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In including just about everything, he was a maximalist writer in an increasingly minimalist age.I can think of no equivalent to him among subsequent writers except, perhaps, Patrick White, who, like Powys, both seeks the transcendent in the ordinary and occasionally spins his wheels in trying to corner such an elusive quarry. Powys received no prizes other than a bronze plaque from the Hamburg Free Academy of the Arts, a few years before his death.He could be guilty of absurdities, as when he described the departure of Tom Barter's soul from his dead body in A Glastonbury Romance.And yet Powys was also capable of exquisite moments, as when, in the same novel, a drowning John Geard can think of "snuffing up the sweet sweat of those he loved." "A great modern novel consists of and ought to include just everything," Powys wrote in his novel Dostoievsky.I yearned, if not for stronger stuff, at least for less-polite stuff; acting on a tip in Henry Miller's The Books in My Life, I began reading Powys.I started with a 1929 novel called Wolf Solent, because I thought it might be about wolves, possibly in the manner of Jack London. It concerns an extremely introverted man, Wolf Solent, and his courtship of two very different women.TO some readers, John Cowper Powys is a long-winded, bombastic bore and an almost pathological celebrant of oddball sex and chthonic realms. His name seldom comes up in discussions of that dreary academic figment known as The Novel, and a number of well-read people of my acquaintance have never heard of him.
SOME years ago, in the slate-quarrying village of Blaenau Ffestiniog, Wales, I visited Phyllis Playter, the longtime companion of the writer John Cowper Powys.She was a tiny, ancient woman whose skin was stretched like parchment over her bones. She said, "It was in Joplin, Missouri, in 1921, and Mr. The lecture was so powerful that three people in the audience fainted.I knew he was the man for me." I fell for Powys myself, although not quite in the same way.In college I was fed a steady diet of professor-friendly, eminently deconstructible texts, many of them seemingly written for the purposes of classroom exegesis.The supporting cast includes a lecherous sausage-maker, a peddler of antiquarian pornography, a homosexual clergyman, a voyeuristic country squire, a teenage boy who kisses trees, and a mad poet. What struck me when I reread recently was not its weirdness but its compassion for the down-and-out, the aberrant, and the misbegotten.