Which roads lead to Powysland?

Stephen Baldwin’s post about the power of blurb (below) strikes me as making an essential point. How can the marketing – the all-important positioning when it comes to capturing new readers – encapsulate what those Powys novels are really like? Can it ever be inspiring without being hopelessly misleading?

I’m racked with prejudice when it comes to books. I find it hard to stomach much that’s been written post-1960. My nose turns up at anything that seems desperate to entertain me, too consciously written with the Booker Prize in mind, that just ends up looking like a business plan to lure sales. So I’m unlikely to read any contemporary literature unless it’s linked in a reassuring way back to an earlier age of sincerity, when there could be more interest in authenticity over hooks and gimmicks. I must be missing out, but there it is.

So it was the blurb that provided my entry point to John Cowper Powys back in 2000: the comparison of a British writer with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (along with its golden mystery of a cover). On reflection the comparison is an impressive one, but if I’d been banking on a Tolstoy meets Dostoevsky epic I’d have wanted my money back. There are simple and complex affinities with both Russians, but the whole reading experience, the richness of vision, the humour and weirdness of A Glastonbury Romance is really something else.

If I have to answer the question about who Powys is – and it’s not that often – I will tend to say he’s “a bit like Thomas Hardy if he’d been a Modernist, writing later into the 20th century”. What I’m really thinking is that yes, he’s a bit like Hardy, but “a drunk one, damning his publishers to hell, ditching his suit, rolling up grubby sleeves and writing the kinds of novels he’d always really wanted to write; he’s spilling himself onto the page – and damn the scandal, damn censorship, damn prison!” But it’s never going to work for blurb.

Connections

I suppose one of the problems Powys’ books encounter when trying to find a new readership is the inability of publishing marketers to liken his works to anything else, especially anything else that is currently popular. After all, consumers apparently crave things are similar to other things if modern advertising blurbs are anything to go by.

“Jane Austen devotees will enjoy…”

“In the tradition of Sherlock Holmes comes a new detective series…”

“A Dickensian romp…”

I even seem to recall one book touted as “a Joycean examination of” something or other, whatever that means.

And most cringe-worthy and prevalent of all, “Fans of Downton Abbey will love …”

But how can you describe John Cowper Powys in terms of popular writers? Margaret Drabble called A Glastonbury Romance “the visions of William Blake illuminating the domestic realism of Cranford subjected to the remorseless psychological analysis of Proust.”

I’m not sure that’s going to succeed as a tagline for a new edition of the novel: “Fans of TV’s Cranford will be bemused by …”

I once failed to recommend Powys to a speculative-fiction reading friend of mine by (very lazily) making the analogy of Mervyn Peake rewritten by Thomas Hardy. My remark elicited a look of horror that Stephen King would envy. It certainly doesn’t sound like a readable combination, and I apologize to all the authors concerned. But at least my intentions were good.

No doubt it will require a bestselling contemporary author to start referencing Powys as an influence. Perhaps if Karl Ove Knausgard ceased contemplating his own navel and moved to Weymouth? “Fans of Knausgard’s series of Wessex novels will love Maiden Castle …”

But then again perhaps not.

Stepping into Powys Country: Maiden Castle

In late March of this year a friend and I were down in the southlands and we diverted our course to see if the ‘ghost-wind’ really blew on Maiden (Mai-Dun) Castle. First constructed in 600BC the Iron Age hill-fort is the largest of its kind in Britain and rises out of the earth like some beached sea titan. The path from the north is long and almost a stream of running mud in the light rain; we passed local Dorset dogs and their owners, all of them intent on getting back to their cars.

In Powys’s novel (1936) Maiden Castle presides over Dorchester as a symbol of the old gods and of Dud No-man’s true parentage. As Dud approaches the fort, as we did, his descriptions of it fluctuate between various animals of world folklore and religion, at first a dragon ‘compared with whom Leviathan himself were but a field-mouse’, then the shell of the Kraken, and the ‘vast planetary Tortoise’ of Buddhist cosmogony. Finally, it takes the form of a Jurassic bird, swollen with its ‘portentous egg’.

Once past the four eastern ramparts we stepped out onto the castle’s flat top. A ridge of earth borders its edge, but this does nothing to stop the wind, which rushed over the plain, flattening the grass. It’s difficult to capture in photographs just how strong it felt; looking back at the pictures seven months later it seems like quite a mild day – although a line of damp mist lingers just on the horizon. In the novel Dud is with his father Enoch Quirm (or his mythical name Uryen) when he gives a shout and it echoes in the wind ‘with faint elfin screams through the curves of snail-shells … from mole-hill to mole-hill’.

The earthworks of Maiden Castle hold some kind of power, and the space of vaulted sky that runs to the fort’s invisible far end is alive with a bright energy; it’s impossible to look for long without being blinded. It was a long time before we reached the remains of the Romano-Celtic temple in the centre (pictured). It was cold and there were sheep in the distance, and I thought of Uryen with bowed head to the ground, Dud standing to the side, watching his father’s ritual with incredulity. He didn’t believe in any of the old gods, not a single Celtic deity from the ‘Golden Age’ – but actually being up there, it’s hard to see why not.

Searching for Powys Books in America

During my many, mostly unsuccessful years of shopping for John Cowper Powys novels in American used bookstores, I’ve been confronted by at least ten different editions of Morte d’Urban by J. F. Powers. I probably know as much about the various cover designs of that book as Powers’ most ardent bibliophiles do. There was usually a copy on the shelves where I’d vainly hoped to come across absolutely anything at all written by J. C Powys.

At best I might find a battered paperback copy of Weymouth Sands; possibly an ancient Wolf Solent hardcover, falling apart at the binding with brittle and freckled yellow endpapers. And you couldn’t even trust all the pages were still extant, never mind the dust cover. But there was the very nice copy of Morte d’Urban by J. F. Powers, a book holding no interest for me despite its National Book Award appeal, although the title did sound vaguely Powysian, which eventually only added insult to injury when I came across it for the umpteenth time.

America in the late nineteen-eighties, when I discovered John Cowper Powys, was not a good time for it. There were a couple of paperbacks of Weymouth Sands and Wolf Solent floating around, published by Harper Colophon in matching covers, but finding anything else required extensive archaeological digging in used bookstores. I was desperate to read A Glastonbury Romance after finishing those other two novels. Buying the novel, however, was much harder than I thought. I saw a copy that was so dusty, decrepit and apparently diseased that I decided it would require hazmat gauntlets and protective goggles to read the wretched thing. There was another one, pristine and gleaming in mylar wrap like the Holy Grail, for sale in a forbiddingly highbrow “bookseller” in Harvard Square. Being an optimist I asked how much it cost. “Oh,” I said when the owner named an absolutely exorbitant sum, pretended to examine a few other books, then quickly departed.

Of course, if ye seek ye will find eventually. By stubbornly returning to the P section of Boston’s many used bookstores time and time again, I managed to track down quite a few of Powys’ novels and other writings, including a copy of The Inmates in a plain green cover that I must admit still has my bookmark wedged only about a quarter of the way through. As you might expect, most of those bookstores have disappeared now, replaced by banks, mobile phone shacks, and in one especially sad case, a parking garage. So who knows where young American Powys converts would find those novels these days. They are certainly not available for Kindle in the US, only Powys’ early novels have been accorded that modern privilege so far. J. F. Powers’ Morte d’Urban, however, can be downloaded in a matter of seconds and no doubt Amazon’s remorseless shopping algorithms will be recommending it to me before too long.

The Meaning of Climate Change

The Powysian worldview feels more important as each year passes. Today’s big global news story on climate change is another example. UN scientists have ramped up their calls for urgent action now: we need to make significant changes to the way we live or expect weather events of Biblical severity to become commonplace.

All the accompanying media commentary had a familiar feel. We have to start buying electric cars, make our homes more energy efficient, buy alternatives to meat and more artisan local food. What’s left unsaid is the most obvious point of all, and by far the most unpopular and unthinkable. We need to buy much less, have much less and live far more simply. No more growth and less of the kind of prosperity we’re used to. We’ve become hard-wired as lavish consumers (purposely and by design, not because there’s anything necessarily human about it), and this will need to be reversed if carbon emission and other targets for global sustainability are to be met.

I sometimes see the problem first-hand and up close. My children could appear to be little green warriors. They’ve learnt about environmental issues at school, about global warming and plastic waste. But tell them they can’t have the latest iPhone, another new laptop or more new trainers, and it’s a contravention of their human rights – they’ll never have any friends again. So talk of being saved by new generations of aware, responsible consumers never feels that convincing. 

We can’t just change the items on the shopping list for the sake of propping up growth, we need to stop basing our identity on what we buy and own, whether it’s carbon-neutral or not. As Powys, I think, would argue: physical resources are fragile and ravaged while our psychological resources are largely unappreciated and untapped (see The Meaning of Culture, The Art of Happiness etc). We’re capable of being happy without competing for consumer luxuries. Surely the larger part of the war on climate change needs to be about culture and mindsets, not technological change?

A Powys renaissance

How optimistic do you feel about the prospects for John Cowper Powys’s books? In an appropriately throwaway kind of manner, I’ve sometimes suggested that our culture of relentless digital entertainment means Powys might be “in danger of running out of readers”.

It’s heartening to see people disagree. In a response to an email, Adam Curtis, the BBC documentary-maker, said he didn’t think there was a need to worry just yet.

“I’m convinced Powys’ time is coming – the emotional radar in peoples’ heads is searching for that kind of powerful romanticism which bundles up nature and politics and inner feelings. They yearn to find something beyond that banal and dried up culture that is around at the moment. Someone clever will come along soon and turn [A Glastonbury Romance] into a TV series. It would be a total hit.”

Simon Heffer has pointed to the Faber Finds re-prints as a positive sign. Similarly, he’s also been campaigning for a TV dramatisation of his favourite, in this case Wolf Solent.

Like many other people I want to see Powys embraced by generations of new readers, taken seriously, enjoyed over the centuries in the same way that authors like Cervantes, Rabelais and Blake continue to be enjoyed (and kept in print). But there are different varieties of success. Would Powys care about mainstream popularity or even whether he was known as a literary pillar? He certainly wanted his books to sell. He needed the money. But when it came to literary fame he seemed ambivalent: wasn’t it all a matter of right place, right time (and then making a lot of noise about yourself)?

Worldly success has become a modern ‘essential’, but in itself can end up being something terminally bland. Reading Powys there’s a clear sense of how failures can be more rewarding, stimulating, bracing.