SOME years ago, in the slate-quarrying village of Blaenau Ffestiniog, Wales, I visited Phyllis Playter, the longtime companion of the writer John Cowper Powys. She was a tiny, ancient woman whose skin was stretched like parchment over her bones. I asked her how she had met Powys. She said, "It was in Joplin, Missouri, in 1921, and Mr. Powys was lecturing on Dostoevski. The lecture was so powerful that three people in the audience fainted. I knew he was the man for me."
I fell for Powys myself, although not quite in the same way. In college I was fed a steady diet of professor-friendly, eminently deconstructible texts, many of them seemingly written for the purposes of classroom exegesis. I yearned, if not for stronger stuff, at least for less-polite stuff; acting on a tip in Henry Miller's The Books in My Life, I began reading Powys. I started with a 1929 novel called Wolf Solent, because I thought it might be about wolves, possibly in the manner of Jack London. It couldn't have been less so. It concerns an extremely introverted man, Wolf Solent, and his courtship of two very different women. The supporting cast includes a lecherous sausage-maker, a peddler of antiquarian pornography, a homosexual clergyman, a voyeuristic country squire, a teenage boy who kisses trees, and a mad poet. Here, I thought, is God's weird plenty.
What struck me when I reread recently was not its weirdness but its compassion for the down-and-out, the aberrant, and the misbegotten. What also struck me was its casual attitude toward polymorphous sex. "Natural or unnatural," one of the characters says, "it's nature. It's mortal man's one great solace before he's annihilated." I can't imagine anyone else of Powys's generation writing those words. Certainly not D. H. Lawrence, who compared with Powys was a reactionary about matters of the flesh.
One doesn't read Powys so much as enlist in him. Wolf Solent is more than 900 pages long. Two later novels, and Porius, are well over a thousand (in hardcover they would make formidable weapons). Even the shorter novels invite the description that Henry James applied to novels by Tolstoy, Thackeray, and Dumas: "loose, baggy monsters." Powys had mixed feelings about James; when asked about a writer he did like, he would often mention Homer, and sometimes Sir Walter Scott. His own writing is epic, grandiose, often wildly rhetorical, and probably undeconstructible. He could be guilty of absurdities, as when he described the departure of Tom Barter's soul from his dead body in A Glastonbury Romance. And yet Powys was also capable of exquisite moments, as when, in the same novel, a drowning John Geard can think of "snuffing up the sweet sweat of those he loved."
"A great modern novel consists of and ought to include just everything," Powys wrote in his novel Dostoievsky. In including just about everything, he was a maximalist writer in an increasingly minimalist age. I can think of no equivalent to him among subsequent writers except, perhaps, Patrick White, who, like Powys, both seeks the transcendent in the ordinary and occasionally spins his wheels in trying to corner such an elusive quarry. But White received a Nobel Prize. Powys received no prizes other than a bronze plaque from the Hamburg Free Academy of the Arts, a few years before his death.
TO some readers, John Cowper Powys is a long-winded, bombastic bore and an almost pathological celebrant of oddball sex and chthonic realms. To most, he is an unknown quantity. His name seldom comes up in discussions of that dreary academic figment known as The Novel, and a number of well-read people of my acquaintance have never heard of him. Over the years, he's had some reputable allies -- Henry Miller, Robertson Davies, Angus Wilson, George Steiner, Iris Murdoch, J. B. Priestley, Elias Canetti, and Philip Larkin, who referred to Powys as a "gigantic mythopoeic literary volcano." But he remains, in the phrase of Martin Amis, "a monument of neglect."
Perhaps if he'd been a member of a fashionable literary movement like the Bloomsbury group, he might have achieved more recognition. But I have difficulty imagining a man who described himself as "a born Camp-Fire or Cave-Fire Story-Teller" sitting down for tea with Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf. In fact, Powys avoided literary company; he would no sooner have taken part in a writer's conference than in a gathering of morticians. A triumphant solitary, he also avoided nonliterary company. He didn't serve in the Great War, because he had a phobia about urinating in public -- or so he says in his Autobiography (1934). With Powys it's sometimes hard to tell whether he was pulling the reader's leg or pulling his own.
Yet he did belong to at least one literary group -- his family. Of his ten siblings, six ended up writing books. Theodore, who is probably the best known of these siblings, wrote short stories and novels, among them Mr. Weston's Good Wine; Llewelyn wrote rather florid nature essays and memoirs; Philippa wrote a novel and poems; Littleton wrote autobiographies; and Bertie wrote about architecture. All together, the hardworking Powyses produced more than a hundred books.
Born in 1872 in Derbyshire, England, the son of a vicar, John Cowper had a typical middle-class upbringing that shuttled him methodically from his father's vicarage to Sherborne School, Cambridge, and from there to a career as a country schoolmaster. Then, in 1904, he did something wholly atypical: he traveled to America and turned an innate talent for the histrionic to good use by becoming a freelance lecturer.
His lectures must have been remarkable, especially the ones on literary figures. "With almost an erotic emotion, as if I were indulging myself in some kind of perverted love affair," he wrote in his Autobiography, "I entered the nerves of Dickens or ... Henry James or Dostoievsky." At the same time, he never ceased to be John Cowper Powys, a high-strung, perpetually disheveled Englishman. Once, when he was getting ready to lecture, his hostess whispered to him that his fly buttons were undone. "Madam," he replied, "I wear them that way." I suspect this was true.
One reason Powys went to America was to escape the English class system, whose snobbery, restraint, atrophied manners, and cult of discretion he hated. He hated them so much, in fact, that he devised a sort of reverse class system. "The deepest emotion I have is my malice against the well-constituted as compared with the ill-constituted," he declared in his Autobiography, adding, "Dwarfs, morons, idiots, imbeciles, hunchbacks, degenerates, perverts, paranoiacs, neurasthenics, every type of individual upon whom the world looked down, I loved ... admired ... and imitated."
A word about this unusual Autobiography: it is a record not of Powys's achievements but of his various inadequacies. In it he described his manias and phobias, his "idiotic" mouth and "Neanderthal pate," and particularly his sexual failures. He discussed "the sickening moments of dead sea desolation that came to me from my ulcerated stomach" and his chronic constipation. He called himself a "scarecrow Don Quixote with the faint heart of Sancho." And yet the mood of the Autobiography is not gloomy or self-pitying. After all, this book was written by a man who treasured being "ill-constituted."