A complete compendium of short fiction showcases the Welsh writer’s giddy, mystical way with words.
Collected Stories, by Dylan Thomas, New Directions, 362 pages, $24.95
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Everything that happened happened and it also happened all so fast. The Welsh writer Dylan Thomas became famous, in a manner now conceptually and materially implausible, as a poet. In 1934, his book 18 Poems appeared, and in 1936, Twenty-Five Poems was published to enough commotion that, by the time he was twenty-two, Thomas became a star, insofar as poets can ever become stars. Two years before this, he’d written to a friend that he was “a writer of poems and stories,” but the stories didn’t show up in his books until 1939, when The Map of Love included seven. By the end of 1953, Thomas was dead, at thirty-nine, a casualty of insults to the body that included, but were not limited to, the effects of alcoholism, untreated pneumonia, and an injection of morphine deemed appropriate by a doctor in New York.
Even more inconceivable now than being a successful poet, Thomas died unfilmed, save for a blurry millisecond of his appearance as an extra in the 1951 Pandora and the Flying Dutchman. He did, however, read many of his poems and stories for the radio. It makes sense—Thomas’s life was an audible, unified scramble, the spaghetti trail of an eternally gifted child talking his way out of scrapes by manifesting a rhythmic version of events that felt right to those around him. All of his work arrives in this mode, and I am calling it, in neither a radical nor original bid, music.
A year after his death, Quite Early One Morning, a collection of prose Thomas had read publicly, broadcast on the radio, or recorded, was published. One became Thomas’s calling card to the world—“A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” first developed in different form for the BBC Wales “Children’s Hour” in 1945 but best-known in the version Thomas recorded for New York record label Caedmon in 1952. I first found Thomas when my father gave me a small blue pamphlet of A Child’s Christmas in Wales, itself a Christmas present that is still tucked into its original blue envelope. I thought, until many years later, that this was in fact a prose poem. Since then, I’ve had this story’s twenty-four-hour vision stuck in my head, because of sequences like “an old man always, fawn-bowlered, yellow-gloved and, at this time of year, with spats of snow, would take his constitutional to the white bowling green and back.” It was republished in Collected Stories, a volume that, shockingly, didn’t exist until 1984 and is now being issued by New Directions in a paperback edition.
It is satisfying to think of Thomas as a musician, but this category also helps organize the commonalities of his work, to think of him doing session dates all over the map and letting others sort through the tapes. The unfinished manuscript of a novel called Adventures in the Skin Trade yielded three stories, included here, which Thomas described as “a mixture of Oliver Twist, Little Dorrit, Kafka, Beachcomber, and good old 3-adjectives-a-penny belly-churning Thomas, the Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive.” I get more Dickens out of it than Kafka but am more interested in Thomas calling himself out for the surplus of adjectives, a self-own I believe he could stand because his words were as much beats as they were bullets of sense.
The three tales drawn from Adventures present a version of Thomas’s young emigration from Swansea to London when he was twenty. They are atypical of his stories in that London didn’t mean as much to Thomas as Swansea and Carmarthenshire, where most of these pieces are set, but Adventures in the Skin Trade is typical in the giddy balance of its aggregate: an overfull trifle of poetry, dialogue, and impressions of almost mystical drunkenness.
Thomas’s stories appeal to me because he is required to snake his poetics in between the dialogue and exposition (such as it is), and the form reins in his Biblical tendencies. The first in Adventures, “A Fine Beginning,” sees the Thomas character, Samuel Bennet, smashing his mother’s crockery and defacing his father’s paperwork before taking off for London. (Thomas did not, in fact, do this.) My favorite bit of this young rebellion is not Bennet stuffing his sister’s tea cosies, “hard as rubber,” up the chimney, but his realization at dawn that “people were downstairs all over the world,” as fine a bourgeois capsule as there is.
What happens in London is what happens in many Thomas stories—he meets strangers, goes on a run, and positively irradiates himself with drink. The final text from the 1940 collection Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, “One Warm Saturday,” sees the protagonist get so drunk he loses his party companions because he can’t find the apartment he’s just left (still in the same building, knocking hopelessly on doors). In Skin Trade, the running gag is a bottle stuck on Bennet’s finger. At one point, he and his companions end up dancing in a bar (beware the unrestrained racism in this story), where he smacks someone with the bottle accidentally and the quartet is tossed to the rainy streets. “ ‘It’s safe,’ Mr. Allingham said. ‘It’s nice and safe in the rain. It’s nice and rational sitting on the steps in the rain.’ ” (One reason Thomas stopped writing short stories in the last years of his life was that he took this gift for the picaresque into gigs as a scriptwriter, which is the subject of another compilation.)
The smallness of these scenes is as important as their vividness. Bennet meets Mr. Allingham in a pub (of course) and then follows him to his combined shop and home, which is the center of “Plenty of Furniture.” It is “the fullest room in England,” where “hundreds of houses had been spilt” and there were “tables and chairs coming in on a wooden flood, chests and cupboards soaring on ropes through the window and settling down like birds.” Thomas the poet has to be Thomas the expositor here, turning the mundanity of a hoarder’s shop into a forest of mystery, where “Rose” (whoever she is) is “dead still on a sunk bed between the column of chairs, buried alive, soft and fat and lost in a grave in a house.” If the end of that sentence is not both drumming and psychoanalysis, I am a fish with a monocle.
In the same way that compilation albums often reveal the hidden strengths of a band, allowing someone else to decide what works, Collected Stories has always been my favorite Thomas, because of its balance. I need a touch of zinc white to even out the purple with this one. The demands of successful fiction bring Thomas and his rambles into the light, where we can see the triumph and regret in every drop.
Sasha Frere-Jones is a musician and writer from New York. His memoir, Earlier, was just published by Semiotext(e).