Monday, January 7, 2008

Morine Krissdóttir's "Descents of Memory: The Life of John Cowper Powys": Book Review

Unlike many who will open this biography, I have not yet read Powys. Figuring this introduction by a leading Powys scholar would be the best way into the labyrinth, I wandered in. As I expected, the fiction itself appears to reflect the preoccupations, friendships, rivalries, and obsessions that JCP poured out in the diaries and correspondence that Krissdóttir analyzes meticulously. "The Glastonbury Romance" has been traditionally accounted his best novel, one of a half-dozen or so (at least in Britain) in print. Krissdóttir's lengthy exegesis embedded here convinces me that praise may be heaped on what's recently been issued in tandem with her study, his later, and until she co-edited the complete typescript, substantially abridged (which on the other hand reflects the reactions of publishers and many less courageous or patient readers to Powys' main work, stupendously long and as in GR, with 47 "main characters" in a text rivalling for length "War & Peace" and for ambition "Middlemarch") "Porius." This opus patterns itself on seven stages of the alchemical process of Paracelsus, and involves what JCP came in his elderly engendering to regard as his own channeling of Welsh memories from late October 499 and his way out of his self-imposed maze.

The labyrinth opens this account. As a child, he "learned to make structures, often apparently aimless, but of a pattern so complex that it was difficult to find the centre, and once inside, almost impossible to escape. He called them Romances." (17) Raised in Derbyshire a vicar's son, educated at Cambridge, he turned himself into a Welsh pagan after a quarter-century of peripatetic lecturing first in England and then America. His black gown, his accent, and his literary effusions-- half-brilliant dramatizations of great ideas and grand writers, half-stand-up performances of his own interior philosophizing via "dithyrambic analysis" enchanted (or confused) his audiences. His rival in love, Louis Wilkinson, satirized JCP: "First he hypnotised them by incantations of some genuine power; then he would reel off clap-trap, launch joyously into bombast, strike out shamelessly for naked melodrama." (147)

Around fifty, he settled in first England and then Wales. A complicated mixture of a man who consumed pornography, celebrated sadism, pursued masturbation, eschewed coitus, romanticized prostitutes, and who lived eleven years with his mistress (he never divorced his long-estranged wife; his second lover was the former paramour in a triangle with Ezra Pound and H.D. [Hilda Doolittle]) before summoning the courage to tell his wife, his son, and his siblings, JCP had lived among the avant-garde of San Francisco in the early 20c and the socialist-radical set in Chicago. He, like many thinkers, sought escape, however, from the excesses of scientific and technological progress, back into a mythic realm. This entered his massive fictional portrayals of British rural life.

Krissdóttir sums up his credo: "the hoped-for cradling of the everyday in the protective arms of the immortal." (161) JCP sought to use words to express the inchoate, the formless, and the oceanic and telluric forces that pulse in us beneath our conscious minds. His characters often stumble about not aware of the patterns that they repeat. His novels can perplex readers not privy to how he drew upon his tremendous memory and his intimate incorporation of his surroundings and his acquaintances into his fiction. Krissdóttir's at her best as she shows us how in "Owen Glendower" and especially "Porius" JCP's Welsh residence enabled his characters to take on the lineaments of the places he loved and the faces he saw.

Torn between the Nietzsche's Apollonian and Dionysian, the scientific and the mystical, he sought to enter the element prior to the civilized Self separate from the Not-Self. He was influenced by Jung, his near-exact contemporary, but worked out most of his ideas independently. As a psychologist as well as a critic, Krissdóttir proves a non-dogmatic but assured guide to the theories that would have stimulated JCP. Krissdóttir defines his philosophy of life: "is the individual unconnected/ disconnected from everything and everyone else, or is it possible that there is behind or beneath the visible world a pre-existing reality, a world of gods or patterns which binds all living souls together?" (264)

He persisted in his long life to answer this. He could be stubbornly childish, lazy, using his ulcers and his baby-talk to keep a necessary distance even from his long-suffering partner so as to commune with the rocks he named and trees he loved, and the natural world from which he asked ritualistic questions, and expected to receive answers. This biography, it must be admitted, may less than regale those, like myself, not enamored with JCP for his clumsy sub-Dickensian naming of characters real and imagined, his detailed enemas that he insisted on every three days-- which became a convenient excuse not to lecture any more or even leave the house-- and his refusal to learn how to open a window or pull a blind. This account, as with nearly any conscientious biography, suffers its longeurs, its passages of libel suits and royalties and tiffs with lovers and medical afflictions.

JCP, more than most writers of his time, combined a wide experience of travel with surprisingly little often to report of detail from his journeys, as his lecturing tended to take any excitement out of what became dead routines difficult for a rather solitary man by nature to endure. On the other hand, I suppose they enabled him ability to read as much as he did, and later to begin writing as much as he did. Much of what he had to do was hackwork, but he did his best and supported his family and his partner conscientiously and with fortitude. Out of such often uneventful occurrences, his own courage and vision emerged, slowly, and only until the age of fifty or so did his talent blossom. From this story, many of us may take consolation and inspiration.

Yet, his failings perhaps are no less forgivable than any of our own. He could be exasperatingly generous to his son and wife despite his own long years of poverty. He tried to overcome his gentility by helping tramps. He listened long to those on his lectures who poured out their fevered ambitions to him in lonely Oklahoma college towns.

He felt himself, as he aged in the upstate New York and then wartime Dorset and then Welsh countrysides, increasingly out of step. He'd rescue leaves from drains. He talked to stones. He waited for oracles. He expected that the maternal would return to embrace him: "the narrator's journey to the center of the maze is the one Powys as a novelist- magician made again and again: the impossible journey toward the unattainable first unity with the concomitant sense of irrecoverable loss." (327) He knew you can't go home again, and that memory could bring you back but a short time before you were wrenched back into loneliness-- the condition he believed we all must live within.

His last two major Welsh-set novels, which Krissdóttir appears to rank more highly even than his Dorset-set earlier successes "Wolf Solent," "Weymouth Sands," and "Glastonbury Romance," were followed by more disturbing tales of macabre and horrific adventures within the psyche. After WWII, JCP's manias began to afflict him, as Krissdóttir diplomatically but directly shows from his papers and diaries, more intensely. "Powys's last novels are a final flight to the circumference, an unwinding of the spiral, a search for a way out of the maze." (414)

His son wound up a Catholic priest who died of arthritis young; "his son who was not his son" Peter killed himself in an asylum after sending Krissdóttir his last journal. Out of shopping bags of receipts and letters, as well as the archived correspondence much of which in characteristic generosity JCP sold to help a nephew with his bookselling business, she has gotten "Powys finally out of her system." Now, as she concludes: "Hopefully, the necessary magic has been performed, and John Cowper is now lodged instead in the imaginations and psyches of the readers of this biography." (428) I don't know if he's entirely convivial company to have with me in my own mind, but JCP, after 430 pages of his life as chronicled here, certainly became a vivid, cantankerous, and cleverly dissembling presence as real as you or me.

Posted to Amazon today. Image: Marcia Klioze; reproduced on

1 comment:

Bo said...

Odd. He's been strongly in my mind lately - I was contemplating rereading GR last week. It must be Fate.
Thanks for an insightful and revealing review: I'll get the biography, I think.
Best wishes,