John Crowley’s ninth novel came as another surprise, both for its publication only three years after The Translator, and in still not being the final part of Ægypt.
As it’s title proclaims, by far away the largest part of the book is a pastiche, a full-length, hitherto ‘undiscovered’ prose novel penned by the famous and infamous poet, George Gordon, Lord Byron. It is more than a novel, as it comes with a series of annotations and mini-commentaries by Ada, Countess Lovelace, herself a distinguished if generally unknown Victorian figure: mathematical genius, colleague of Charles Babbage, victim of cervical cancer in her early forties, and Byron’s daughter, who last saw her sire in the flesh when aged two.
The secret in such books lies not merely in the skill with which the writer apes his subject, and I will say now that I am in no position to judge the success or otherwise of Crowley in this regard, but it is also bound up in the story the writer concocts to explain the disappearance and, more important, the ultimate emergence of this literary phenomenon.
It’s this part of the tale with which I intend to start, though it occupies less than a quarter of the pages of the novel.
We meet none of the characters in this part of the book directly: each are represented only by their correspondence, all but a fraction of it in e-mail, some minor, late contributions in letter form.
The principals, in correspondence, are Alexandra Novak (who goes commonly by the name of “Smith”), her lover Thea Spann and her estranged father, Lee Novak (the latter two hold Doctorates, though this isn’t revealed until just before the end). Thea is a mathematician, and Lee is a Film Director and an expert who has studied Byron at length.
Lee, like Byron, has not seen his daughter since she was very young, and is exiled abroad, where he makes documentaries seeking to serve the cause of liberation in repressed countries. Thea is heavily against Smith contacting her father, for reasons that are not disclosed until well into the story, which is because he is a fugitive from American justice, having slept with an underage girl: in short, a Roman Polanski figure.
Let’s park that for a moment. Smith is an editor/researcher for a feminist web-site, strongwoman.org, whose theme is uncovering and bringing to light women such as Ada, who have made great strides in scientific fields in eras where women were not supposed to have an interest in such things. Smith is in London to visit Georgianna, an elderly lady who has volunteered both material on Ada, a pioneer in the very earliest days of what would become computer science, and also financial assistance to the web-site.
To begin with, there are mysterious papers relating to Ada that Georgianna hopes to acquire in strange circumstances: Smith’s role is to more or less pre-vet these for the possibility of trickery.
The majority of the papers relate to Ada’s commentary upon her late father’s almost mythological novel (begun in real life but abandoned unfinished, and burned: Byron’s novel was to have been a product of that famous holiday agreement to write books that led Mary Shelley to compose Frankenstein) but there is one extant page, apparently rescued from a burning that was enforced by Lady Byron.
So the novel exists, and we are reading it, and Ada comments at the end of each chapter, whilst the less frequent e-mail interludes tell of the reconstruction of the book itself from Ada’s encoding of it in mathematical cypher.
Several people have criticised the novel for this section, because Crowley does not set up any dramatic tension over whether or not the book may be found, and its provenance (the two works frequently cited in comparison are A S Byatt’s Possession and John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman, neither of which I have read). That’s to mistake entirely Crowley’s purpose in constructing his novel thusly.
Byron’s ‘novel’, entitled The Evening Land, centres upon Ali, the half-Albanian son of ‘Satan’ Porteous, Lord Sane, a cold, rakehelling, self-interested figure who is set up to remind readers of the ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ Byron himself. Ali, born in adultery, is torn from his native land, and his true love Iman, to become Sane’s heir in England. But Sane is soon murdered (out of chronological order) in circumstances that cast Ali as a parricide, (until his elder half-brother and evil shadow steps forward, much nearer the end, to accept responsibility himself).
Ali’s life and career is framed to reflect that of Byron himself, as Ada’s notes manifest, reflecting themselves the picture of Byron given to her by her mother, who specifically sought to blacken Byron, out of hatred for the end of their marriage.
Smith stands in a similar position to Ada. Her own father, Lee, is an exile, on the run even. But when answers are needed to conundrums and possibilities, Lee is the only Byron scholar Smith knows to whom she can turn for information and advice. And, in a very slow, haltering fashion, towards some kind of r’approchement with a parent she doesn’t know that offers a reverse-image to that of Ada and Byron.
I have some issues with this section of the story. One is in the distant Thea, the mathematician. It’s an odd decision to render almost all this element in e-mails, impersonalising every contemporary thought and movement. Because of the normal way in which they write, Smith and Lee do have components of personalities. But Crowley depicts Thea differently. Her e-mails are unpunctuated, uncapitalised, uninterested. The effect is something of a ‘hippy daze’, creating the image of a person disconnected, unprepared to make the effort to communicate. Whether intentionally, and despite her later help when matters enter her field of mathematics, it creates an atmosphere of total self-absorption. Thea seems utterly heedless of Smith’s aims and ambitions: they are not mathematical, they therefore are irrelevant. What at first seems an affectation rapidly becomes a complete irritant.
Lee, on the other hand, is given plenty of time to establish himself as thoughtful, intelligent, his heart and mind in the right place and, through not trying to get into his daughter’s good books, deserving of doing so. That’s before the details of this heinous crime are revealed.
I have strong opinions on Roman Polanski, and they are wholly negative when it comes to him. This raises a very big mark against Lee Novak. True, the circumstances are different, and the facts are given in such a way as to paint a different picture: no rape, no (enforced) drugs, a truly promiscuous ‘wild child’ who had shagged loads of people. ‘All’ Lee is actually guilty of is sleeping with a willing under-age girl. But then we only get this from Lee himself, without objective confirmation. This is something I find hard to accept, even within a fiction.
But the bulk of the book is made up of Lord Byron’s Novel. How good a pastiche is it? Don’t look to me for an opinion, I’m uncultured and ignorant. It has been praised very highly by people likely to know well enough, and I am not aware of anyone blasting it as weak and ineffectual. The early use of the phrase ‘kick against the pricks’ struck me as anachronistic, but that was again ignorance on my part, since the phrase appears in the King James Bible so is clearly older than I think (it’s about donkeys reacting to drivers’ goads, apparently).
It’s a rollicking, larger than life, ramshackle, episodic and improbable beast of a story, and it doesn’t really end. It’s not the kind of thing I’d read if it really were Lord Byron’s novel, but in Crowley’s hands it is but one level of a layered story, and in context an entertaining read. Overall, my personal response to Lord Byron’s Novel is that it is very clever, too clever perhaps, to have anything but cleverness as its achievement.