Review of Three Fantasies by John Cowper Powys
In the Afterward, Cavaliero draws a lot of biographical significance out of the farcical improvisation of the juvenilia of Powys in his dotage. This Beckettian collection of three novellas is both saddening and quirky
At the forefront are confrontations with physical embodiments of Death. The skepticism of an animist, the waning imagination of a latter day Rabelais. These are cold and disconcerting, but readable nursery confabulations.
As in other works, Powys is mainly concerned with discussing the relationship of human beings and the natural world. This intersection of ideas was expanded to the greater universe in his final years. Here you can see how he depicts how history bleeds through time, staining the present. The nature of consciousness within the physical world never leaves his mind. The psychic nature of the wild also impinges on the reality of very two-dimensional characters. This author produced plenty of literary oddities, but even multiple readings of Three Fantasies will probably confound most readers.
Powys elicits a heartwarming nostalgia in some of his works, I think, the aura of abstract uncanniness has the capacity to overwhelm. He excels at portraying quiet, psychologically strained scenes wherein supernatural forces intrude like an impending gloaming, suffusing the whole atmosphere of the story.
The first story in this triumvirate of tales is Topsy Turvy. It contains philosophical discussions by furniture of varying worldviews. The dialogue of personified souls in inanimate objects is merely a stage for an exploration of standard Powysian ideas. It is argued that Powys believed all things to be animate, and he elucidates the manifestations of souls in his household objects, extrapolating their human qualities to an absurd degree. It is both odd and alarming when he suddenly slips into notions of rape which end the story on a note of spiritual significance. I simply shrugged and turned to the next story.
Part of the force of creative energy is imbuing objects with consciousness and perceiving this consciousness throughout one’s experience. I picked that up right away in “Abertackle.” It gets pretty tangled up with procreation, which according to Powys, is the intertwining of souls. His random ramblings take in several literary and historical figures apropos of nothing, and fly quickly off the deep end toward the stars. His eerie pronouncements are at times fascinating and for fans of improvisational writing, this is better than most modern experiments in unplanned, casual automatic writing. Famous writers, angels and demons make their way into the second story, which is the most chaotic. Everyone gets naked in order to inhabit the vague “Fourth Dimension” where they jump back and forth through history, space and time, discussing religion. Spouting off theories about God’s death, man’s creative powers, the reincarnation of Merlin, a lot of speeches made by the Devil. It’s all very uncontrolled.
Overall, I prefer Powys reigning in his creative energy, focusing it on elaborate set-pieces of constrained storytelling. He’s got some incredible books to his name, but this is minor in every way. It showcases none of his genius and only an ounce or two of his personality and charm. It is quite readable, and harmless, if a little unhinged.
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