Tag Archives: 1932

‘A Glastonbury Romance’ by John Cowper Powys

After finishing John Cowper Powys’s 1,120 page epic, A Glastonbury Romance (AGR), which took just over a month to read, I am finding it difficult to leave Powys’s world behind. I’m reluctant to start anything new and have started reading a (slim) biography of him by Herbert Williams. I keep picking up AGR to re-read parts of it again and think to myself, “Why not read it again?”—but I will resist the urge, for now. The same thing happened after my reading of Wolf Solent and I very nearly started a re-read of that book instead of starting AGR. There is something strangely attractive about his writing; he’s not the best author and AGR is not the best book in the world, but it is very readable, at least I found it so. He’s just an unfashionable writer, unfashionable then and unfashionable now.

Powys is one, of many, authors whom I first heard about from reading Henry Miller when I was younger—others are Jean Giono, Knut Hamsun, L.F. Céline, Sherwood Anderson et al. Two of these authors, Powys and Giono, I’ve only got round to reading for the first time in recent years and both have been impressive, so far. I’m looking forward to reading more by them.

So yes, A Glastonbury Romance is a big book; but once started I was drawn into its mythologies, its many sub-plots and its strange characters, I almost forgot the size of it and only wished it were longer—the same thing has happened with my reading of Dickens and Dostoyevsky. So A Glastonbury Romance was first published in the U.S. in 1932 (and 1933 in the U.K.) three years after Wolf Solent. It won’t be any surprise to find that the bulk of the novel takes place in Glastonbury, Somerset but it begins in Northwold, Norfolk with the reading of Canon William Crow’s will; many of the family members have assembled, such as John, Mary, Philip and Elizabeth Crow, all who feature throughout the novel; Elizabeth is the daughter of Canon Crow and is the aunt of John, Mary and Philip. John has just returned from a period in France and has no real plans for the future, whereas Philip is a successful businessman from Glastonbury. Canon Crow has a surprise in store for everyone as he’s left all his estate to John Geard, who had been the Canon’s valet, secretary and in the end, his friend. Although this revelation causes initial excitement and anger, most of the characters seem to resign themselves to the decision quite quickly—maybe they were half-expecting something of this sort. John decides to walk to Glastonbury and meets a Welsh Arthurian scholar, called Owen Evans, at Stonehenge; Owen happens to be Geard’s daughter’s fiancé.

Thus did these two, the man from Wales and the man from Norfolk, enter the silent streets of the town of Glastonbury.

The rest of the book takes place within Glastonbury and its environs. Powys introduces us to multiple characters and sub-plots and tries to show us the political, philosophical, mythological, quotidian, psychological, sexual, natural life of Glastonbury (n.b. I may have missed some). The political side of Glastonbury is demonstrated by showing three main strands of political life represented by different characters or groups of characters: there is the capitalistic, industrious group represented by Philip Crow and William Zoyland; the socialists are represented by Red Robinson and Dave Spear; and the religious/mystical represented by John Geard and Mat Dekker. There are many others, some connected to these groups, some completely separate that intertwine with this narrative within the novel but there are conflicting interests for the future of Glastonbury (Britain). Crow and Zoyland are ashamed of the mystical past of Glastonbury and want to create industry, wealth and jobs; the socialists are just as ashamed of the mysticism but want to create a commune in the town; and there is Geard, who uses his newly acquired wealth to try to revive the mystical past of Glastonbury. Geard both uses and is used by the others to attempt to accomplish their aims. For instance Geard is supported by the socialist groups to become the mayor of Glastonbury as they believe he can be used to thwart Philip Crow’s industrial plans. When Geard does become mayor he decides to put on a pageant (or passion play) which ends in an amazingly chaotic mess.

John Geard is one of Powys’s brilliant characters but it’s difficult to know whether he’s genuine or a charlatan. At several points in the book Geard seems to suggest that he believes he is the manifestation of Christ; he appears to be at least a mesmeric cult leader. Physically, Geard is rather odd-looking and is described thus:

…a broad-shouldered, rather fleshy individual, without any hat, whose grizzled head under that suspended light seemed to Sam the largest human head he had ever seen. It was the head of a hydrocephalic dwarf; but in other respects its owner was not dwarfish. In other respects its owner had the normally plump, rather unpleasantly plump figure of any well-to-do-man, whose back has never been bent nor his muscles hardened by the diurnal heroism of manual labour.

Geard can work a crowd, he delivers impromptu speeches to audiences, sometimes sober, sometimes drunk and sometimes under some unknown influence. He’s enigmatic but shambolic. Later on in the novel he supposedly cures a cancer victim and during the opening ceremony of a Saxon Arch, he has had built, he seems to bring a recently-deceased boy back to life. Weird? Yes, meanwhile Sam Dekker, the son of the vicar of Glastonbury, has a vision where he sees the Grail in a barge on the canal. Maybe, even more strangely, Powys invests all creatures, indeed, all objects with a living spirit; but Powys has a special affection for trees; the following quote takes place whilst Owen Evans and his new wife, Cordelia, kiss in a wood next to two trees, a Scotch fir and a holly tree, which are also in love with each other.

In the summer when the wind stirs the trees, there is that rushing, swelling sound of masses of heavy foliage, a sound that drowns, in its full-blossomed, undulating, ocean-like murmur, the individual sorrows of trees. But across this leafless unfrequented field these two evergreens could lift to each other their sub-human voices and cry their ancient vegetation-cry, clear and strong; that cry which always seems to come from some underworld of Being, where tragedy is mitigated by a strange undying acceptance beyond the comprehension of the troubled hearts of men and women.

But it’s not all mysticism and animism, in fact, that takes up only a small part of the book; there are many affairs and other dalliances, sexual desires, repressions, sadism and murder. Owen Evans, for example, has sadistic sexual urges which he tries to purge, initially, by playing a crucified Christ at the pageant; later on in the novel he’s obsessed with witnessing a murder; but in both cases he does not really have the stomach for it as his sadistic desires turn to revulsion when realised. Powys switches about between characters, human and non-human, good and evil, at one point we are viewing events from afar and then we fall into the character’s mind. It can be disorienting but also exciting.

One of the new characters that appears in the second-half of the novel is Finn Toller. I can never resist a good description of a character, so here’s Finn:

Mr. Finn Toller in his natural condition was no engaging sight. In his present state he was a revolting object. He was a sandy-haired individual with a loose, straggly, pale-coloured beard. He gave the impression of being completely devoid of both eyebrows and eyelashes, so bleached and whitish in his case were those normal appendages to the human countenance. His mouth was always open and always slobbering, but although his whole expression was furtive and dodging, his teeth were large and strong and wolfish. Mr. Toller looked, in fact, like a man weak to the verge of imbecility who had been ironically endowed with the teeth of a strong beast of prey.

Finn is a nasty piece of work; he thinks that everyone is trying to inveigle him to murder people on their behalf. He’s quite happy to oblige, except for women and children, so when Mad Bet does indeed urge him to murder John, whom she is besotted by, he plans an attack, which forms another sub-plot to this mesmerising novel. As with many of the local characters Finn talks, and thinks, with a Somerset accent. As a little taster of some of Powys’s Somerset dialogue here are a couple of examples of Finn’s:

“I never have liked these here windy nights. These here nights be turble hummy and drummy to me pore head.”

“What I’ve got…to say, Missus, be for Mr. Robinson’s ear alone. Please allow me, Missus, for all that us poor folks have got left”—he stopped and threw a very sinister leer at Red—”be what be put in our minds by they as be book-larned and glib of tongue, like this clever Mister here, who is foreman of his Worship’s. Us poor dogs hasn’t got anything left in the world, us hasn’t, except they nice, little thoughties, they pretty thoughties, what clever ones, like Mister here, do put into we.”

By the way, the ‘nice thoughties’ are those of bludgeoning Philip Crow over the head with an iron bar. In a public speech Red Robinson had called for Philip to be ‘liquidated’, by which Finn takes that to mean that Robinson wants him bumped off; when he repeats Robinson’s words back to him with this ‘understanding’ Robinson is shocked. It’s gruesome but funny as well.

“A bloated capitalist, like ‘im, what do hexploit us poor dawgs, ought to be lickidated.” It was Mr. Toller undoubtedly who was saying that; and Red recognized his own oratorical expression, “liquidated,” the meaning of which, for the word had reached him from Bristol, had always puzzled him—though this had not prevented him from using it in his orations.

But AGR is not all dark, there are light passages as well, humour as well as seriousness, and realism as well as mysticism and a cataclysmic ending for good measure. The aspect I really like about his work is how the narrative weaves between all these. For example, there is a great section where Powys describes a murder and the narrative switches to that of some rooks flying above and some insects on the ground near the body, or in the earlier example where the narrative fades from Owen and Cordelia kissing to the ‘thoughts’ of the trees.

Throughout the novel Powys introduces us to his spiritual philosophy of the First Cause; I always find mystical or spiritual text difficult to ‘understand’ but in Powys’s hands such passages are still stimulating to read. I shall end with a couple of passages as examples.

   There is no ultimate mystery! Such a phrase is meaningless, because the reality of Being is forever changing under the primal and arbitrary will of the First Cause. The mystery of mysteries is Personality, a living Person; and there is that in Personality which is indetermined, unaccountable, changing at every second! The Hindu philosophies that dream of the One, the Eternal, as an Ultimate behind the arbitrariness of Personal Will are deluded. They are in reality—although they talk of “Spirit”—under the bondage of the idea of the body and under the bondage of the idea of physical matter as an “ultimate.”
   Apart from Personality, apart from Personal Will, there is no such “ultimate” as Matter, there is no such “ultimate” as Spirit. Beyond Life and beyond Death there is Personality, dominating both Life and Death to its own arbitrary and wilful purposes.

What mortals call Sex is only a manifestation in human life, and in animal and vegetable life, of a certain spasm, a certain delicious shudder, a certain orgasm of a purely psychic nature, which belongs to the Personality of the First Cause.


Filed under Fiction, Powys, John Cowper

The Radetzky March Readalong: Part One

When Caroline, at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, and Lizzy, at Lizzy’s Literary Life, announced that they were hosting a ‘Radetzy March Readalong’ I knew I’d have to join in. The Radetzky March is comprised of three parts and Caroline and Lizzy have asked those of us taking part to consider questions related to each part. Here are my answers to the questions on Part One.

What enticed you to readalong with us?
I have read a few books by Joseph Roth and have enjoyed them all but I hadn’t read his most famous novel, The Radetzky March, which is the only book by Roth to be included in Boxall’s list 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. The books by Roth that I have read are Hotel Savoy, The String of Pearls, The Hundred Days and, one of my favourite books, The Legend of the Holy Drinker. I’ll admit that The Radetzky March had never really appealed to me as much as Roth’s other books but when Caroline & Lizzy first made public their intentions I was reading Ring of Steel by Alexander Watson which was about the First World War from Germany’s and Austria-Hungary’s perspective and so I thought that it would be a good time to read a novel about the Austria-Hungaria military set prior to WWI.

Which edition/translation are you using and how is it reading?
I am reading a Kindle version of the Granta edition translated by Michael Hofmann. I bought it back in 2014 from Amazon when they were selling it off cheap. I have no issues with the translation.

Is the novel living up to your expectations?
Well, yes and no. It hadn’t appealed to me before as I’m usually reluctant to read military books; though in the past I have ended up enjoying some books, or sections of books, that have a military setting. The first chapter I really enjoyed but I felt that it read more like a self-contained short story than the opening chapter of a novel. I felt the next few chapters were a bit confusing as Roth jumps a generation to concentrate on Carl Joseph. I have now re-read parts of the book including the whole of chapters seven and eight and I’m enjoying it a lot more now. I’m now looking forward to Parts Two and Three a lot more than I was.

How would you comment on the first few sentences? Is this an effective opening? “The Trottas were not an old family. Their founder had been enobled following the battle of Solferino. He was a Slovene. The name of his village – Sipolje – was taken into his title. Fate had singled him out for a particular deed. He subsequently did everything he could to return himself to obscurity.” (Translation: Michael Hofmann)
The opening lines almost summarise the whole of the first chapter but hides enough to make the reader intrigued to find out more. I always like opening lines that draw the reader in. I thought they were effective.

Roth subscribed to Chekhov’s view that a writer “should not be a judge of his characters or what they say, but an impartial witness”. That doesn’t mean that we as readers need to be the same! How do you feel about the hero of Solferino’s crusade to return to obscurity? What are the ramifications of this for his descendants?
When the elder von Trotta discovers that the story of him saving the Emperor’s life has been used for propaganda purposes he feels as if he has been cheated of the truth. No-one he talks to can understand his level of indignation over this but it is enough for him to leave the military and move away. When he objects to this mythologising of this part of his life he just receives more honours. His faith in Emperor and Empire appears to be broken. His descendants, however, appear to accept their place amongst the aristocracy without question but this places a burden on them, and especially on Carl Joseph as he embarks on a military career, to constantly live up to the example set by the Hero of Solferino.

Carl Josef von Trotta follows his grandfather into the military. Is his life there honourable and meaningful? Is his fateful relationship with Dr Demant’s wife innocent?
Carl Joseph doesn’t seem to know quite how to behave. He doesn’t know how to talk to his servant, as he suspects his grandfather would have. He doesn’t feel comfortable with the other officers as he doesn’t share their enjoyment of drinking, womanising and playing cards. The military life in peacetime seems meaningless as he is denied the possibility of matching his grandfather’s achievement.

It is not clear whether Carl Joseph was romantically involved with Frau Demant: Demant’s father-in-law tells Demant that Carl Joseph was with his wife but Demant wants to believe that nothing is going on— Demant does not want to know the truth, whereas Baron von Trotta insists the truth should be told. Early on in the narrative everything suggests that Carl Joseph and Frau Demant’s relationship is not platonic. But once the duel has been declared Carl Joseph states that he was just escorting Frau Demant home on the night in question. This could be true but that does not mean that there was nothing going on between them before, or Carl Joseph could be dissembling. It is not clear why Demant left his wife at the theatre during the Second Act.

Strauss’s Radetzky March is heard almost as a refrain throughout this section. What is the significance of that?
As Strauss’s Radetzky March is jubilant and triumphant I can only assume that its appearance throughout the novel is ironic. As it has a military history it is relevant to Roth’s story.

Roth may not judge his characters, but his sights are aimed at other targets: the social order and the military code of honour, for instance. How does Roth critique these?
None of the Trotta men seem to be in control of their lives. When the Lt Trotta is enobled his old life is extinguished and he feels separated from his father whom he respects and loves. He forces his son, Franz, into a bureaucratic career whilst Franz forces his son, Carl Joseph, into a military career. Sons obey their fathers and subjects obey their Emperor. As aristocrats they have certain rights or privileges such as Carl Joseph’s apparent right to sleep with Sergeant Slama’s wife but they also have certain duties such as fighting duels to defend their honour—there is an excellent passage at the beginning of chapter eight which highlights this tension between rights and duties:

The officers went about like the baffling followers of some remote and cruel godhead, which simultaneously cast them as its colourfully disguised and magnificently decked sacrificial animals. People looked at them and shook their heads. They even felt sorry for them. They have many advantages, so people said. They can walk around with swords, women fall in love with them, and the Emperor looks after them in person, as if they were his own sons. But then, in a trice, before you’ve noticed anything, one of them has managed to offend another, and the offence needs to be washed away with red blood!…

Set in what was very much a man’s world, what do you think of the way Roth portrays the female characters?
Female characters are noticeable by their absence. A novel about the military is going to be mostly about men but the wives and mothers of the three von Trotta men are barely mentioned at all and there is no mention of sisters, aunts etc. I don’t think Carl Joseph’s mother is even mentioned; it’s as if male begets male. Carl falls in love with Frau Slama at an early love and doesn’t seem to get over her but one wonders if that is because she is the only female he has any contact with. Frau Demant is probably the most prominent female character in the first part.

Do you have any further comments on this section?
I initially struggled a little with my reading of The Radetzky March but I’m coming round to suspect that the trouble is with me. I sometimes find it difficult jumping from one author to another especially when their styles differ which is what happened here as I went straight from reading L. P. Hartley to Joseph Roth. I was also expecting the novel to progress slowly through the generations but instead it jumped from grandfather to grandson which was unexpected. I have sometimes found the narrative to be deliberately misleading but I’m getting used to Roth’s style—I don’t recall his other books being difficult in this way.

In writing this post I have re-read several sections and the whole of chapters seven and eight and realise there was a lot that I missed which I put down to reading large portions of the book under ‘hostile reading conditions’, i.e. noisy and disjointed. I’m looking forward to advancing to Part Two. I loved the beginning of Chapter Eight where Roth compares the years before and after WWI—Vishy quotes the whole section in his post.


Filed under Fiction, Roth, Joseph