Book review: The Three Lives of Dylan Thomas

HILLY Janes has written the best of the many books about Dylan Thomas which I have read. A portrait of the man, rather than a work of literary criticism, it serves also as a corrective to Andrew Davies’s compelling but lop-sided TV biopic, A Poet in New York, shown on 18 May.

The Three Lives of Dylan Thomas

by Hilly Janes

The Robson Press, 320pp, £18.99

Although that had some domestic scenes set in his home in Laugharne, it concentrated on his last days in New York, and offered the conventional, if also tragic, portrait of the drunken hell-raiser.

It is this which Janes sets out to correct. She doesn’t deny of course that the “mythical creature” – the drunken, womanising, sponging poet – had its roots in reality. Dylan was indeed that – the public performer who in pubs and bars quickly became the “Instant Dylan” that his wife Caitlin came to dislike and despise.

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But there was other Dylans: the dedicated poet whom Caitlin loved to the end and whom she would never free herself of in the long years of her widowhood; and the Welsh Dylan, the suburban mother’s boy, who was at ease, and at both his most serious and most joyful, with the friends made in his Swansea childhood and youth.

Janes starts with one advantage denied to previous biographers. Her father, the painter Alfred Janes, was one of these friends, and she knew other ones: the poet Vernon Watkins, the composer Dan Jones, and the painter Mervyn Levy. None of these friendships was broken as Dylan careered through life. All these friends continued to cherish his memory. Janes shows that, no matter how difficult and infuriating he might be, he was also lovable.

Much of Dylan’s poetry is obscure, though it always made a splendid sound.

He was famous before he was 20, which may not have been good for him, but he remained a careful and hard-working craftsman; all his poems went through many drafts. The suggestion that he was written out before he died is nonsense. As Caitlin said, he was writing fewer poems but they were better ones. He was moving, as his contemporary George Barker, that other master of romantic-rhetorical poetry, did, towards a more lucid simplicity.

All his life he was faced with the problem: how does a poet live, how does he survive financially? The university posts teaching creative writing which supply many poets today with an income weren’t available then. So he lived hand-to-mouth, precariously and improvidently, beset with money worries.

The irony is that things were coming right when he died. His Collected Poems sold 20,000 copies in the first year. His play, Under Milk Wood had just been performed in New York. He was about to write the libretto of an opera for Stravinsky. Recordings of his poetry, and readings from other poets, were selling well. The Dylan Thomas estate has continued to flourish. Janes reveals that in 1990-1, its income was £90,000.

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She anchors him in Wales, the one place where he was fully at home and fully himself – even if, like many Welshmen, he was often happy to escape from it. “Land of my fathers, and my fathers can keep it,” he joked; and asked for his views on Welsh Nationalism, he gave a three-word reply, the second and third words being Welsh Nationalism.

Like his friends, he belonged to a generation brought up to speak English and ignorant of Welsh, even though their parents might be Welsh speakers themselves. His schoolmaster father taught him to love English poetry. Janes beautifully evokes pre-war life in Swansea and the countryside of his farming relatives, and the close-knit community of the friends of his youth who remained his real friends – there were plenty of sham ones too.

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She is fair to Caitlin, whom he adored, deceived and disappointed. She was the only woman he ever truly loved, and, though their marriage may have been heading for the rocks at the time of his death, that death came close to destroying her too as she descended into the hell of alcoholism scarcely relieved by promiscuity. Her second marriage to Giuseppe Fazio, a Sicilian who dabbled in the film world, eventually brought her security, though the three Thomas children disliked and distrusted him. I knew her in Rome in the early Seventies, by which time she was a non-drinking recovering alcoholic, and found her kind, gentle and generous, though social life was painfully difficult for her. There is a character based on her in my novel Surviving about expatriate alcoholics in Rome.

If it is reasonable to make a distinction, as Caitlin did, between Essential Dylan, the poet, and Instant Dylan, the performer – and I think it is – the great merit of Janes’s book is that she dwells most on the former, and does so illuminatingly. The Roaring Boy of legend is here too, but Dylan the dedicated craftsman, the poet who, despite everything, retained his innocence, and the loyal and much-loved friend, is in the foreground.

She has corrected the balance and done so in a book that every lover of his poetry will want to read. That it is almost as much about her father and Dylan’s other Welsh friends as it is about Dylan himself enriches her picture of the man and the poet. It is, surprisingly perhaps, a necessary book, which should send readers back to what really matters: the poetry.