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John Gray on T F Powys

Outside of a small circle of devotees, J C Powys is the only one of the three Powys brothers who is widely read today. Penguin has recently brought out a new edition of Wolf Solent, his masterpiece and one of the greatest of all 20th-century novels; several of his other books have been reissued by enterprising American publishers. It is easy to see why John Cowper Powys is still in print. His novels are studies in introspection, in which only subjective sensation has reality and the central business of life is the search for a personal mythology. Seeing human relationships as encounters between solitary consciousnesses, he has no interest in class or ambition. He writes about sex without the least trace of moralising. An inveterate sceptic, he sees religions and philosophies as works of art, to be used for their aesthetic qualities and discarded when they cease to please. Even today, these are faintly subversive attitudes. But they engage directly with the sensibilities of a time when social structures are fragmented, personal identities fluid and truth has become an elusive and questionable ideal.

If it is not hard to understand why J C Powys continues to be read, it is equally plain why his brother Theodore is neglected. 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. He himself retreated as far as he could from the modern world, settling in the isolated village of East Chaldon, only occasionally leaving it and hardly ever venturing into a city. 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.

If there are literary influences at work in T F Powys, they come not from any of his contemporaries, but from Nietzsche and Bunyan. In Mr Weston's Good Wine - published in 1927 and the only book of his that has ever had a wide readership - he uses Christian imagery and biblical language to present a darkly pagan view of life. The book begins with a wine salesman arriving in an old Ford in the village of Folly Down. He is no ordinary wine salesman. A child knocked down by his car is miraculously brought back to life; the sign "Mr Weston's Good Wine" lights up the sky; and the wine he sells is no ordinary wine. He is "the only son of the founder of Messrs Weston and Co". Weston is none other than God made flesh, come into the world to sell the light wine of love and the strong wine of death. Writing with exquisite economy, Powys recounts Weston's stay in Folly Down, and how he ends wanting to drink his own dark wine. At the close of the book, Weston asks his assistant, Michael, to drop a burning match into the Ford's petrol tank: "Michael did as he was told. In a moment a fierce tongue of flame leaped from the car; a pillar of smoke rose above the flame and ascended into the heavens. The fire died down, smouldered, and went out. Mr Weston was gone."

The notion of God seeking - and finding - oblivion in death is a variation on the idea, which runs through all of Theodore Powys's writings, that the craving for everlasting life is a vice, a feeble refusal of the terms of earthly existence. It figures prominently in his collection of short stories, Fables (1929), and, most powerfully, in his last novel, Unclay (1931), an allegorical satire on the hope of immortality. John Death is God's servant, commanded to "scythe" or "unclay" two inhabitants of the village of Dodder, but he loses the parchment that contains their names. Unable to fulfil his task, he spends the summer in the village, passing the time pleasantly in love affairs. Powys portrays Death as a gay, wanton figure, who takes his fill of the pleasures of sex and exults in his vocation of bringing release to the suffering. The book has a grim tone, such as when the author comments: "It is all pretence, for when no one knows what truth is, what else is there to do but pretend. All life is pretence, but never death." In one chapter, Death buys a drink for the regulars of the Bullman Arms, the village pub, paying for it in Roman coins he has stolen from tombs. As they drink, the men come to see one another as decomposing corpses - a brutally vivid memento mori. Despite such gruesome scenes, Unclay's final message is light-hearted: "I mean to enjoy myself in Dodder," Death tells one of the unknowing villagers. In the end, Death completes the task for which he was sent to the village, and vanishes. (Sadly, and grotesquely, this great novel remains out of print.)

Theodore Powys's preoccupation with death echoes that of his brother Llewellyn. A consumptive from the age of 25, Llewellyn wrote with candour and passion of his long struggle with his illness and how it taught him to value, more than anything else, the pure sensation of being alive. Philip Larkin remarks somewhere that, of the three Powys brothers, Llewellyn is the easiest to know. It is true that all his writings articulate this simple but deeply felt Epicurean philosophy. His "imaginary autobiography", Love and Death (1939), is still worth reading for its homely wisdom and vignettes of pre-1914 English country life, and his many anti-religious essays are still pungent. Yet there is nothing in Llewellyn's tirades that can match the terse delicacy of Mr Weston's Good Wine, in which Christian symbols clothe a view of things that could not be more heretical.

In their different ways, all three Powys brothers deserve retrieving for a wider readership, but none more so than Theodore. He is by far the best writer among them, and the most original. The greatest value of his work, though, is in showing that it is still possible to write about the primordial human experiences to which religion is a response. Secular writers tend to steer clear of them, and end up stuck in the shallows of politics or fashion. On the other hand, Christian writers are mostly precious and unpersuasive, like T S Eliot, or else more or less openly fraudulent, like Graham Greene. Very few 20th-century authors have the knack of writing convincingly of first and last things. A religious writer without any vestige of belief, Theodore Powys is one of them.

John Gray is professor of European thought at the London School of Economics. Other essays in his series of reappraisals, including those on J G Ballard, Georges Simenon, Graham Greene and Patricia Highsmith, can be found on the New Stateman online archive www.newstatesman.co.uk/qpass.htm