My thoughts about Wolf Solent by John Cowper Powys
Powys is one of the greatest novelists that not everybody knows about—I always make an effort to press him upon receptive readers—I’m a believer, a bookish zealot—I’m always more than happy to spread the word of literary awesomeness, I do realize that not every reader is going to dig Powys. Books by Powys have a knack to haunt a reader long after they’re done. His writing is magical, beautiful, rhapsodic, breathtaking, meandering, timeless—very dense classic prose. He’s in the company of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Proust, Hardy, D. H. Lawrence—Powys (dubbed by some as the Anti-Hemingway—which I find funny, I love “Papa” too—he is his own writing beast, Powys is another unique species of writer.) He’s a writer’s writer. With the generous spirit of Shakespearean shrewdness, he evokes an aged skepticism of everything, and yet a youthful gullibility about everything—it’s all very enchanting and lovely, and far too good to miss. In this contemporary world of instant gratification, it would be far too easy to neglect this master storyteller, and it would be a shame to forget him just because his writing is out of fashion.
One of the things that makes a Powys novel like Wolf Solent special is how he lays down a historical foundation that is based on legends. In all legends, there’s a grain of truth—the old hills and dells, moors and coastlines of Wales and England (in particular) have a history and mythology that have deep roots in the lives of the people who live within the covers of his books. The people—they are many and varied, the beautiful and ugly of humanity are all well represented. Pagans and Christians—philosophy and superstition overlap and separate—mingling and repelling—they co-exist with a feigned ignorance or have the willingness to overlook “the matter” out of politeness, and more times than not, they are blatant with their venom—gossiping the next chance meeting with an ear waiting to listen—creating their own legends from the bits of truth of what was muddied by their own perceptions. There’s an intensity of life that is palatable; life is complicated, yet it’s simple. The density of the writing is so absorbing, that’s what makes it so dang fascinating—he creates a sense of place and time, textured and sensual—decadent (in the best sense of the term.) The thing I love so much about his writing is that I have to be on my toes through all of it—my brain is slowly dining on every word, savoring every last bit to the end. I found it hard to put the book down some nights—and I was haunted by it until I picked it up again.
Wolf walks a lot (like the character Porius in another Powys novel of that name)—here, there, and everywhere—if I were his wife, Gerda, I would’ve slapped him silly for his random acts of disappearing—“Where the Hell have you been Mr. Solent? I gave you up as dead in a ditch somewhere along the road—get in here, sit, and have your tea.” (As it is long before the convenience of cell phones, give the nearest lad a ha’penny and have him run a message home at least! Ah, but he doesn’t think of doing that until near the end of the book.) I can’t blame Gerda at all for feeling as she did, a young wife finding herself married to this peculiar, distracted, but mostly harmless fool. He mentally wandered in a self-absorbed state, what he called “sinking into his soul”, also known as his “mythology” a secret name for his secret habit of daydreaming—it is a carryover from childhood that appalled his mother, but his father encouraged. Daydreams are a beautiful thing to have access to—they feed the creative mind all sorts of goodies, but it can be detrimental for an adult to go about in a fantasy world. Absentmindedness is quaint to a point, after a while, people can become pretty annoyed when your distracted manner is no longer entertaining as you are causing inconvenience—one day you have your head in the clouds, the next day it changes to having your head firmly stuck up your ass (there’s a time and place for everything, you see.) Wolf’s walking seems directionless, yet he follows his nose like a canine; examining his internal world and then becoming suddenly enamored by the world outside of himself— the verdant curve of a hill, the muddy stillness of a pond, the blue of the sky, and the golden meadow brimming with buttercups; body and soul, dreams and realities, within and without, life and death, good and evil—his thoughts often veering over the edge into the supernatural. The dead and buried (in particular, his father and the young Redfern) live on in memories and imaginings—laughing at the arrogance of the living.
Truth be told, the fool needed to grow up and get ahold of himself. Don’t get me wrong, I liked Wolf and his ‘mythology’, he cracked me up quite often—from the beginning, he got sacked from his teaching job in London for his “malice-dance” in which he just went off on an inappropriate verbal jaunt that had nothing to do with teaching History to the boys in his charge…
“He was telling his pupils quietly about Dean Swift; and all of a sudden some mental screen or lid or dam in his own mind completely collapsed and he found himself pouring forth a torrent of wild, indecent invectives upon every aspect of modern civilization.”p.2
This is the prevailing attitude throughout the book—he has something eating at him.
“He felt as though, with aeroplanes spying down upon every retreat like ubiquitous vultures, with the lanes invaded by iron-clad motors like colossal beetles, with no sea, no lake, no river, free from throbbing, thudding engines, the one thing most precious of all in the world was being steadily assassinated.” P.3
I agreed with him on most things, yet there were times I found his obsessive waffling over the flirtatious and sexy Gerda and the solemn and thoughtful Christie to be comical, bordering on absurd—he wanted his cake and eat it until it made him sick. The reality of Wolf’s life is invading and destroying his ‘mythology’—the being in a rut, teaching history to boys at the school for thirty years just irks him to no end—he longs to have financial independence to allow him to live comfortably and to have freedom. I certainly didn’t want to see him lose that lovely imaginativeness that was natural—instinctive, nigh innocent (yet not entirely), but it was clear that his behavior was becoming a concern by those who knew him. It isn’t every day that your father-in-law (a monument maker) indicates his concern by saying:
“Tis no comfort,” he remarked, “though I be the man I be for cossetting they jealous dead, to think that ‘in a time and half a time,’ as Scripture says, I’ll be chipping “Rest in the Lord” on me wone son-in-law’s moniment. But since us be talking snug and quiet, mister, on this sorrowful theme”—Mr. Torp’s voice assumed his undertaker’s tone, which long usage had rendered totally different from his normal one—“’twould be a mighty help, mister, to I, for a day to come, if ye’d gie us a tip as to what word—out of Book or out of plain speech—ye’d like best for I to put above ‘ee?” p. 466
As he moped around on his many walks, at times considering that maybe he should go drown himself in Lenty Pond as alluded by those who believed it to be his destiny, (I seriously felt concerned that he would!) I wished I could’ve advised him—“You should write a book of your own—you really need to.” If anything could possibly reset and settle his mind, it would be that—writing clears the decks of a busy mind that wanders. Writing is one of our most intimate acts of creativity, it can center one and it can unravel one—one can be rattled to the core by the act of writing, sometimes there’s nothing more startling than to write down the thoughts that haunt you to the point of something comparable to madness. Eventually, it does work out those bothersome bugs and gives focus. Then it’s nigh terrifying to share one’s own words on paper with anyone else because they are so personal—private. For example, when Wolf reads Christie’s writing that she had hidden away, she was pissed when she found out—his reading it ruined it for her, she wasn’t ready to have anyone read her thoughts. The eccentric poet, Jason Otter, shared his poetry with Wolf on many occasions, but when Wolf suggests that he should send them to London to be published, Jason became angry—feeling certain that the Londoners would laugh at his poetry. Anyway, I can only hope that Wolf came to writing later in life beyond the last page—that’s another thing that I love about this book, there is a sense that life goes on after the book ends. His walk through the meadow of buttercups was the most sublime event—he had changed, “grown up” in a manner of speaking—he may have lost his “mythology”, but he gained a new sight and insight. Once again, he reveled in taking notice of the smallest things such as the beauty of a snail as it went creeping along from a dock-leaf to the boards of the pigsty shed. Accepting the reality—“I am I”—“Forget and enjoy”—“ Endure or escape”—it was his body that saved him—for this, his spirit is grateful.
I simply adored this book and could easily read it again—I have a few bits here from some of the many dog-eared pages, and then I’m done with my wordy testimony…
“Millions of miles of blue sky; and beyond that, millions of miles of sky that could scarcely be called blue or any other colour—pure unalloyed emptiness, stretching outwards from where he sat—with his stick and coat opposite him—to no conceivable boundary or end!” p. 10
“Every time the hedge grew low, as they jogged along, every time a gate or a gap interrupted its green undulating rampart, he caught a glimpse of that great valley, gathering the twilight about it as a dying god might gather to his heart the cold, wet ashes of his last holocaust.” P. 25
“Nature was always prolific of signs and omens to his mind; and it had become a custom with him to keep a region of his intelligence alert and passive for a thousand whispers, hints, obscure intimations that came to him in this way. Why was it that a deep, obstinate resistance somewhere in his consciousness opposed itself to such a solution?” p 274