Wolf Solent / John Cowper Powys

Ah, the Powys family, from Shirley, Derbyshire, where to begin?  They were that rare commodity, a literary family (families who had more than two published members) who overshadowed the other two literary families, the Brontes and the Sitwells, in quantity if not in fame. The father, the Rev.Charles Francis Powys, and his wife, Mary Cowper Johnson, claimed direct descent from both John Donne and William Cowper;  7 of the 11 children (John, Theodore, Llewelyn, Philippa, Marian, A.R., and Katie) all  had books published, over 100 books among them all! John Cowper Powys, the author of Wolf Solent, was a remarkable admixture  of D.H. Lawrence (who compared to Powys was quite the prude), Tolstoy, and Thomas Hardy (particularly known as his successor), with a dash of Aleister Crowley thrown in. He made his  living traveling around the United States as a lecturer; an extremely powerful and charasmatic speaker, with the looks of a silent movie star, people often fainted at his performances. For most people he would be considered an acquired taste but I took to him immediately . I first heard the book mentioned in something I was reading by the Austrian writer Peter Handke and on his recommendation I immediately (figuratively and literally) checked it out. Over the years he’s had such champions (besides Handke) as Henry Miller, Robertson Davies, George Steiner, Iris Murdoch,  Elias Canetti, and Philip Larkin, and the book (as well as A Glastonbury Romance) is listed in Harold Bloom’s Western Canon so who am I to argue? Powys was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1958, 1959, and 1962. He died in 1963 at the age ogf 90.

Wolf Solent  is set in the fictional towns of Ramsgard, Dorset, which is based on Sherborne, Dorset, where Powys attended school, as well as other towns in the area. The book itself concerns an extremely introverted man, Wolf Solent, a thirty-four year old history teacher returning to his boyhood home, and his courtship of two very different women. 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. It portrays his casual attitude toward polymorphous sex ( “Natural or unnatural,” one of the characters says, “it’s nature. It’s mortal man’s one great solace before he’s annihilated.”), but also his great compassion for the down-and-out, the aberrant, and the misbegotten. Many of the cast of unforgettable characters have equally unforgettable names: Wolf Solent (of course), Selena Gault (my favorite), Gerda Torp, Christie Malakite, Darnley Otter, Lobbie Torp, and Bob Weevil, just to name a few.

Powys wrote 21 novels and over 50 books in all; A Glastonbury RomanceWeymouth Sands, Wolf Solent, Maiden Castle, and his Autobiography, are his most well known works, but several critics consider an almost completely unknown work, Porius (almost 1600 pages) his masterpiece, comparing it to novels as disparate as One Hundred Years of Solitude, Finnegans Wake, and Alice in Wonderland.

There are many great books in this amazing writer’s ouevre, and I recommend you read them all,  but if you’re looking for his most accessible book, Wolf Solent is for you.

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