The distinguished Welsh author and man of letters, Emyr Humphreys, has just celebrated his hundredth birthday. His career has been a singular landmark achievement, unequalled in the long history of Welsh culture. Scarcely has that culture produced a figure more remarkably multifaceted and productive than Humphreys. In addition to more than two dozen novels, he has published novellas, collections of short stories, cultural histories and cultural analyses and collections of poetry.
But he has also written plays and directed documentaries for television, and been as bold an activist on behalf of the Welsh language and its culture as he has been a tireless advocate on its behalf, viewing it as a local instance of the precious cultural heritage of a Europe to which he has always felt proud to belong.
His activism even landed him in Walton gaol [now HM Prison Liverpool] for a very brief period, following his refusal to pay for an English-only television licence. In that respect, he proved less cunning than his distant relative, Murry “the Hump” Humphreys, one of Al Capone’s most notorious sidekicks, who was sufficiently skilful to avoid imprisonment as well as a violent death—he ended up dying in his own bed.
The turning point in Humphreys’ career came when he was still a sixth-former living in the village of Trelawnyd, Flintshire, a stone’s throw from the English border.
The arson in 1936 at an RAF training school on the Llyn peninsula by three Welsh nationalists kindled in him an awareness of Wales’ subordinate cultural and political situation, and an ardent desire to help remedy it. Writing became, in part, his means of doing so. Many of his novels and other productions have been concerned to prompt the Welsh into remembering what they never knew they knew. He regards the nation’s loss of cultural memory as a potentially fatal consequence of the long process of assimilation by England that was set in train by the Act of Union of 1536. It was Milan Kundera who wrote, thinking of his own beloved Czech nation, then under Soviet influence, that those who wish to destroy a nation begin by destroying its memory.
When Humphreys began to write, it was very much with the encouragement of Graham Greene, a strong admirer of his talent. By the mid-1950s he was being lionised in London, having won two of the UK’s leading literary awards. By the late 1950s he was back in Wales, producing plays—many of them translations of the great contemporary classics of European theatre—or the BBC. In that period he collaborated with such youthful talents as those of Sian Phillips, Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole, as well as with established names such as Emlyn Williams.
A continental outlook
His Welsh Europeanism, already awakened in him as a young man by the writings of Saunders Lewis, another of his mentors, was much strengthened by his post-war experience of administering a large camp for displaced persons in Florence. Learning Italian while in post there, he went on to regard Italy as his second home, and to become fascinated and indebted to Italian literature. It is sad to reflect that, as he celebrates his hundredth birthday, it is in a country that actually voted, with England, to leave the union of European nations.
To say that Emyr Humphreys has been a giant on the Welsh cultural scene for much of the 70 years of his writing career would not be an exaggeration. His contribution has been as rich in quality as it has been exhilaratingly diverse in character. Among his many novels, there are two that will endure as true classics.
The first, A Toy Epic, offers a snapshot of life in north-east Wales of the 1930s as experienced by three growing boys; the second, Outside the House of Baal, is a remarkable assessment of Welsh Nonconformist culture throughout its long period of 20th-century decline. Considered together, they amount to conclusive proof that Emyr Humphreys is the greatest novelist yet to have come out of Wales. And that makes his hundredth birthday an occasion of genuine national significance.
M Wynn Thomas is professor of English and holder of the Emyr Humphreys Chair of Welsh Writing in English at Swansea University, having also held visiting professorships at the universities of Harvard and Tübingen. He is a specialist in American poetry and the two literatures of Wales.
This piece is part of The Bookseller's country focus on Wales. For more in the series, click here.