My first attempt at reading John Cowper Powys, years ago, was decidedly not a success. Knowing that he was a favorite of Iris Murdoch, among others, and having recently immersed myself in Chretien de Troyes's Arthurian poems, I opened A Glastonbury Romance (1932), Powys's novel of Grail legends and modern Glastonbury, with great anticipation.
Within hours, that anticipation had fled in the face of overwrought sentences, frustratingly deliberate pacing, and unbearably pompous mystical meanderings. I struggled mightily through about 150 pages, but as my weariness increased the prospect of the hundreds of pages still ahead became overwhelming. I closed the book--and, I thought, my experiment with Powys.
I later learned that in rejecting Powys I was in good company. Many readers have found him intolerable on any number of fronts, from his prose to his philosophy to his person. His recent biographer, Morine Krissdotter, described Powys in the Guardian last fall as literary Marmite:
If you are a Marmite lover like Iris Murdoch and John Bayley, you will want to read Powys with breakfast, supper and tea. If you like your novels and your authors uncomplicated, you are the bird in the recent commercial that hates the taste and flies off--as fast as your little wings can carry you.His critics, she wrote, "dismiss him as a crackpot mystagogue," while even one of his friends complained that he could write "ridiculous tedious rubbish."
Having made a valiant effort with the "tedious rubbish" of Glastonbury, I certainly thought I was through with Powys. Some authors, however, are not so easily dismissed (Murakami and, for all his flaws, D. H. Lawrence being two who come to mind). When in Dorset last spring to visit the Thomas Hardy sites, I was confronted by Powys again--for Dorset was as much his country as Hardy's, the home of his extended family and the setting of many of his novels. An exhibit at the Dorset County Museum made me wonder whether I'd been too hasty . . . so six months later, when Frank Wilson (late of the Philadelphia Inquirer) recommended that I try Powys's epic of fourteenth-century Wales, Owen Glendower (1940), I was determined to give him one more go.
That attempt lasted all of forty-five difficult--even rebarbative--pages. In the opening scene, Powys introduces, in short order and with little description, the majority of the novel's seventy-plus characters. To further complicate matters, he continually varies his characters' appellations: a priest named Walter Brut of Lyde, for example, is referred to as the Lollard, the heretic, and the follower of Wycliffe. Other priests--and we meet no fewer than five in the opening chapter!--are referred to by their orders, their nicknames, and their areas of study. The varying nomenclature allows Powys to emphasize that, in the medieval world, one's place in society is at least as important an identifier as one's personal characteristics--but until one becomes familiar with the characters, Powys's technique guarantees confusion and frustration. In the introduction to the Overlook Press edition, Morine Krissdotter quotes Powys's diary, in which he notes that his partner, Phyllis Playter, reading an early draft, complained that
I have so many characters with weird names that it is confusing to the reader--who has to look back to see who this or that fucking person is!
So I put the book down for four months. Yet as it sat unread, I found myself regularly recalling moments from the opening chapter, in which a young man impulsively acts to save a woman and a mad friar from being burnt as heretics. The scene returned to my mind with a force--almost chilling--that, amidst the frustration of the reading, I hadn't even realized I'd registered. Obviously the book had made more of an impression than I'd thought--so a week ago, I dove back in, more determined than ever.
And oh, was I rewarded! Owen Glendower is a strange and magnificent novel, capacious and moving. Around the historical record of the Welsh uprising against Henry IV, Powys weaves scenes and characters of unforgettable drama and vitality. Presenting a batch of discrete episodes through the sixteen years of Owen Glendower's rebellion, he offers scenes ranging from violent, terrifying battle to heartbreaking moments of individual moral choice--along the way outlining a theory of history as the cumulative result of a series of small, seemingly inconsequential decisions. Because death in this medieval world is always at the door, life--and at times, it seems, the world--truly does hang in the balance in the course of Owen's rebellion, investing every action of Powys's characters with dramatic force. Again and again, they find themselves tested in their honor, courage, and self-knowledge, and their moments of decision--where you tremble at the seductive pull of each of their choices--are achingly tense.
That said, the book is never quite easy: the characters, in their sheer number, remain difficult to keep track of, the religious disputations engaged in by the priests get a bit old, and Powys's language, allusive and philosophical, can be overwrought. But the occasional brilliant passage more than compensates for any frustrations. Powys's metaphors are rich and powerful: he describes a crackling fire as sounding like the screaming of salamanders--a near-perfect joining of description and allusion. He also creates dozens of unforgettable images, like this account of a two girls walking:
Lu's troubled little face under her hood began to resemble a crumpled leaf that had turned its back to the mist, but to give herself strength she took a firm hold of the tall girl's mantle, and thus supported drifted along at her side with swift-gliding steps, like an oarless boat towed by a ship in full sail.Or this harrowingly physical account of a man about to spear a defenseless prisoner:
He kept lifting up his spear as if pondering where to strike, but he was clearly reluctant to waste his stroke, and the memory must have come to him of some unpleasant recent occasion when he couldn't draw out his weapon from the victim's body.By the time I'd finished Owen Glendower, I felt drained and exhilarated both, as if I really had spent much of the week in the past that Powys describes, growing and suffering with his characters. I certainly won't ever forget it. Near the end of the book one of the characters thinks about those who have gone before him, and his reflections serve well both to give a sense of Powys's infectious openness to the mysterious forces of life and of the way that I imagine Owen Glendower will live on in my mind:
Yes, you must bear the day's burden, thankful when the day ended. Yes! certain things had to be forgotten, else the sad play couldn't proceed; but the dead needn't be forgotten--they couldn't be. They were in us! While we lived our half-life, they lived their half-life. Dark, dark, dark--the life of the living, the life of the dead! And how dark it was underfoot! But the East was transforming itself now into receding gulfs of golden light. It was as if some huge planetary portcullis had been lifted, and the base-court of the Infinite exposed to view! Night and dawn! So the cycle revolved, so the wheel turned.So thanks for the recommendation, Frank. Perhaps I'll crack Glastonbury one of these days after all.