I remember talking to a friend a few years ago about how everyone we knew seemed to have a 'personal philosophy' or 'central idea' to them. It's not aI remember talking to a friend a few years ago about how everyone we knew seemed to have a 'personal philosophy' or 'central idea' to them. It's not anything formal or even remotely conscious, but it guides them in everything they do. One would need to know someone pretty well to figure out what their personal philosophy was. We had a good time putting into words what exactly all our friend's philosophies were (and some we weren't sure about). It wasn't easy, but once we hit upon the central theme for a person, a light came on and we were like 'AHA! Everything makes sense now.'-- which doesn't mean we had this person completely figured out, as people are more complicated than that. But it's more like the other way around: we had to already have figured certain things out, and spent a certain amount of time both good and bad with them, before we could come up with even a general idea of what their 'philosophy' was. That is why we limited our little game to only our closest friends.
Then a few weeks ago, while reading Thomas Mann's Joseph and His Brothers, I came upon a quote about this very same idea... and now in this book Wolf Solent again it resurfaces; this idea is the central driving force for the novel. In here, it is called alternately a 'mythology' and a 'dominant life-illusion'. I like the latter more. When I read that term I was like 'philosophy' is completely wrong, of course 'dominant life-illusion' was the term we were looking for! I understood exactly what Powys was talking about before he even had to explain it. For it is in fact an illusion placed on top of reality, a personal interpretation, a personalization of reality that makes it bearable. To our main character Wolf Solent, that life-illusion is even stronger than for most, as it is a conscious thing for him, one that he goes back to for life energy, as a respite and refuge, and perhaps the term 'mythology' works better for his particular case of illusion.
The curious thing about this life-illusion is that it goes both ways. One somehow unconsciously adopts an illusion through which to see the world, through one's own metaphors/ideas/images. But the flip side of that is that the illusion is a way of seeing oneself inside of that world as well. The lies one tends to tell oneself to smooth over the wrinkles. It is a world-illusion but also a self-illusion. It is a propping up of oneself in order to go on, and this is both a necessary and a dangerous thing, because eventually illusions shatter. Reality does not bend to fit our view of it.
I feel like I am not doing a good job of reviewing this book, but simply reacting to it. But that is perhaps my book-illusion, that necessary fiction built up in my head as I read, which is a reflection of my own experiences. I found myself quite critical of Wolf. Wolf is a bit self-righteous and it's nice to see him realize that about himself around the 'Wine' chapter. When he says he will have to let go of his self-illusion, what he means is that he cannot see himself as above everyone else anymore, as somehow more moral, because he has taken Urquhart's money and is about to rendezvous with Christie while her father is at Weymouth. These events have taken away his mythology which is a good and bad thing, in my mind, as I think it will mean he can finally be part of the community instead of set apart. For his illusion is also a crutch that distances him from people, that sheilds himself from the grit and the dirt. And without that letting down of the shield, is there any hope for true intimacy, true knowing?
I find his judgements of people a little unfair... even Weavil--though crude and weak and probably despicable, is not evil (rhyme unintended (at least not by me, but maybe by Powys? (or maybe weasel was the intention))), at least no more than anyone else... there's nothing inherently wrong with lust, it's natural within certain parameters, and these parameters are set by people/community... yet Wolf's parameters are set in his own head and too unyielding. In this he has a lot in common with Christie who also seems to set parameters in her head (though we all do). He's also not able to convince me fully of Urquhart's evil... what has he ever done, other than give off a generally negative vibe... of course there is the thing with Redfern, which he could have been involved in, but we don't know any of the details of that yet, it's all rumors.
It's like Wolf's immediate prejudice against Jason's idol (Mukalog)... what's the harm of Jason having that idol if he believes in it? Isn't that the only thing that Jason held dear other than his poetry? Even if it was sad, it's a physical form of his illusion, perhaps. Wolf has made up his mind that the idol is evil, and takes steps to destroy it, when in fact it's just a piece of sculpted stone.
And yet Wolf is no more holy than anyone else. He's a hypocrite. Going off with Christie is not innocent just because he doesn't sleep with her, ask any woman if this is any more acceptable than full out cheating. These are HIS parameters, and yet if someone else had more strict parameters, then they may see Wolf as an evil man, even WITH his mythology intact.
I wrote most of the above paragraphs in a mad rush while still in the middle of the book... but then I get to the part of the book where his mother scolds him, and I feel like she says it much better than I did (or can) in the paragraphs above:
"Can't you accept once for all that we all have to be bad sometimes... just as we all have to be good sometimes? Where you make your mistake, Wolf"--here her voice became gentler and her eyes strangely illuminated--"is in not recognizing the loneliness of everyone. We have to do outrageous things sometimes, just because we are lonely! It was in a mood like yours when you came in just now that God created the world. What could have been more outrageous than to set such a thing as this in motion? But we're in it now; and we've got to move as it moves. ... Every movement we make must be bad or good ... and we've got to make movements! We make bad movements anyhow ... all of us .. outrageous ones ... like the creation of the world! Isn't it better, then, to make them with our eyes open ... to make them honestly, without any fuss ... than just to be pushed, while we turn our heads round and pretend to be looking the other way? That's what you do, Wolf. You look the other way! You do that when your feet take you to the Malakite shop. you're doing that now, when you carry this naughty book back to that old rogue. Why do you always try and make out that your motives are good, Wolf? They're often abominable! Just as mine are. There's only one thing required of us in this world, and that's not to be a burden ... not to hang round people's necks!" p. 721
But the only reason I am so harsh on Wolf is because I identify with him. I see myself being equally unfair to people, and I also feel like my illusion is harmful at times (as well as helpful at times), and so I take out my frustrations on Wolf. I get angry at him for holding onto his mythology so uncompromisingly, when the things that will break them are so innocent... writing a book that he doesn't completely believe in for someone he thinks is potentially evil, and making love with Christie, whom he already considers as his true love in his head. I say throw those stale self-ideas away and live the way you want to live! His mythology is holding him back, while not truly making him any better than anyone else, any holier or less culpable! Is it any better to remain in a slowly deteriorating relationship with Gerda when you are essentially cheating on her, than to get a divorce and pursue the one you love in the open, come what may? I know what I'm saying is not always realistic to the practical world of the novel, but these are my gut reactions.
Perhaps Wolf's gravest sin is not his mythology--whether he keeps it or not--but his wavering indecision. If he were stronger and more decisive about absolutely not 'selling-out' no matter what, he would not suffer so much, and he would have a certain comfort in his modest life, and a certain happiness in his identity. Nor would he hurt those around him as much. He would be self-righteous but not hypocritically so. On the other hand, if he completely disregarded his mythology and followed his gut, then he would've found a different happiness, and his decisiveness in the matter would cut all ties with his mythology so that he would not feel conflicted about it. It is in that middle region of indecision where all human suffering radiates. And I find myself in that same position often. Not only with his mythology but in many things. Indecision between Christie and Gerda. Between 'good' and 'evil'. Between his mother and his father. Even indecision about what to do once he was inside Christie's bedroom.
This wavering is his ultimate downfall. And because I could see so much of myself in Wolf, I felt for him also when he fell. And boy did he fall. He not only lost his mythology, but also his identity with it as well. The days seem interminable and unbearable. Everything is bleached and meaningless. There was no filter. And there was no illusion about one-self. The disappointment with yourself follows you everywhere. And the feeling that everybody can see that in you, that you have let that compromise who you were. I felt that very deeply. And the way everyone just went about their business, some better than others, and that there was no outward signs of this loss of mythology, no funeral, no grave or gravestone or skull staring up from the weeds. That this was his alone and that he never shared it with anyone, even Christie, but that it is a personal loss that he must bear without aid. The thought that 'other people cannot possibly understand' which stops one from making personal connections when they could have been made, but only at the right time and the right place. And the way he let that slip away, let that opportunity for genuine connection be destroyed.
I don't think it's unfair to say that the novel itself was a bit of a mess--but probably in a good or okay way, overall. It advanced like an old car, lurching forward, then sputtering out. Then going fine for a few miles. Finally about half-way in, it gets really good and picks up speed. But even in that first half there were brilliant moments. And in the last half, there were clunky moments. It was just so uneven, though.
For instance, the scene-building was pretty good, and you get to know all the characters a little bit and plotlines start getting interesting. A certain pace is set. Then suddenly in the chapter 'Christie', he jumps ahead several months, all the just-budding plotlines have been mostly resolved... he's married now, his mother is settled in, etc. basically all momentum is lost, and we were just a third of the way into the book! So Powys has to start almost from scratch building up new momentum. It's almost like he said "well I'm tired of those concerns now, so I'm just going to jump ahead and start talking about what I'm really interested in," but then if that's the case, why didn't he start the book off there? I'm making it sound worse than it is, because truly I didn't care that much, and I think his new concerns were much more interesting anyway, and it didn't make the book any less good, but it definitely was a "hmm, interesting choice..." moment, for me.
I am not sure I get all the characters. Some of them make sense to me but others don't. And some of them make sense to me to a certain point, then they do something seemingly out of character, or out of nowhere, so that I suspect the author's hand had been stirring in it. Overall I enjoyed the passages inside of Wolf's head more than the ones where he's interacting with people. And the ones where he's only interacting with one person for a long time are also enjoyable.
The writing itself was unique and interesting. What's the opposite of personification? Is it animalification? Because that's what Powys loves to do. Except not just animals, but animal-vegetable-mineral, basically naturification. Even the characters' names: Wolf, Weavil, Redfern, Otter, bring up the ideas of animals and plants, or the spirits of them. Most of his metaphors have to do with nature in an all encompassing way. You get the sense that that's how Powys sees the world, his own life-illusion, maybe (which obviously shares some similarities with Wolf's, but I would say some differences also). So that it's not an affectation but seemed to come from a genuine source, that he sees everything as part of the natural world, but bubbling up into the human (and yes that is an artificial demarcation anyway), so that when he writes about the self it is like a bundle of nervous energy that twitches this way and that and is connected to a long lineage of instincts, memories, base-desires, and mysterious magnetisms that build up into something more--as if from the elemental to the transcendent there is a direct connection? (In the end, without his mythology, that umbilical cord is slashed for Wolf, so that it becomes only earthly sensation without higher meaning.) When it works, these passages are wonderful and transition beautifully from the outer to inner worlds and back. When it doesn't work, it's feels gaudy, corny, and awkward. But it works enough that you want to overlook the times where it doesn't.
This was a very odd book. And a very special book. I was sometimes frustrated but never bored. And I loved it, but I wanted to love it more. And that I related to it, sometimes painfully. I will definitely read more John Cowper Powys.
PS - please also go read Mariel's and Eddie's reviews....more
"While they were speaking of--in their opinion--great things, around about them only little things--also in their opinion--were happening: everywhere
"While they were speaking of--in their opinion--great things, around about them only little things--also in their opinion--were happening: everywhere the bushes were turning green, the brooding earth was germinating and beginning to play with her first little Spring creatures, as one might with jewels." - p10
There's something strange creeping around in Adalbert Stifter's prose. On the one hand, it is very plain, open, descriptive. But perhaps it is over-descriptive, and perhaps it is overly precious, and overly tedious. But then isn't it also almost shyly self conscious of its own style? Or is that just my always suspicious way of reading books? Is it not weirdly visual also? Especially the beginning, where we are presented with a visual scene and dialogue, in which we find out who these characters are only through their speech, as if the narrator knew nothing of these folks, and were just spying on them from afar himself. And then later is it also not inconsistent what the narrator knows? Does he not know more than he at first lead on? Is there not something really plainly funny about how he phrases some things? Like the oh-so-telling 'in their opinion' above, the repetition of the phrase, the almost too symmetric balance between big and small, between the young bachelor and the old uncle bachelor? Everything is too tidy, something must be wrong, as in this overly objective detailed (almost dissected) description:
"Distracted from her work by the sound of the young man coming in, she turned her face towards him, the face of an old but beautiful woman, something so rarely seen. Its various pastel shades of colour were soft and each one of the countless little wrinkles bespoke kindliness and warmth. Around all the wrinkles were the further innumerable wrinkles of a snow-white, crimped bonnet. On each cheek there was a delicate blush of red." p18
And yet, this something is so quiet. Like a strangeness just bubbling under a very low heat. It is like a slow cooked turkey, with juices sealed in. It's not giving you a clue as to its directions or intentions, but always hinting at something. Meanwhile it's whistling down the street like nothing is out of the ordinary at all. In fact, it's because it is so ordinary that you become suspicious. In a way, this type of strangeness is so much more interesting to me than the outright strangeness of many modernists/postmodernists. You can read the whole book and come out thinking it is a normal story. It's practically impossible to put your finger on what's abnormal, and yet everywhere it is riddling, creeping, conniving, and acting innocent.
"We must remark at this point what a puzzling, indescribable, mysterious and fascinating thing the future is, before it becomes our present--and when it has, how quickly it rushes by, slipping through our fingers--and then how delineated it lies there as the past, spent and insubstantial!" - p11
The story is a simple one but told in such a style that requires the utmost patience. Then again, because of the above elements, I was always riveted, so no patience was required at all. It pulled me along in a mysterious ever wondering. What happens--as far as plot--is straightforward, yet confusing. I immediately wanted to read it over again, but here I heard there's another version translated by another guy in the collection Limestone and Other Stories, so maybe I'll wait and re-read it there, to see if the different translation will be enlightening. What follows are a few things I'm puzzled about, so spoilers will be employed.
(view spoiler)[It's mostly the uncle's monologue that confuses me. He says that he held Victor as a prisoner because a young man must experience a certain degree of oppression. Something along those lines. That it builds character, basically, in my own words. He criticizes V's foster mom and guardian for being soft, for protecting him and saving up little amounts of money for him. But then later he leaves him all this property and money, which seems to contradict that opinion, and says "don't go to work... many people have toiled their lives away". But isn't working 8-5 the best guarantee of experiencing oppression? Instead he says start a farm, so that all your faculties can be utilized. Here I am again using my own words. I am thinking aloud, as this whole last portion is confusing to me. He emphasizes getting married, and then briefly talks about his relationship with Victor's foster-mother (she rejected him, chose his brother instead, brother and foster mom had a relationship, but then brother married someone else out of obligation (Victor is son of said brother), and foster mom married someone else, and had Hanna.) Later Victor marries Hanna, and this part was out of the blue also, except for an earlier parting where they kissed on the lips, which seemed vaguely incestuous even though they weren't technically related. But also at the time was written in a way where it was perfectly natural, i.e. just pure love of one's brother/sister. Overall, what did Victor learn from his uncle? That if he didn't marry, he'd become lonely and bitter? Why did he say his uncle was a great man? Was it only because he could finally detect the emotion and human-ness beneath the cold exterior? Is that all that's required to become a great man? As far as I can see, he was just a man with a set of very normal complexities. Then there is the weird conclusion about offspring, about leaving a trace. Am I to take these sentiments in earnest? I have a hard time believing them, and believing that the author believed them. Or is he saying the opposite, as "everything perishes" anyway? (hide spoiler)] It is hard to tell, with all the sentiments and advice being tossed around, and without seeing how it plays out in a grown up Victor, which ideas are the ones the writer himself believes. But then again, this doubt about the book's intentions, this constant lack of surefootedness, is what made the entire book so intriguing to me.
Oh what bullshit I could write here. But I won't. No, not in so many words. This book is a reinvention of form, but that's not important because it'sOh what bullshit I could write here. But I won't. No, not in so many words. This book is a reinvention of form, but that's not important because it's not driven by the need to show off. So the reinvention (though necessary) is not the point! It's a means to an end, that end being the need to reconnect, to feel again like we once did about so many things but have been so pathetically unable to. So instead of bullshit I'll just say this, that Mrs. Dalloway killed me a little, and that's a good thing. Fucking shit....more
Sometimes I feel bad for comparing every book I read to something I've read in the past. But a lot of times it seems helpful, especially when comparinSometimes I feel bad for comparing every book I read to something I've read in the past. But a lot of times it seems helpful, especially when comparing books that have nothing to do with each other, in that they bring out a different way of reading, shadows of each reading experience accentuating the other.
Every once in a while, it isn't helpful, but also unavoidable. In cases like this, for instance. My Two Worlds is so firmly in the shadow of Sebald that I cannot not invoke his name. Chejfec uses many of the same devices, but doesn't achieve any of the magic of Sebald.
The question is: does he achieve anything else? Something of his own? That is hard to say. There are some good passages, but they quickly run out of steam, or become way too noodly, caught in a thought about a thought, instead of transcending it into a sort of meditation. A lot of it, while reading, seemed trivial while trying to be deep. The language, while interesting, doesn't sustain long enough for me to lose my breath. There is something here, but it's not enough of its own thing yet for me to truly love.
Next up on my Sebald-inspired reading list... Teju Cole's Open City
PS: But wait! This awesome review makes a good case for this book. Maybe you should give it a chance....more