Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog is a short volume of ten stories, all somewhat autobiographical, by Welsh poet and writer Dylan Thomas. This is a pick for for Paula’s #Dewithon22, and my almost-last-minute substitute for my original pick, a volume of fairy tales, which shall have to be read another time. (This review does contain some spoilers)
Portrait’s stories take us to different places—from visits to relations (an uncle and aunt, and his grandfather), his friend’s home, a day-trip/trek to the beach, a camping trip, under a railway arch, and even out on his job as a journalist; and cover a range of themes—childhood, longing, class difference/dynamics, love (and betrayal), loss, nostalgia, friendship, ego, nature, and much more. Dylan is more central in some stories, while in others he is simply present—an observer ‘showing’ us readers what plays out—while the story itself involves and focuses on others. The episodes take place at different stages of Dylan’s life—childhood, adolescence and early adulthood.
Portrait is peopled by a range of curious characters, many, no perhaps most, who seem to have a thread of the tragic, the pathetic running through their lives. In ‘Peaches’ for instance, we meet Uncle Jim, who, even if not an alcoholic is addicted to his drink, sneaking away a pig or sheep from the farm to fuel his addiction (the ‘squeal’ and tell-tale ‘tip of a pink tail curling out’ of a basket that the author sees alerting us to what is happening, before it is confirmed); ‘Annie’ his uncle’s wife longs to open a tin of peaches, a rare treat, during the visit of a rich guest, Mrs Williams, who is coming to drop the author’s friend for a visit, only to be snubbed, the visit itself also ending later in discord; while Gwilym his cousin, a minister in training, practices his sermons on the little boys, almost forcing them to confess and collecting contributions.
Grandpa Thomas in ‘A Visit to Grandpa’ is lost in dreams of his youth, when he rode horses, while his wish to be buried in ‘Llangadock … where the ground is comfy … [and] you can twitch your legs without putting them in the sea’ causes him to set off for Llagadock in his best waistcoat—the fact that he is still alive, seems no impediment for he is ‘like a prophet who had no doubt’.
In ‘Just Like Little Dogs’ by an odd, somewhat cruel twist of fate, Tom who is in love with Norma must marry Doris, while Walter is married to Norma. In another story of love and heartbreak, ‘Patricia, Edith and Arnold’, two maids, Patricia who works for the author’s family, and Edith who is in service next door, are both courted by Arnold. In a refreshing take on the situation, they stand by each other rather than Arnold.
George Hooping or Little Cough in ‘Extraordinary Little Cough’ gets taken in by two bullies and runs miles all night on the Rhossili sands.
And Ray, the author’s older friend in ‘Who Do You Wish Was With Us’, having lost most of his family, some of whom he nursed and watched wither away, falls frequently into melancholy even on a day out meant to cheer them up.
There are of course lighter moments as well; noisy and carefree childhood games of scalping; a fight that turns into friendship—and a friendly competition of showing off their respective skills; walks outside in nature; Mrs Prothero in ‘Old Garbo’ who takes advantage of a message misunderstood; and the author and his friends in ‘Where the Tawe Flows’ weaving a story together with a character Mary in particular who ends up having a rather complicated, or should one say convoluted life.
I enjoyed the author’s descriptions, conjuring up images of holiday-makers for instance, or the scene out on the beach; moments of calm outside in nature, for instance in ‘Who Do You Wish Was With Us’. A range of emotions too are evoked and in almost every instance, we are in sympathy with the characters. As we read the stories, we do know we are in Wales, but the main focus is the people rather than place (stories ‘in’ rather than ‘of’ Wales). ‘A Visit to Grandpa’ and ‘Who Do You Wish Was With Us’ were two of my favourites in the collection.