[John Cowper Powys (1872-1963)]
At the striking of noon on a certain Fifth of March, there occurred within a causal radius of Brandon railway-station and yet beyond the deepest pools of emptiness between the uttermost stellar systems one of those infinitesimal ripples in the creative silence of the First Cause which always occur when an exceptional stir of heightened consciousness agitates any living organism in this astronomical universe. Something passed at that moment, a wave, a motion, a vibration, too tenuous to be called magnetic, too subliminal to be called spiritual, between the soul of a particular human being who was emerging from a third-class carriage of the twelve-nineteen train from London and the divine-diabolic soul of the First Cause of all life.
In the soul of the great blazing sun, too, as it poured down its rays upon this man's head, while he settled his black travelling bag comfortably in his left hand and his hazel-stick in his right, there were complicated superhuman vibrations; but these had only the filmiest, faintest, remotest connexion with what the man was feeling. They had more connexion with the feelings of certain primitive tribes of men in the heart of Africa and with the feelings of a few intellectual sages in various places in the world who had enough imagination to recognise the conscious personality of this fiery orb as it flung far and wide its life-giving magnetic forces. Roaring, cresting, heaving, gathering, mounting, advancing, receding, the enormous fire-thoughts of this huge luminary surged resistlessly to and fro, evoking a turbulent aura of psychic activity, corresponding to the physical energy of its colossal chemical body, but affecting this microscopic biped's nerves less than the wind that blew against his face. ...
So what's your first, spontaneous reaction to that piece of prose, eh? Be honest.
If you find it bold, attractive, intriguing, then it might well be worth your while to explore further the bizarre regional-cosmic romances of John Cowper Powys, greatest of an extraordinary set of Welsh-English brothers (Llewellyn and Theodore [T.F.] Powys were the other writers among them).
If, by contrast, your response is to yawn and start skimming to the end of the paragraph - well, then, better not bother.
Ever since I first encountered that extraordinary opening to Powys' greatest, or at any rate most celebrated, novel A Glastonbury Romance (1933), I've felt a curiosity about its author, the shaggy old Mountain Man in the picture above.
Picador published a number of his novels in the late 70s and early 80s, but not by any means all of them. It's therefore been quite a job to assemble anything like a complete set, but I think I might finally have succeeded.
The main impetus for this post, then, is my recent discovery of the Faber Finds series, who've decided (very wisely in my opinion) to put back into print, simultaneously, his first four novels and four of his later ones. To wit:
- Wood and Stone (1915)
- Rodmoor (1916)
- After My Fashion (1919)
- Ducdame (1925)
- Morwyn (1937)
- The Inmates (1952)
- Atlantis (1954)
- The Brazen Head (1956)
This has pretty much enabled me to complete my set of his "fictions" (early and late). Some of them are a bit difficult to classify - Homer and the Aether, for example, a kind of novel-commentary on Homer's Iliad. There's also a fairly large selection of what the author himself referred to as his "senilia" - mad, childish writings composed in extreme old age (he did live to 91, after all). Some might think that a few too many of these have appeared in print, but then to true fans it's doubtful that anything JCP wrote is entirely devoid of interest.
So here's my attempt at an itemised list:
- Wood and Stone (1915) - JCP's first novel, written very much under the influence of Thomas Hardy's "Novels of Character and Environment."
- Rodmoor (1916) - this one I'd never previously managed to locate, so I'm eagerly awaiting my "Faber Finds" copy.
- After My Fashion - written in 1919, this one wasn't published until 1980 by Picador, who must have had a real success with their reissue of the Dorset novels in the 70s.
- Ducdame (1925) - the Village Press repackaged a number of the master's obscurer works in rather minimalist paperback editions in the mid-70s. My copy is one of these.
- Wolf Solent (1929) - possibly (still) his best-known novel, frequently reprinted by Penguin, and the first of the four "Dorset Novels" which constitute his major claim to fame.
- A Glastonbury Romance (1933) - a colossal, bizarre masterpiece, well over a thousand pages long.
- Weymouth Sands (1934) - There'd been a lawsuit over potential libels in A Glastonbury Romance, but that resulted only in a couple of minor excisions. This book was really hauled over the coals in court, though. Bringing frivolous libel suits was quite a profitable business in Britain in the 1930s, according to Graham Greene, who also suffered from it. The law was weighted against any author who dared to set his work in a contemporary setting or used names which might be those of real people. As a result this book was reissued in an expurgated form in the UK, under the new title Jobber Skald (1935). It didn't reappear in full there until the late 1970s.
- Maiden Castle (1936) - the last of the Dorset novels.
- Morwyn: or The Vengeance of God (1937) - I owe my copy of this eccentric work to the "Dennis Wheatley library of the Occult", which republished it in the 1980s. It's a kind of anti-vivisectionist tract disguised as an account of a trip to Hell. Much more entertaining than you'd think.
- Owen Glendower (1940) - the first of his Welsh historical novels.
- Porius (1951) - another historical novel, this one set in the fifth century, during the reign of King Arthur. So long and weird that it could only be published in a heavily-edited form at the time. A complete, restored text came out from Colgate University Press in 1994. I'm glad to say that I have both versions. Tough going at times, though, but.
- The Inmates (1952) - a rather wistful and charming account of a love affair in a lunatic asylum.
- Atlantis (1954)- this one I'd been looking for for ages. There was a copy in Auckland University Library when I was studying there, but I never succeeded in obtaining one of my own till the blessed Faber Finds people put it back into print.
- The Brazen Head (1956) - another odd historical novel, this time about the medieval alchemist Roger Bacon.
- Homer and the Aether (1959) - commentary / fiction about the Iliad, rather like a more esoteric version of T. H. White's Once and Future King
- All or Nothing (1960) - if you think some of the others are odd, try reading this piece of raving lunacy.
- The Owl, The Duck, and - Miss Rowe! Miss Rowe! (1930) - no idea. I've never seen it. The title is certainly intriguing, though.
- Up and Out (1957) - two novellas: "Up and Out: a mystery tale" & "The Mountains of the Moon: a lunar love-story." Not like any sci-fi you've ever read, I bet you.
- Romer Mowl and Other Stories (1974) - haven't seen this.
- Real Wraiths (1974)
- Two and Two (1974)
- You and Me (1975) - or any of these three novellas.
- Three Fantasies (1985) - I do have a copy of this, though, and very weird it is, even by JCP standards.
So what else would I recommend? One of the very best of his books is his Autobiography, first published in 1934. In it he gives a pretty full account of his curious way of life: the strange observances to Nature and the other deities in his pantheon, various misadventures at home and on the lecture circuit, etc.
There's a very funny story about him being called to testify in favour of Joyce's Ulysses at an obscenity trial in New York in the twenties.
"Who's that?" asked one of the bystanders.
"Oh, that's the English degenerate, John Powys," replied his neighbour.
Powys would probably not have objected greatly to the description, though he might have had certain problems with the exclusivity of the adjective "English."
He was also a very fine essayist, and published a number of books on literature and culture. There've also been various volumes of his letters issued since his death, a form that particularly suited his discursive, polymathic personality.
Powys was (by contrast) a fairly conventional poet, but there's some nice pieces in this selected volume of Poems, edited by Kenneth Hopkins in 1964, immediately after his death.
There's a goodly number of biographies and critical books about him and his brothers. You can find links to various of them from Wikipedia or the Powys Society website.
I'd recommend G. Wilson Knight's pioneering The Saturnian Quest (1964), as well as Richard Perceval Graves' joint biography of the trio, The Brothers Powys (1983). There's an ever-growing corpus of books about all three of them to choose from now, though.