Border Country, by Raymond Williams:
Bhatto & Windus. 18s.
“what is it really that I must measure?” asks Matthew Price, eight years a university lecturer in economic history, working on population movements in the Welsh mining valleys of the nineteenth century. The answer cannot come at once. “The techniques I have learned have the solidity and precision of icecubes, while a given temperature is maintained. But it’s a temperature I can’t really maintain; the door of the box keeps flying open.” He has himself moved from the Welsh village of Glynmawr to London, a change of gigantic proportions with many unrealised reverberations, “a change of substance as it must also have been for them, when they left their villages. And the ways of measuring this are not only outside my discipline. They are somewhere else altogether, that I can feel but not handle, touch but not grasp.”
This problem of “measurement”, although that cannot be the right word (and is not used again), can only be resolved by personal decisions and personal assessments, by the feeling and language which breaks out from inside a person and hesitantly pushes towards the fading edges the past, and yet holds within it the change which begins the problem. Raymond Williams’ Border Country goes right to the core of these emotions. I do not think that I have ever been so moved by a modern novel as I was by this tremendously exciting and beautifully written book. It is much much more than an extension of Raymond Williams’ work—a fresh dimension, an entirely credible heightening of the impact of social change and differing ways of life upon, first, a handful of people and then, without crude special pleading or blustering didacticism, upon all of us.
“I know this country”. This remark, irritating at the beginning, absolutely acceptable at the end, prefaces the novel. For the first chapter or so, I felt uncomfortable. How dare he, I thought, package this thing up like a problem of “measurement”, and with such an obvious method, allowing us to hear the creak of the plot before we had even accepted the central character as a person at all. Matthew’s father, Harry Price, a railway signalman, has had a stroke, and Matthew leaves for Glynmawr, for his past, back at the starting point and also at the flashpoint of two ways of life. Glynmawr slides into view with, at first, I felt, rather self-conscious, pastiche-Lawrence descriptions of the wet, red earth.
And then the initial uncertainty, the too-formal and academic approach to an emotional imprecision, is completely submerged by a growing certainty of language, a richness of detail and subtle layers of dialogue, rhythmic and true. The physical reality of the Welsh borderland, with its distant blue peaks, sprawling, broken expanses of browning fern, stubbly fields, slipping off the hill, and clusters of square stone houses on the valley slopes merges with immediacy and aptness into a country of less obvious contours, the border country of change, mapped by the too-long, too-observable moments of hesitation, the tragic ambiguities in warmth, the piling up of minor irritations shaken out of the different conventions or ways of looking at things, and the almost inexplicable feelings of embarrassment which come with such poignancy and inevitability when contact is attempted across this border, the one which cannot be located.
The two levels, if I may describe them so crudely, appear to interact with such necessity and urgency that we are persuaded into a genuine emotion which is not a colourless abstraction, but is, paradoxically, made sufficiently universal and comprehensible by the act of location—the narrowing and sharpening into the particular of one place and one personal sequence of time. Thus, scraps of dialogue, accurate and yet held within the imaginative patterns of the novel, the opposite of mere tape-recorded naturalism, as well as the interceding edge of memory, are placed within the landscape, the physical rhythm, without sentimentality, and with the kind of accuracy which always leaves much more to be said, the much more that can never be said.