Wolf Solent (Penguin Modern Classics) Paperback – 26 Oct 2000
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Presents a story of a young man returning from London to work near to the school at which his father had been history master. This book reflects a close understanding of man's everyday experience with a delicate awareness of the spiritual.
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Wolf is torn between his conscience, which tells him to remain faithful to his wife, and also whether to refuse to continue writing the odious history of the depravity of the locals for his unpleasant employer Urquhart. He is torn between two women, one he sees as his “horizon” and one “the solid ground beneath him.”
James Joyce summed up his aloneness with the mantra “silence, exile, cunning.” Wolf Solent’s final mantra is “Alone! Endure or escape.”
Nature, our natural surroundings, free of the “brutality of mechanism,” plays such a vital role in the book I do not think it could not be written now.
Wolf Solent, the eponymous, 34-year old protagonist, in whose mind we generally dwell, is a clever dreamer, with an intense but partially unaware gaze both outwards and inwards, unable to harmonise his outer and inner worlds. Throughout the novel, he is searching for meaning in a God-emptied, Darwinian world - where sexual obsession and/or a frantic scrabbling after control lurks hidden beneath the surface of human life. He finds his own 'secret mythology' - in which he battles intellectually with the primal forces of creation - more real than the actual life he inhabits, in which he is an undistinguished teacher of history in a rural grammar school. This makes him peculiarly subject to the whims of his instincts, because he lacks mature self-awareness, and yet it also makes him highly receptive to natural landscape and to those around him, because of a certain, non-judgemental detachment.
Powys has a marvellous ability to bring the reader into complicity with his creation, especially when Wolf is communing in a heightened state of intellectual awareness with a woman - be it his lithe, wife-lover, Gerda; his elfin mind-heart, Christie; or his possessive and sensualist mother. Equally, the receptive reader is mesmerised in the moonlight-bathed dark lanes and valleys of semi-mythic Dorset. Powys uses descriptions of landscape as simple but eerily effective devices for transporting the reader to the powerful shadowlands of the subconscious, where he can convey a horizon-flashing instinct, at once philosophical, particular and brazen. Then, a paragraph later, this protean writer might distance his reader from an intimate passage in Wolf's mind by breaking off to refer (as the suddenly-intruding author) to his subject's 'skull'.
Wolf Solent, published in 1929, was the fourth novel and first notable success of John Cowper Powys (1872-1963). The book has a modernist focus on consciousness and sensuality in a world stripped of certainties by Freud’s insights and Nietzsche’s ‘death of God’. In this respect, it is comparable to the novels of his younger but shorter-lived contemporaries, DH Lawrence (1885-1930) and James Joyce (1882-1941), whose great novels were published before Wolf Solent, and which were surely influential on him. However, unlike Joyce and Lawrence, Powys did not break free from Victorian language and perspective. Thus, Powys’s land and mind-scape descriptions unfold slowly, decorously and in disembodied detail. For example, in the middle of the story (pages 305-306 in the paperback Penguin 2000 edition), Powys writes of 'simple, sensuous well-being' in the Dorset countryside, where Wolf is 'enabled to enter, by a lucky psychic sensitiveness, into some continuous stream of human awareness - awareness of a beauty in the world that travelled lightly from place to place, stopping here and stopping there, like a bird of passage, but never valued at its true worth until it had vanished away.' The passage continues in this ethereal vein for a number of pages.
Yet – for me - the novel Wolf Solent works, marvellously and surprisingly. It has an attractive mix of realism, mysticism and sensuality. Powys’s penetrating and delicate writing brings out the extraordinary nature of ordinary life. The scope of the novel is daringly wide, and there are many luminous chapters (I particularly liked the brilliant Lenty Pond section, chapter 23). Wolf and the host of subsidiary characters are psychologically credible and their conflicts spark realistic drama, while the central character’s metaphysical-philosophical musings are refreshingly engaging.
Powys also can evoke a Dorset local character and accent masterfully, not least in the language of the amiable and blunt Mr Torp ‘stone-cutter of Chequers Street’, father of the girl whom Wolf marries, whom Mr Torp regrets ‘aint got the durned consideration to comb her own hair; and it might be mighty silky too, when it be combed out’ but instead she stays ‘sitting around, strong as a Maypole’.
Nevertheless, in the end perhaps one sees hints of why John Cowper Powys never made it to the Western canon (while it existed) and why he is mostly unknown to the general reader today - assuming, which might be quite wrong (?), that his other great novels are approximately similar in broad approach to Wolf Solent.
Most obviously, there is the problem, for a world in haste, of a writing style which is languid and elaborate: Powys might take six pages to describe what others would do in six lines. I found it necessary, and rewarding, to read slowly and to be more than usually attentive, or I would have missed the slow, deeper rumblings (and surely I still missed much of this many-layered work). The second difficulty is that Wolf Solent comes across as quite old-fashioned, for its time, particularly because the story is told from the perspective of an omniscient narrator.
However, at least one of these caveats could apply to any number of highly esteemed writers, ranging from George Eliot and Thomas Hardy to Proust, Woolf and Joyce. It is perhaps the combination of these characteristics with a third, which one might call a lack of sufficient engagement with the ‘otherness’ of life, which may have condemned Powys to relative obscurity. Wolf Solent is intensely conservative in his response to the external aspects of modernity, and is a fierce detester of aeroplanes and materialism - but this is not a problem, and can be seen as a strength. The trouble, as I see it, is a profound, inner conservatism of emotion and the spirit: Wolf is too fearful to let go of what he knows and is too self-absorbed to interact deeply, except with his own, self-limiting instincts and thoughts. In a word, he is too cerebrally selfish: his experiences are writ large, but only inside his head; outside, he is a fairly passive conformist who ducks the challenges of life and who fails to risk a profound encounter with other human beings.
As his supposed 'great love' Christie says to Wolf (page 598), 'you great, stupid, talking fool ... what do you know of my real life?' He, and we, never learn.
Wolf strides on and Christie lets him off the hook. His more-or-less unexplained 'secret mythology' has been smashed - that 'sense of huge invisible cosmic transactions, in the midst of which he played his part' (page 610) - but Wolf's blithe self-absorption remains, albeit with a dawning realisation that his life is 'an empty husk'.
Wolf doesn't truly empathise with anyone: he shows no tenderness to the much-damaged Christie, who waits in vain for his affection; and he is aware but does not really care about hurting his vulnerable young wife, Gerda. He pours scorn on Gerda's modest desires to spend money on their house and a holiday in Weymouth. This ignites an elemental reaction in Gerda which leads to a definitive crack in the edifice of Wolf’s high-walled self-esteem, and to the destruction of her innocence: he is 'cuckolded' by 'the water-rat', but it is his own pride and loss of control over his 'sweet girl' which concerns him, not Gerda's motivation or suffering.
He is, in truth, a devoted mummy's boy, willing to 'sell his soul' for £200 to finish the squire's book about sordid Dorset ways, in order to have the money to fund his mother's tea-shop ambitions, rather than see her take a loan from a man whom he loathes - though he neglects to ask his mother if she wants his money, and she rejects it later.
And yet, at first, I found this total lack of worrying about others rather refreshing. In Wolf Solent, Powys’s characters rarely fear that they have been misunderstood or that they are ignorant or destructive. There is what AN Wilson (in the introduction to the Penguin 2000 edition) called a 'robustness' about his perspective. His hero has no self-doubt (until near the end), no ironic detachment or clinging sense of worthlessness. He is not a victim or beset by the self-victimising neuroses of others. He is frank about sex, religion, class - and about his own callousness.
For all his naturalness and worldly wisdom, Wolf is cut off from connectedness to other people and transforming emotion. Even though, in the last pages, ‘Nature’ comes to the rescue as the healer and over-arching presence, the protagonist - and the reader - is left with a sense of profound, if stoically born, pessimism. Near the end of the book, after a tormented night walk (page 620), Wolf’s febrile mind is too exhausted to prevent 'the simple chemistry of his body ... coming to its own conclusions ... while his soul ... wriggled and squirmed somewhere above his head!' (This long sentence ends with a characteristic exclamation mark.) His feverish intelligence has got him nowhere, and it is the animal experience of the long, solitary pounding in the hills which brings Wolf into harmony with 'the unutterable ... heathen goodness' of nature - which he seems to forget a few pages later, and from which he appears to draw only limited strength.
Thus, after returning from his walk, the narcissistic Wolf - surely a lonely sheep in wolf’s clothing - shrinks from confronting his latest bête noire, Lord Carfax, when he peers through the window of his cottage and sees that the old goat has Gerda sitting on his knee. Instead, Wolf escapes to 'the amazing gold of the meadow beyond' for a further five pages of luxuriating, Wordsworthian reverie, released to 'enjoy life ... with absolute childish absorption in its simplest elements'.
Wolf's self-obsessive, if imaginative, character is not in itself a problem – he is a brilliant literary creation. The difficulty is that the pessimistic attitude to life which Wolf develops (and which Powys appears to be promoting) is not sufficiently deeply grounded: he has only popped his head out of his shell now and then, and has failed to risk vulnerable, deeper experience. With his illusions shattered, but still shuttered inside himself, Wolf accepts a bleak future, believing that the 'inmost soul' of any human is a 'furtive coil,' a 'quivering ego-nerve,' and that he (like all beings) is alone and 'diseased' – he has not been able to escape the ‘inert despair’ of the tramp whom he saw (at the beginning of the book) on the steps of Waterloo station. This, thinks Wolf (and Powys, it seems?), is 'stronger than the Christian miracle', negating love and any sense of a benign (but not necessarily Christian) cosmos. All that is left is to endure, and to enjoy haphazard moments of ecstatic wonder in nature, which is the dual and ‘secret bestower of torture and pleasure.' That, and the humble pleasure of a 'cup of tea’.
So if you have yet to try John Cowper Powys I believe "Wolf Solent" is as good a place to start as any. I'm looking forward to reading more of this writer's work.
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