The Life
of John Cowper Powys

By Morine Krissdottir

Overlook Duckworth.

480 pp. $40

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Reviewed by Patrick Kurp

Seldom does the author of a literary biography confess, in her prologue no less, that her subject's work "both attracted and repulsed" her, but then Morine Krissdottir is the first biographer to take on the monumentally conflicted life and work of John Cowper Powys.

"Who?" you ask.

Born at the midpoint of Queen Victoria's reign, Powys died five months before President John F. Kennedy. He wrote at least 22 novels, much short fiction, too much "philosophy," a remarkably prurient and evasive series of memoirs, critical studies of Rabelais and Dostoyevsky, self-help manuals, anti-vivisectionist screeds, and tens of thousands of letters.

Powys was the sort of writer who assumed everything that flowed from his pen was worthy of the world's attention. He prided himself on seldom revising and never rereading anything he had written. In the United States, a comparably difficult force of nature, Theodore Dreiser, championed his work. So did Henry Miller ("my first living idol"), Robertson Davies, Glenn Gould, and critic George Steiner ("supreme in English fiction after Hardy").

In other words, Powys once was recognized as an imposing literary force, though more widely known than read. Yet he died in poverty and only a handful of his books remain in print. Krissdottir, who has already published a critical study of Powys and edited two collections of his letters, is to be commended for her scholarship and thankless dedication. She appears to have read every word of Powys' that survives, including unreadable juvenilia, an accomplishment that merits authorly sainthood.

Powys' profligacy must have been a challenge for Krissdottir, but so was his disturbing psychology. He was one of 11 children in a family so close the siblings seem cloned. Powys described the family arrangement as "incestuous."

Rarely have I read a life story so steeped in sex yet so utterly unarousing. Powys liked little girls. He liked boys and young men. He loathed almost anything feminine. He patronized prostitutes and indulged a lifelong infatuation with sadism. He was addicted to masturbation and enemas. Just as Henry Adams famously failed to mention the existence of his wife (a suicide) in his autobiography, so Powys excised his mother, wife and longtime girlfriend from his.

In her prologue, Krissdottir gives fair warning: "Powys had only one subject - 'I am I' in all its conflicting intrication."

Powys was born in Derbyshire, England, where his father was a vicar, and he spent his childhood there and in Dorset and Somerset. For 40 years, 30 of them in the United States, Powys made his living as a university extension lecturer. In 1896 he married the benighted Margaret Lyon. In 1921 he met the American Phyllis Playter, who remained his partner for the rest of his life.

The novels on which his reputation rests are Wolf Solent (1929), A Glastonbury Romance (1932), Weymouth Sands (1934), Maiden Castle (1936), Owen Glendower, (1940), and Porius (1951). The first was published when Powys was already 57. All are long, densely populated and - how to describe Powys' prose? - thickly written. The manuscript of Porius, his "Dark Ages" novel, just returned to print by Overlook Duckworth, was 2,281 pages long. Here's a sample:

"Myrddin Wyllt . . . might have given the impression to a stranger come suddenly upon him of being some species of saviour-beast or animal-redeemer who had at that moment accepted on behalf of all the beasts in the world the sentence of the slaughter house, and was weighed down by the appalling weight of the burden he had undertaken. . . . 'Death, death, death, death,' he said to himself."

It's an odd thought, but I suspect readers of J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake and J.K. Rowling might find something to their taste in Powys, particularly Porius. His books, epic and elemental, are the Platonic opposite of Henry James'. I have read his Autobiography, and all but Maiden Castle of the novels mentioned above, and will probably read no others. For those few devoted to Powys' work, criticism is beside the point.