“It is strange how few people make more than a casual cult of enjoying Nature. And yet the earth is actually and literally the mother of us all. One needs no strange spiritual faith to worship the earth.” ― John Cowper Powys
Wolf Solent was published in 1929, when Powys was 57 and still making a part-time living from his mobile lecture show. An unsparingly analytical, intensely poetic character-study of the kind that became his specialty, it was his debut as a mature novelist. Here are all the elements of standard Powysian psychodrama: a conflict between brothers; the hypnotic eroticism of girls; depraved elders; and the remains of innocence. Wolf Solent is no nostalgic pastoral. Powys, who eulogized the beauties of Nature, never balked at revealing its horrors. His work is full of implications of violence. To him it was a mistake not to see what he, in a somewhat Zen manner, called “the necessity of opposition”: Good and Evil; Male and Female; Life and Death; Appearance and Reality. All these, he says,
"have to be joined together, have to be forced into one another, have to be proved dependent upon each other, while all solid entities have to dissolve, if they are to outlast their momentary appearance, into atmosphere."
The novel, on the surface, is a fairly straightforward story of a native son’s return, along the lines of Hardy’s Return of the Native. Wolf, the eponymous hero, an extremely sensitive soul, returns to his hometown on England’s South Coast after suffering a mental breakdown in London. But instead of recovering his innocence at home, he loses it completely. He is coming to a presumably serene writing assignment for the local squire, to escape the intensity of the city, to understand his past, and to somehow vindicate his tightly wound mother. Nothing goes to plan. He becomes entangled in various affairs, romantic and professional, and uncovers horrible truths about some old friends and neighbors. A battle between his father’s joie de vivre and his mother’s nervousness rages in his head. He becomes sympathetic to his father’s mistress, becomes attracted to his half-sister. The job he’s come for is not at all what he’s expected. In fact, nothing in this town provides relief from intensity.
In the end he returns, disillusioned, to the anonymity of London. You can’t go home again sums up the novel in a nutshell; but a nutshell is far too small for Powys. It is what throbs beneath the surface of this novel, from the hero who is alive to every blade of grass and housefly to the world around him. There are many contemplative walks through the English countryside where he plays out every reading of his life in order to make some sense of it. His reverence and concern for the natural world is laudable and, admittedly, hard-going in places. Powys hated most things modern – such as, say, technology and capitalism – so he lingers where others might move along. This is in the heart of the story and all of Powys’s novels.
The critic George Steiner once claimed that Powys was the only twentieth-century English writer on a par with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Margaret Drabble, the distinguished English novelist, believes, “we need to pay attention to this man.” The fantasy world of his novels, she says, is “densely peopled, thickly forested, mountainous, erudite, strangely self-sufficient. This country is less visited than Tolkien’s, but it is as compelling, and it has more air.”
Wolf Solent by John Cowper Powys. Vintage Books, 1998 (1929).