Friday, November 19, 2010

March into the Quaint

I am reading After the Victorians, by A. N. Wilson, a history of Britain in the first half of the 20th Century. Wilson is not easy for me to classify. I'm sure my British friends would be able to tell me exactly where he's taken to stand in the spectrum of English politics and class, these things never being very vague in England. I prefer at the moment not to know.

The greatest interest for me, in this book, is that the events immediately preceding my birth have passed into the historical record, and are now subjects of history in the same way that Victorian times were the subject of history when I first began reading seriously, a generation ago. It's all over and done with, the party passions are receding, and the Horrifying and the Exalting are both making their inexorable march into the Quaint. (And I, obviously, am headed that way myself.)

The greatest shock to me was turning to the photographs, seeing one of John Cowper Powys, and reading this: John Cowper Powys (1872-1963) is surely the greatest English novelist in his generation.

Now, of course, such a statement will never be uncontroversial. But the fact that someone could make it was, to me, staggering. When I was studying for my doctorate in English at Yale, in the early 1980's, there were precisely two people in my class who had read Powys, I and Ian Duncan. We both thought he was terrific. Nobody else had heard of him.

I have been out of academic circles for a very long time. Probably Ian, who last I knew was at Berkeley, making a brilliant academic career, has had a hand in this remarkable literary ressurection. I read Powys when I was perhaps 20 years old, a dusty library book called A Glastonbury Romance, picked nearly at random off the shelves, because anything Arthurian, in those days, had huge magnetism for me. I read the book in a trance. Much of it was beyond me: it teased and disturbed. I was well aware that I had a bigger fish on the hook than my line could stand.

So of course, the next thing on my reading list is to go back to Powys, with I hope a stouter line. I suspect it will still get away, but I'm excited, as I was excited by Nicholson Baker, as I have been excited by modern poetry. It seems I am awake again, as a reader, after a long sleep. And a strange country it is, that I've woken in.

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