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Amber Paulen

Wolf Solent

John Cowper Powys

Wolf Solent x 2

10 December 2010


I first read Wolf Solent under a state of veritable hypnotism. The writing of John Cowper Powys enchants me: it casts spells. Each time I read this writer’s liberal eccentricities and disclosures I am refreshed anew: this is what writing/reading can be like: an exploration, a long-winded plunge into the unthinkable of one man’s populated world. Now, with more of Powys’s canon behind me, I’ve again finished the raucous book that began my obsession.

Wolf Solent was not Powys’s first book but the first book publicly accepted. None of his later works either can boast of such success, evidenced by Wolf Solent‘s status as a Penguin ‘Modern Classic.’ The unusual cast of characters is almost familiar to me now, like Wolf himself, an archetypical Powys anti-hero, his lusts, walks, unending thoughts. The uninitiated may find Powys tedious, but try to think of the manuscript before it was cut by 350 pages!

Since my second reading was more thorough, I am splitting this ‘book note’ into three sections: Relationships, Consciousness and Life-Illusion. Each of these have been key to my understanding of Wolf Solent, key to understanding more of the author’s formidable genius.

I. Relationships

Soon after arriving in Ramsgard (or Sherborne) Wolf Solent gets involved with two young women: Gerda Torp and Christie Malakite. There are plenty more relationships in this long book: between Wolf and his mother; the antagonism between his mother and dead father; the Otter brothers, Jason, a sketch of Powys’s brother, Theodore, and Darnley, to whom Wolf seems almost attracted; then there’s the drunk vicar, the incestuous dirty bookseller, Wolf’s bastard sister and on and on… But it is Wolf’s relationships with these two young women that sheds the most revealing light.

John Cowper Powys began to write Wolf Solent soon after meeting Phyllis Playter, twenty-two years his younger. Phyllis and John lived the rest of their lives together, in the States and Wales. Pyllis and Christie share similar physical descriptions—‘her honey-pale oval face, her long eyelashes, her thin legs, her faintly-outlined childish figure‘—and an ideal of the female Elemental, a ‘bodiless, formless identity.’

Wolf declares Christie his ‘true love’ soon after he marries Gerda, young and beautiful. Wolf’s relationship to Gerda is only sensual; he is surprised to find that such a pretty head has its own personality! Powys’s biographer, Morine Krissdóttir, believes Gerda is based on Powys’s wife Margaret, a woman whom he abandoned but never failed to send money to.

The Gerda/Christie dialogue is carried on endlessly in Wolf Solent’s head. His deepest soul is Christie’s while his outward life must belong to Gerda and his mother. Even when it becomes obvious that Gerda’s childhood friend Bob Weevil is advancing on the young wife, to eventually sleeping with her, the marital relationship is something to escape or endure rather than to do anything about. Wolf clings to an impotent apathy, as if all he can do is think.

When he does feel jealous over Bob Weevil’s advances, he reminds himself of his love for Christie. When incestuous Mr. Malakite goes to spend a night in Weymouth —leaving Christie home alone—Wolf fantasizes about sleeping with his daughter. But Wolf arrives at the moment before her nakedness and can’t go through with it—stopped by the Waterloo steps face. Christie is insulted. She yells at him:

Not only do you refuse really to understand other people; but I sometimes think there’s something in you yourself you’re never even aware of, with all your self-accusations. It’s this blindness to what you’re really doing that lets you off, not your gestures, not even your sideways flashes of compassion.

Like much in Wolf’s life, these women are like the Dorset landscape he walks over. As he crosses this or that hill or dale he is completely at its mercy, his thoughts, his consciousness sinks into it. Much of Powys’s writing about nature is sensually charged; he arrives at the very essence of what brings life into his sensations. Yet this is what Christie is upset about. Between him and his holy sensations, no person can reach.

The division between Gerda and Christie, besides their real-life representatives, was between what Powys saw as two very different types of women. Gerda is physical, more woman, more ‘conventional.’ When she worries about not having a dress for his mother’s attendance at tea, Wolf…

…became suddenly aware of the existence, in the beautiful head opposite him, of whole interests and values that had nothing to do with love-making and nothing to do with romance.

Gerda and his mother represent all that baffles him in women. While he is never surprised at Christie’s thoughts, in fact, he believes they think the same. (Even when Wolf discovers Christie’s book, which details a possible sexual relationship with her father, Wolf is not as surprised as when Gerda wants a new dress!) Christie is what is meant by ‘those mystic syllables, “a girl,” a “young girl.”’ As a first-time reader I missed this distinction; but having read more Powys, I have found lots more Christie’s but never another Gerda. Christie (like Phyllis) is Powys’s ideal, a sylph with thin legs and white ankles, a girlish figure, passive, a female Elemental who can entertain and stir a strange man’s strange sexual sensations.

II. Consciousness

Down under his feet, under this asphalt, under this Somerset clay, down to the centre of the globe, went the mystery of solid matter. Up, up above him, beyond all this thick swine-scented darkness, went space, air, emptiness—the mystery of un-solid matter.

As Wolf is sharply aware of his own inner-consciousness, so he is keenly aware of outer consciousnesses. Krissdóttir pin-points Wolf Solent as set after World War I (though there are never any direct references in the novel); the sky and the earth are swarmed with ‘the monstrous Apparition of Modern Invention.’ Electricity and aeroplanes disturb Wolf the most and he sees the earth as ‘bleeding and victimized’: Modern Invention is a threat to benevolent Nature.

In Nature, Wolf/Powys revels in the ‘souls’ of the myriad creatures, animate and inanimate and the earth itself. Certain places have their own consciousness, such as the slaughtering yard’s pain or Poll’s Camp, an ancient Roman rampart that at one point seems to make love to Gerda as she sleeps atop it. But it is the consciousness of Wolf that is the most well-endowed. He is able to enter into, to join these ‘souls,’ a sensual act, ‘fetish-worship.’

The consciousness of John Cowper Powys, given to Wolf Solent, is massive. And it is rambling. Similar to the proverbial ‘stream of consciousness’ that flows wherever it shall flow, so Wolf’s thoughts ebb and flow. At one moment he’s engaging in a conversation with his father’s skull then begins to contemplate Gerda’s figure then the Elementalism of Christie then Jason’s antagonism. The effect is long-winded, but equally, it is what I find refreshing. Powys wrote to please himself: Thank God!

III. Life-Illusion

The loss of Wolf Solent’s life-illusion is the main moving motive of the novel. Wolf predicts this loss in the beginning, as he rides the train to Ramsgard. The two major threats to his life-illusion are finishing evil Mr. Urquhart’s dirty book and the possibility of seducing Christie Malakite. Wolf’s life-illusion has something to do with escaping reality into his ‘mythology,’ propagating sensations: he re-writes reality in his own terms.

I could argue that a personal life-illusion is necessary and, without knowing it, most practice similar fugues from reality’s brutalities. My life-illusion is my writing, wherein I create a personal reality. So then, the loss of a life-illusion would indeed be staggering. Powys commits a vast number of words to the possibility; it is a preoccupation more important than Gerda or Christie or Nature: his life-illusion is life itself.

The first main and major jab of disruption was the face that turned to Wolf as he entered Waterloo Station. The Waterloo-steps-face was that of Living Despair, the unforgivable and unrepairable suffering of the world. The face turns to Wolf again and again throughout the course of the book, like a moral compass. Mr. Urquhart is at the far end of this spectrum, a man thoroughly evil, he pays no regard to suffering and instead takes joy in assembling a book which showcases it.

The dilemma of accepting money after deciding to finish Urquhart’s book plagues Wolf ferociously. It is difficult not to hear exaggeration, for Wolf has finished the book so cash the check already, you need the money! Only after Gerda sleeps with Bob Weevil, as reparation to Wolf’s obstinacy, does Wolf accept the money. And here the book loses some credulity, somewhat due to the removal of 350 pages. After he loses his life-illusion, Wolf’s thoughts run on in the same vein as before.

Yet Wolf advances, for his troubles direct him to accept that life will be as it is until the end of his days: married to Gerda, in love with Christie, a teacher in Blacksod (or Yeovil) and without ambition to change anything. I can picture Wolf Solent as an old man, walking through the Dorset hills with stick in hand, still muttering the same old thoughts and cursing about how he lost his life-illusion to Urquhart long dead!

I think Wolf Solent merely traded one life-illusion for another, one mythology for another mythology. Like Wolf says to his father’s skull:

There is no reality but what the mind fashions out of its self. There is nothing but a mirror opposite a mirror, and a round crystal opposite a round crystal, and a sky in water opposite water in a sky.

Wolf Solent is one of the most vivid of Powys’s books. What he later populated with an interminable cast of characters is, in Wolf Solent, relatively simple. More than about the loss of a life-illusion, it is the story of a man in middle-years who must face who he has become.



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