A brief introduction and a few shared thoughts on chapters 1-4
“No other country but Wales could spawn the mind that could create such a work.”
As week one of our second annual Wales Readathon draws to a close, I am aware several Dewithoners will be keen to discuss the first four chapters of our official Dewithon 20 book.
One Moonlit Night (Un Nos Ola Leuad), Caradog Prichard’s melodious Welsh-language novel, written entirely in local dialect, was first published in 1961. It is a haunting portrayal of life in Bethesda, a small North Wales town on the edge of Snowdonia and offers a bleak but beautiful child’s-eye depiction of rural existence during the First World War.
This extraordinary – some might say ‘odd’ – book, which in many ways recalls Under Milk Wood, was translated into English by Philip Mitchell in 1995. Chris Ross in The Guardian described it as “miraculously [conveying] the incantatory biblical and Celtic cadences of the original”, and indeed, his rendering brought this little-known contemporary classic to a far wider readership.
It is a slim volume containing fifteen tales, all of which are set in and around “the Village”, and within whose pages you will encounter insanity, suicide, sadism, death, domestic violence, fornication and epilepsy, to name but a smidgen of its contents. If it were published today, one suspects it would present the unwitting book critic with a hazardous minefield of trigger warnings.
In chapter I, we meet the unnamed narrator, a naïve, curious, and at times uncannily perceptive boy who lives with his widowed Mam (mother), to whom he is utterly devoted. He speaks in broad North Walian vernacular – which remains perceptible to some extent in the English-language version. Thus, you will still find untranslated Welsh words in the text, especially the frequently uttered “Dew” (pronounced du or dyu), an exclamation of exasperation or annoyance. A Welshism, if you like – defined by some modern-day wags as Wenglish.
Over this and the following three chapters, we follow the boy as he wanders the dim streets of his home town, sometimes with his best friend Huw, recalling the events of his life with a poetic tenderness. He comes across characters like Grace Ellen Shoe Shop, Frank Bee Hive, Little Will Policeman, Will Starch Collar, Price the School and a multitude of people named after their occupation, idiosyncrasy or some other befitting moniker. Common practice, even today, in parts of Wales.
In her 2009 afterword, the eminent Welsh historian, author and travel writer, Jan Morris, describes One Moonlit Night as “beyond rational analysis” and like “a sort of dream.” I’ve heard the book described as “Bethesda bildungsroman”, but it is also a full-flavoured confection of mental illness, religious zealotry and small-town parochialism – all shot through with plaintive lyricism.
The novel contains a great many biographical details, especially in relation to Prichard’s family and the seemingly hard-working, devout, politically aware rural folk of his childhood. In these esoteric musings, delivered as he makes his way to Pen Llyn Du, he ponders his troubled boyhood and recounts in a glorious prose-stream his memories of the people, events and slate-fields of his childhood. Recollections of a long-vanished way of life.
About the Author
Caradog Prichard (1904-1980) made his name in Wales as one of the writers of the Caernarfonshire quarrying district. Born and raised Bethesda, a tiny town and community on the River Ogwen, he spent his career as a journalist, eventually moving to London and becoming a sub-editor on the foreign desk at the Daily Telegraph. During this period, he penned four award-winning odes in addition to this remarkable novel. He remained in the English capital for the rest of his life.
“Dew, I heard the sound of Bob Cuenant’s fist like a Salvation Army Band drum hitting Owen Llan in the chest.”
Please share your thoughts on chapters 1-4 of One Moonlit Night and join me next week to discuss chapters 5-8 (plus other aspects) of this novel.
This is my thirteen choice for The Classics Club
Categories: Reading Wales
I am loving this little gem . The writing is pure poetry. From the first sentence I was hooked. I love the way all characters are given a place in the village, Price the School and Jones the New Policeman. Thank you for this readathon suggestion.
I’m so pleased you’re enjoying it, Penelope. I agree, it is pure poetry. Having grown up in North Wales, I recall many locals with such names, for instance, John the Cave (because his grandfather lived in a cave, believe it or not), Tom Fire (fireman) and even Harry Fag, because he refilled cigarette machines. I accepted this without thought at the time, but it makes me giggle when I look back.
Oh dear, much wailing and gnashing of teeth, my copy has not arrived yet. I dare not read anything until it does!
Oh no, your neighbours will think you’ve taken root at your gatepost. Not to worry, I’m sure you’ll catch up fairly rapidly. 🤗
I hadn’t planned on reading this for Dewithon but your description has made it sound so attractive, especially if it’s relatively short! I’ve made a note of it now, thanks.
That’s fab, Chris. I really hope you find it worthwhile. 😃
It took me a while to get used to the narrative style but I’m in the swing now. You get swept along by this story of an exuberant child and his romps around the village but then get jolted into seeing there is a very dark side to this life.
I agree, Karen. The old cliché, ‘you never know what’s round the next corner’ really does seem apt in this case. The boy seems naïve one moment and knowing the next.
I’m baffled by chapter 8 – it seems so incongruous….
You’re not alone there! 😵
My concentration wasn’t where it needed to be earlier on, with this volume, but now I am wholly underway and thoroughly enjoying it. The pace of the prose and the perspective of the young boy – they’re quietly compelling. The naming is so colourful and perhaps that, more than anything, makes me warm to the story. But I do want to know how things go for our narrator and his Mam, her percolating sadness and his attentiveness and curiosity. Their meal of mushrooms: I loved that detail! I’m planning to read the next set of chapters this week as well.
I’m delighted you’re enjoying it, Marcie. Calling a person after their job title or some sort of quirk is a very Welsh custom and can produce some amusing names. Amid the poverty and broken lives there is much humour in this book, I feel.
WEEK 1 (1-4)
The foreword by Niall Griffiths stresses the Welshness of ‘One Moonlit Night’ and he quotes Menna Baines who wrote ‘The social context … remains specifically and vigorously Welsh’ and I agree. The village of Bethesda, the daily activities, the characters and prose are uniquely Welsh but I think the young unnamed protagonist is universal, his experiences of life are universal. The lad is observant but he has no power of his own and that naivety and innocence transcends time and place.
My own early life was on the edge of societal change but, prior to that, illness was to be feared, the Church was powerful, woman had no rights, superstition ruled, and worst of all, children were abused behind closed doors because ‘nobody makes a fuss, just get on with it, don’t stick your nose in, if we don’t talk about it, it will go away’.
I feel like a reader voyeur. This boy (he’s too positive to be called Anonymous) sees all but understands very little. Roaming in the grown-up world, he is the absolute epitome of first-person POV, part memoir part literary license, the adult Caradog Prichard reliving his early life warts and all.
I am revisited by my own experiences at that age and, believe me, they were dark. Looking back as an adult, I recall mainly confusion about what was really going on. Prichard captures this feeling so beautifully for adult readers. In chapter 4, my favourite paragraphs are when the boy awakens after a picnic. He feels the desolation of being left behind and desperately tries to find his way home. I remember that heart-thumping experience!