on 30 January 2011
Reactions to the written word can be extraordinarily diverse and startling. Critical evaluations of literature often tell you more about the critic than the text. Judgements about irony, sarcasm, sentimentality and so forth are quite subjective.
I was interested to note in Anthony Head's excellent introduction that the poet John Wain judged one of L. Powys's books to be the `corniest' book he had ever read. I can empathise with that reaction, and had a streak of that judgement as I read some of the essays collected in the book. L. Powys tries hard to tug the heart strings, and waxes eloquent in a florid, almost Euphuistic style at times. One could easily parody and satirise his writing.
However, more strongly, I felt a closeness to the experiences of the author and the views he expresses. For one, he lived in Africa for five years, somewhat paralleling my own decade or so living in Zambia. He also has an abiding love of the culture and nature of the English countryside, which I share, though bowing to his much greater knowledge and experience. His reverse Pilgrim's progress away from what he sees as the syrupy delusions of conventional Christianity has points of contact with my own views. The debilitating and serious disease he suffered from finds a kinship in my heart. Lastly, his love of Laurence Sterne's `Tristram Shandy' and of the beauty of the stars are big recommendations.
Tony Head has made a judicious selection, covering many topics and the broad sweep of his life, in Dorset, the USA, East Africa and Switzerland. The first essay `A struggle for life' introduces us to the central tragedy of his life, his contraction of pulmonary tuberculosis, diagnosed when he was only 25 years old. This damaged the rest of his life, eventually killing him, but did not hold him back from enjoying his time on earth to the full. This admirable essay is written in an unsentimental and un-self-pitying way.
The four essays on aspects of his life in Africa are vivid, but reveal a colonial callousness. He shoots leopard and hippo without any compunction, all the more surprising given his otherwise tender nature, and the later essays `Christian Fingers' and `Barbarians', in which he criticises hunting and cruelty to animals.
The philosophical essays appealed particularly, though I find his attitude to religion inconsistent and unstable. He often refers to God, admires aspects of Christian culture and expresses sentiments close to conventional religious opinions, yet he professes himself an atheist at other points. In the essay `The Epicurean Vision', he declares his adherence to a joyful, sturdy enjoyment of the simple physical pleasures of life. He criticises `Christians at prayer' as `obsequious', `sycophantic' and `craven, unhealthy, neurotic'. Strong words! He dislikes the creed of the church in trying to discredit life upon earth, with all its talk of absurd Trinities, fables about ascensions, dead men rising from the grave and a focus on a mythical heaven. Powys follows the teachings of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, wanting us to look at the world we live in now, to make the best of it, with unfaltering loyalty to our senses. He urges us to "enjoy our hour of sunshine".
Powys's philosophy of life is expressed even more eloquently in `The Aebi Wood'. He stared at this green wood for many hours from the balcony of his sanatorium in Switzerland, and it came to symbolise the immediacy of the physical life and world we inhabit. He writes "Make no doubt of it, it is matter that matters. In all else there is mirage, man himself, for all his vaunts, being but a cheap and accidental phantom of cleaver clay. There may well be other dimensions, but in so far as we allow the suspicion of their existence to dim our worship of what is, we suffer ourselves to be entangled in a cloud-net of folly. Our paradise, our hells, are here and now, we shall see no other."
His most powerful chapter is `Reflections of a Dying Man'. Somebody suffering from worsening Tuberculosis, with no cure in sight, has a right to record such reflections, I don't find this passage `corny'. It is unblinking and objective, rejecting easy solutions, recognising mankind is blessed with self-knowledge "on a rainbow planet that is tumbling through a physical universe of inconceivable dimensions". He preaches joy in what we have, and an admirable stoicism: "It is by the rarest chance that we have ever lived, and does it then become us to grudge when the hour arrives for us to walk the way of all nature? Surely to look at the sunlight for the last time should rather be an occasion for the trembling of our marrow bones with gratitude."
Throughout the book, Llewellyn Powys displays a marvelous turn of descriptive phrase, and an infectious enthusiasm that lifts the reader. We acquire a vivid sense of the countryside in which he loved to live, walk and work.
From this excellent selection we learn a good deal about a writer who should be better known.
on 1 January 2012
As a Powys fan, I was looking forward to reading this, as it contains a good many pieces that have not been in print for years, as well as a compilation of his better essays and memoirs. However, I do find Llewelyn Powys more enjoyable when he concentrates on his own experiences than when he writes an essay for a magazine now long defunct. This being the case, most of the pieces I liked best - the title piece, an excellent description of his early days with tuberculosis, and the African memoirs - were those I'd read already. I found some of the nature essays curiously sentimental, especially coming from one with such a realist's eye.
It's an enjoyable compilation, but I doubt it will bring many new readers to Llewelyn Powys. For I'd advise picking up Ebony and Ivory or Skin for Skin, then his various Dorest and Somerset essays, rather than venturing into this compilation. For fans, though, I think there's enough that's new here to make it an interesting purchase.