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Friday, 21 March 2008

Written in granite: Raw Powys

I first came across the name of John Cowper Powys in 1982. The band I was in at the time had just released its first and only single and throughout the early part of the year we played quite a lot of gigs. There was one in Yeovil, I think it was, or possibly Taunton – we played both around that time – at which we were interviewed for a fanzine called Feeding The Fish. A few weeks later I was sent a copy of the issue we were in and it was absolutely fantastic. It was way ahead of its time in that, unlike so many fanzines of the time, it didn't limit itself to covering the author's (or occasionally authors') favourite bands, it covered a broad remit, taking in all sorts of subjects from across the arts. So as well as august words from myself there was also a sizeable article on Powys which fascinated me. I then came across one of the novels mentioned, Maiden Castle, in the library so I took it out and read it. I was still in my teens but was a fairly – though not exceptionally – precocious reader. I'd been through my existentialist phase (lots of Sartre, fair amount of Gide, a bit of Camus), decided I wasn't too keen on the mysticism of Hesse, though I quite liked Thomas Mann, had had quite a thing about Kafka although, in an era when there was a fine band called Josef K, I was unusual in that I enjoyed America the most of the novels. Somehow or other I'd moved on to Dostoevsky by the time I was sixteen but I hadn't really discovered an awful lot of English literature. Oh yes, Zola, I adored Zola and was working my way through translations of the Rougon-Macquart series (all 20 big novels). I'd probably read one or two of Hardy's more famous novels too. So I was pretty well primed for Powys. Ah, I should mention that when I was almost alarmingly young, I'd developed a liking for Colin Wilson and I'm sure there was some mention of JCP in The Outsider (Wilson's book of that title, rather than the slightly misleading/wishful thinking translation of Camus' L'Étranger), alongside most or all of the aforementioned. We'll look at Wilson in a subsequent piece. Anyway, Maiden Castle was the fourth and final of the Wessex Quartet (the others being Wolf Solent, A Glastonbury Romance and Weymouth Sands) but happened to be the one I got my hands upon first. I really enjoyed it, enough to want to read as much Powys as I could get my hands on. Well, my luck was in. It would appear that JCP comes into fashion roughly every 20-25 years. Having died, in his nineties, in 1963, by the early eighties there was a sudden resurgence of interest, which had caught me. Picador had reissued most of the major novels (except for Wolf, which was – and still is – available in the Penguin Modern Classics series) a year or two previously and I picked up Sands, Romance, Owen Glendower, the newly published early novel After My Fashion and the Autobiography. I came across what looks like an early seventies edition of Morwyn or The Vengeance Of God in – of all things – a series called something like "Classics of Science Fiction" (it has roughly the same amount of SF content as Dante's Inferno, on which it is loosely based) and also a copy of the new Village Press edition of Porius. I also remember taking The Brazen Head out of the library. So I devoured perhaps 10 or so of Powys' books over a period of 3-4 years in the early to mid eighties.

However I don't think I've read any of his books in the last 20 years. He simply dropped out of view again. There have been a few occasions when I've thought "hmm... I really must reread Weymouth Sands but then something with a more pressing claim has come along and... well, there's also the fact that there have been quite a lot of books I read in my mid to late teens and loved at the time which I've returned to only to be immensely disappointed. And others which are bathed in that aura of adolescence and very early adulthood and which I can't imagine wanting to revisit. I can't imagine wanting to reread any of Sartre's or Camus' novels, for instance – of that whole host of (mostly French) books I read around that time only Simone de Beauvoir's Mémoirs d'une jeune fille bien rangée might tempt me now. At least, I did first attempt Proust at around that time, but struggled and it wasn't until I was in my mid twenties that I fell under his spell. I'd love to read Proust again but he requires time, and lots of it. This, of course, is another of the reasons I've put off tackling Powys again; he wrote big books. A Glastonbury Romance was around 1500 pages of fairly densely printed text. I remember being enthralled by parts of it but still finding others heavy going. He could also be very wild and elemental. I also remember struggling with Porius. But perhaps now I might enjoy those more difficult novels more.

There have been a number of articles reclaiming JCP's place in the literary firmament of late, at least a couple of them by Margaret Drabble (one in the TLS and one in The Guardian) and there's a biography called Descents Of Memory which I shall be purchasing as soon as I can find a copy here in the UK. Interestingly the books are being published again first of all in the US by the Overlook Press and then simply imported into the UK with a barcode sticker by Duckworth. Yesterday I bought the hardback edition of Maiden Castle, which I didn't previously own because I'd borrowed it from the library. It looks to be a very nice edition indeed and they've also reissued Romance, Sands, Glendower and now a "definitive" Porius, restoring a lot of material cut for the original. So I'll be picking these up as I can find them. And I really must make the time to read Powys again, I've a funny feeling that he might be one of the rare cases of something I enjoyed in my teens but without really grasping, and thus I might just get more out of it now that I'm older.

I must pick the publishers up on one thing, though; I commend them for the fact that, as far as I've been able to see on a quick perusal, they've not tampered with the British spelling (I wouldn't expect to see an American author's spelling Anglicised for publication in the UK, it's part of the flavour of the writing, a bit like an accent in speech) as sometimes happens, however they claim on the dust jacket that Powys wrote ten novels. This is incorrect, he must've written at least fifteen, perhaps a couple more than that. It depends what you classify as a "novel" and what as a "novella" but either way there are certainly more than ten. It's interesting to note that this time around pride of place goes to a quote from George Steiner (The New Yorker) comparing JCP to Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. I suppose that's not wildly inaccurate, in some ways, particularly the former, but last time around the writer whose name used to come up most commonly was Thomas Hardy, I suppose partly because of the whole Wessex connection. Both wrote novels set in and around Dorchester, Weymouth and other Dorset towns. Both feature characters who are driven by elemental forces and often have names that tell you a lot about them. I'm not sure there's anyone very much like Powys though: he was like a Victorian writer who'd somehow strayed into the 20th century. Well, in many ways that's exactly what he was: born in 1872 but didn't publish his first novel until 1915. So he was 43 when he started, and almost 91 when he died.

He claimed descent from the poet Cowper (his mother's maiden name), two of his brothers also became writers – and indeed T.F. Powys' Mr Weston's Good Wine is another favourite of mine and a book I have reread over the last decade, enjoying it enormously again. There's something wonderfully English or, to be more accurate, Anglo-Welsh about his writing. Its eccentricity, its sheer volume, its elemental savagery, its indomitability (in the original sense of "impossible to tame"). It's wonderful to see the books back in print again, for years the only one you'd ever see in bookshops was the Penguin Modern Classics edition of Wolf Solent and you'd be reduced to searching for old Picador or Village Press copies second-hand. So the Overlook Press are to be commended for doing such a beautiful job and I do hope they'll continue with more of the work of this great British writer. Otherwise I suppose we'll have to wait until sometime around 2030 for the next revival.

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