Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2009, 144pp, £16.99
Within the constraints of the Writers of Wales series, Huw Osborne has done an admirable job of presenting Rhys Davies in a new and refreshing light. Positioning Davies as a man and writer existing on multiple borders, Osborne provides an outstanding introductory chapter which makes a liminal identity seem a fresh concept rather than the critical cliché it is in danger of becoming, for all its legitimacy. Citing physical, geographical and internal boundaries, Osborne references the ‘internal difference’ of M. Wynn Thomas, the liminal interstices of Bhabha, and makes excellent use of Bakhtin, who argues that the
‘realm of culture has no internal territory: it is entirely distributed along the boundaries, boundaries pass everywhere, though its every aspect… Every cultural act lives essentially on the boundaries: … abstracted from boundaries it loses its soil, it becomes empty, arrogant, it degenerates and dies.’
This book makes light work of its theoretical paradigms, yet remains productively informed by them throughout.
Rhys Davies is perhaps one of our better documented and critiqued authors but Osborne steps lightly around existing scholarship, acknowledging its existence as it pertains to his discussion but not feeling obliged to use up his precious word count on summarising existing criticism. Osborne’s study is primarily guided by his reading of Davies as a gay writer, an approach pioneered by M. Wynn Thomas but nowhere fully explored. This volume discusses the eroticisation of the working classes (a subject surely deserving sustained comparison with Glyn Jones), the oddness of Davies’s outsider figures and, fascinatingly, his later crime writing with its emphasis on punitive surveillance and policing of homosexuality. What may surprise readers is just how often Davies addresses homosexuality directly (if always with some degree of disguise).
A deeper discussion of Davies’s writing with reference to contemporary theories of gender and sexuality is missing (male homosexuality is often conflated with femininity by Davies and Osborne follows this to an extent, thus linking gender and sexuality in a way which needs more consideration in the light of contemporary constructivist thinking about these categories), but Osborne’s readings of individual texts is always sympathetic and illuminating. Disappiointingly, however, this book doesn’t explore Davies’s recurring interest in depicting lesbian characters. Perhaps Davies was doing no more than trying to represent his own gayness at one remove, and this appears to be the reading Osborne implicitly accepts, yet the histories and experiences of lesbians and gay men are crucially different in many ways for all they share experiences of the closet. Although it seems ungenerous to criticise the author for omissions in such a slim volume, it is problematic simply to conflate these two queer experiences which is what Osborne risks doing even as he reveals just how important the figure of the lesbian is in Davies’s work.
These reservations aside, this important study demonstrates the absences and silences around homosexuality which in Davies’s early work and extent of Davies’s engagement with these silences in his later work. Osborne uncovers the rich sophistication of the ways in which Davies encodes and explores the experience of this liminal, criminal, silenced identity and offers a compelling argument for the centrality of Davies’s sexual identity to his fiction.
Aside from Davies as a gay writer, Osborne traces a Davies’s development from leftist writer and chronicler of the Welsh working classes, through the war and on to his interest in crime writing. An ambivalent role as a ‘professional Welshman’ (he begins as ‘native informer’ but comes to resist this role) and the struggle with the literary marketplace and Davies’s critics are also prominent themes. His role as sympathetic observer of working class life is noted, although this is a little underdeveloped for a reader seeking a comprehensive account.
Perhaps the most surprising absence is a fuller appreciation of Davies as a short story writer. To be sure his short stories are discussed when pertinent, but Davies’s prominence in a form so central to Anglo-Welsh literature might easily be missed from reading this study alone. Conversely, however, Davies’s range as a novelist has tended to be overlooked by critics and the prominence Osborne gives to the novels and his fascinating readings of lesser known texts acts as a counterbalance, extending Davies’s reputation. Indeed, as one reads this book, one cannot help but admire the way the author has carefully constructed it to fill a gap in the wider critical studies of Davies. Osborne’s engrossing and perceptive study offers an original and valuable reading of Davies’s work which expands, broadens and refreshes our understanding of this rich and versatile writer.
Kirsti Bohata is a Lecturer in English at Swansea University and Assistant Director of CREW