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Descents of Memory: The Life of John Cowper Powys by Morine Krissdóttir

Book Review

Descents of Memory: The Life of John Cowper Powys by Morine Krissdóttir

Overlook Duckworth, ISBN 978-1585679171, 480 pages (inc 17pp b/w photos), £25.00/$37.95

Reviewed by Garry Phillipson

Literary biographies don't normally get reviewed on Skyscript so I should probably start by explaining why this one is getting the treatment.

Some time back, Tom initiated a very interesting discussion[1] on the forum concerning the medieval world-view, and how to get some idea of life as it might look if seen through medieval eyes. This, I think, is worth serious attention. By using astrology we are - like it or not - already operating outside contemporary Western society's ideas about what the world is like. So there is much to be said for trying to figure out what kind of a world this is; what kind of a world our astrology presupposes.

There are no doubt hundreds of things one could do and books one could read in pursuit of such a goal. The book I want to bring to your attention just now is this biography of the novelist John Cowper Powys. Although it is only forty-four years since he died, Powys was in many ways a being from a much earlier historical period than the medieval. His world was alive through and through - and alive in a much more chaotic, pagan way than I think the medieval mindset generally sanctioned. Powys once said that his "dominant life-illusion was that I was, or at least eventually would be, a magician" (quoted p.269). And as you read the book you get an idea of what it might be like to live in a magical world; not 'magical' in a Disney sense, rather a world of barely-glimpsed and obscure forces with which one somehow needs to reach accommodation. To enter this world is to dance with inspiration but also with insanity, and Krissdottir's lucid and perceptive prose chronicles both sides.

Another reason to read Morine Krissdottir's book is that it is, simply, a damn fine piece of work! There is an excellent review of it, by Margaret Drabble, on the Times Literary Supplement[2] website. I see no point in re-inventing the wheel, so will not say much more by way of introducing Powys or describing the book. If you know Powys's novels and other writing, this biography will answer the questions that niggle quietly away as you read him. It also illuminates the novels - for instance, Krissdottir shows just how deeply Powys wove the theme of Grail legend into A Glastonbury Romance, and how his last great novel Porius is based around the seven stages of the alchemical process. If you are new to Powys, then Krissdottir's biography is a fantastic read in its own right, and it will introduce you to riches galore in Powys's novels. There is genius in his writing at times; at other times there is not, and this biography provides a very good guide to which of his books to seek out and which to avoid.

Powys had an interest in astrology, and there are occasional references to it during the book, though nothing very remarkable in itself. Of more interest to the practising astrologer is the fact that, during her research, Krissdottir found an exact time of birth for Powys, written in his father's pocket-book. His details are: 1.25 pm (8th October 1872, Ashbourne, Derbyshire). His long-time partner Phyllis Playter was born 29th November, 1894 at 3.08p.m. in Kansas City, MISSOURI (there are several Kansas Cities) U.S.A.

Garry Phillipson
February, 2008

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