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eBook formatPaperback, (torrent)En
PublisherThe Hogarth Press Ltd
File size6 Mb
Release date 01.11.1987
Pages count208
Book rating4.08 (8 votes)
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Raymond Williams was a major figure of the British New Left. He wrote much, and much across fields and genres. (He was described by Terry Eagleton as a 'librarian's nightmare'[1].) He will probably best be remembered for several works which refract literary history through an interpreted social history. These include The Country and the City, a very personal work thought by many to be his best, Culture and Society, and The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence. He wrote many other works of literary and social history and theory, some of it criticised for a self-referential opacity.

However he had other registers. He was the television critic for The Listener for a while, and while his reviews are obviously written by the same person, they show a lightness of touch absent from his more academic works. [2] He was also a novelist, and his novels were very important to him. He claimed to have spent more time writing fiction than any other form of writing. [3] However the novels have not found a wide readership and they are all out of print, save two, which have only recently been reissued in this series. Nevertheless, there are signs of some renewed interest. David Harvey recently suggested that the novels where a better guide to his thinking than his other writings. [4]

Williams was Welsh, and Wales was also an important part of his writing, explicitly or in the background. Border Country, his earliest published novel, is one of the first titles to be republished as part of The Library of Wales, a 'Welsh Assembly Government project designed to ensure that the rich and extensive literature of Wales written in English is made available to readers in and beyond Wales'. [5] An edited collection of his Welsh writings was also recently published. [6] I think that The Volunteers is the best of Williams's novels, even though, or maybe because, it departs from the pattern of his others. [7] It differs from The Welsh Trilogy of novels that preceded it in that it moves away from the social realism of those novels to something more akin to a political thriller. The third in the trilogy, The Fight for Manod [8], marked something of a transition as as it explored how the business and political decisions made elsewhere increasingly impacted the rural Welsh locale of the earlier novels. Furthermore, The Volunteers is set in the future - a future that has now past. Published in 1978, the novel was set in 1988.

Despite some clear weaknesses (his treatment of women, for example) it is surprisingly good. First, there is the tone and pace. The opening sentence establishes a briskness that is sustained throughout the novel: "I was in the air fifty minutes after Buxton was shot". Williams manages the flow of the story well, told from the perspective of Redfern, a journalist whose political past came to an end with a jail sentence for alleged assault on a police officer during a protest. Redfern is suitably hard-bitten. He is interested in ideas and ideals, but appears to have passed beyond belief in them. He is humourously sardonic on occasion, as when he talks of the political underground being mostly overground or when he talks of a character with an incurable weakness for general ideas. A major event in the novel is a political shooting in St Fagan's, the cultural theme park near Cardiff. Williams is interested in the park as cultural and political phenomenon, and in the reduced version of a history it portrays. There is an extended passage in which Redfern reflects on the park and its interpretive distortions. This verges on a different type of narrative, as if, for example, it was plucked from the pages of The Country and the City. And, in fact, it does appear in a similar form elsewhere in Williams's writings. But it does not seem wrong, especially on a second reading of the novel, as Redfern the protagonist is aloof, a commentator who can see through things but who is too jaded and divorced from his own past to be a partisan.

Redfern works for Insatel, a media company which in addition to controlling the distribution of news, manufactures much of it. Redfern works in the interstices of the managed news, on protest movements, and he has some freedom to manoeuver as international terrorism, we learn, is second only to sport in interest. The Volunteers has a 1984 dystopian feel, but it is actually handled very well. Williams was writing before the emergence of the current Internet, but the narrative moves smoothly without being checked by implausibility. Redfern has access to databases, an online library, there is indeed a 'fifth channel', he accesses the 'gridfile' service. He talks about registering a lock on a bag with confidential papers from the US, and we realize that this could be a digital or a physical lock. A part of this plausibility is achieved through sparseness of description, as if he realized that the accumulation of detail would provide more opportunity to be caught out in lapses of prediction. However, a part is achieved through a reasonable assessment of the structure of communications. The media manipulation may be overstated, but it does not overtake the story. Yes, Insatel may be a little too monolithic and embracing, but the discussion of surveillance, of news-making, of priorities does not jar.

A part of the achievement here is the distance he achieves from 1970s ways of talking. He has written a novel of the future which manages not to seem trapped in the past. And this seems somewhat true of his political discussion also. He moves beyond the politics of left and right current at the time of writing to describe a politics of image and of policy think-tanks. Indeed, this novel is very different from his earlier ones in this regard, and seems more modern as a result. That said, the Volunteers themselves are political sleepers, waiting for their time to assume institutional power, an idea which seems less plausible than it once may have. He does occasionally lapse into a kind of sentimentality which reminds one of his earlier novels, where characters become types, as maybe with the selflessness of Mrs Evans, the divorced wife of Mark Evans, the polished politician turned policy guru who heads up the front organization for the Volunteers. Some of Redfern's comments to Lucy, one of the characters bound up with the shooting, grated to my ear.

I suggested that Redfern's long consideration of St Fagan's as a cultural artefact does not seem out of place, especially on a second reading. This is because we learn that he is of Welsh extraction himself, that his family migrated to Birmingham for work. We do not know much about Redfern, and he does not have a richly described social life. In fact, we see very little of his day to day work interactions, of social exchange outside of the main plot outline. We know something of his past, but little of the detail of his present: what he wears, where he lives, what he eats. Yet across these gaps, we are aware that the ties that bind have not been entirely dissolved, that he does have loyalties, however attenuated. There are very real loyalties in the novel: to actual places and politics, to the idea of the Volunteers, to family. They are variably direct and intimate, and Redfern's are more abstract than others. The novel shows the affiliations of place and shared value emerge to influence Redfern's behavior. This could also have seemed sentimental, but I did not find it so.

So, this is a novel which touches on many of Williams's more academic interests: the structure of the communications industry, the political environment of what he called the Yookay, the culture industry, the relationship between England and Wales. Yet the novel successfully steps outside of those interests while commenting on them. It is faithful to its genre, and there is a strong narrative momentum as Redfern closes in on the truth, and in on the political choices that re-align him with his past and force him to resign his post with Insatel. Redfern makes a sacrifice because he knows it is right, but Williams resists easy redemption. At the end of the novel, Redfern declines a lift to the station, saying "I'll find my own way back".

[1] in Tony Pinkney. Raymond Williams. Bridgend: Seren Books, 1991. p.17. ISBN: 1854110470
[2] Raymond Williams. Raymond Williams on television. Alan O'Connor (ed). New York : Routledge, 1989, ©1988. ISBN: 041502627X
[3] Raymond Williams. Politics and letters: interviews with New Left Review. London: Verso Editions, 1981. p. 271. ISBN: 0860917355
[4] David Harvey. Justice, nature and the geography of difference. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 1996. ISBN: 1557866813
[5] Raymond Williams. Border Country. Cardiff : Parthian, 2006. ISBN: 1902638816
[6] Daniel Williams (ed). Who speaks for Wales?: nature, culture and identity. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2003. ISBN: 0708317847
[7] Raymond Williams. The Volunteers. London : Eyre Methuen, 1978. ISBN: 0413455300[8] Raymond Williams. The fight for Manod. London : Chatto & Windus, 1979. ISBN: 0701124121

[slightly adapted from a review I did in Worldcat in 2006]

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