A GLASTONBURY ROMANCE by John Cowper Powys

6 01 2015

powys_glastonburyFor those of you who don’t know this work, a quotation from Margaret Drabble will put you in the picture. It is one of several which feature on the back of the edition I have here.

A genius – a fearless writer, who writes with reckless passion of flowers and graveyards, incest and teacups, property and religion and the occult. Everything is here in this astonishing work. Margaret Drabble, Daily Telegraph, Book of the Century.

Let me start by saying of this 1,120-page novel that the actual story – the action – could be boiled down to, say, 150 pages. If you introduced all the unforgettable minor characters and recounted, briefly, their individual stories – the sub-plots – then perhaps 300 pages. That leaves more than 800 pages of discursive asides and purely descriptive writing. Powys is not a writer to use one word when ten will do the job better, or ten in place of a hundred, or a hundred when a thousand would really do the job properly. But who, on surveying the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican says, or even thinks, Couldn’t he have done this on a square of canvas like any other artist??

The thing is, Powys, like Michaelangelo, was right. Nine times out of ten those discursive asides and descriptive passages are masterpieces. And without those 800 pages, all the rounded and distinctive minor characters would be flat and forgettable. As would the setting and the story itself. As it is, both are branded on the brain and it is as though you not just lived for a while in the Glastonbury of the Crows and the Dekkers and Bloody Johnny (Mayor Geard) but grew up there among them.

I cannot write a full review here – to do so would require a dissertation of many thousands of words – but I would just like to mention something that struck me about the title, “A Glastonbury Romance”. Somewhere in the course of the book (on p778, actually!) Powys refers to “the invisible Watchers of the Glastonbury Divine Comedy” – simply in passing, and not to make a point. But that’s what this work is, really. Not a ‘romance’ in any sense of that term, but a divine comedy: a ‘comedy’ reminiscent in some ways of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”, in others of “Hamlet” with a happy – or at least happier – ending; ‘divine’ like Homer and Blake in that the other world impinges continually on this one. (Incidentally, he also refers to it (p904) as “this modest chronicle”. Hah!)

There is no way I could ever give this book less than five stars although many times I fell asleep reading it and the book clattered to the floor. The fault is in me, not Powys, of whom, as Henry Miller said, “To encounter [Powys] … is to arrive at the very fount of creation.” Believe me, the spirit was willing but the flesh is weak.

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