A Glastonbury Romance by John Cowper Powys
At the striking of noon on a certain fifth of March, there occurred within a causal radius of Brandon railway station and yet beyond the deepest pools of emptiness between the uttermost stellar systems one of those infinitesimal ripples in the creative silence of First Cause which always occur when an exceptional stir of heightened consciousness agitates any living organism in this astronomical universe.
An opening sentence only an author could love. It gets better, but it is also like this on and off for all its 1,120 pages. Somehow, though, I’d just look at the bits like that and wonder why they weren’t bothering me. Powys reminds me of my impression of D. H. Lawrence’s worst traits (must read more of Lawrence and see just how justified my impression is); women having emotions in their quivering breasts and the sex relation and the like, with added mumbo jumbo. I feel like Lawrence is too much interested in himself and the quivering breasts. Powys is a very interested author. Also he understands that funniness exists in the universe, and this is very important in an author — they need not even be actually funny. This quality of Powys’s voice stops the book from feeling too earnest or grotesque — it has a sense of proportion, in its own way. it’s a companionable book.
The book opens with John Crow, a rather shiftless, stubborn, lone wolf youngish man, coming home for his grandfather’s funeral. He meets his childhood sweetheart/cousin, Mary, and they instantly reconnect; by and large they share a character poised between cynical coldness and cynicism. John moves to Glastonbury to be nearer to Mary, who is a lady’s companion there. Both resist and resent the history and concomitant caricaturisation of Glastonbury, though both come to relent to some degree. John takes a role organising a fantastically ambitious pageant for John Geard, the man who has inherited his grandfather’s fortune, an intensely mystical and earthy messianic figure. It’s hard not to take John as the central figure, as he is certainly a main character and we meet him first, but this is such a community/cast of thousands novel the idea of a centre is tenuous.
Powys doesn’t stint. He lays on a spread. There are romances and Mayors raising children from the dead and conflicts between romanticism and business and politics and communes and epic struggles with consciences and ghosts and murders. I find that Powys is very good at capturing experience; the ineffable, distinct atmosphere of a particular gathering of people on a particular day. Lots of things happen and lots of people have thoughts about them. God and Jesus have thoughts about things. A woodlouse, admittedly imagined by John Crow, has thoughts about a human louse. It’s a book about connecting to the land and the continuous identity of the land, I suppose, and Powys makes every random scrubby bit of moss, every rotten bit of wood, every mote of dust on an apple part of that. If one could imagine a modern urban equivalent, it might glory in crisp packets. I think there’s something inherently likable about the audacity and generosity of all this.
In a way the book is hard to talk about because it’s too talky itself — most books you have to tease out what they think about things. This one keeps up an overt stream of chat on life, the universe and everything. I read Wolf Solent by Powys in 2007 and loved it, though possibly less than this. After that I kept getting Maiden Castle out of the library and not reading it somehow. For the first 100 pages of this I was thinking, but this is exactly my thing, why did I not read more earlier? Once into the next hundred I thought ah, it’s because Powys fits more into fifty pages than most authors do into a whole novel. Reading a whole book by Powys is like reading twelve books by the same author back to back. You’re going to need strength, or you’re going to need to need Powys at this particular point in your reading life. The good thing is that it’s not like reading twelve books that are exactly the same back to back. Powys keeps on doing different things. I wasn’t surfeited after the first hundred pages. I miss it now I’m not reading it.