Pavese’s poems, his ‘last poems: 11th March to 10th April, 1950’.

Bush’s translations of Pavese have cropped up in various places, but as far as I know, there has been no dedicated collection, as I thought was once mooted. Are the translations any good? My lack of Italian precludes a judgment. But as poems in English they certainly serve.

The biographical note on Duncan Bush in this magazine is of interest. The Amsterdam Review ran, I think, for four issues, and was edited by Duncan Bush and P.C. Evans, 2004-6. It was dependent on Bush’s facility as a translator and essayist and Paul Evans’s energy and literary position in the Netherlands. The entry runs: Duncan Bush is a poet and novelist. He has also published translations of Mallarme, Baudelaire, Pavese and Pierre de la Pree…

Who? Bush’s translations of this writer are published in a later issue of The Amsterdam Review. These are good poems. They certainly read like translations, or ‘versions’ by Duncan Bush. So good are they the reader might wonder where Bush first encountered de la Pree’s work. I had not heard of this writer before being introduced to him by his translator. But then, neither had I encountered Victor Bal. Nor Isaac Babel. These are the central figures of The Genre of Silence. One is real, one fictional.

Nor had I encountered Jay McGill, who introduces this essay. McGill, we are told by The Amsterdam Review, ‘works in London and Paris’. Unfortunately, my copy of The Amsterdam Review, Issue 2 is mislaid. I seem to remember from this number another prose work from Jay McGill, describing a photographic exhibition. Indeed, I have memories of accompanying Duncan Bush around an exhibition of photographs in New York (was it the Guggenheim?). And a short time later publishing a suite of poems about photographs such as these in Poetry Wales. Yes, one of the pleasures of the editor’s life is to be almost party to the germination of writers’ ideas.

Reality, memory, art, identity. As I become older I recognize how they blend. Which is dangerous. Surely the answer to this wooliness is to listen, as Victor Bal did, to the silence of the Russian pine forest.

As editor of Poetry Wales (1997 – 2008) I was always more than pleased to publish poetry and prose from Duncan Bush. I also interviewed him, believing here was someone who guaranteed good copy, and, crucially, would pursue an independent train of thought. This he unfailingly did. The problems I had with Bush concerned The Genre of Silence.

On two occasions academics inquired whether they might write about the book, with special regard to Bush’s biographical detailing of the life of the vanished poet, Victor Bal.

Over the years I had read, somewhat cursorily, I’ll admit, The Genre of Silence. Didn’t these critics, I wondered, know that Victor Bal was a fictional creation? And that the poems of Victor Bal were written by someone else, that person being Duncan Bush? When I broke the news to them they did not, as I expected, wish to write about The Genre of Silence itself. They apologised for their stupidity (not that I considered them stupid, as the book fails to make entirely clear that Bal is a fictional character.)

Things might have been complicated for the critics by the back cover quotation from Osip Mandlestam’s translator, Clarence Brown: Even non-persons have biographies, but it is extraordinarily difficult to establish them. Non-persons? Anyone who has read 1984 will think they know what that means: non-persons can be fictional but also real people whose identities have been erased by a political system.

Victor Bal was not a ‘non-person’ but a ‘never been person’.

However, for me, ‘non-persons’ are real people. One such real person who became a ‘non-person’ was Isaac Emanuelovich Babel. But Victor Bal did not disappear into the Gulag or behind the walls of Moscow’s Butyrka prison, because he never lived.

And no, I did not consider those would-be critics ‘stupid’. I felt the assumption an easy error to make, encouraged by that quotation from Clarence Brown. Yet I heard no more of the critics’ intentions.

I believe Duncan Bush’s experience of the Welsh Union of Writers (WUW) in the 1980s influenced The Genre of Silence. The Union was created in summer, 1982, and Bush would have joined about two years later. By 1988 he had edited a conference report/anthology devoted to ‘Censorship’. Bush also wrote the Union’s obituary for John Tripp, who died in 1986.

Duncan Bush is an unlikely union member, not that I know many ‘typical’ members of literary unions. (Or do I?) But Bush’s experiences of the WUW might have confirmed certain prejudices: that not all writers are of equal talent, and certain of them are not reluctant to accept a general invitation to ‘perform’ their work.

These invitations involved readings of ‘poetry’, at the ‘open mics’, which, were, frankly, amongst the most eagerly anticipated of WUW events at annual conferences. Certain members attended for the guaranteed opportunity of performing at the microphone. In the mid 1980s, such invitations were far less common than today.

Indeed, it was clear from the overall standard of work performed that invitations to the microphone were unusual. The open-mics occurred because these seemed to guarantee a decent conference attendance and thus a successful event that might keep funding agencies happy. (This type of energetic open mic-er is now familiar to most literary people who use Facebook).

Maybe it was these WUW events that fed into The Genre of Silence. Anyway, what is clear is Bush’s distaste for writers who conformed to prevailing orthodoxy or parroted a party line. This is clearest in ‘Writers’ Union Building, Moscow, 1937’, which is depicted as ‘Free Hotel? Or tomb of living writers?

This year, they tell me, members are
sporting Ukrainian embroidered shirts
when they herd to conferences –
sheep in peasant’s clothing. Sheep
milling for the microphone
like wolves. And, like wolves, getting
stronger the longer you run.

In the Writers Union of Wales the prevailing orthodoxy was sympathy for an independent Wales. I shared it. Duncan Bush did not. I also believe he was appalled by the standard of some of the spoken literary offerings he heard at WUW conferences and determined to use this dismay to make a far wider point. He does this, I feel, successfully.

No, Bush did not have much regard for the majority of his fellow union writers. I imagine he thought they lacked what he considered essential for the true writer, and which he puts into the mind of Victor Bal – ‘{an} insistence on a poet’s own creative autonomy and self-critical sense.’

This is most clearly expressed in Genre… in ‘The Muscle under the Tongue’

Poets? Writers? Hardly.
But there’s no surer way to fame
for camp dogs: licking the hand
that feeds them space
to do so, prints their name.

Victor Bal (maybe fictionally) and Isaac Babel (maybe factually) describe conditions for Russian writers in the 1930s and especially in 1938, at the height of the ‘Great Purge’ or ‘Great Terror’. Bal’s ‘poem in draft’, ‘Geranium’, outlines how a writer then must live:

blind and deaf and
dumb. Above all, dumb.
Shape words, but give forth
silence. Put out neither
fruit nor flower nor leaf.
You must look like a stone,
but live. Live like a cactus.

And as an afterthought in the draft, Bal wrote:

Not even that. The lichen on a rock.

As it turns out (Bush writes)

not even silence is enough to guarantee survival. But for Bal as for other writers in the Soviet Union during the Thirties, silence seems to represent the last integrity possible…

All of Victor Bal’s poetry is by Duncan Bush, while ‘the genre of silence’ is originally a phrase coined by Isaac Babel that became a way of life, a belief, a philosophy, a blueprint of how, maybe, to survive.

Yet silence could not save Babel. Bush states in the book that he is ‘presumed to have died, in unrecorded circumstances, in a concentration camp in 1939 or 40.’ However, it is now believed he died on January 27, 1940, shot by firing squad after a one day trial.

Why should anyone read The Genre of Silence? For the spare, Bushian poetry, despite the absence of what has become its most noteworthy poem, ‘Crocuses’:

in the seconds after
the knock he may have
tried to burn the poem
that would kill him.

But also for the usually adept, occasionally breathtaking phrase-making that we have learned to expect from Duncan Bush. This writer is capable of lines and images that have the power to raise the hairs on the back of the neck. Thus:

But few of us, educated or not, can talk with the slow and ungainsayable authority of Voloshin, with those Tartar eyes and his skull still blue from headlice and his beard of iron filings.

Greatest Welsh novel? I wonder what Bush would make of the challenge. I imagine he would have felt it a wheeze worthy of the old WUW. And for me, it would have been more straightforward if I chose Glass Shot, a superb read, praised by Hilary Mantel, and a more conventionally gripping novel than the earlier book.

Genre contains some admittedly short scene settings as the author establishes his context. But with the opening section, ‘In the Pine Forest’, we are immediately into the meat of the book. Bush depicts Victor Bal, who has been labouring (sawing tree trunks) and thinking, only thinking so far, about a poem and its first line. This compares ‘the silence of the Russia of that time to the immense, ominous silence there is in its pine forests.’

Surely, the authorities couldn’t do anything about thinking of writing a poem? Could they? Of working on the poem’s music and rhythm in your head? Yet for Bal this might prove the poem ‘that would kill him.’

Greatest Welsh Novel? The Genre of Silence might be read in an afternoon. But this would be a dismissal. A rapid reading would diminish its power. Certain of the poems within it, notably ‘The Leader’, ‘Peasant’, and ‘Night, Day’ evoke an abominable period of Russian history, and might encourage enquiry into what is going on now in the Ukraine. These poems must be reread. Whereas others, ‘For Marina’ for example, with their lyrical sense of loss, make those events even more poignant, as Bush outlines a few of the marvelous particularities of what is lost to Babel (in actuality) and Victor Bal (in imagination).

Any attentive reading of Bush’s work provides evidence that certain images and ideas are used in both his prose and poetry, as if being tested out. Or refined. Or as experiments. Thus, to me, the novel, Glass Shot (1991) was presaged by the poem ‘Bridget Bardot in Grangetown’, although this was first collected only in Masks (1994).

Bush publishes sparingly these days, although his author’s biography at Seren states he is currently completing a novel ‘about a politician in the Sarkozy government.’ The already published Now all the Rage concerns what the idea of ‘celebrity’ is doing to all of us, especially artists and writers. His latest poetry collection, The Flying Trapeze (2012) contains powerful pieces.

But as to fiction, let’s leave the last words to Jay McGill in the first issue of The Amsterdam Review:

‘There’s an overwhelming sense that hype is the only thing concealing a drab and cautious conservatism at the heart of mainstream British publishing.’

Does Bush consider himself a victim of such conservatism? Possibly. That policy has made ‘non-persons’ of many writers who promised and still promise much. I imagine there was pressure on Bush to repeat the theme of Glass Shot, considering it became an airport paperback.

Maybe he shares with McGill (clearly a valued Amsterdam Review contributor) the belief that ‘good writers, whether novelists or poets, don’t repeat or imitate themselves. What characterizes original talent is a determination not only to make different choices from their contemporaries but write books which are different even from their own.’

For a novel of real achievement, the reader should seek out The Genre of Silence. It has been recently reprinted.


This piece is a part of Wales Arts Review’s Greatest Welsh Novel’ series.

Robert Minhinnick is co-founder of Friends of the Earth Cymru and the charity, Sustainable Wales/Cymru Gynaliadwy.