viernes, 12 de octubre de 2012

One Hundred Best Books by John Cowper Powys

In his One Hundred Best Books, John Cowper Powys confidently selects a reading list for all humanity. Written in 1916 by a man already in his forties, it offers a selection that can be labelled as distinctly pre-war, pre-First World War, that is. Given that the author was the product of an English public school - that means private, by the way, if you are not English - and then Cambridge University, one would expect the list to be dominated by the classics, ancient and modern. And, indeed it is, but there are numerous surprises.

One Hundred Best Books is a short text and offers only a potted critique of the works chosen. More often than not, John Cowper Powys chooses an author rather than a work. So, for example, Sir Walter Scott manages to have three books listed, and Dostoyevsky four, while Chares Dickens manages just one. So, in fact this list is not one hundred best books, more like a hundred favourite authors. The critiques, therefore, more often than not relate to the author’s perception of the writer’s overall oeuvre, rather than to a specific work.

This list might be almost a hundred years old, but it remains an enlightening and enjoyable tour of the literary perception and, to a certain extent, the bigotries of the time. Selections are often more revealing in what they omit rather than what they include and One Hundred Best Books by John Cowper Powys is no exception. Indeed, towards the end, the text appears to descend into mere advertisement, but this part can be safely skimmed or ignored.

A statistic that reveals much of its time is the stark reality that only two of the hundred writers listed are women. A third woman, who chose to write under a male non de plume, George Eliot, is omitted altogether, which, given that she had died over thirty years before this list was published, is a surprise. Though the list covers ancient classics and includes works from Russia, France, Italy, Germany and the United States, there is no place for the naturalism of Emile Zola.

But neither is the list merely a safety first trip through big names. A number of the French and Italians listed would not be immediately recognised by a contemporary reader. And some names, such as Gilbert Cannan, Vincent O’Sullivan and Oliver Onions have apparently almost disappeared.

John Cowper Powys is not afraid, however, to describe those he has chosen in colourful terms, sometimes revealing much about prevalent ideas of the day. How many people, in the twenty-first century, would advise the following: “a few lines taken at random and learned by heart would act as a talisman in all hours to drive away the insolent pressure of the vulgar and common crowd,” especially when referring to The Odes of Horace? And today would the phrase “the greatest intellect in literature” be attached easily to Rabelais?

On Nietzsche, we are advised that “To appreciate his noble and tragic distinction with the due pinch of Attic salt it is necessary to be possessed of more imagination than most persons are able to summon up.” Theodore Dreiser is lavished with praise: “There is something epic—something enormous and amorphous—like the body of an elemental giant—about each of these books…  All is simple, direct, hard and healthy—a very epitome and incarnation of the life-force, as it manifests itself in America.” What literature of the Unites States in the early twenty-first century, I wonder, aspires to simplicity coupled with directness, hardness and health? If it exists, I bet it’s not fiction.

Thackeray has one work included. One wonders whether John Cowper Powys really wanted it. “Without philosophy, without faith, without moral courage, the uneasy slave of conventional morality, and with a hopeless vein of sheer worldly philistinism in his book, Thackeray is yet able, by a certain unconquerable insight into the motives and impulses of mediocre people, and by a certain weight and mass of creative force, to give a convincing reality to his pictures of life, which is almost devastating in its sneering and sentimental accuracy.”

Charles Dickens is nowadays credited with being a great social realist. Powys includes only Great Expectations and seems to regard Dickens as something less than real. “His world may be a world of goblins and fairies, but there cross it sometimes figures of an arresting appeal and human voices of divine imagination.” And who, today, would say this about a writer? “Mr. Shaw has found his role and his occupation very happily cut out for him in the unfailing stupidity, not untouched by a sense of humor, of our Anglo-Saxon democracy in England and America.”

One Hundred Best Books by John Cowper Powys is a quick and easy read. It is always useful to remind ourselves that perhaps the way we think about the world changes our psyche as much as changes in fashion alter our appearance. 

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