Caitlin: Life With Dylan Thomas by Caitlin Thomas with George Tremlett (Holt: $17.95; illustrated; 211 pp.)
In 1936 Caitlin Macnamara was a wild Irish rose, an aspiring dancer in London; Dylan Thomas already recognized as an uncommonly gifted poet. They met in a pub, fell in love at once, and for the next 17 years, pubs, poetry and passion would be their life in exactly that order of importance. Theirs was a feckless, nomadic, alcoholic existence, a pair of selfish young lovers living entirely on the generosity of others; borrowed money, loaned houses, all on credit.
The three children of the marriage were alternately adored and neglected; the extraordinary talent abused by dissipation, emerging just often enough to establish Dylan Thomas as one of the most extravagantly praised writers of the century. The marriage was one long squander from that first encounter to the last, when Caitlin Thomas brought her husband's body back from New York to Wales. The coffin was in the hold of the ship, where Caitlin slept beside it while the sailors used it as a card table and bar. "Dylan would have liked that. I don't think they knew who I was, or that the box was a coffin."
Though Caitlin Thomas has tried to tell her melodramatic story twice before, the first time in "Leftover Life to Kill," published in 1957, then again six years later in "Not Quite Posthumous Letters to My Daughter," neither effort succeeded in making sense of the Thomas' lives. This one, written by their faithful longtime friend George Tremlett from 50 hours of recorded interviews with the now 73-year-old Caitlin, finally gets the harrowing job done.
When she attempted to write her own book, Caitlin was suicidally depressed, and virtually incoherent; now, though hardly able to recollect her years with Dylan in Wordsworthian tranquillity, she seems wholly rational and completely candid.
The alcoholism is under control, the fury and rage reduced to manageable proportions, the self-pity that marred her earlier book kept firmly in check. Despite its inevitable redundancies, the account is not only readable but compelling, an invaluable record of a life blurred in the living but finally brought into a semblance of focus and order. "Caitlin" may be the closest thing to a definitive biography of Dylan Thomas we're likely to have.
Though much of his own writing is clearly autobiographical, the poet's imagination has transformed the material into an inextricable mix of fact and fancy, elevated experience into art. While Caitlin's memoirs are also biased, inevitably altered by time and emotion, they are the raw recollections of a true soul mate; a woman who instinctively understood Thomas' work and the mystical way in which the gorgeous poetry emerged from his self-destructive personality.
Despite the adoration, the respect and the tenderness, the story is an ugly one of marital battles, of dissolution, and the terrible varieties of revenge jealous lovers take upon one another. While the book certainly enlarges the reader's understanding of Thomas' poetry, it does so only obliquely. Caitlin never fancied herself a literary critic and wisely does not try to establish connections between actual incidents and published work. What she comprehended fully and totally was her husband's dual character. "He had become two people. The one Dylan was becoming more and more irresponsible while the other Dylan was constantly extending his literary powers. The totally creative person does not have the rest of his life in proper proportions . . . He was one of the chosen ones, and therefore, in his own opinion, he was allowed certain privileges."
Frank, plain-spoken and unpretentious, Caitlin does not spare herself. She admits to her adulterous affairs, to the alcoholism that began as a route to Dylan's life and then became her only way of coping with personal anguish; to the childishness that kept the couple in perpetual debt and eventually turned them into the resentful dependents of anyone who would pay for their keep.
"Caitlin" is neither atonement nor apology but simply confession. Now living in Sicily with Giuseppe Fazio, the father of her youngest child, at 73 she's far too realistic to expect either forgiveness or sympathy. The turbulent years with Dylan Thomas have finally been disciplined and distilled into these pages by a colossal effort of will. When she thinks of him now, she sees "those two little hands. That's the thing that gets under my skin most. They seemed so utterly useless, and yet they said so much."