There are only about five plots in the whole of creativity. Almost everything fits into one of these. Rise to fame, fall from grace, win love, lose it and death. Can you think of anything that’s not covered by those? George Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual - which is more a building plan than a novel - is one. Childe Roland’s 700 empty-page life story is another. The Widow Wadman’s state of mind depicted by a blank page inserted in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is certainly a third, although the author does go back to the use of a more conventional plot line later.
The real exceptions have to be books by outsiders. And here I am not talking about strangers who wander into wild west saloons and have the entire place turn and look at them but writers who have somehow positioned themselves beyond conventional society. The sort of writer described by Colin Wilson in his seminal The Outsider. Authors who are somehow dislocated and at odds with the conventional world, who see no way forward, are full of gloom, who see too much, too deeply, and simply can’t cope.
The classics of the genre is The Outsider itself, Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea where the hero allows the inanimate world to overwhelm him, Hesse’s Steppenwolf, Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, and Franz Kafka’s The Trial. If you are outside society then you can all the more easily record what’s going on within. If that fails you can then drink or drug yourself into a stupor, as Malcolm Lowry does in Under the Volcano.
For many this is a beguiling path. Just check out some of the literature from the Beat Generation to see what Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and, in particular, William Burroughs managed. The drinking episodes of the UK equivalent – the Angry Young Men John Wain, Kingsley Amis and Stan Barstow - pale into insignificance by comparison.
In Wales the nearest we’ve ever come to all this have been Dylan Thomas’s drinking bouts. These, however, never actually appear in any of his writings. Does that mean that the Welsh have no outsider tradition? Despite the sight of any number of authors in a variety of states on inebriation at events we don’t actually have much written history here. Even the late John Tripp’s work largely sticks to the moral – try his selected writings in the recently published The Meaning of Apricot Sponge (Parthian) to see what I mean.
The forthcoming appearance of Richard Gwyn’s A Vagabond’s Breakfast will change all this. Gwyn, no mean author by any means, chronicles a lost decade of alcoholism, vagabondery, serial hospitalisations, laying on floors across Europe and a final resolution with a 2006 liver transplant. After this Welsh writing is not going to be the same. More strength to Gwyn, the ultimate winner.
An earlier version of this posting appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail. #174