A few unusual items on John Cowper Powys’ List of 100 Best Novels

October 31st, 2009

Obooki’s Obloquy recently published the list of titles from a 1916 book, One Hundred Best Books by the sometimes-neglected British novelist, John Cowper Powys. While many of the titles are tried and true standards of the canon–Pride and Prejudice, Faust, Leaves of Grass–there are a number that reflect the tendency of some works to get buried under the shifting sands of taste. So here, for those who might be interested in rediscovering them, are a few notes on the lesser-known items in Powys’ list.

• Sanine [also published as Sanin], by Mikhail Artsybashev

Sanin is a thoroughly uncomfortable book, but it has a fierce energy which has carried it in a very short space of time into almost every country in Europe,” wrote Gilbert Cannan in his preface to the English translation of this book. “In Vladimir Sanine,” he continues, “Artsybashev has imagined, postulated, a man who has escaped the tyranny of society, is content to take his living where he finds it, and determined to accept whatever life has to offer of joy or sorrow.” In other words, a turn-of-the-century Russian take on the old hippy motto, “If it feels good, do it.” A new English translation by Michael Katz was published in 2001 by the Cornell University Press, which wrote that Artsybashev’s novels are “suffused with themes of sex, suicide, and murder.” Also available free from Project Gutenberg.

The Disciple, by Paul Bourget

The Disciple is narrated by Robert Greslou, a private tutor and disciple of the renowned philosopher, Sixte. Based on a true story involving a young disciple of Bourget’s, it centers around an aborted double suicide–aborted by Greslou, after his lover has already taken the plunge. Greslou claims it was all inspired by Sixte’s theories. Contrary to prevailing attitudes today about the teacher-student relationship, Bourget lays most of the blame with Greslou rather than the influence of his mentor.

Round the Corner, by Gilbert Cannan

Subtitled, “Being the Life and Death of Francis Christopher Folyat, Bachelor of Divinity, and Father of a Large Family,” this novel is, in the words of one contemporary review, “The story of the depressing fortunes of an English clergyman and his eight children, for whom happiness seems ‘just round the corner’ and out of reach.” It was also banned by the London censor, mainly for showing the clergy in such grim light. Canan’s first novel had the intriguing title of Peter Homunculus. It can be read online or downloaded in PDF format at the Internet Archive.

The Flame of Life and The Triumph of Death, by Gabriele D’Annunzio

D’Annunzio’s literary reputation has taken a nose dive since Powys’ time. His becoming best buddy and court poet to Mussolini had a little to do with it. That and D’Annunzio’s own super-sized ego. His estate and mausoleum on the hillside above Lake Garda, Il Vittoriale, is a treasure trove of Art Deco and self-glorification, not to be missed if you’re in the area. The Encyclopedia Britannica (1911) describes one of his protagonists as “viciously self-seeking and wholly amoral Nietzschean,” but this could just as easily describe D’Annunzio himself. Like is too short for dreck like this. Probably justly neglected. I quoted a long and funny passage from “Lust and Leprosy,” Rudolph Altrocchi’s essay on one of D’Annunzio’s plays, elsewhere on this site.

A Night in The Luxembourg, by Remy de Gourmont

When Night was first issued in English translation in 1912, the New York Times called de Gourmont “one of the most extraordinary and significant minds putting thought into print in the world to-day.” This short novel, full of atmosphere and symbolism, is said to have been a major influence on Lawrence Durrell when he started planning his Alexandria Quartet.

The Song of Songs, by Hermann Sudermann

Another tale of a cad letting down a lover–this time, for the comfort and prestige of a marriage to a member of Berlin high society. It was made into a film in 1933, one of Marlene Dietrich’s early American films. In his time, Sudermann was better known as a playwright, but now he isn’t known at all. Thomas Hardy had little enthusiasm for the book’s first English translation: “… unfortunately, rendered into the rawest American, the claims that the original no doubt had to be considered literature, are largely reduced, so that I question if there is value enough left in this particular translation to make a stand for.”

One Response to “A few unusual items on John Cowper Powys’ List of 100 Best Novels”

  1. Robert Nedelkoff Says:

    http://www.apollo-magazine.com/features/5354801/part_2/scandal.thtml

    The above link briefly sketches Gilbert Cannan’s sad story. In the 1990s, for a while, I owned a copy of his second-to-last or third-to-last novel, I don’t remember the title, with a letter from him laid in, dated about a year before his final breakdown and institutionalization. There were no particular signs of madness in it.

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