Jon Gower continues to journey into the fascinating world of the Library of Wales in his revisiting of The Dark Philosophers by Gwyn Thomas.
In Martin Amis’ second novel Dead Babies there’s a character called Keith Whitehead who’s so fat that wherever he stands in the kitchen inevitably some part of him is under the grill. He’s not alone in his obesity: his family, when it gets together, makes a Zeppelin show:
The Whiteheads have several claims to being the fattest family alive. At the time of writing, you could go along to Parky St, Wimbledon, and Sunday, one o’clock in the afternoon – and you’d see them, taking their seats in the Morris for the weekly Whitehead jaunt to Brighton. ‘Get your huge fat arse out of the way’ – ‘Whose horrible great leg is this?’ – ‘Is that your bum Keith or Aggie’s?’- ‘I don’t care whose guts these are, they’ve got to be moved’ – ‘That’s not Dad’s arm, you stupid great bitch, it’s my leg!’ ‘It’s no good,’ says Whitehead Sr eventually, slapping his trotters on the steering wheel.’ ‘The Morris can’t be expected to cope with this. You can take it in turns staying behind from now on. And indeed, as each toothpaste Whitehead squeezes into the Morris, the chassis drops two inches on its flattened tyres, and when Frank himself gets in behind the wheel, the whole car seems to sink imploringly to its knees. ‘Flora, close that sodding door,’ Frank tells his wife. ‘I can’t, Frank. Some of my legs are still out there.
And there are plenty of other fatties in fiction, from the rotund old man turned romantic adventurer Mr Pickwick in Dickens’ novel to Abiatha Swelter the murderous and monstrously overweight cook in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast.
With Oscar, the eponymous hero of the first novella that opens Gwyn Thomas’ The Dark Philosophers adds further avoirdupois to the sweaty roster of characters.
Oscar owns a south Wales mountain and some coal tips on which desperately poor people pick a meagre living while making Oscar some more money when he sells on their harvest of coal for a killing. He is variously described as a “ram” or a ‘hog’ and his lifestyle, if you can call it that, is made up of swilling copious pints and seducing local women who inhabit the slum ranks of The Terraces. They have to be sleeping with him for money, as he’s no looker:
His huge, fat body poured over the sides of the chair on which he sat. His very weight gave him some kind of balance or he would have been on the floor, or under the floor where he deserved to be, a long way under the floor, a thick stone floor. I took hold of his head by the hair and the ear. I lifted it afoot. The table-boards beneath were dull and steamy from the heat of him.
So repulsive is Oscar – both physically and morally – that the reader takes against him from the outset so that anyone who conspires against him, and wishes him harm, gains a degree of sympathy. Thus, when, in an act of simple blood lust, Oscar kills the unfortunate Danny as he scavenges coal in open defiance of the tip owner we are on the poor man’s side. Oscar aims a gun at him and the shock of it going off kills the weak-hearted Danny. Before the man is given a Christian burial Oscar seduces his widow, Hannah, who was planning to kill the fat man with a hammer but, having been sexually starved for a long time, gives in to her hunger.
So it’s left to Lewis, who rolls Oscar home each night, to deal with the monster in their midst, taking him up to the rim of a quarry and encouraging him over the edge in the dark. It’s a complicated feeling, this complicity in a murder which the reader shares with Lewis. But then again, Oscar was a pig, and a hog and a ram, and he had it coming.
The eponymous, central novel of the three that makeup Gwyn Thomas’ The Dark Philosophers is a festival of great one-liners. A concert seems to be ‘run on the principle of a drag-net sweeping from the front row to the back until the hall had been wrung dry of talent.’ A man wears a bowler hat ‘which looked like something that had grown up slyly in the dark.’ A poor kitchen has only one chair ‘…and that looked hard and stiff, like an electric chair without the coils.’ It is as if Philosophers is written by a different man entirely from the one who wrote the opening novella’s portrait of the monstrous, ugly Oscar.
Thomas, the master of witty badinage is, here quite simply badass, the hardscrabble lives of those he depicts – the poor, poor denizens of The Terraces – needing the tools of biting satire to explore the testing reality of keeping alive. For life here is grotesquely difficult:
As you know, life in the terraces has never been anything but rough, and the thin times have caused the bulk of the voters to have such bitter thoughts about the world they lived in that if you dissolved a few of these thoughts in a glass of water and drank it, the stuff would most likely burn away the lining of your stomach. And if you ever saw smoke coming from the ears of these voters either it meant that they just been talked to by an official of the Labour Exchange, or that they had swallowed some of their own thoughts in lieu of vinegar, which gets dearer the more it comes to taste of life.
The Dark Philosophers is a tale of friends who meet at an Italian cafe, run by terminally skint Idomeneo, he of the one-chair kitchen to listen to music and chew the fat, not that there is much fat going spare. Willie’s in love with a lass called Margaret, but she gets trapped in the coils of the Rev. Emmanuel, a turncoat minister who sold his principles for a mess of potage. The story culminates on the night when Margaret is due to lose her virginity to the white-haired preacher, and in part, the novella takes up a cudgel against such men of the cloth, although less brutally than earlier Welsh writers such as Caradoc Evans:
He (Emmanuel) had bloomed fairly and for long upon the soil that our slow rotting had made rich, and we saw it as no more than the justice of history that the blossom might be made to wilt and die by the ugly, strangling weeds that took their life from the self-same earth.
I won’t spoil the story by revealing its ending, but thank the Lord in all his majesty that there is justice on this earth, and I say that as a pantheist.
Normally, reading Gwyn Thomas doesn’t give you a sense of an author whose life was troubled, even though the subject matter of much of his fiction is the grim and desperate life lived in the ‘riven gulches’ of the south Wales valleys. The work is shot through with too much humour, there’s too much ebullience dancing under the surface of the prose. He sets off too many fireworks in his prose. Yet, as Elaine Morgan points out in the foreword to The Dark Philosophers, he had plenty to be despondent about and the remarkable thing is that he found anything to laugh about:
He grew up in one of the grimmest and most depressed areas in the United Kingdom. He was the last (and felt himself to be the least wished-for) of twelve children. His mother died when he was six, leaving the memory of a beautiful and creative woman who ‘would look at me, and almost forgive me, sometimes, for being there.’
But Simeon, the final novella in the triplet that makes up The Dark Philosophers is a troublingly dark work, riddled with incest, septic sexuality and human predation.
Simeon lives away from people, with his two daughters, effectively imprisoned, along with the two boys he has sired with them. So when local boy Ben accepts a job with the weevil-hearted widower it’s a bit like the scene in Lars Von Treier’s Breaking the Waves where the young girl rows herself to a ship full of sadistic rapists You want to shout out. Go back! But Ben finds himself in the clutches of a man who, one night, spurned by his daughters – and maybe even his goats – starts to palp and fondle him as he lies in bed. It’s a scene made even creepier because Gwyn Thomas doesn’t employ too many adjectives. He lets the (semi) naked events speak for themselves, even if his trademark humour does enter the room, too:
He sat down on the edge of the bed. He looked hard at me. I lifted up the collar of my pyjama coat which had fallen over my shoulder. Simeon stretched out his arm and pulled the collar down to where it had been before. He pulled my arm from beneath the bedclothes, and I thought if he was measuring me for a new suit of pyjamas he had chosen a funny time of day for it. His breath was heavy and his whole body was as warm as a burning coke. I hated hot bodies. Mine was always cold.
Tensions are ratcheted up when it’s announced that the third daughter, Eleanor, is returning home to live after the death of the aunt he’s been looking after. Her sisters are determined that she should not suffer the same fate as theirs. It’s the sort of tale that can only end with a bread knife, and someone lying dead on the floor. This is a novella almost without a heart. It has a spleen instead, the seat of all bad temper, pumping out its terrible venom.
Gwyn Thomas’ The Dark Philosophers is out now.
Jon Gower contributes regularly to Wales Arts Review.