Death Will Bring Change: On T.F. Powys's "Unclay"
T.F. Powys | Unclay (originally published in 1931) | New Directions | November 27, 2018 | 336 Pages
Usually novels from the early twentieth-century (think “Modernism”) written in the style of the late-nineteenth century (think Thomas Hardy) and borrowing from a number of early-nineteenth century writers (think Jane Austen) with a particular religiosity are not for me. I don’t love religion, and I especially don’t love the idea of a religion after President Trump. My Hanukkah celebration this year was receiving a text message from my Dad, glimpsing at the picture of his menorah.
For me, then, the pleasure of T.F. Powys’s Unclay (published in 1931) is its treading the water between mindless and mindful spiritualities and my not being put off by it. The novel’s plot is simple, with some fantastical digressions: Death is coming to take the lives of the plucky Joseph Bridle and bored Susie Dawes in the English village of Dodder, but loses the “parchment,” marked with the death order to “UNCLAY.” After losing the parchment, Death is unable to remember the names of the couple without an intervention of God and so sets out to find his work order. He meets the affable Mr. Hayhoe (Dodder’s reverend, who loves Jane Austen so much that “every word written by [her] he believed to be almost as necessary to salvation), who manages to convince Death to stay in Dodder for a while. Thus we have the mysteriously suave Mr. John Death, who quickly makes a name for himself playing with children (including the precocious Winny Huddle), curing women of their “madness” (one woman, Sarah Bridle, thinks she’s a camel) and “sin” (another, Daisy Huddle, is a prostitute) through “carnality,” “whetting” his scythe (and cutting green, genteel English grass), all the while searching for what’s lost. There’s no evil in this Death—he just has a job to do, delivered from up high.
Eventually, after he is beset by “Love” (his unembodied counterpart) and growing idle with desire for Susie (also lusted after by Joseph Bridle and the cartoonishly evil Mr. Mere), Death recovers the parchment from Joseph Bridle and “vanishes” after being ordered to “UNCLAY” the misogynistic and conspiratorial Mr. Mere and Mr. Dawes. Joseph Bridle and Susie Dawes are united together in love and death as they “stept” into Joseph’s pond, receiving Death “[w]ith gladness.” This love and resignation for Death is an odd quirk of the novel, but is its own form of common sense. As the narrator says,
“For Predestination is a strange cat. That all should be arranged from the beginning to go so funnily is a queer concern. One would think almost that at the bottom of the well of being one may discover, instead of a mighty God, only the cap and bells of a mad fool. But, whoever be there, He has a fine fancy, and likes to play a trick upon His Friends, and may introduce John Knox to the Devil instead of to Moses.”
Death, like his “UNCLAY” notices, is unpredictable, yet so desirable. Without death, there’s no life, right?
Before reading Unclay I was interested in what I saw similar to the world of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman (published in 1967, but written around 1939-40), a novel concerned with the dynamics of a small village and something also erratically, if not supernaturally, lost. But that book’s humor is effaced by the sort of earnestness in Unclay that it shares with Henry Green’s Living (1929) and Loving (1945). Powys has a dry sort of funny, one aware of its own mortality and silliness, all the while dedicating itself to a decidedly subversive weirdness. It is a weaponized humor in the way that alternative irony is now a mainstream comedic, and commercial, approach: Done genuinely, a mordant humor is incisive and lively, self-aware of its purposiveness. With commercial fixings, it bespeaks a rotted sense of cultural self, a benign “wokeness” in a crappy Christmas sweater tweeting about its brand.
John Death takes on that attitude near novel’s end when confronted by Lord Bullman, mistaking John for a “thieving tailor.” Lord Bullman says he’d rather have dead flowers than stolen ones, and so John delivers:
“John Death cast the dust over the flowers. A change came over them. Their beauty waned; as a young girl’s who is ravished and spoiled before she be ripe for love, so the lovely flowers drooped sadly, as though parched by excessive heat, or frozen by a January frost. A silent destruction.”
This (from the chapter “A Bed of Begonias”) is a good sample of Unclay: lithe language concerned with flowers, sexuality, and decay, quick to point out beauty’s abrupt intensity, and fragility. I also thought about Virginia Woolf’s final work, Between the Acts (1941), when reading about John’s interactions with Dodder. Both novels have villages and odd assortments of people, and both are concerned with a type of England and its flowers. But Unclay beams where Between the Acts’s mourns: Humans are screwed, Death always wins, and making peace with one’s god is all one can hope to do. Accept Mr. John Death into your life, because that’s that. Life isn’t a series of meet-cutes and Netflix romcoms.
One may call me a jaded punk burnout. But I’m not entirely (un)happy. Unclay helped me think about who our “gods” are when faced with a hearty Mr. John Death. Untethered to a spirituality and community in an era of late-, if not post-, capitalism, at the start of the Anthropocene, who do we look to when Death is around? Our Twitter threads and Insta stories? Our “philosophers” and “writers?” Our self-aware Netflix and HBO programming? Our vaguely clean realpolitik? Is it the sardonic, Jewy, refreshingly ironic and callus Red Scare podcast, which a profile by The Cut describes as “a document of the confusion of our moment”? I don’t know. Probably not. But still: How do we meet Death as real, tangible, material, and not something abstracted on our iPhones?
I have no clue. I’m not smart enough to answer these questions. That’s it. Go home. But take this with you, courtesy of T.F. Powys’s Unclay: “Life and death do not quarrel in the fields. They are always changing places in the slow dance. Alive here and dead there. So the evening is devoured by the night, and the dawn by the day.”