T. F. Powys - He sets his tales in a grotesquely exaggerated rural landscape, not because he has any nostalgia for the way of life it may once have contained, but because, by doing so, he is free to strip human beings down to their barest elements - their lust, greed, cruelty and stupidity, and the mixture of dread and yearning

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T. F. Powys, Unclay, New Directions, 2018.  [1931.]


T. F. Powys is a forgotten genius like no other―and Unclay is his masterpiece
New Directions is proud to present one of the most spellbinding novels you will read this year, and certainly the weirdest.
First published in 1931, Unclay glows with an unworldly light―Death has come to the small village of Dodder to deliver a parchment with the names of two local mortals and the fatal word unclay upon it. When he loses the precious sheet, he is at a loss, and also free of his errand. Hungry to taste the sweet fruits of human life, Mr. John Death, as he is now known, takes a holiday in Dorsetshire and rests from his reaping. The village teems with the old virtues (love, kindness, patience) and the old sins (lust, avarice, greed). What unfolds is a witty, earthy, metaphysical, and delicious novel of enormous moral force and astonishing beauty.

“The greatest value of his work is in showing that it is still possible to write about the primordial human experiences to which religion is a response. Very few 20th-century authors have the knack of writing convincingly of first and last things.”- John Gray, New Statesman

“For those who have learned to like him there is no one whose prose work is more prized today than T. F. Powys, an esoteric genius: his books are puzzling, engaging, and illuminating, glowing with a gentle, a half eerie light, humane, ironic and wise. Powys gives pleasure and delight, unique and surprising music.”- The New York Times (1928)

“Grimly brilliant.”- John Carey, The Sunday Times

“A master stylist and one of the most original of all English storytellers. T.F. Powys’s novels and the powerful Unclay ‘stand up like oaks.’”- TLS

“Essentially T. F. Powys’s novels are parables: heretical, scandalous, and mocking, but essentially parables. 'I believe too much in God,' he once confessed.”- Jorge Luis Borges

“Mr. Powys is not a writer for everybody, but I am sure that he is a writer for posterity: indeed, of living authors I consider him the most notable, both as a thinker and a stylist.”- Sylvia Townsend Werner

In this intriguing, slightly musty novel originally published in 1931, Powys (Mr. Weston’s Good Wine) fleshes out Death as a character, from grim reaper to a dandified hero, an instrument of consolation and consummation rather than destruction. Having lost a parchment on which the names of his next two victims are written, a mortified Death must linger in the rural British town of Dodder, picking up odd jobs (mower, sexton) while trying to recover his document. He is as skilled at seduction as he is with a scythe, though one local beauty, Susie Dawe, kindles in the proud figure novel feelings: jealousy, sorrow, and love, whose “trade is to hurt and destroy.” Powys’s quaint village brims with eccentrics and sinners, and gentle humor exists alongside a brutal frankness about power and sex. Susie’s father invites suitors to spy on her through a peephole in her bedroom and arranges her marriage to a loathsome sadist, while the local nobleman, Lord Bullman, contemplates reinstating the feudal right of prima nocta. Powys has a tic-like reliance on apercus, which can be intriguing or almost comically banal (“To drink one opens one’s mouth”), but the overall effect is numbing. Nonetheless, it is hard not to succumb to the strange, animating energy in Powys’s allegorical tale about Death’s redeeming qualities. - Publishers Weekly

A reissue of an amusing 1931 work by this British author that describes the strange doings among rural villagers and how they’re affected by the arrival of an outsider.
“Country people do like oddities,” Powys writes in this wry allegory. “There would be no pleasure for them if all their neighbors were ordinary.” One day in the English village of Dodder, Death misplaces the parchment with his latest orders to “unclay” two people. Joe Bridle finds it and sees his name and that of his true love, Susie Dawe. Joe’s Aunt Sarah thinks she is a camel, which suits Mr. Balliboy, a man who decides he would like to marry a beast of burden. Nine-year-old Winnie, who has an answer for everything, sets her cap for Mr. Solly, who believes women are turnips and other vegetables. The Rev. Hayhoe believes anything by Jane Austen “to be almost as necessary to salvation" as the Bible. But why is the mysterious Tinker Jar weeping? And what message does Winnie receive from the Angel Gabriel? Powys (1875-1953), brother of the novelist John Cowper Powys, gained some fame for the 1927 novel Mr. Weston’s Good Wine (a phrase from Austen’s Emma), in which the title character, who is apparently God, visits a rural village. This novel follows a similar parablelike pattern, with Death in the supernatural role. The plot loosely follows three men’s pursuits of Susie while the author observes the oddities of innocents, eccentrics, and grotesques. The villagers often dwell on amorous activity that ranges from arcadian to earthy to droit de seigneur and one suitor’s sadistic bent. The voice is satirical but generally gentle, even bumpkin-esque, and sometimes precious, calling to mind Swift, Twain, Austen, and Jerome K. Jerome. It manages masterfully to cover the spectrum of human failings, from petty to vile, with insight and humor.
A delightful entertainment with a wit too rarely seen now in fiction. - Kirkus

This is probably the major novel of T.F. Powys, one of the talented family of Powys brothers, who were all writers, but it is not widely known. Theodore can simplistically be characterised as the gloomy hermit in the family, contrasting with the joie-de-vivre evident in Llewellyn Powys. His world is very religious, without appearing to believe in any conventional Christian theology. His world is thoroughly rural – the author hid himself in the Dorset countryside, and became less and less willing to meet people, as he became older.
This book is set in a rural village, drawing deeply on East Chaldon, where he lived for many years. This creates a hermetically sealed world, where Powys can develop an intense and allegorical ethos. It is a world with traditional, even feudal, relationships, laced with extraordinary suppressed violence and strange sexual relationships. This is by no means a cosy English village. Violence breaks through in the brutal beating of a dog, in what amounts to a domestic rape scene.
However – and this is hard to explain – it is also a deeply comic novel. Powys comes alive in writing about the innocent clergyman Mr Hayhoe and the local squire Lord Bullman, as well as the villagers with their strange obsessions – like the woman who thinks she is a camel and the man who thinks nut trees will defend him from love. The main character of the book is Death himself – John Death, dressed in smart clothes and frequently carrying a scythe, who gets the job as the local gravedigger! Death is a direct allegorical character, and it is daring of an author to write so directly, to give his positive message that death is a release from the pains of life.
The clergyman Mr Hayhoe meets Mr Death in a country lane scratching his head looking for something he has lost. Ludicrously, Mr Hayhoe wonders if he is an insurance agent, but he flashes darkness from his eyes and causes a “curious feeling of cold dread”. Mr Death has lost a vital parchment which God has given him with orders to kill two people in the village – but Powys uses the curious and evocative word “unclay” for his task of relieving people from the sad pains and burdens of life and love.
Mr Death decides to stay in the village for a while and the book is built around his time there, until the climactic ending. After the energy of being introduced to the many quirky characters of the village, and the boldness of this narrative of Death, as well as the stimulation from Powys’s direct, bald yet florid writing style, I confess that the book sagged in the middle for me. There is no strong central story to drive forward the reader, and I found the book meandered too much and got stuck in too much aphoristic statement making. It took me many weeks to read through this book, and I felt reluctant to pick it up again at times, feeling it was too heavy and that I was possibly too stupid to understand the book’s purpose. However I was eventually rewarded, when the pace speeded up again and the high comic spirit returned to create a great ending to the book.
One of the characters of the book is the authorial voice. This voice makes many comments and statements that take one aback, or seem to hover between madness and profundity, or between simple beauty and banality. These aphoristic comments are not entertaining like Oscar Wilde, but have a heavy, individualistic, pessimistic tone. I clearly detected Theodore Powys’ character directly in this authorial voice.
In one short section in chapter 49 the author suddenly and touchingly uses the personal possessive: “Was it a mere chance that a yellow leaf, driven before the wind, lifted up and blown here and there along the lanes, until at last a wilder gust, or a swirl of eddies, carried the leaf into my room and placed it upon the paper beside my pen? Has the leaf a known purpose? Does it come to ease me of my care, or has it come to say that it loves me? What is it that takes a man, as well as a leaf, out of his path, and bids him follow a road that he has not intended to travel?”
This unintended path leads us to one of the climactic scenes of the book: Dodder churchyard, with Death about to strike a naked girl with his scythe. Two men happen to take a walk to the churchyard and come upon the scene just in time. Death desists saying “Love is as strong as death, and it is not given to me now to dispute a man’s right to a mortal girl. My time will come. He, under Whom I have my dominion and my power, is a dark star. Who can escape Him? I thought to have enjoyed Susie and to have forsaken for ever the hard task that has been laid upon me, and I almost attained to that freedom.”
It is hard to wring a consistent metaphysic from Powys’s utterances. But you realise he is not being deep and serious, but actually deeply and darkly comic. This is illustrated a few paragraphs down when Death talks about literature. Of all the books in English literature to choose from, he cites ‘The Watsons’ (by Jane Austen), which is a quirky Powysian choice, the reading of which “can give a greater happiness than a whole night with a Helen or Lais”. I think Powys is joking with us, in an eccentric, sardonic fashion. My conviction that he is tongue-in-cheek in the midst of this dramatic churchyard scene is confirmed by another strange comment of death’s, referring to God: “If only my Master had been educated at Benet College in Cambridge instead of in Palestine, perhaps He might have thought a little differently about prose writers. But as it is, He always preferred a short story to a novel, viewing a parable and a short story as the same thing.”
So my two messages about this difficult book are 1) persist to the end, if you have the courage to start reading it, and 2) view it as a comic novel through and through, if you want to understand the author’s purpose in writing it. - John Vernon

Generally speaking, I find that modern (well, in this case early 20th Century – but let’s not split hairs) attempts to appropriate or re-introduce or bastardise (or whatever) the medieval notion of the moralising allegorical characterology vary from incredibly irritating to down-right offensive (I’m looking at you Philip Roth (has anyone here actually read Everyman? (Roth’s novel, not the original play) – uurrrch, what a mess)).  By “allegorical characterology”, I mean all those personifications of moral abstracts that function as the literal protagonists of early medieval drama:- plays like the aforementioned Everyman or Wisdom or Mankind,  all populated by such “characters” as ‘Truth’ and ‘Felawshyp’, ‘Goodes’ and ‘Knowledge’ and ‘Kyndenesse’ etc.  Which is fine, I like medieval drama as much as the next.. er… dork; I mean, it inevitably results in some spectacularly unsubtle brick-to-the-face catechisms like “Everyman must forsake Pryde, for he deceyveth you in the ende” etc., but the intended function was evangelical and proselytizing rather than lyrical or poetic. Even today their value leans more towards the historically educative or curious than the literarily significant (and yup, I did have to read this stuff at university – can you tell?).
Anyway, as I was saying: attempts to introduce these types of personifications into modern fiction have a tendency to get on my nerves – not always, I’m not going to start bashing Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal or anything – but I often find them to be quaint, overly earnest historicisms rather than the revelatory and prophetical system-shocks that so many writers so obviously intend.
Just imagine my trepidation, then, when I opened T.F. Powys’ nearly-lost weird fiction curio Unclay only to discover that the lead is one Mr Death, a (or should that be ‘the’?) r(/R)eaper living in the quasi-fictitious rural village of Dodder.  Death has been sent to ‘Unclay’ (verb – a neologism but w/ obvious etymology) two of the village’s inhabitants, though finds himself unable to do so having lost the slip of parchment upon which the names of the unclayees are scribed.  Unsurprisingly, the narrative is peppered with such horrible wink-wink/nudge-nudge constructions as ‘Death is just around the corner’ or ‘with gladness they saw Death come’ (etc.), but given Powys’ elsewhere magnificent prose, it’d be somewhat harsh to attribute the clumsy and frankly boorish nature of such phrasings to any deficiency of his; rather, this ungainliness, lacking in both humour and depth, more likely exposes the weaknesses and inherent problems in this kind of personification as a narrative form than in Powys as a writer. But setting that aside as my own idiosyncratic problem with the genre, I quickly discovered that there’s a heck of a lot to like about Unclay.
Powys’ prose is a strange mix of aphoristic religious argot, abstracted dreamscape, grammatically non-standard expression and hallucinatory horror that calls to mind modern Dadaoist writers like Michael Cisco or Thomas Ligotti far more than any of Powys’ own 1930’s contemporaries.   Yet counterpointed against this arch and affected style is a lyrical romanticising of the rural and bucolic English countryside that’s almost Thomas Hardy-esque, both in its nature-heavy descriptions and its eagerness to present a countryside that’s at once beautiful and wild; sacrosanct and carnal.  And if that’s not weird enough for you, wait until you encounter the book’s supporting cast: a woman who thinks she’s a camel, a man who’s transferred his libido into a line of nut trees, and a priest who convinces women to become prostitutes, only to spend hours reading Jane Austen to them in an attempt to curtail their wickedness. I swear I’m not making this shit up.  Imagine Tess of the D’Urbervilles on acid, and you’ll get the picture:
As Joe Bridle bent over the pond, two dead corpses rose up but, when he thought he knew their sodden dead faces, the waters thickened and the faces vanished […] When the wind grew still, other things happened, Horrid creatures – great pond beasts – newts and vipers, swarmed about him in the darkness. A year-old corpse crawled out of the water and clutched at the paper with foul dripping fingers.
Once settled in Dodder, Mr Death discovers sex in what is, essentially, a strange literalisation of the Thanatos meets Eros psychoanalytic paradigm. It’s (at last) a creative use of death as personification, as Powys externalises the death//sex desires by making his Mr Death sexually irresistible.  By having (almost) the entire cast sleep with Death at one point or another, Powys converges the sex drive with the death drive in what’s both a striking visual tableau and a blackly comic attempt at a literary proof of Freud’s most famous subconscious pairing.  Of course there’s more than a little ironic sardonicism in Death’s new found joi de vivre and sex addiction, but this kind of mischievous exploitation of ostensibly incongruent ideas is probably the best example I can use to sum-up the dark, goulish playfulness of Powys’ writing. There’s definitely some sympathy with the notion of Death as the cosmic jester, as epitomised in the medieval danse macabre aesthetic tradition; and if death vs. sex isn’t your particular brand of literary tote-bag, don’t fear – there’s a whole cardinal’s migraine of sinful/holy pairings being subjugated to Powys’ gallows-humour marriages of the disparate.
There’s also some dramatic irony at play: the reader knows that Susie, the significant object of Death’s affection, is the very person he has been sent to Unclay, and while this adds a trite level of predictability to the book, especially with regards to the you-can-see-it-coming-from-a-mile-away ending, the obviousness of the dénouement is essentially mitigated from any tedium because inevitability and fatalistic determinism (if not nihilism) are the very themes the book is all about. There’s a pleasing sense of closure as Powys simultaneously toys with and meets the reader’s expectations of the narrative in a way that mimics the teasing unpredictability yet ultimate inevitability of death (and Death).
As far as I can tell though, a lot of people’s negative reactions to the book have origins in T. F. Powys’ meandering, abstract and, let’s be honest, very difficult prose.  Everything I’ve mentioned above; the comic exploitation of BIG and SERIOUS ideas, is all undercut (though I think, also, augmented) by the achingly sad and obvious fact that Powys was a man plagued by deep religious conflict.  There are frequently long, tangential and inconsistent musings on the book’s themes and characters, as Powys performs exegesis on his own text in an attempt to settle his religious problems.  These often take the form of grand philosophical aphorisms or maxims, which are then only repudiated and thrown into question by more grand aphorisms and maxims later on.  Definitely Christian, it’s difficult, however, to parse any sense of an established orthodoxy. The kind of moral inconsistency that glorifies in comic representations of sex and marriage but expresses a shocking disgust and conservatism over, say, the notion of unbaptised babies makes Unclay a dramatically unstable and ungraspable book – which I think adds all the more to its beauty and depth, but could understandably be read as incredibly irritating.
I’ve probably not done Unclay justice, if only because it’s strikingly difficult to write briefly about without also performing an almost sacrilegious disservice to its complexity.  It’s at once beautiful and disgusting, open-minded but horrifically sexist.  There’s a sadness to be found in Powys’ brave and comic but ultimately unresolved wrestling with his own strange conception of religion and morality.  The danse macabre trips its steps all over the fields of Unclay, in all its inconsistent, cadaverously cackling jest.
Tomcat. - https://tomcatintheredroom.com/2012/04/15/unclay-t-f-powys/

Usually novels from the early twentieth-century (think “Modernism”)  written in the style of the late-nineteenth century (think Thomas Hardy) and borrowing from a number of early-nineteenth century writers (think Jane Austen) with a particular religiosity are not for me. I don’t love religion, and I especially don’t love the idea of a religion after President Trump. My Hanukkah celebration this year was receiving a text message from my Dad, glimpsing at the picture of his menorah.
For me, then, the pleasure of T.F. Powys’s Unclay (published in 1931) is its treading the water between mindless and mindful spiritualities and my not being put off by it. The novel’s plot is simple, with some fantastical digressions: Death is coming to take the lives of the plucky Joseph Bridle and bored Susie Dawes in the English village of Dodder, but loses the “parchment,” marked with the death order to “UNCLAY.” After losing the parchment, Death is unable to remember the names of the couple without an intervention of God and so sets out to find his work order. He meets the affable Mr. Hayhoe (Dodder’s reverend, who loves Jane Austen so much that “every word written by [her] he believed to be almost as necessary to salvation), who manages to convince Death to stay in Dodder for a while. Thus we have the mysteriously suave Mr. John Death, who quickly makes a name for himself playing with children (including the precocious Winny Huddle), curing women of their “madness” (one woman, Sarah Bridle, thinks she’s a camel) and “sin” (another, Daisy Huddle, is a prostitute) through “carnality,” “whetting” his scythe (and cutting green, genteel English grass), all the while searching for what’s lost. There’s no evil in this Death—he just has a job to do, delivered from up high.
Eventually, after he is beset by “Love” (his unembodied counterpart) and growing idle with desire for Susie (also lusted after by Joseph Bridle and the cartoonishly evil Mr. Mere), Death recovers the parchment from Joseph Bridle and “vanishes” after being ordered to “UNCLAY” the misogynistic and conspiratorial Mr. Mere and Mr. Dawes. Joseph Bridle and Susie Dawes are united together in love and death as they “stept” into Joseph’s pond, receiving Death “[w]ith gladness.” This love and resignation for Death is an odd quirk of the novel, but is its own form of common sense. As the narrator says,
“For Predestination is a strange cat. That all should be arranged from the beginning to go so funnily is a queer concern. One would think almost that at the bottom of the well of being one may discover, instead of a mighty God, only the cap and bells of a mad fool. But, whoever be there, He has a fine fancy, and likes to play a trick upon His Friends, and may introduce John Knox to the Devil instead of to Moses.”
Death, like his “UNCLAY” notices, is unpredictable, yet so desirable. Without death, there’s no life, right?
Before reading Unclay I was interested in what I saw similar to the world of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman (published in 1967, but written around 1939-40), a novel concerned with the dynamics of a small village and something also erratically, if not supernaturally, lost. But that book’s humor is effaced by the sort of earnestness in Unclay that it shares with Henry Green’s Living (1929) and Loving (1945). Powys has a dry sort of funny, one aware of its own mortality and silliness, all the while dedicating itself to a decidedly subversive weirdness. It is a weaponized humor in the way that alternative irony is now a mainstream comedic, and commercial, approach: Done genuinely, a mordant humor is incisive and lively, self-aware of its purposiveness. With commercial fixings, it bespeaks a rotted sense of cultural self, a benign “wokeness” in a crappy Christmas sweater tweeting about its brand.
John Death takes on that attitude near novel’s end when confronted by Lord Bullman, mistaking John for a “thieving tailor.” Lord Bullman says he’d rather have dead flowers than stolen ones, and so John delivers:
“John Death cast the dust over the flowers. A change came over them. Their beauty waned; as a young girl’s who is ravished and spoiled before she be ripe for love, so the lovely flowers drooped sadly, as though parched by excessive heat, or frozen by a January frost. A silent destruction.”
This (from the chapter “A Bed of Begonias”) is a good sample of Unclay: lithe language concerned with flowers, sexuality, and decay, quick to point out beauty’s abrupt intensity, and fragility. I also thought about Virginia Woolf’s final work, Between the Acts (1941), when reading about John’s interactions with Dodder. Both novels have villages and odd assortments of people, and both are concerned with a type of England and its flowers. But Unclay beams where Between the Acts’s mourns: Humans are screwed, Death always wins, and making peace with one’s god is all one can hope to do. Accept Mr. John Death into your life, because that’s that. Life isn’t a series of meet-cutes and Netflix romcoms.
One may call me a jaded punk burnout. But I’m not entirely (un)happy. Unclay helped me think about who our “gods” are when faced with a hearty Mr. John Death. Untethered to a spirituality and community in an era of late-, if not post-, capitalism, at the start of the Anthropocene, who do we look to when Death is around? Our Twitter threads and Insta stories? Our “philosophers” and “writers?” Our self-aware Netflix and HBO programming? Our vaguely clean realpolitik? Is it the sardonic, Jewy, refreshingly ironic and callus Red Scare podcast, which a profile by The Cut describes as “a document of the confusion of our moment”? I don’t know. Probably not. But still: How do we meet Death as real, tangible, material, and not something abstracted on our iPhones?
I have no clue. I’m not smart enough to answer these questions. That’s it. Go home. But take this with you, courtesy of T.F. Powys’s Unclay: “Life and death do not quarrel in the fields. They are always changing places in the slow dance. Alive here and dead there. So the evening is devoured by the night, and the dawn by the day.” - Matt Morgenstern

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T. F. Powys, Fables, Faber and Faber, 2011,

Inanimate objects take life and animals speak in T. F. Powys's collection of fables, which was first published in 1929: a dish-cloth and an old pan, lying on a rubbish heap, discuss the emotional intricacies of the household that has discarded them; the efforts of a determined spinster to marry off all her furniture end in tragedy; a rabbit takes advice from a viper to avenge the death of her son. Set in the Dorset countryside that also inspired Powys's novels, these are tales of morality, original and surprising, as all good fables should be.

T. F. Powys, Mr. Weston's Good Wine, Wildside Press, 2013.

Theodore Francis Powys (1875-1953) was a British writer from a family of writers, best know for his idiosyncratic Christian allegorical fantasy, Mr. Weston's Good Wine. John Carey of the Sunday Times called it "grimly brilliant," and many consider it a masterpiece.

T. F. Powys, Kindness in a Corner,

T. F. Powys, Mr. Tasker's Gods, Faber and Faber, 2011.
Mr Tasker's Gods was T. F. Powys's first novel. Written during the First World War it wasn't published until 1925. It is an unsettling work constantly showing the brutal reality behind the facades. Mr Tasker himself, on the surface, a respectable farmer and God abiding churchwarden is, in fact, 'a brute beast of the most foul nature' Many of the initial reviews were hostile, but that was largely because of the author's treatment of the church. It is under constant attack with the services being described as 'a sort of roll-call to enable authority to retain a proper hold upon the people'. Faber Finds are reissuing six works by T. F. Powys: Mr Tasker's Gods, Mark Only, Mockery Gap, Innocent Birds, Fables and God's Eyes A-Twinkle.

T. F. Powys, Mockery Gap, Faber and Faber, 2011.

Mockery Gap is the story of a tiny village on the coast of England, and a series of events arising out of the complex currents set flowing in this simple community by the chance remarks of a chance visitor. This is Mr James Tarr, a gentleman of ethnological pursuits with a desire to impress himself firmly upon people. He exercises this passion on the inhabitants of Mockery Gap, and the effect of carefully-weighted suggestion upon minds given to credulity and superstition makes for far-reaching and devastating consequences.

 "By all conventional standards, T F Powys is the least modern of writers. His novels and short stories are set in a landscape as far removed as possible from anything smart or urban - a fantastical version of English village life, in which human emotions work themselves out against a backdrop of brooding countryside . . . Writing as an allegorist or fabulist rather than any sort of conventional realist, Theodore Powys looks not to the present or the future, but to the past. He sets his tales in a grotesquely exaggerated rural landscape, not because he has any nostalgia for the way of life it may once have contained, but because, by doing so, he is free to strip human beings down to their barest elements - their lust, greed, cruelty and stupidity, and the mixture of dread and yearning with which they respond to the prospect of death." - John Gray, New Statesman

T. F. Powys, Innocent Birds,

T. F. Powys, God's Eyes A-Twinkle, Faber and Faber, 2011.

God's Eyes A-Twinkle offers a conspectus of thirty eight short stories by T. F. Powys drawn from the following collections: Bottle's Path; No Painted Plumage; Captain Patch; The House with the Echo; The White Paternoster; The Left Leg. The stories included are: A Loud Lie; Darkness and Nathaniel; Only the Devil; The Seaweed and the Cuckoo-Clock; Jesus' Walk; The Key of the Field; I Came as a Bride; The Gong; The White Weathercock; When Thou wast Naked; Charlotte Bennett; John Pardy and the Waves; Mr Pim and the Holy Crumb; King Duck; The Bucket and the Rope; The Devil; The Only Penitent; The White Paternoster; The Stone and Mr Thomas; My Money; Christ in the Cupboard; Archdeacon Truggin; The Left Leg; A Christmas Gift; The Candle and the Slow-Worm; The Lonely Lady; The Rival Pastors; The Golden Gates; The Dog and the Lantern; Captain Patch; No Room; The Dewpond; Bottle's Path; Gold; In Dull Devonshire; Lie The Down, Oddity!; John Told and the Worm; The Corpse and the Flea. Charles Prentice, who had been T. F. Powys' editor, concludes his preface in a way that would be difficult to better, 'They (the stories) should all be read slowly. Powys is not a literalist; his words convey more than their face value. These stories treat of the general and unalterable, with subtlety of thought and feeling, and with simplicity of presentation. Wisdom and humour are embedded in them. They reveal the infinite mystery, the fluid inconsistencies of life. They are delicate, wiry and human. 'God's eyes' are 'a-twinkle'. But the main business is the incalculable doings of that oddity Man.' In addition to God's Eyes A-Twinkle, Faber Finds are reissuing the following T. F. Powys books: Mr Tasker's Gods; Mark Only; Fables; Mockery Gap; Innocent Birds.


T. F. Powys, an English Tolstoy?  by Michael Caines
In the autumn of 1925, the question facing Gerald Bullett was this: how was he to fill a page of the next number of the Saturday Review? There were two books under consideration for the issue of September 12, 1925, a novel by T. F. Powys called Mockery Gap and More Tales of the Uneasy by Violet Hunt. Bullett began with the novel:
“Two years ago Mr T. F. Powys hit on the amusing idea of writing a piece of fiction that should have at once the sharp visual appeal of a woodcut and the rhythmic appeal of a simple fugue-pattern. He achieved both effects, almost at one stroke, by means of a ruthless and often irritating simplification of character. His people existed in only one dimension . . . each [character] was hag-ridden by some one desire which, having no root in emotion, was both arbitrary and idiotic . . . . This means – since sanity consists in a balance of qualities – that all the characters were lunatics . . . .”
And Bullett was off. Why, he asked, did Powys insist on tormenting his readers and himself with his stories of these awful people? Why did he go on “producing book after book (this last is the fifth in two years) depicting all rustics as dolts and rascals, bestially lustful and cruel, and all sophisticated characters as nervous wrecks and ineffectual sentimentalists”?
Despite its exasperated tone, this review captures some of the characteristic features of Powys’s work, as well as the frustration that many early readers felt about it. The woodcut comparison was perhaps suggested by Powys’s books themselves, for which the publisher, Chatto and Windus, had commissioned a number of such illustrations (in particular for his novel Black Bryony, 1923, which was illustrated by R. A. Garnett, David Garnett’s wife and Frances Partridge’s sister). And Powys obligingly began Innocent Birds (1926) by likening its village setting to the stage of a theatre, where the cast might change occasionally, but it could also remain the same for many years, obliged to play out their lifelong dramas together.
Powys’s novels are also, indisputably, replete with rustics, rascals and ineffectual sentimentalists, who quixotically fail to comprehend one another. Innocent Birds features a farmer who talks to his club foot, which he has named Betty, while in Mockery Gap itself, there is a Mr Gulliver who, merely on account of the obvious literary observation somebody once made on his name, persuades the rest of the village, and himself, that he is a great traveller to distant lands. In Mark Only (1924), Powys describes the village priest, Mr Hayball, as “a kind gentleman” who “liked to teach all who were near him about the odd doings of nature”. Powys’s intellectuals, who are usually Anglican clergymen, tend to be naive dilettantes. Among the papers that Mr Hayball’s drunken cleaning lady Mrs Tite throws into the fire are “certain charts and diagrams that related to the rainfall of Tibet, and a long written discourse about the length of time a monkey’s bones will lie in soft mud before they change into the likeness of a man’s”. He teaches her that “after a certain period of time, loose soil becomes hard rock”, and this has less than sobering consequences:
“Mrs. Tite knew very well that, for a long time, there had been dust under her master’s bed, because she had swept it there herself. And now she was convinced, giving due credence to Mr. Hayball’s lectures, that the dust had become in the course of many weeks hard flint stones. Mrs. Tite did not like this sort of conversion, she feared for her drink. If dust changed to stone, the gin in her bottle, if nature used ever so little of its natural cunning, might become salt water. To allow no time for this change to happen, Mrs. Tite finished the gin.”
Such conceits work better in Powys’s short stories. Of another priest, in a story called “The Dewpond”, he writes that the Revd John Gasser “knew the Bible almost by heart”: “he believed every word in it. He also read The Times every morning, and believed that too”. Naturally, once The Times reports on the idea of a dewpond (“The falling dew came so sweetly in the still night that Mr Gasser always imagined it to be the tears of our Saviour . . .”), he cannot stop thinking about making one himself. And despite the whimsical tone, the danger to the Revd Gasser, and to virtually everybody else in Powys’s fiction, lurks in the first line of the story: “The Reverend John Gasser was a believer . . .”. It is not so much the dewpond itself, the Bible or even The Times that is to blame for his eventual death, as that perilous susceptibility. Not suffering death but giving up on life is the only possible outcome for most of Powys’s credulous protagonists. Stories end with the main character walking into the sea, or lying down in a grave with a smile of glad resignation, or, in the case of “Lie Thee Down, Oddity!”, removing his hat in order the better to see the chimney which is about to fall on him. Death is not a door into a better life but a release into oblivion, a gift when reality – or disillusionment – becomes too much to bear.
who has not been so intrigued with a nightmare that he would not drowse again and follow it to its crazy end?
Theodore Francis Powys was the son of a priest. Born in Derbyshire in 1875, he had tried his hand at farming in Suffolk during the 1890s, and failed at it – it probably did not help, he later claimed, that he had been “too often in the shade of a tree, reading, when I should have been among the furrows”. Around this time, he came to read Nietzsche, and from the early 1900s, when he sold his farm and moved to Dorset – eventually settling in a village called East Chaldon or Chaldon Herring, marrying a local girl called Violet and starting a family – he began to write seriously. Whether this was a cure for his dips into depression or only made them worse is unclear. An Interpretation of Genesis (1907), privately printed, did its best to express his ideas as obscurely as possible, in a riddling theological dialogue. A less obscure book of contemplations, The Soliloquy of a Hermit, followed almost ten years later, in 1916, but the publisher of that book, Arnold Shaw, then rejected Mr Tasker’s Gods. It was only when the sculptor Stephen Tomlin wandered into the area and befriended Powys that his writing found its way – thanks to Sylvia Townsend Warner and David Garnett – into the hands of a sympathetic London publisher, Chatto and Windus, who would stick by him for the rest of his life.
Choosing from Powys’s store of unpublished stories and novels, Chatto began by putting out a collection of three novellas called The Left Leg in 1923, and quickly following up with Black Bryony, Mark Only, Mr Tasker’s Gods and Mockery Gap (these are the five books in two years mentioned by Bullett). Innocent Birds followed in 1926, and Mr Weston’s Good Wine, his bestselling book, appeared the year after that. A further novel, The Market Bell, was rejected by Chatto, and would not appear in print until 1991. Present in all of these books, even the summery, sometimes farcical Mockery Gap, are those objectionable woodcut idiosyncrasies of his. There are old women who talk to the furniture, or to ghosts, and old men who do nothing all day except lean on gates and talk to ducks in a pond; while Farmer Mew in “The Left Leg” is the archetypal Powys villain, an acquisitive and devious despot. This was the kind of thing that got poor Bullett’s goat. “The proper study for the novelist is man”, he asserted. “Three parts of his time Mr. Powys is not a novelist at all: he is the proprietor of a menagerie.” (Violet Hunt was forgotten, and had to be dealt with in a single paragraph.) Apparently, it never occurred to Bullett that Powys need not follow the dictates of psychological realism in his fiction. Nor, apparently, did the fact that Powys’s “Wessex”, unlike Hardy’s, “bore no relation at all to any country trodden by the foot of man”, stir the suspicion in the critic’s mind that he was out of his element in this “nightmare region of the mind populated exclusively by devils, goblins, and half-wits”. It was fortunate for Powys that there were some who welcomed those very qualities as the expression of a powerful idiosyncrasy. “Weird as bad dreams are these tales”, wrote one early American reviewer. “Yet who has not been so intrigued with a nightmare that he would not drowse again and follow it to its crazy end?”
David Garnett said that the novels had “a convincing reality of their own”, in which the rich, strong and selfish defeat the poor, weak and good; clergymen are hypocrites, farmers tyrants, children monsters, young women vulnerable and villages eternally damned to the same old round of horrors. Towards the end of Mr Tasker’s Gods, the confrontation between a tramp who would kill a man for a drink and his victim, the innocent Henry Turnbull, opens into a view of hellish inevitability:
“In Henry’s eyes the tramp’s form grew to a stupendous size. Having taken into his being the whole brute force of the world, moving through the eternal ages, he was become as God himself. At last Henry knew that the monster from below, the immortal beginning and ending of man’s nature, the first and the last, was before him; even the everlasting mud, the background of all life, to whom our few days are as nothing, and we, leaves driven before the wind.”
The mud is not an incidental detail. Powys began to write Mr Tasker’s Gods during the First World War, almost a decade before its publication. It alludes darkly, more than once, to what was going on elsewhere in the world, perhaps not that far from Powys’s home on the coast of Dorset – across the English Channel, say – without referring to it directly. The style is typical of early Powys (much admired by Q. D. Leavis, who quoted approvingly and at length from Mr Tasker’s Gods in Fiction and the Reading Public), a thing of biblical cadences and a plain yet resonant vocabulary. Like Garnett, Sylvia Townsend Warner, T. E. Lawrence, Liam O’Flaherty and other literary mavericks, Dennis Wheatley responded strongly to this earthy, unfashionable fiction, calling Powys the “English Tolstoy”. Others called him a heretic; Frank Kermode saw him as, above all, an ironist. His brother John Cowper Powys repeatedly hailed him as an “original”.
Mr Weston’s Good Wine turned the tide commercially, since Powys’s sales had started low and only got lower, and it was an artistic success, too, being better structured than its predecessors, and portraying the familiar nightmare village in a slightly mellower light. The travels of Mr Weston, a wine merchant, and his assistant Michael lead them to seek out their customers in an out-of-the-way place called Folly Down, where they offer them a cure for their ills in the form of the light wine or the dark – love or death. Other Powys stories had sprawled like short stories linking up from chapter to chapter. In Mr Weston, the clock stops, and the story takes place in Eternity, but also on a single earthly night in the village. The result is a paradoxical impression of urgency.
Not least in their acute depiction of life’s little ironies, the novels that came before Mr Weston do have extraordinary qualities, and deserve to be available again now, as Faber Finds, along with two later collections of stories: the Aesopian Fables of 1929 (complete with titles along the lines of “John Pardy and the Waves” or “The Dog and the Lantern”) and God’s Eyes A-Twinkle, a retrospective anthology published in 1947, six years before Powys’s death. (By that time, the fury had died down; at least one reviewer, Olivia Manning, did not seem to know who he was.) Mr Weston is the most widely read of Powys’s books, but God’s Eyes A-Twinkle, despite its twee title, is a good book to read in its wake. It generously covers everything from some of the shortest of his many short stories to a couple of the most significant of his novellas, such as “The Left Leg” and one that fascinated William Empson, “The Only Penitent”. It shows Powys in a mischievous mood. In “Mr Pim and the Holy Crumb”, a piece of communion wafer falls from the altar table at Holy Communion, and holds forth on a theological theme, only to be eaten by a mouse. “Captain Patch” tells of a tailor who likes to dress up and imagine himself a naval man, even though he hates the sea. There is plenty of morbidity and melancholy here, too (“The Dewpond” is included), but less Tasker-like rancour. Powys’s loyal supporter at Chatto, Charles Prentice, supplies a preface in which he describes the stories as flowers of the “heath and downs”, and Innocent Birds as one of Powys’s “flowering trees”, a “wild cherry” – while Mr Weston and the equally powerful Unclay (1931), he says, “stand up like oaks”. The renewed availability of Powys’s earlier novels allows one once again to survey and admire the whole valley. More readers should pay it a visit. - Michael Caines

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A man who rarely left home or travelled in a car, who claimed to love monotony, and who 'never gave so much as a sunflower-seed for the busy, practical life' - this was Theodore Francis Powys. He ran his own farm, White House Farm at Sweffling, Suffolk (1895 -1901) before "retiring" to Dorset, determined to write. In 1904, he settled in East Chaldon, 'the most hidden village in Dorset', and there he remained until 1940, when the war drove him inland to Mappowder. In 1905, he married Violet Rosalie Dodds, a local girl; they had two sons and an adopted daughter. 
Powys's unorthodox version of Christianity reveals strands of mysticism, quietism, and pantheism, but the major influence upon him was the Bible, and he claimed that Religion 'is the only subject I know anything about'. Sometimes savage, often lyrical, his novels and stories explore universal themes of Love, Death, Good and Evil within the microcosm of the rural world. In spite of the apparent realism of his settings, Powys is a symbolist and allegorist. Key works include Soliloquies of a Hermit, Mr Weston's Good Wine, and Unclay; his Fables and short stories are also much admired.

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