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CHARLES LOCK Polyphonic Powys: Dostoevsky, Bakhtin, and A Glastonbury Romance Criticism has needed neither to question nor to insist on the importance of Dostoevsky for John Cowper Powys: the influence was claimed and proclaimed by Powys himself throughout his career. From Powys's first reading of Dostoevsky - Vizetelly's translation of Crime and Punishment in December 1910, through uncountable lectures, an essay in his first book of literary criticism, Visions and Revisions (19'5), the dramatization of The Idiot (written c 1919; produced 1922; unpublished), and an essay in The Pleasures of Literature (1938), to the two-hundred-page book on Dostoevsky (1946), there is a firm continuity of attention and allegiance. While the importance of Dostoevsky for Powys has been widely and correctly accepted, the nature and Significance ofthat influence have been misunderstood. Dostoevskyiscommonlyassumed tobe ausefulmodel for those writers who wish to be liberated from formal and technical constraints, for those who believe that literature in its essence is independent of accomplishment in craft or style. There is an isolationist and triumphalist reading of Powys which suggests - to caricature mildlythat here is a writer unlike his Modernist contemporaries who has something to say and gets on with saying it. This position finds endorsement in Dostoevsky's well-known letter to Strakhov, 5 April 1870: 'I am anxious to express certain ideas, even if it ruins my novel as a work of art, for I am entirely carried away by the things that have accumulated in my heart and mind. Let it tum out to be only a pamphlet, but I shall say everything to the last word.' If the influence of Dostoevsky is taken to be this, then any formal analysiS of Powys's texts, any formal comparison of Powys with other novelists, is of little importance, even impertinent. In part Powys is himself to blame; his silliest outbursts of enthusiasm - such as 'Dostoievsky is more than an artist. He is, perhaps - who can tell? - the founder of a new religion" - have been transferred to Powys himself, and have imprisoned his own texts. For mature and sophisticated readers of fiction the association of Dostoevsky with Powys, when conceived in these terms, is sufficient cause and explanation of the latter's neglect. The period of Powys's early enthusiasm for Dostoevsky also brought forth warnings about his influence from some of the chief originators of Modernist literature and modem criticism. In 1912, when the first volume of Constance Garnett's translation was published, and when the wideUNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY, VOLUME 55, NUMBER J, SPRING 1986 262 CHARLES LOCK spread 'craze' for Dostoevsky was beginning, Henry James wrote a letter about 'fluid puddings,' Tolstoy and Dostoevsky: 'We see how great a vice is their lack of composition, their defiance of economy and architecture, directly they are emulated and imitated; then, as subjects of emulation, models, they quite give themselves away.,2Ten years later, in September 1922, just months after Powys's dramatization of The Idiot had been produced in New York, T.S. Eliot wrote in his 'London Letter' for The Dilll: 'All novelists are dangerous models for other novelists, but Dostoevsky - a Russian, known only through one translation - is especially dangerous.... One reason of Dostoevsky's appeal to the British mind is that he appears to satisfy the usual definition of genius; that is, an infinite capacity for taking no pains.' Powys himself never saw his devotion to Dostoevsky as in any way a stand or commitment in terms of literary politics. Until about 1920 Dostoevsky was an acceptable and almost essential component of the avant-garde! and throughout the 1920S Powys continued to regard himself as a champion of Modernism, notably of Proust, notoriously of Joyce! While Powys was simultaneously celebrating Dostoevsky, defending Ulysses, learning 'The Waste Land' by heart, and lamenting James's poor reputation in America, Eliot and James had been putting Dostoevsky and his followers in an adversary role. Powys did not respond to such provocation, nor did he ever use Dostoevsky as a stick with which to beat another writer. For Powys Dostoevsky was certainly greater than any other novelist - but not for that reason any less worthy of careful study. Powys's greatest...


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