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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Sunday, 6 December 2020

"Wolf Solent" by John Cowper Powys

This is the first of JCP's four Wessex novels, described by A N Wilson as "four of the greatest ever to be written in our language." It was JCP's first critical success; it made his name as an author. It is long.

There are spoilers in the following review

The protagonist, Wolf Solent, returns to his Dorset routes after having had some sort of nervous breakdown (a 'malice attack') while teaching in a London school. He is hired by local gentry Mr Urquhart to write a history of the sexual shenanigans of Dorset, a job for which he is, perhaps, qualified because his father is buried locally having died in the workhouse after being disgraced following a number of affairs. Wolf swiftly gets involved with a number of characters with slightly mysterious pasts (most of the mysteries are easy to guess and soon resolved) including Selina Gault, a phenomenally ugly old maid and vegetarian who was one of his father's girlfriends, pornographic bookseller Mr Malakite who committed incest with his daughter, becoming grandfather and father to little Olwen, hatmaker Mr Smith who was cuckolded by Wolf's dad leading to the birth of Wolf's sister Mattie, alcoholic priest T E Valley, wannabe poet Jason and Mr Urquhart's gardener and confidential servant, the mysterious and threatening Roger Money. There is a Gothic air of menace; it is repeatedly hinted that Urquhart's former secretary Redfern was killed, or driven to suicide, by Urquhart and the demonic forces of Dorset.

Within a few days of meeting the incredibly beautiful Gerda Thorp, daughter of the local stone mason (and most 'fun' character), Wolf has seduced her (this carefully written passage is exactly 25% of the way through the narrative) and is soon to marry her. But beauty is not all he craves. He believes he has nmade a mistake because Gerda cannot fulfil him spiritually. Christie, daughter of Mr Malakite (but not the one he had sex with) is Wolf's dream lover.

Sounds promising. We have a Gothic mystery to unfold, we have some fantastic characters, there is lots of sexual naughtiness to uncover, and Wolf himself is torn between two women. What happens?

Not a lot. Wolf roams the countryside on long walks in a constant whirlwind of emotional and philosophical uncertainty. Is he going to have an affair with Christie? He comes to the cusp ... and then backs down. Is he going to refuse to write the book for Urquhart? He does ... and then changes his mind. Is he going to fling the cheque for doing the work in Urquhart's face? He does ... but the wind rescues it and he ends up cashing it. Is he going to drown himself in Lenty Pond? He reaches the edge ... and decides not to. He sees what appears to be a grave robbery (of Redfern's corpse) ... and then decides it is nothing. At the end of the book, having seen his wife sitting on another man's knee (proof of infidelity), Wolf has a long walk in a meadow for pages and pages and then decides to go back home and have a cup of tea, accepting that his fate is to be a teacher for the rest of his life.

As if that is the worst of fates. The protagonist is an utter cultural snob. He might have married the memorial mason's daughter but that was for her beauty; this low-bred girl obviously never going to be his intellectual equal; for that he will need Christie. He repeatedly thinks in terms of high culture: this is a vast demonstration of the protagonist's (and by extension, the author's) learning:
  • "Would his inner world of hushed Cimmerian ecstasies remain uninvaded by these Otters and Urquharts?" (C 2)
  • "He hadn't come to Dorsetshire to be oppressed by the ponderous labours of Royal Academicians." (C 4)
  • "her face had something of that lethargic sulkiness that is seen sometimes in ancient Greek sculpture." (C 4)
  • "Not Dante himself, when in the Inferno he heard a similar question from that proud tomb, could have been more startled than Wolf was at this extraordinary inquiry." (C 4)
  • "He loved the muslin curtains over the parlour-windows, and the ferns and flowerpots on the window-sills. He loved the quaint names of these little toy houses – names like Rosecot, Woodbine, Bankside, Primrose Villa."; C 4)
  • "Tisn't where a gentleman dies,' she responded, 'that makes the difference. 'Tis where he's born.'" (C 7)
  • "Am I like William of Deloraine, in Scott's poem, with the wizard's volume under my arm?'" (C 21)
  • "You write like a person who knows Greek,' he said gravely to Wolf. Wolf bowed. 'I know Greek too well,' he replied significantly." (C 21)
It would be readable were it not for the long-windedness. Wolf analyses every little moment of his life in interminable prose, punctuated by frequent exclamation marks:
  • "He recalled the figure of a man he had seen on the steps outside Waterloo Station. The inert despair upon the face that this figure had turned towards him came between him now and a hillside covered with budding beeches. The face was repeated many times among those great curving masses of emerald-clear foliage. It was an English face; and it was also a Chinese face, a Russian face, an Indian face. It had the variableness of that Protean wine of the priestess Bacbuc. It was just the face of a man, of a mortal man, against whom Providence had grown as malignant as a mad dog. And the woe upon the face was of such a character that Wolf knew at once that no conceivable social readjustments or ameliorative revolutions could ever atone for it – could ever make up for the simple irremediable fact that it had been as it had been!" (C 1)
  • "That was it! His normal attitude to life was just that – or nearer that than anything else! It was a worship of all the separate, mysterious, living souls he approached: 'souls' of grass, trees, stones, animals, birds, fish; 'souls' of planetary bodies and of the bodies of men and women; the 'souls', even, of all manner of inanimate little things; the 'souls' of all those strange, chemical groupings that give a living identity to houses, towns, places, countrysides ...." (C 4)
  • "His mind withdrew into itself with a jerk at this point, trying to push away a certain image of things that rose discomfortably upon him – the image of a countryside covered from sea to sea by illuminated stations for airships, overspread from sea to sea by thousands of humming aeroplanes! What would ever become of Tilly-Valley's religion in that world, with head-lights flashing along cemented highways, and all existence dominated by electricity? What would become of old women reading by candlelight? What would become of his own life-illusion, his secret 'mythology', in such a world?" (C 8)
  • "In the storm of her abandonment, the light irony that was her personal armour against life seemed to drop from her, piece by glittering piece, and fall tinkling upon the floor. Something impersonal rose up in its place, an image of all the stricken maternal nerves that had vibrated and endured through long centuries; so that it became no longer just a struggle between Wolf Solent and Ann Solent – it became a struggle between the body of Maternity itself and the bone of its bone! She broke now into desperate sobs and flung herself face down upon the sofa. But the demon that tore at her vitals was not yet content. Turning half round towards Wolf, and lifting herself up by her arms, she raised a long, pitiful howl like a trapped leopard in the jungle. 'Women ... women ... women!' she cried aloud" (C 14)
  • "His mother and Gerda had lost their separate identities. They had become the point of a prodding shaft of yellow light that was at the same time the point of Darnley's trim beard! This shaft was now pushing him towards another misery, which took the form of a taste in his mouth, a taste that he especially loathed, though he could only have defined it, even to himself, as the taste of salad and vinegar! But, whatever it was, this taste was Miss Gault. The shaft of yellow light that prodded him on had the power of thinning out and bleaching out his whole world, taking the moist sap quite away from it, leaving it like a piece of blown paper on an asphalt pavement. Between these two things – the blighting light and the corrosive taste – he felt an actual indrawn knot of impotence tying itself together within him, a knot that was composed of threads in his stomach, of threads in the pulses of his wrists, and of threads behind his eye-sockets!" (C 18)
  • "They would dissect love, till it became 'an itch of the blood and a permission of the will'; they would kill all calm, all peace, all solitude; they would profane the majesty of death till they vulgarized the very background of existence; they would flout the souls of the lonely upon the earth, until there was not one spot left by land or by water where a human being could escape from the brutality of mechanism, from the hard glitter of steel, from the gaudy insolence of electricity!" (C 25)
Even when he is reasonably short, he can be incredibly pompous:
  • "It seemed to Solent as though all the religions in the world were nothing but so many creaking and splashing barges, whereon the souls of men ferried themselves over those lakes of primal silence, disturbing the swaying water-plants that grew there and driving away the shy water-fowl!" (C 1)
  • "It was she alone who could give the bitter-sweet tang to reality, to his phantasmal life, and make the ground under his feet firm. ... it was she alone who made the world he lived in solid and resistant to the touch. He felt that without her the whole thing might split and tear – as if it had been made of thin paper!" (C 6)
  • "a whole region of interests and values that had nothing to do with love-making and nothing to do with romance. Was love itself, then, and all its mysteries, only a kind of magic gate leading into a land full of alien growths and unfamiliar soils?" (C 10)
  • "It was the kind of book the debased purpose of which is simply and solely to play upon the morbid erotic nerves of unbalanced sensuality." (C 19)
  • "At this moment it was given to him to taste those secret dregs of misery, cold as ice and black as pitch, that lie dormant under the lips of every descendant of Adam." (C 19)
  • "that was the way things worked out! Instead of either of the great clear horns of Fate's dilemma, a sort of blurred and woolly forehead of the wild goat Chance!" (C 20)
  • "The spiritual 'aura' emanating from the Weevil mansion attacked him like a miasma of desolation" (C 21)
  • "he got a glimpse of, beneath this man's gentlemanly mask, was something different from viciousness. It was as if some abysmal ooze from the slime of that which underlies all evil had been projected to the surface." (C 9)
  • "It was then that an incredibly sweet fragrance came in through the open window! It may have been only the hyacinths; but, as Wolf breathed it in, it seemed to him much more than that. It seemed to come from masses of bluebells under undisturbed green hazels!" (C 24)
One could argue that this is 'stream of consciousness' writing and that JCP's work (Wolf Solent was published in 1929) should be put on a par with Virginia Woolf (Mrs Dalloway 1925, To The Lighthouse 1927, The Waves 1931) or James Joyce (Ulysses 1922). I suppose that I felt the difference was that JCP's prose was too convoluted, too punctuated by those damnable !! and too long. I found it over the top. There was so much excitement that I became bored. It wasn't dramatic, it was melodramatic. More was less. 

There are moments when the s-of-c becomes lists and I thought that was better because of the multiplicity of images swiftly evoked. In these examples there is a simplicity to JCP's writing that disappears when he gets carried away.
  • "It was wont to appear in strange places, this city of his fancy ... at the bottom of teacups ... or the window-panes of privies ... in the soapy water of baths ... in the dirty marks on wallpapers ... in the bleak coals of dead summer-grates ... between the rusty railings of deserted burying-grounds ... above the miserable patterns of faded carpets ... among the nameless litter of pavement-gutters" (C 7)
  • "Upon every tiniest and least-important object he looked, that night, with a purged simplicity, a spontaneous satisfaction. The pine-wood boarding at the edge of the linoleum stair-carpet, the pegs where their coats hung, the handles of the dresser drawers, the rows of balanced plates, the cups suspended from the little hooks, the metal knobs at the end of their bed, Gerda's comb and brush, the candlestick still covered with grease, and two exposed soap-dishes on the washing-stand, one containing a small piece of Pears' soap and one containing a square lump of common yellow soap – all these things thrilled him, fascinated him, threw him into an ecstasy of well-being." (C 17)
If it is a modern novel (and it did remind me at times of the Parade's End tetralogy of Ford Madox Ford: Some Do Not, No More Parades, A Man Could Stand Up, and Last Post) it is so by its treatment of sex. On the other hand it reveals its Victorianism partly in its prolix prose and partly in the hatred of the protagonist for modern technology, represented by aeroplanes (trains seem to be OK):
  • "He was telling his pupils quite quietly about Dean Swift; and all of a sudden some mental screen or lid or dam in his own mind completely collapsed and he found himself pouring forth a torrent of wild, indecent invectives upon every aspect of modern civilization. " (C 1)
  • "He felt as though, with aeroplanes spying down upon every retreat like ubiquitous vultures, with the lanes invaded by iron-clad motors like colossal beetles, with no sea, no lake, no river free from throbbing, thudding engines, the one thing most precious of all in the world was being steadily assassinated." (C 1)
  • "The long, cold clutch of scientific discovery, laid, like metallic fingers, upon the human pulse, could not despoil the dignity of existence here" (C 18) Which, of course, is why characters die from pneumonia.
At least it starts as it means to go on, with a warning in the very first lines: "From Waterloo Station to the small country town of Ramsgard in Dorset is a journey of not more than three or four hours, but having by good luck found a compartment to himself, Wolf Solent was able to indulge in such an orgy of concentrated thought, that these three or four hours lengthened themselves out into something beyond all human measurement." (C 1) It is certainly an orgy of thoughts, and the hours certainly felt long.

There are some great set-pieces, my favourite coming just after the 25% mark, immediately after Wolf has seduced Gerda, and is in the pub. A number of the mysteries are resolved here (a bit early, in my opinion) and for once the conversation, including dialect spoken by the working-class characters, becomes real:
  • "tis wondrous for a man what works with chisel and hammer all day, to sit and see what folks be like who never do a stroke." (C 8)
  • "Mr Otter says Squire Urquhart have sold his soul to that black son-of-a-gun who works in's garden, and that 'tis bookseller Malakite here in Blacksod whose books do larn 'em their deviltries!" (C 8)
  • "thee'd best do as I do say, Mr Redfern Number Two, for thee's been clipping and cuddling our Gerda, 'sknow, and I be only to tell missus on 'ee, and fat be in fire." (C 8)

Other moments I enjoyed:
  • "He felt as though he were tightening his muscles for a plunge into very treacherous waters." (C 2)
  • "I'd like to get the sort of perspective on human occurrences that the bedposts in brothels must come to possess – and the counters of bar rooms – and the butlers' pantries in old houses – and the muddy ditches in long-frequented lovers' lanes." (C 3)
  • "The Lord gives beef, but us must go to the Devil for sauce" (C 5)
  • "although beauty, up to a certain point, is provocative of lust, beyond a certain point it is destructive of lust" (C 5)
  • "Directly they touch me I run away. I want them to want me. It's a lovely feeling to be wanted like that. It's like floating on a wave. But when they try any of their games, messing a person about and rumpling a person's clothes, I can't bear it. I won't bear it, either!" (C 5)
  • "Pity's the most cruel trap ever invented." (C 6)
  • "I don't know whether the Virgin Mary ever appeared to him; but I know he used to take her flowers, because he used to steal them out of our garden!" (C 6)
  • "the vein of amorousness in him, like a velvet-padded panther in a blind night, slipped wickedly past all the magic of yesterday's walk and caused his heart to beat at the imaginary image – for he had never actually seen that provocative picture – of the young girl astride the tombstone!" (C 6)
  • "the furtive unction of an official who had collected many threepenny bits in an embroidered bag weighed upon his stooping shoulders." (C 6)
  • "if you had pity and there was one miserable consciousness left in the universe, you had no right to be happy." (C 7)
  • "cider-sour human breath" (C 9)
  • "the very strength in his mother, which had been such security to him in his childhood, was the thing now with which he had to struggle to gain his liberty – that protective, maternal strength, the most formidable of all psychic forces!" (C 9)
  • "It's best to mind one's own business. That's what God's so good at ... minding His own business!" (C 9)
  • "His thoughts became complicated just at this moment by the teasing necessity of finding some place among those tents where he could make water." (C 9) How rarely in books do protagonists urinate!
  • "The acrid, ammoniacal smell of that casual retreat brought back to his mind the public lavatory on the esplanade at Weymouth, into which, from the sun-warmed sands, he used to descend by a flight of spittle-stained steps." (C 9)
  • "it's only the daft 'uns what'll serve for his cantrips – the girt bog-wuzzel 'ee is!'" (C 9)
  • "the vast company of clocks and watches all the world over, ticking, ticking, ticking – sending up, in tiny metallic beats, vibrations of human computation into the depths of unthinkable space." (C 10)
  • "what of all things he wanted most at that moment was just to make rough, reckless, self-obliterating love to her." (C 10)
  • "Life is short,' said the skeleton, 'and the love of girls is the only escape from its miseries.' 'It's not so short as all that,' retorted the son, ' and in every Paradise there is a snake!'" (C 10)
  • "they do play blasphemous play-actings out there, same as Lot's wife were salted for." (C 11)
  • "I lives in a God-fearing daily-bread town" (C 11)
  • "You got no more memory than a pig, Bob Weevil.' 'Depends who and what and when,' was the grocer's retort." (C 11)
  • "an immense solitude descended upon him, and he began to realize, as he had never realized before, how profoundly alone upon this planet each individual soul really is." (C 11)
  • "there came over him a deep, disturbing craving for Christie – a craving so intense that the vision of all the length of all the days of his life without her seemed more than he could bear. 'Only one life,' he thought to himself. 'Only one life, between two eternities of non-existence ... and I am proposing deliberately to sacrifice in it the one thing that I really want!'" (C 11)
  • "Gerda? ... Christie? ... What are they? Two skeletons covered with flesh; one richly and flexibly covered ... one sparsely and meagrely covered!" (C 11)
  • "it's better to be dead in death than dead in life." (C 12)
  • "Dolls – dolls – dolls!' thought Wolf. 'If we can slip out of reality, why can't they slip into it?" (C 13)
  • "it came over him with a wave of remorseful shame that this formidable being, so grotesquely reduced, was the actual human animal out of whose entrails he had been dragged into light and air." (C 14)
  • "What you have found out today, worm of my folly, I had outgrown when I was in the Sixth at Ramsgard and was seduced by Western minor in the headmaster's garden." (C 15)
  • "Tis a wonderful disposing of Providence, Mr Solent, when old men can flutter young ladies and make their hands fidget. 'Tis not been allowed to I, such privileges and portions. And yet I be a man, I reckon, what knows the road royal as well as another!" (C 16)
  • "It may be a good world,' he remarked sententiously, and 'and it may be a bad world, but it's the world; and us has got to handle 'un with eyes in our heads for landslides." (C 16)
  • "Tis a pond that would drown the likes of you and me, maybe. But they boys! Why, they'd bathe in Satan's spittle and come out sweet." (C 16)
  • "I never will believe, until the day Nature kills me, that there's such a thing as "reality", apart from the mind that looks at it!" (C 16)
  • "his nerves were so completely jangled by this time that he was just tinder-wood for any casual spark." (C 18)
  • "we all have to be bad sometimes ... just as we all have to be good sometimes" (C 21)
  • "We have to do outrageous things sometimes, just because we are lonely!" (C 21)
  • "There's only one thing required of us in this world, and that's not to be a burden" (C 21)
  • "Them whose brains be work-sodden have to guard theyselves from He. If 'twere only plagues and pestilences He showered down, it might be all one. 'Tis they lightnings, murders, and sudden deaths what send we to cover ... same as the poor beasties in field!'" (C 21)
  • "You think your ideas are wonderful, because you've got a great library." (C 21)
  • "You like good meals. You like watching boys bathe." (C 21)
  • "You think your life is grand and devilish, when all you are is a silly old man with a boy's death on your conscience." (C 21)
  • "only them as jumps the ditches goes dry to bed!" (C 22)
  • "I'm all in favour of honest bawdry myself; but why sing such a song about it? Natural or unnatural, it's nature. It's mortal man's one great solace before he's annihilated!" (C 24)

Intriguingly, it is the second book in a month I have read to have had a character with the far-from-usual name of Mr Malakite: the other was Warlight by Michael Ondaatje.

December 2020

This review was written by Dave Appleby the author of Motherdarling




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