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Modern Classics Wolf Solent (Penguin Modern Classics) (original 1929; edition 2000)
by John Cowper Powys (Author)
Wolf Solent by John Cowper Powys (1929)
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A grand story. Others below review it better than I could. Wolf finds his "mythology" of life destroyed when he returns to his Dorset home. His sobering experience with the two women he loves and the secretive, half-magical lives of the towns folk, leaves him thinking, "If I can't enjoy life,..with absolute childish absorption in its simplest elements, I might as well never have been born!' He decides that each of us must act according to the fates of one's nature. One must endure or escape.
A balance of introspection and dialogue. Close third person narration with occasional astral projection. Powys' forays into mystical imagery got him labeled the forefather of magical realism, which is a label also applied to Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Instead I liken reading this book to the best parts of D. H. Lawrence, Hardy, and Walter Scott, where their observation is so precise, so often, that it forces your mind into new territory. It is a book full of human desires, aspiring to be more than human.
Wolf's adventures in love and through countrysides are as much cerebral excursions as traditional ones. He takes in breathtaking vistas, while penetrating into hidden layers he perceives all around him. These are signs of animism, the presence of the spirits - like gods of the woods, will-o-the-wisps, ghosts - these all have special meaning for the protagonist. Wolf is destined to carry a profound awareness of his surroundings, an acute sensitivity which stems from the wild and overflows into his interactions with other people. He contemplates fate, beauty, and the hidden potential for humans to feel their surroundings. In the traditional of Lawrence, his protagonist is a sensualist of sorts, who does not ask 'what is real?' but rather, 'what is more real? Dream or waking life?'
We are treated to a delightful series of descriptions between the droll Tolstoyan romantic intrigues comprising the novel's conflicts. Flowers, stars and skies, forests, and great country houses that would make Turgenev and Wordsworth salivate are bandied about with abandon. He hovers over a tenuous line with his use of the English language, somewhere between genius and insanity. As a novel, it is at once profound and overly concerned with its own importance. Much like Anna Karenina and other nonetheless fascinating, lengthy novels, there is an obsession with the marital relationship and the politics of the household, which was a residing theme of English literature in the early 1900s when Wolf Solent appeared, like an uninvited distant relative houseguest, on the literary scene.
One might pick out hints of misogyny and other odd asides, where Powys falls prey to revealing that his main character is actually a thinly veiled alter ego - a foible he repeats, according to what I've read, in other novels. The characterization of Wolf is almost obsessive, as is Wolf's examination of the side characters, which I thought paled in comparison to him, the main event.
"Beauty like that, he thought, as he looked at her, ought to endow its possessor with superhuman happiness, as in the old legends, when 'the sons of God saw the daughters of men.' There was a cruel irony in the fact that he of all men had been singled out to possess this beauty - he whose heart of hearts had been given to a different being!"
The above quote sums up one of the major concerns of the main character. A major theme in the novel is his conflicting relationships with 2 women. The women themselves are not given quite enough to do, perhaps, but their main appeal as characters comes from Powys' powerful ability to describe scenes and conjure atmosphere. As can also be seen from the above quote, he often repeats himself, but his prose has definite rhythm, and it is both magical and deceptive.
"And as he pondered on all this it struck him as strange that such rare loveliness should not protect her, like silver armour, against the shocks and outrages of life. Beauty as unusual as this was a high gift, like a poet's genius, and ought to have the power of protecting a girl's heart from the cruel inconstancies of love."
This quote comes directly after the previous one. Powys often reverberates with thoughts and concepts that Shakespeare once put into words, but unlike the Bard, the author here is not concerned with saving space, but rather, with delving into all the tributaries of meaning he has discovered by extracting these themes from great literature. Wolf and Powys in turn make constant reference to Hamlet, Lear, Othello, Dante, Homer and Walter Scott. Wolf is even editing an essay on the topic of Walter Scott within the narrative. There are also several poems, inserted haphazardly by an unmemorable side character, and the foreboding nature of Urquhart seems to take on cosmic significance in Wolf's mind. Trying to understand these characters, like trying to grasp Powys' prevailing intentions, is often difficult, but it is easy to get a sense of his appreciation for aesthetics and natural beauty, and of the interior beauty of human beings. He reaffirms life and the soul, and the importance of careful observation of the outside world as a way to interpret the storms of emotions our own hearts and minds summon to our attention, as a way to calm and enrich the threads of our lives, as meaningless and selfish as they sometimes turn out to be.
Judging the author simply by this book would not be fair. He was a prolific intellectual giant. Owen Glendower, A Glastonbury Romance, Porius, Weymouth Sands, Maiden Castle, and Three Fantasies, all of which I recently added to the primetime shelves in my home library, comprise 5000 pages of this introspective stuff. And he wrote innumerable other hefty, obscure tomes, equally enigmatic and alluring. To contemplate the sheer reading pleasure offered by the prospect, or should I say determined enterprise, of undertaking to come to a deep and full understanding of this author, makes other oeuvres - even ones as intimidating as Thomas Wolfe's - look like child's play.
In a way this is a masterpiece, but it is easy to see that it is not his most accomplished work. Most writers fail to reach the heights this work attains to, with the notable exceptions of Anna Karenina or the more highly developed of Dostoyevsky's novels. Yet in Powys, there is even more quiet brooding than in those Russian works.
Consciousness is the vehicle for plot. I don't think this was anything new by this time, but barring Proust, Powys helms this technique better than almost anyone. At times Wolf almost seems to dissolve the landscapes with his mind. He penetrates through the physical world, always questioning, always interpreting. Why is he so suspicious of existence? Perhaps because Powys does not want us to take it for granted. We are treated to new mental landscapes at every turn, superimposed by Wolf's nervous mind, upon the world he inhabits.
He wrestles with lust versus love as regards Gerda and Christie. His parents and employer are also fodder for his heart-rending discernments. He simply can't stop feeling the aura and power and significance of these ordinary people to the point where he might be considered an unreliable narrator.
"'This world is not made of bread and honey,' cried Wolf, the worm, to the skull of his father, 'nor the sweet flesh of girls. This world is made of clouds and of the shadows of clouds. It is made of mental landscapes, porous as air, where men and women are as trees walking, and as reeds shaken by the wind.'"
"To turn the world again into mist and vapour is easy and weak. To keep it alive, to keep it real, to hold it at arm's length, is the way of gods and demons."
These quotes are all from Chapter 15, which takes place mainly inside of Wolf's mind, like several of the best chapters.
I don't know enough about Tolkien to know if he encountered Powys or at least his writings - since they lived at approximately the same time, but I see some similarities in their regard for the grandeur of their settings. But no setting in the novel is as wondrous as Wolf's brain.
As enthusiastic as I am about most of this book, I can't say I recommend it to everyone. It lacks the accessibility of Don Quixote or other classics, and it seems sidelined to minor-curiosity status. It is a dense and complex work, challenging and richly rewarding to the reader, but it is unfortunately not uniformly good. Certain sections of dialogue go on at unexplainable length. After he has made his point Powys often feels the necessity to go on making it with tremendous strides and flamboyant strokes. Proust shared this proclivity, but one must forgive them both. It's so tedious being a genius, they would tell you. The universe, to them, is all the more incomprehensible, because they approach, in their facility, the keenest ability to discover its true breadth.
Wolf Solent was published in 1929, when Powys was 57 and still making a part-time living from his mobile lecture show. An unsparingly analytical, intensely poetic character-study of the kind that became his specialty, it was his debut as a mature novelist. Here are all the elements of standard Powysian psychodrama: a conflict between brothers; the hypnotic eroticism of girls; depraved elders; and the remains of innocence. Wolf Solent is no nostalgic pastoral. Powys, who eulogized the beauties of Nature, never balked at revealing its horrors. His work is full of implications of violence. To him it was a mistake not to see what he, in a somewhat Zen manner, called “the necessity of opposition”: Good and Evil; Male and Female; Life and Death; Appearance and Reality. All these, he says,
"have to be joined together, have to be forced into one another, have to be proved dependent upon each other, while all solid entities have to dissolve, if they are to outlast their momentary appearance, into atmosphere."
The novel, on the surface, is a fairly straightforward story of a native son’s return, along the lines of Hardy’s Return of the Native. Wolf, the eponymous hero, an extremely sensitive soul, returns to his hometown on England’s South Coast after suffering a mental breakdown in London. But instead of recovering his innocence at home, he loses it completely. He is coming to a presumably serene writing assignment for the local squire, to escape the intensity of the city, to understand his past, and to somehow vindicate his tightly wound mother. Nothing goes to plan. He becomes entangled in various affairs, romantic and professional, and uncovers horrible truths about some old friends and neighbors. A battle between his father’s joie de vivre and his mother’s nervousness rages in his head. He becomes sympathetic to his father’s mistress, becomes attracted to his half-sister. The job he’s come for is not at all what he’s expected. In fact, nothing in this town provides relief from intensity.
In the end he returns, disillusioned, to the anonymity of London. You can’t go home again sums up the novel in a nutshell; but a nutshell is far too small for Powys. It is what throbs beneath the surface of this novel, from the hero who is alive to every blade of grass and housefly to the world around him. There are many contemplative walks through the English countryside where he plays out every reading of his life in order to make some sense of it. His reverence and concern for the natural world is laudable and, admittedly, hard-going in places. Powys hated most things modern – such as, say, technology and capitalism – so he lingers where others might move along. This is in the heart of the story and all of Powys’s novels.
The critic George Steiner once claimed that Powys was the only twentieth-century English writer on a par with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Margaret Drabble, the distinguished English novelist, believes, “we need to pay attention to this man.” The fantasy world of his novels, she says, is “densely peopled, thickly forested, mountainous, erudite, strangely self-sufficient. This country is less visited than Tolkien’s, but it is as compelling, and it has more air.”
This book operates on two distinct levels. The first level is a Lawrentian story of adultery and cuckoldry in a small English country town. Wolf Solent arrives in the town where he was born, after an absence of many years, to take up the post of secretary to the local squire. He falls in love with and marries Gerda, the daughter of the local stonemason. At the same time, he develops an ineluctable passion for the daughter of the local bookseller, Christie. His young wife is carrying on an affair with her childhood sweetheart, while Christie is fighting off the incestuous advances of her own father. Meanwhile, the squire is feuding with the vicar, and both are feuding with the local poet. There is lots of social observation, village fetes, afternoon tea, walks down leafy lanes, and a wealth of eccentric and eccentrically named characters. The novel is focalised through the eponymous protagonist, a highly educated, morbidly sensitive young man, the possessor of a 'mythology', and the story is largely about how he loses this personal mythology and becomes socialised in the world, a Dostoevskyan tale of how a young ego grows up and comes to terms with the disillusionment consequent on greater maturity and experience.
The second level, however, is really about something much deeper...
Read the full review on The Lectern
Trivialities loom as satisfyingly large as in a novel by Jane Austen or Barbara Pym. We share Wolf’s anguish when both his mother and his motherinlaw threaten to come to tea the same day. After a tiff with his wife he is comforted by looking into the “strangelycoloured eyes” of his friend Darnley, and has “that peculiar sensation of relief which men are wont to feel when they encounter each other after the confusion of sex-conflicts.”...
In their urban or rural setting Powys’s lovers are as timeless in their erotic fixations as Queen Phaedra or Helen of Troy. And his narative proffers all sorts of metaphysical suggestions only to circumvent them, as trees and plants grow around artificial obstructions; sudden vital “discoveries,” often emphasized by italics, are soon absorbed back into the leisurely ganglion. Even as it absorbs and compels us the novel seems to be inviting us not to take it seriously.
Sustained competence as a novelist escaped Powys in his vastly swollen works. One has the impression that some lettered prehistoric pachyderm was trying, with learned pathos, to get in touch with the village grocer and was distracted by village girls’ garters. A pretty folk world - inaptly compared with Hardy’s - has somehow to coalesce with educated pryings. His objective correlatives are grotesquely ill-assorted, even in Wolf Solent where the theme is restricted to Wolf’s sexual indecisions.,,
We exist, he seems to say, as metaphors. But whereas the portrait of Wolf Solent is an essay, the women are also carefully observed persons with an inner life. In all this, as a pagan poet-teacher midway in the revaluation of sex in this century, he had something bold to say. We may find him evasive, or dismiss him as self-loving, but evasiveness is one of the aspects of sexual emotion, which is subject, after all, to transfigurations and reserves that tend now to be forgotten in our stress on the vividly physical.
Belongs to Publisher Series
Grote ABC (468)
Rowohlt Jahrhundert (91)
Often described as one of the great apocalyptic novels of our time, WOLF SOLENT is the story of a young man returning from London to work near to the school at which his father had been history master. Complex, romantic and humorous, it is a classicwork combining a close understanding of man's everyday experience with a delicate awareness of the spiritual.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)823.912Literature English & Old English literatures English fiction Modern Period 1901-1999 1901-1945
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Wolf Solent is a 35 year old school teacher who lives with his sarcastic and dominating mother in London where he has recently been fired for an uncontrolled outburst ("dancing his 'malice dance'") in front of his class. The novel starts as Wolf rides the train to a small town in Dorset, in the southwest of England, to take a job as a secretary/ghostwriter for Squire Urquhart who is compiling a history of all the scandals and perversions in the county going back to the beginning of its written history. Twenty-five years ago, Wolf and his mother left this same small town for London after Wolf's father had multiple affairs. His father continued his depravations and ended up dying in the workhouse and being buried in a pauper's grave.
Wolf quickly falls under the spell of Gerda Torp, the beautiful daughter of the local headstone carver (and sister of the amazingly named Lob Torp -- actually everyone has amazing names in this book....), and the strange attraction of the plain and intellectual Christie Malakite, the daughter of a local bookseller who knew his father. The reader is quickly drawn into Wolf's visceral experience of nature, light, and color, as well as his hard-to-pin-down "mythology" or "life-illusion" that touches all of his experiences, until it leaves him forever. It is impossible for me to cram the intensity of the plot and characters into this review, but much revolves around Wolf's lust for Gerda and philosophical connection with Christie, the push and pull of small town secrets, and (most of all) his sensual and ecstatic experience of nature.
Powys published this book in 1929, when he was in his early 50s, and it was his first successful publication although he had seen professional success as a charismatic lecturer in America, where he lived from 1905-1930. Philosophical, but earthy, with some of the most rich and loaded sentences I've ever read (and they just keep coming!). There are scenes and characters in this book that will stay with me forever. The book leans on Thomas Hardy's pastoral settings but has the sensuality and romantic overload of D.H. Lawrence. Really, though, this novel is one of a kind. It is an undertaking at 600+ pages, but my goodness it is worth it. ( )