by Alfred A. Knopf. 8vo. iv+268 pp. $2.50.. New York:
WHILE Mr. Powys’s stories of peasant life remind one of current Scandinavian novels, his spiritual affiliations are really with the Elizabethans. They wrote of kings and queens mostly, while he writes of poor folk; and yet in his use of the dramatic and melodramatic, his honesty in dealing with sex, his poetic love of nature, and his trick of mingling humor with tragedy, as well as in his fondness for supernatural suggestion, ironic symbolism, and picturesque diction, he is of them. And as is so often true in literature, his following of an old and vigorous tradition gives the effect of unusual originality. From the opening incident of Mark’s christening, as Mark Only, by an embarrassed clergyman, to the closing brief account of his death in the snow, surrounded by the spectral dogs that he has lived in fear of so long, this tragedy of an all but halfwitted ploughman affects the reader as something quite fresh and new.
If it is true that the quality of a novel depends even more on what is left out than on what is put in, this novel presents an interesting study in omission and admission. When an artistic effect is in view, the author knows how to exercise an admirable reticence and economy. On the other hand, he has almost too much courage in describing the many sexual irregularities that play a chief part in the lives of his characters. Indeed, in retrospect the novel seems almost like an ironical commentary on Freud, as if the novelist had determined to give a complete exhibit of the consequences of expressed desires. And yet, though there is much to offend some readers, the offense is inherent in the purpose which, beyond the telling of a tragic story, is apparently to show a picture of a country community, without sentimentality or romance. Everyone who knows the truth about such rural conditions as are described of Dodderdown is aware that animality is likely to be, if not more common there than anywhere else, at least more open and flagrant. It is true that in the novel the precipitating impulse toward evil is supplied by a rustic lago, Charlie Tulk, a little more intelligent and sophisticated than the peasants; and yet their minds are fallow for his ploughing. In the symbolism of the author, they are all of the valley. Only Mark — Mark Only — feels at home on the hills. There he begins and there he ends, and his tragedy is perhaps in having left them at all.
It is a depressing picture of the English peasantry, but it is redeemed by rich humor and poetry. Whether it is true to the facts, no American can judge. One can only feel that anything as alive as this story must be true to life. And it is alive beyond most. It holds absorbed attention from beginning to end. One hardly knows what to admire most — the skill of narration, as shown in the events preceding and following the death of Old Peter; the mingled humor and horror of old Mrs. Andrews’s lunatic babblings; the curious mixture of frankness and reticence in the characterization of the hero; or the brief passages of poetic impressionism that give a setting of sombre beauty to a place where, it may be, ‘only man is vile.’
R. M. Gay.