I have always known, and will always think of this book as Ægypt, though that is properly the title of the four book sequence of which this, the first, is now known as The Solitudes. That was always John Crowley’s intended title for this book, but at the time he was overruled by his publishers, and too long a time has passed for me to adjust.
Ægypt was published in 1987, and I bought it eagerly, having read and re-read Little, Big several times in the years between. I didn’t initially know that it was merely the beginning of a tetraology, a story that was intended to be a complete tale in itself, like The Lord of the Rings or The Book of the New Sun, nor did I have any inkling that it would be twenty years before the cycle would be fulfilled.
That makes The Solitudes (to avoid confusion, I will use the preferred title for the first novel when referring directly to it) a strange thing in itself to review, in that it is by definition incomplete, indeed a very long way away from being complete, in both space and time. And I am conscious that the book with which I have long been familiar is no longer the official part of the cycle, Crowley having revised The Solitudes in 2007, the year of publication of the fourth part. It is difficult to know what to say that will not trespass on my following reviews of Love and Sleep, Dæmonomania and Endless Things.
For now, I’ll confine myself to describing the overall structure of Ægypt as the tetraology. It is constructed on the basis of the Twelve Houses of the Astrological Zodiac, each volume divided into three books titled after the roman name for that station, whose characteristics influence each part of the overall story. The individual titles come from differing Renaissance works, each of which reflect back upon the actions and events of that volume, which the four volumes themselves also represent the seasons of the year.
The Solitudes is Spring, is ‘Vita’, ‘Lucrum’ and ‘Fratres’ and owes its name and some of its shape to Luis de Góngora’s Las Soledades.
So where do we begin? We begin with the beginning.
The central character in The Solitudes is Pierce Moffatt, a teacher of History in College, a man in his early Thirties, of devout Catholic upbringing, of questioning mind and abstract thought, who is undergoing a shipwreck. His place at College is under threat, he is financially pressured, his last girlfriend has run out after a drugs deal that went majorly sour. And he is physically shipwrecked: en route to a job interview in the next state, his bus has thrown a rod and died, stranding him in the small town of Blackbury Jambs, in the Faraway Hills, on the border of New York State.
This provides an immediate echo of Smoky Barnable and Little, Big, though the two men are not otherwise similar. Pierce too will remove himself from The City into an idyllic country scene that has the atmosphere of a fairy story, removed from the greyness of ‘real’ life. The impression is even stronger given the name of the Faraway Hills: no matter how geographically composed Crowley’s description is, the name leads back to the nursery, emphasising the sense of removal.
(Though it may not be relevant, the main theme of the classic 1953 Western, Shane, is titled ‘Call of the Faraway Hills’ and the music is a classic piece of big, wide-open country Americana).
Trapped in Blackbury Jambs, Pierce meets an old friend and former student, Spofford, who has set up here as a shepherd. He stays with Spofford a few days, goes to a garden party on the river, nearly ends up in bed with a dark-haired woman whose place in the community he completely misunderstands, and in these bucolic surroundings, becomes inspired with an idea for a book. His eventual return to live in Blackbury Jambs (the homophone pun can only be intentional) is to write that book, or at least the one his publisher has commissioned, which is a vastly different thing into which Pierce hopes to sneak the real things of interest.
But Pierce is not our only leading character. There is Rosie: Rosie Mucho, Rosie Rasmussen, Rosalind. Rosie is married to Mike Mucho, a counsellor at The Woodlands, they have a three year old daughter, Sam. But Rosie no longer wishes to be married to Mike, for good, if not specific reason as we see when we encounter him, for Mike is centre upon one thing and that is Mike. Rosie, who loses the rear view mirror in the car the ay we first meet her in Blackbury Jambs, symbolic of her detachment from what lies behind her.
Rosie, who is Spofford’s intended, though Pierce Moffatt lies across her path.
Rosie enters some form of hibernation whilst the affairs of her divorce play out behind the background. She reverts to her maiden name of Rasmussen, which links her to the local family, the remnant of which runs the charitable Rasmussen Foundation via her Uncle, the fabulously elderly Boney Rasmussen, who gives her a job as the Foundation’s Director, dealing with grant applications, using the Rasmussen money to the best ends of people.
In due course, Pierce moves to the Jambs to write his book. He meets Rose in the Library. She is not Rosie: her hair is dark and long, not strawberry and curly/short, but Pierce takes the length of the book to position the two correctly in his mind, for Rose Ryder is Mike Mucho’s lover.
What draws Pierce’s and Rosie’s courses across each other is Blackbury Jambs’ famous son, Fellowes Kraft, the late author of a vibrant, buoyant historical fiction. Both read Kraft, but his copyrights and his old home belong to the Foundation, and he was Boney Rasmussen’s best friend, and the discovery of a hitherto-unknown Kraft novel, drawing together two disparate but contemporary historical figures, leads Rosie to ’employ’ Pierce to edit and prepare the book for publication.
And these two historical figures form the other poles of the square of central characters. One is Dr John Dee, Queen Elizabeth I’s astrologer, who is led a trail by his acolyte, Mr Turner, who claims to see, and very well may see, Angels in a crystal ball, who do not attend upon Dee.
And the other is Giordano Bruno, monk, Dominican, possessor of a trained memory even greater than that of Ariel Hawksquill in Little, Big, heretic, object of the Inquisition, traveller.
For Kraft’s book is Pierce’s book, as, in a different manner, Ægypt is also Pierce’s book and the book is the telling and the story. For there is room for there to be more than one history of the world, which once was not as it is now, and may again be on the point of changing.
The Solitudes is but a beginning, but it serves to take its reader a long way into the heart of mysteries and philosophies. It is a story that concerns itself with Hermetic thought. In truth, not a lot ‘happens’, though its effects both inside and outside the characters, are debated at a length that is never too long nor too dry. Crowley’s languid, lucid prose, at once penetrating to the centre of unanswerable questions and simultaneously softly conversational: Oh, I see. I get it: draws the mind ever onwards.
Vita = Life. Lucrum = Fortune. Fratres = Brotherhood. Spring passes. The world turns towards Summer in all its parts. And Summer brings Love. And Sleep.
There is more to come.