GEORGE H. GURLEY
Novelist, Columnist, Poet, Farmer
Almost 20 years ago, George Steiner made an arresting admission in a New Yorker essay. Having "stumbled across" John Cowper Powys's novel "Wolf Solent" in late adolescence, Mr. Steiner wrote, "I felt my inward existence to be changed, felt myself to be in the intoxicating grip of a master."
Mr. Steiner isn't the only distinguished Powys admirer. Henry Miller, Iris Murdoch, Martin Amis and Margaret Drabble have all praised his work. Writing last year, Ms. Drabble compared Powys's fictional world to J.R.R. Tolkien's, calling it "less visited than Tolkien's" but "as compelling, and it has more air." A descendant of John Donne and the poet William Cowper, John Cowper Powys (1872-1963) certainly had a distinguished literary pedigree. Still, his books remain little known. The Canadian novelist Robertson Davies blamed Powys's low profile on the fact that he was never welcomed by the academic world, which scorned his fervent literary lectures as "un-scholarly."
Powys, the son of a vicar, was born at Shirley, in Derbyshire, England. He wrote 10 novels and many works of criticism and philosophy, and he spent more than 25 years on the lecture circuit in the U.S., winning a reputation as a brilliant interpreter of Western literature and culture. He died at age 90 in the Welsh village of Blaenau Ffestiniog.
Powys didn't really hit his stride as a writer until he was almost 60, in 1929, when he published "Wolf Solent," the story of a young man's rebellion against the modern world, set in a rural English town. It's an indication of Powys's vigor that he was still writing about a young man's travails when he finished "Porius" in 1949, at age 77.
Morine Krissdottir's biography of Powys, "Descents of Memory," offers invaluable keys to understanding the man and his work. Ms. Krissdottir admits to being both drawn to and repulsed by Powys -- yet, she writes, "the greatness of this wayward writer I have never questioned." One anecdote, which Powys recalled in his "Autobiography," gives an indication of his hyper-sensitivity and inescapable sense of guilt. It was a boyhood memory of transferring tadpoles from a pond to puddles, where they would eventually die.
"Powys remembered this scene all his life," writes Ms. Krissdottir, "and it marked the beginning of what he called his 'diseased conscience.' He came to believe that this childish diversion was not an innocent game, but a deliberately sadistic act for which he had to atone. His expiation was to reverse the crime by rescuing young fish from shallow ponds and putting them into safer waters. He was still carrying out this self-imposed penance sixty years later."
Powys married in 1896 but lived separately from his wife and son (born in 1902) for most of his life, steadfastly supporting them nonetheless. In 1921, when one of his lecture tours took him to Joplin, Mo., Powys met Phyllis Playter. He was 48 years old, she was 26; for the next 42 years, until his death, Playter would be his companion, copy editor and the incarnation of a "sylph-like" feminine ideal that Powys celebrated in his fiction. According to Ms. Krissdottir, most of Powys's fictional characters are based on family members and friends, and aspects of his own personality appear in each of his heroes.
Powys inhabited an enchanted world of his own imagination, guided by private, eccentric rituals. It was a life beset by acute physical ailments and nagging financial problems, aggravated by his almost irresponsible generosity. He was also a maverick intellectual, a kind of autodidact, known for his erudition, his passion for literature and spiritual truths, his loathing of modernity and the machine age, and his deep understanding of myths and the questions that have absorbed philosophers throughout the ages. All these qualities are at play in "Porius," the novel that Powys regarded as his masterpiece.
Abridged in earlier editions, "Porius" has just been published for the first time as the author intended, according to the editors, Ms. Krissdottir and Judith Bond. This story, set in the year 499, covers one week in the life of Porius, the son of the prince of Edeyrnion in North Wales. Edeyrnion is one of the kingdoms that the Romans have recently given to the Celts, on the condition that they remain loyal to Rome and keep the indigenous population under control. But these forest people, as they are called, are threatening to rebel against the Celts and have formed an alliance with the Saxons, who are converging on Edeyrnion with violence in mind.
Powys, who was fond of paradox, presents his hero as a man of Herculean strength who nonetheless lacks confidence and is given to introspection and brooding. Porius's quest to save Edeyrnion is hampered by the competing designs of two women, his mother and Morfydd, his betrothed.
"Porius" is a complex epic in which passages of galloping action contend with long metaphysical digressions; the novel is electrifying at times, plodding at others. Though faced with danger, Porius is often distracted by some feature of his surroundings that launches him into abstract musings -- and launches Powys's florid, quirky style into high gear. "His thoughts renewed themselves," Powys writes of Porius, "expanded their cramped tendrils, glowed richly coral-red in their ancient sun-spawned freshness; while a spiritual bubble of interior excitement, drawn from the pool of his nethermost being that had been gathering in his soul all that day, floated off into the twilight."
Powys called the novel a "fairy tale," and it is certainly filled with magic and enchantments -- among them an owl that turns into a beautiful girl. "Porius" can also be read as a historical romance, a war novel and a veiled portrait of Powys himself and his relationships with others.
And then there's the sensuality, which suffuses Powys's work. In one scene, the sorceress Nineue helps Porius decipher his mother's handwriting, "touching his shoulders with the tips of her fingers and whispering suggestions in his ear." With just a few brush stokes, Powys creates more sensual power than the anatomical boilerplate that passes for erotic today. Not that he is demure about sex. Oedipal and incestuous threads run through the story. There is an instance of necrophilia and a fertility rite. Fiction also seems to have given Powys a vehicle for working out the torments of his lifelong struggle to make peace between his powerful, sometimes "auto-sadistic" urges and his overwhelming sexual guilt.
The pages of "Porius" are geysers of words, sometimes poetic and profound, sometimes awkward and far-fetched. (Ideas perch "like moulting birds in the threshold" of Porius's brain.) Powys also can't resist unloading the full cargo of Welsh names, of which the hero's full name, Porius ab Einion ab Iddawc ab Edeyrn ap Cunedda, is one of the more concise. But Powys also creates many scenes of memorable power and beauty. All of nature seemed to speak to his febrile sensibility, even stones and fungi, and his descriptions combine a naturalist's eye for detail with a poet's haunting vision: "this spectral light of dawn, with its phantom sense of drowned populations rising and falling on the grey waves of oceanic floods."
In many ways, "Porius" is a great, exhilarating work. It might depict a magical world, but it is one that addresses one of everyday life's essential challenges: reconciling the inevitability of death with an ecstatic embrace of the present.
Mr. Gurley lives in Vinland, Kan. He is a retired columnist and book-review editor for the Kansas City Star.
Descents of Memory
By Morine Krissdottir
Overlook Duckworth, 480 pages, $40
By John Cowper Powys
Overlook Duckworth, 751 pages, $37.95