John Cowper Powys is the greatest novelist that most people have never heard of.
He produced a whole torrent of books about the magic contained within everyday life, and how to defy the competition and conformity demanded by the modern world.
Powysland isn’t a straight biography - it wouldn’t suit him. Instead it explores the places that made the man and his eccentric philosophy, the huge rhapsodic novels and his life as a touring literary prophet. It sets out to discover how he attracted both a fanatical following over the past 100 years, why he’s mattered to so many people then and now - but also became reviled, neglected and forgotten.
There’s a binary divide between those who think Powys one of the giants and geniuses of literature - and those who thought he was a nut and really just too much to stomach. Among the fans have been Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, JB Priestley, and more recently Iris Murdoch, Iain Sinclair, Bernard Cornwell, Margaret Drabble and Philip Pullman. American intellectual George Steiner said he’s the only writer in English language we’ve got who can stand comparison with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.
On the other side you’ve got a big chunk of the literary establishment, reviewers and academia. Which has meant he’s had no chance of making it into the literary canon.
I’ve made my own adventures in Powysland over the past 15 years, joining with the hardcore followers of Powys, visiting the important places to him, trying to figure out how and whether there’s anything to be gained from thinking and living like a Powysian.
In a sanitised world, we need Powys. But he's a writer who's running out of readers. This book will be one way to make sure this one-off in literary history, an English eccentric with so much to say about modern angst and disenchantment, isn’t carelessly forgotten.
Few writers have tickets for the express train. Those that do ride smoothly on the rails of ‘great literature’ ever after, sitting back in the carriages of the canon club: Hardy, Joyce, Lawrence, Woolf, Tolkien - the names which a hundred years on have the redolence of luxury brands and some of the same hard coating of gloss. One of their contemporaries, John Cowper Powys, is an example of what can go wrong, what happens when a potential giant ends up trundling into the backwoods on a branch line.
There’s standing room only on Powys’s train, carriage after carriage of forgotten authors on their way to nowhere. Many will have had bestsellers or even been feted as creators of a masterpiece, but there’s no way back now. It matters in Powys’s case because his work is extraordinary and because he’s so relevant to our anxious 21st-century world. It’s lazy to say he was a genius. What does it mean? Calling Powys a genius only lumps him with Lionel Messi and Laurel and Hardy. It’s better to make it clear he’s the single most distinctive and interesting of English authors, the most exciting and addictive for anyone bookish.
John Cowper Powys changed lives: as a star turn on lecture tours across the USA (where his popularity attracted the attention of intelligence operatives looking for subversives); as a novelist described as the English Dostoevsky, the English Proust; and by helping people make sense of themselves in the modern world, to do more than just muddle through against all-consuming pressures of competition and conformity. Powys’s influence might be relatively limited, but wherever it appears it’s deeply-rooted. He was described as a magician and a sage by writers who made a pilgrimage to visit him before he died in 1963. And fans turn up in unusual places. Isadora Duncan, dancer and international sensation, was so entranced by Powys she filled his room with roses; maverick jazz pianist Glenn Gould was inspired by Powysian ideas; and more recently, Chris Woodhead (the controversial educationalist and Chief Inspector of Schools for England) and Howard Davies (former head of the London School of Economics) have both been active champions.
These people are helping to fund Powysland: The Greatest Writer You've Never Heard Of, And What We Can Learn From Him.