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Literary An Irresistible Long-winded Bore

John Cowper Powys wrote about "the three incomprehensibles": sex, religion, and nature. And wrote. And wrote

by Lawrence Millman

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.

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John Cowper Powys in America
A biography of the writer and bibliography of his works, as well as photos of his homes in New York City and upstate New York.

Henry Miller
Learn about one of John Cowper Powys's allies, including information about the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur, California.

What struck me when I reread Wolf Solent 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, A Glastonbury Romance 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."

NO doubt Powys's feelings of inadequacy had something to do with his comparatively late arrival as a writer. He was forty-three when he published a collaborative memoir with his brother Llewelyn titled Confessions of Two Brothers (1916). Two Hardyesque novels followed, Rodmoor and Ducdame, and then Wolf Solent. Each book was written primarily on trains as Powys traveled between lectures. At last, in 1930, he settled down with Phyllis Playter outside the town of Hillsdale, in New York's hardscrabble Columbia County. At age fifty-eight he began to earn his living, or what passed for a living, as a writer.

By now his ulcer had become, as he put it, "rampageous." A diet of raw eggs, milk, olive oil, and bread crusts did little to assuage it. His bowels were so out of whack that he had to have an enema every third day. But he thrived, or at least his muse thrived, and in his four years in upstate New York, Powys wrote A Glastonbury Romance, another novel of epic proportions titled Weymouth Sands, and the Autobiography, along with a book of idiosyncratic popular philosophy called A Philosophy of Solitude (sample quotation: "When you think in a seated posture, you think with your rump, not with your soul").

In 1981, while I was staying in the nearby town of Austerlitz, I visited Phudd Bottom, Powys's improbably named upstate retreat. It was not very different from dozens of other slightly ramshackle clapboard houses in the area, but just down the road I noticed a house that was different. It was surrounded by a fence on whose pickets appeared to be decapitated human heads. The owner was a retired dump-keeper who had cut off the heads of discarded plaster saints, dolls, and sculptures and impaled them on his fence as decoration. He was an elderly man, and, as it happened, he remembered Powys.

"Now there was one strange guy," he said. "Used to walk around in the snow in his bare feet. He'd say he just forgot to put his boots on. And then you'd sometimes see him banging his head on the mailbox. Strange guy."

Actually, Powys didn't bang his head so much as tap it against the mailbox, a ritual he believed would ensure the safe delivery of a letter. He would also utter lengthy incantations while bathing, and walk exactly the same route every day, bowing to exactly the same trees and stones. One of these stones he named "the god of Phudd." Another he named Perdita. Perdita, he wrote, was "the only daughter I shall ever have"; he once felt obliged to kiss his geologic offspring nine times because his dog had peed on it (her?).

Nowadays such behavior would probably be called obsessive-compulsive and classified as a disorder. Powys didn't think of it as a disorder, however. He indulged in it, exulted in it, flourished it like a standard, and ultimately used it to his advantage as a writer. The flip side of kissing stones and tapping his head against the mailbox was an explosive talent for putting words to paper.

IN 1935 Powys moved to Wales. This was not only a physical move but also a journey into his past. Wales was the land of his distant ancestors and home to the sixth-century magician-cum-bard Taliessin, who had been a sort of role model for Powys since childhood. In fact, he sometimes called himself a "tatterdemalion Taliessin."

Powys was at heart a primitivist, for whom virtually every modern invention was anathema. In Wolf Solent he referred to airplanes as "spying down upon every retreat like ubiquitous vultures." He never drove a car and never used a typewriter. He thought television was pernicious. He didn't like talking on the telephone, because he didn't want his words violated by a tangle of wires. So it's not surprising that after his move to Wales he looked to the inviolate past, especially the inviolate Welsh past, for inspiration.

He was working on a novel about Owen Glendower's failed rebellion against Henry IV of England -- dramatized by Shakespeare in Henry IV, Part I. An enormous novel (the first chapter of the manuscript was 300 pages) set in fifteenth-century Wales was not the most practical of projects for a financially strapped writer in his sixties. And he was quite strapped: when his publisher, Bodley Head, accepted the novel, Owen Glendower, Powys had less than £15 in the bank.

To call Owen Glendower and his next work of fiction, Porius, historical novels would be a bit like calling Moby-Dick a sea story. The former includes scenes of rather dubious historical accuracy, including one in which Owen shares his thoughts with a merganser (the merganser reciprocates by sharing its thoughts with him). The latter starts out more or less realistically in the Edeyrnion Valley in A.D. 499, but then quickly shifts to a sort of Welsh Never-Never Land.

Porius is, I think, Powys's masterpiece. It calls to mind novels as diverse as One Hundred Years of Solitude, Finnegans Wake, and Alice in Wonderland. At times it reads like an extended study of what Powys called "the three incomprehensibles": sex, religion, and nature. At other times it reads like a magical mystery extravaganza. In one chapter an owl metamorphoses into a bird-maiden; in another the hero, Prince Porius, mates with an aboriginal giantess while her father is plucking corpses off a battlefield with cannibalistic intent; in another the bard Taliessin (Powys's mouthpiece) chants verses about "The ending forever of the Guilt-sense and God-sense, / The ending forever of the Sin-sense and Shame-sense...."

I can imagine the alarm in the offices of Simon & Schuster, Powys's American publisher, when the 1,589-page manuscript of the novel arrived. The author, always somewhat intemperate about book length, now seemed to have gone totally round the bend. Not surprisingly, Simon & Schuster declined to make an offer on Porius, as did every other American publisher Powys's agents approached. A reader for Bodley Head insisted that the manuscript be trimmed by at least a thousand pages. At this Powys, a man normally compliant with publishers' requests, howled. He was an organ of communication for the departed spirits of the sixth century, he said, and didn't that count for something? Only Powys could have invented a ploy like this.

But it may not have been altogether a ploy -- he may actually have thought that Taliessin had spoken to him, albeit from inside his own skull rather than from a distance of fourteen centuries. For he believed that his "ichthyosaurus-ego," as he called it, could draw on a store of memories dating as far back as the dawn of human experience -- maybe even further. Powys was not the only one to hold this conviction. C. G. Jung believed more or less the same thing, but without the extinct-reptile designation.

Porius was published in London by Macdonald in an abridged edition in 1951. (The complete version didn't appear in print until 1994.) Although Powys was by then close to eighty, he did not go gentle into the proverbial good night. He went eccentric into it. He would entertain visitors by acting out the stoning of Saint Stephen for them. Immediately after getting up in the morning, he would pray to a host of heathen deities, including Demeter, the Greek goddess of agriculture, and Cybele, the Phrygian goddess of nature.

And he kept putting pen to paper. Indeed, Powys's literary output in old age was so voluminous that upon learning he had died in his ninety-first year, in 1963, one is almost inclined to say "Yes, but did he stop writing?"

His last books are loopy, free-form fantasies in which anything can happen. The venerable Odysseus can travel to the lost continent of Atlantis, for instance, or Time can suddenly materialize as "an enormous black slug." In his final work, All or Nothing, a science-fiction story apparently written for children, someone called the King of the Milky Way wanders around the solar system with his penis slung over his shoulder. Silly stuff, perhaps -- but silliness was for Powys an antidote to the numbing effects of machined logic.

Powys spent his last years as a semi-recluse, seldom leaving the obscure Welsh slate-quarrying town in which he lived. But he was not a forlorn figure. Quite the contrary. There's a certain majesty in the image of this craggy, rumpled old man, foolscap tablet in his lap, writing, endlessly writing, as if the world depended on his words. He may have been a monument of neglect, but he seems not to have cared whether he was neglected or dutifully fêted. What mattered to Powys was pursuing his own bliss, and this he did right up to the end.

On my visit to 1, Waterloo Place, in Blaenau Ffestiniog, I couldn't help noticing the waterfall just behind the house. I found its noise disconcerting, even annoying, because I could barely hear my hostess's frail voice above the din of plunging water. When I mentioned the noise to her, she said, "Well, Mr. Powys found it essential ..."


Lawrence Millman is an Arctic explorer as well as a writer. His nine books include Northern Latitudes, to be published next month.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 2000; An Irresistible Long-winded Bore - 00.08; Volume 286, No. 2; page 88-91.