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Documenting the quest to track down everything written by (and written about) the poet, translator, critic, and radio dramatist, Henry Reed.

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I Capture the Castle: A girl and her family struggle to make ends meet in an old English castle.
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Reeding Lessons: the Henry Reed research blog

22.9.2019


Reed Reviews Emyr Humphreys

For the centennial of his birth on April 15, here is a book review of Emyr Humphreys' first novel, The Little Kingdom (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1946). Written by Henry Reed, it appeared in The Listener's "New Novels" column for January 6, 1947. Reed expresses a familiarity with Humphreys' poetry, stating that the author certainly "knows how to write, and you feel as you read him that he knows that apprehension and diction must, in prose and verse alike, be clasped as earnestly as two hands in prayer."

It appears the two corresponded for a while, in 1947-1949 (Emyr Humphreys Papers, National Library of Wales), and Reed discussed Humphreys' next book, The Voice of a Stranger, for a B.B.C. radio talk in 1949.

Reed also reviews here an English translation of C.F. Ramuz' The Triumph of Death, and The Becker Wives, stories by Mary Lavin.

Book Cover

New Novels

The Little Kingdom. By Emyr Humphreys. Eyre and Spottiswoode. 9s.
The Triumph of Death. By C. F. Ramuz. Routledge. 8s. 6d.
The Becker Wives. By Mary Lavin. Michael Joseph. 9s. 6d.

WHAT is the most positive quality we have to recognise in a new novelist in order to feel that his work contains promise as well as immediate success or in spite of immediate failure? It is, I suspect, his style: whether it is already individual or assured, or whether it merely indicates a preoccupation with the act of writing.

A war plays hell with prose. There is always the influx of new technical terms and clichés, there is always the politicians' jargon; these are small in themselves, perhaps, but if they pervade our speech, as they are likely to do when our ideas are confused, they will shortly afterwards pervade our writing also. The most depressing thing that confronts a novel reviewer at the moment is the general beastliness—I have pondered this word before using it—of the various ways in which most novels are written. The mediocre novelists of thirty and forty years ago at least believed that they should try to write well. They believed, if not that a good writer must always appear en grande tenue, that the disorder in his dress must be a sweet one. They believed it mattered how a book was written. Of Mr. Emyr Humphreys, a new novelist not unknown as a poet, one can use many nice and conventional expressions: he is worth watching, he is a novelist of whom we shall hear more, he has something to say and he knows how to say it. I think this last thing is the most interesting thing about him. He knows how to write, and you feel as you read him that he knows that apprehension and diction must, in prose and verse alike, be clasped as earnestly as two hands in prayer. I think that the strength of a young writer's religious, political and psychological perceptions are usually less important than his sense of style. Here is a passage from The Little Kingdom: it is, as may be guessed, a mere 'bridge-passage' in the action; but it is clearly the work of a very able writer:
The little bell over the door giggled as the minister went in, and echoed the giggle as he closed the door carefully behind him. He screwed up his eyes. After the soft twilight outside, the harsh naked electric light in the barber's shop was painful to him. He said 'Good evening, everybody', but all he could make out at first was the white blur of the barber bending over someone indistinct in the chair. Otherwise the shop was empty; this was the last customer for the night. The barber was too tired to talk to the man, who slumped helpless in the chair. He nodded.

'Evening, minister'.

The man in the chair stirred with curiosity, but the barber held him firm, the fingers of his left hand spread over his ruffled hair like a vice.

'Go through'.

The barber pointed to the swing door with his gleaming razor, which flashed as it caught the light.

'You'll be coming up later, Dan?'

The smiling, perfect male, advertising hair cream, swung back and fore, smile out, smile in.
The last sentence will at once indicate that the 'middle' Joyce has contributed something to the formation of Mr. Humphreys' style. There are few better models for a serious young writer, and an ability to learn something from the first half of Ulysses will probably imply a kindred sensitiveness to the coalescence of sight, sound and thought in the human consciousness. The feelings which attend on being alive do not escape Mr. Humphreys, any more than they escaped Joyce.

The action of The Little Kingdom concerns the last months in the life of a dominating and imperious young Welsh nationalist who, to further his ambitions, murders a wealthy uncle, and later sets fire to an English-built aerodrome. He is shot and killed by a night watchman. I take it that one of the main ideas behind the book is the common running aside of an idealistic political movement, first into 'irresponsible' acts, and then into Fuehrerprinzip. This is a respectable theme, though not a very distinctive or profound one; but it has the advantage common to all well-tried themes that it shifts the reader's interest to the writer's talents as a particular interpreter and executant. One is curious to see how he will use his gifts. And to have emphasised Mr. Humphreys' ability to write is not to diminish his other powers. There is a touching reality about his characters—almost all of whom are muddled and pathetic. I believe that the hero-villain Owen, who is neither muddled nor pathetic, is slightly under-emphasised; though the author's avoidance of an opposite effect is doubtless intentional; Owen's first appearance is admirable. The major scenes of the book are ably got through; though for some reason it is the semi-marginal scenes that one remembers best—the opening chapter describing a morning tour made by Owen's uncle Richard, or the waiting scene on the night of the fire. It is a most remarkable intuition that makes the author delay our first and only glimpse of Richard's beloved daughter, Nest, till the moment after her death: a most curious and effective piece of understatement, for Nest is the figure on whom the subsequent action turns.

Mr. Humphreys holds our attention by the way he gets from one point of his story to the next, by certain felicitous interior echoes, by his movements from one contributory stream of activity to another. I think that a greater tragedy is needed for a writer to be able successfully to use a village lunatic—a Mayor of Casterbridge, for example—but Mr. Humphreys obviously conceives of an art serious enough to include such a dangerous piece of machinery.

It is curious that the Swiss novelist C. F. Ramuz should be so little known in this country; he is obviously a very remarkable and original writer, and one is inclined to believe the extensive claims made for him by M. Denis de Rougemont in his admirable introduction to The Triumph of Death. This is a translation, by Allan Ross MacDougall and Alex Comfort, of a book called Présence de la Mort, a better and more accurate title which it is strange to find rejected. It is a fable about the end of life on earth: disaster comes as the earth steadily and rapidly approaches the sun. The scene is set mainly on a lakeside in the Vaud country of Switzerland. It is perhaps with some misgiving that one embarks on reading such a story. It is written fancifully, and at first promises to be little more than im over-long prose-poem. I remembered, and expected to prefer, H. G. Wells's story 'The Star'. But Ramuz' book surprises and excites by its peculiar mounting intensity; one succumbs, and consents to the author's apparently arbitrary ordering of his material. Many of his scenes have great beauty; and he keeps one agog to know the end, which turns out to be both tender and wonderful. His scenes of anarchy, demoralisation and criminality are very moving, and they are never indulged in for the private delight of their author. There are many moments when the book shows signs of having offered to its translators some of the difficulties that works like Rimbaud's Les Illuminations offer; but on the whole the book comes over vividly and well. It is doubtless a point of preciosity in the original that present and past tenses are pointlessly mingled; but English seems particularly odd when such a mannerism is grafted on to it. It is to be hoped that Mr. Macdougall and Mr. Comfort will soon address themselves to the task of translating the sequel, Joie dans le Ciel. These books, incidentally, are not allegories about our recent disasters; the date of Présence de la Mort is 1925.

Miss Mary Lavin is a most prolific and varied writer. She is, so far, at her best in comedy. Her serious writing is often commonplace, and it is noticeable that when the first story in her new book, after an excellent beginning, takes a turn into. the pathological, it is a turn for the worse. But there are few writers now writing in English capable of more sustained comic scenes—scenes where the comedy depends not on conversation so much as on large-scale conception of a theme. The high spot in Miss Lavin's prodigiously long novel, The House in Clewe Street, was the brilliant scene where two funeral corteges attempted to race each other to the cemetery; there is a similar vis comica pervading two stories in the new book: 'Magenta' and 'The Joy-ride', both about surreptitious outings made by servants. Intermittently throughout the book there is to be found Miss Lavin's particular talent for startlingly transfixing a scene: the moment in 'The Becker Wives' where Flora makes the stolidly respectable family involuntarily pose for an imaginary photograph, for example, or the vision of the upstart kitchen-vestal Magenta crossing the park in her borrowed finery. It is with regret that one adds that Miss Lavin's grammar is so bad that from time to time one gazes at it in surprise.

HENRY REED



1529. Sackville-West, Vita. "Seething Brain." Observer (London), 5 May 1946, 3.
Sackville-West speaks admirably of Reed's poetry, and was personally 'taken with the poem called "Lives," which seemed to express so admirably Mr. Reed's sense of the elusiveness as well as the continuity of life.'



1st lesson:

Reed, Henry (1914-1986). Born: Birmingham, England, 22 February 1914; died: London, 8 December 1986.

Education: MA, University of Birmingham, 1936. Served: RAOC, 1941-42; Foreign Office, Bletchley Park, 1942-1945. Freelance writer: BBC Features Department, 1945-1980.

Author of: A Map of Verona: Poems (1946)
The Novel Since 1939 (1946)
Moby Dick: A Play for Radio from Herman Melville's Novel (1947)
Lessons of the War (1970)
Hilda Tablet and Others: Four Pieces for Radio (1971)
The Streets of Pompeii and Other Plays for Radio (1971)
Collected Poems (1991, 2007)
The Auction Sale (2006)


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