Monday, December 03, 2007

Wolf Solent

In this novel by John Cowper Powys (1872-1963), Wolf Solent is a 35 year old Englishman, living with his mother in London and leading an obscure life as a History instructor at a small school. At the beginning of the novel he is on a train back to his childhood home of Dorsetshire, at the invitation of a local Squire who need assistance in compiling a scandalous history of the vicinity.

Solent is, to say the least, a hyper-sensitive individual. He wants to get away to the country, away from aeroplanes and the nuisances of modern life. Since childhood, he has lived a mostly interior life occupied with his own peculiar "mythology", but he wants an authentic, sensual existence. His life is overwhelmingly an interior affair, and much of the book is taken up with the turbulent thoughts in Solent's head as he wanders the Dorset countryside, burying his face in the local flora and inserting himself into the lives of the locals.

Wolf's father, who died some 25 years previously, was the local rogue, dying in the neighborhood workhouse with "Christ! I've enjoyed my life!" as his last words. William Solent had an open extramarital affair with Selena Gault, the ugliest woman in town, and fathered at least one illegitimate child, now a woman to whom Wolf forms a strangely affectionate attraction. He also has a strangely affectionate attraction to her betrothed, but that's another thread in the fabric of this story. Wof appears determined to follow his father's footsteps, releasing himself from the suppressed life he has lived with his mother. On the train, he fantasizes about seducing the local girls,"white as a peeled willow wand", among the elder-bushes.

He wastes no time falling for Gerda Torp, the young beauty who is the daughter of the local headstone carver. His erotic sensibilities are influenced by the unseen existence of a photo of Gerda suggestively straddling a headstone in her father's yard, and by her uncanny ability to imitate the whistles of the blackbird and plover. No sooner has he bedded her in a pile of bracken in an old cow-barn, with a promise of marriage, than he meets his true soul mate in the form of the introvert Christie Malakite, who lives a circumscribed existence immersed in works of literature and philosophy, above her father's dirty book shop. Oh fate!

Wolf's obsession with Christie and the imminent collapse of his personal mythology as his life becomes intertwined with those around him forms the bulk of this massive book. In the hands of Thomas Hardy, this would have been a pretty straightforward affair, but Powys has a lot of words in him and is not afraid to use them. The novel is dense with descriptions of Wolf's interminable walks and the vegetation that he encounters. Life in its vegetative ripeness and its inevitable decay permeates the book. And under the fertile ground is the death's head of his father, grinning sardonically at the foolish indecisiveness of his son, a Yorick mocking Hamlet. The arrival of Wolf's mother, not one to let the apronstrings become overstretched, complicates matters: Wolf is as much Oedipus as Hamlet.

The supporting characters are a queer lot: Squire Urquhart, a nasty old man whom Wolf tends to see as evil incarnate; the tippling homosexual parson, Tilly-Valley; Jason Otter, the sensitive poet who seems to know Wolf's motivations better than he does himself; Christie's incestuous father; Urquhart's valet, whom Wolf imagines naked in his dirtiness; and Bob Weevil, whom Wolf suspects of cuckolding him. There is also Redfern, the deceased former secretary of Urquhart, in a shallow grave in the cemetery and over whom most of the male characters share some unshakeable obsession.

Powys imagined his book as illustrative of the necessity of opposites and an examination of "the whole mysterious essence of human life upon earth, the mystery of consciousness." My edition is one of the older Penguin Modern Classics, not the more recent volume with A.N. Wilson's introduction, so I don't have the benefit of Wilson's insights. I get the whole "necessity of opposites" thing, as well as the underlying vegetation/sexuality (dark, moist, hidden) thing. I suppose I enjoyed it, but really, this book is like "Twin Peaks", only with a lot of tea and no dancing midgets.

Wolf Solent was the first of Powys' novels, and generally regarded as his best. He is not easy to slog through, and God knows I've tried. Among his other works are A Glastonbury Romance (which I hope to read before I die, but not too soon), a massive Autobiography, and a self-help book called The Philosophy of Solitude. I enjoy dipping into the latter two volumes from time to time but I can really only take him in small doses. He was truly an idiosyncratic writer and, despite a life lived mostly in the United States, a true English eccentric.

A Few Miles of Bad Road

Umberto Eco has a new book called On Ugliness. Good review in the NYT Book Review yesterday.

Looks like an ideal Christmas gift.