The Greatest Novel Ever Written: AN Wilson, Magic Christians and a fine sort of Glastonbury Romance

If you hang around for long enough in disreputably bookish circles, you’ll almost inevitably bump into someone who believes (or professes to believe) that A Glastonbury Romance by John Cowper Powys is one of the 20th century’s greatest forgotten literary masterpieces.

Here, for instance, is AN Wilson, in a feature on lost classics, published on 4 December 2013, in The Daily Telegraph. “It remains a source of bafflement to me,” he avers, “that John Cowper Powys, author of A Glastonbury Romance, Maiden Castle, Wolf Solent and Weymouth Sands – four of the greatest novels ever written in any language – are not on every university syllabus, up there with Ulysses and The Brothers Karamazov*.”

glastonbury_romanceHeavens. Here’s a Holy Trinity if ever there was one. Joyce, Dostoevsky and John Cowper Powys. If this is true, JCP has been particularly shabbily treated by the gods of literary history.

No wonder AN Wilson is baffled. Indeed, more than baffled. This, surely, is a scandalous state of affairs.

And yet, without wishing to appear immodest, I believe I may be in a position to set AN Wilson’s mind at rest.

A Glastonbury Romance is a book that’s terribly hard to love. Sorry… but it’s just not a classic, forgotten or otherwise. It really isn’t. And indeed the forgotten half of the proposition is just as misleading as the classic bit.

Despite being praised fulsomely by some reviewers when it was published in 1933, it disappeared without much of a trace soon after. Its immediate fortunes weren’t even helped when it became embroiled in legal action in 1934. Not all publicity, it turns out, is good publicity.

It gives me no pleasure to say this. Anyone familiar with the tight parameters proscribed for 21st Century belles lettres will read with growing disbelief the sprawling quirkiness of JCP’s prose. He has a wonderfully distinctive style. For that alone he should be celebrated.

Sadly, it turns out that JCP, the son of a vicar, feels rather too keenly the metaphysical forces coursing through the universe. This is no great fault in and of itself. DH Lawrence’s writing is infused with these forces too. It’s just that, with JCP, these forces are terribly overwhelming. They are the be-all and the end-all.

It’s safe to say that his audience in the 1930s had, at its hard core, the sorts of mystical, evangelical Christians whose imaginations were fired by locally-hybridised mythologies. Mythologies like, say, the legend of Joseph of Arimathea.

It was a small but not entirely insignificant audience. After all, metaphysical posturing was cultishly fashionable – witness the 1936 publication (and the critical appraisals it accrued) of Burnt Norton, the first of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets. Or think of Stanley Spencer’s murals.

But it’s also fair to say that A Glastonbury Romance would be languishing in utter obscurity now were it not for the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius.

New Agers (the grandsons and granddaughers of the mystical Christians of the 1930s) reverenced Glastonbury as a confluence of ley lines – and could be persuaded to buy into anything with Glastonbury in the title, including a half-baked West Country pop festival cobbled together on an ailing dairy farm.

This vaguely-understood phenomenon prompted Picador to include A Glastonbury Romance in its 1975 catalogue and it featured prominently in its distinctive carousels (most notably in University and counterculture book shops) for the next decade.

It sold tolerably well. But sadly for JCP’s literary reputation, few of those who bought the Picador paperback actually finished the book. Partly because it’s 1120 pages long. But mainly for another more cogent reason. It’s shockingly hard going.

The book ends (after the human drama has been concluded, so I’m probably not spoiling too much of the plot here) with a vision of the birth of the goddess Cybele, who slithers out of the Timeless and into our life and times, destined to uphold the cause of the unseen against the seen: “Thus she abides; her Towers forever rising, forever vanishing. Never or Always.”

And yet, because, when you’re dealing with metaphysics, endings are, in a very real sense, a bit like beginnings, we’ll end by quoting from page one. This, dear reader, is the opening sentence of what AN Wilson would have you believe is one of the greatest novels ever written:

At the striking of noon on a certain fifth of March, there occurred within a causal radius of Brandon railway station and yet beyond the deepest pools of emptiness between the uttermost stellar systems one of those infinitesimal ripples in the creative silence of the First Cause which always occur when an exceptional stir of heightened consciousness agitates any living organism in this astronomical universe.

I rest my case.

(* I risk public ridicule by pointing out that one of these two titles is also vastly over-rated. And, indeed, rather unread: though, admittedly, not quite to the same degree as A Glastonbury Romance. It’s also worth noting that Ulysses finds it way onto few English literature degree courses. Even when it does, it tends to be taught in partially-masticated bite-sized chunks.)

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