Considering John Crowley: Ka – Dar Oakley in the Ruins of Ymr

A new John Crawley book is an event for me, since years pass between them, so I was excited to hear of the publication of Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr. Better yet, the book was published in decent time to be a birthday present to myself. I looked forward to it.

I admit to a certain amount of puzzlement over its title, or rather it’s sub-title. ‘Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr’ suggested nothing more than cheap Seventies fantasy fiction, sub-Moorcockian stuff, pale shadows of Tanelorn and The Eternal Champion cycle. Of course it wouldn’t be anything like that, not from Crowley, or if it held any such element, it would be reflected from a hitherto unseen direction.

As I do in all such things, I avoided learning anything about the book in advance other than its title, and a small image of the cover. Until, that is, the day of my birthday, when I took the book out of its Amazon packaging.

That was my birthday in November 2017. Today, I have finally finished the book, in a series of widely separated bursts taking me three weeks short of a year. It’s not a bad book, by any means. It is well-written, in Crowley’s usual, lyrical manner, but from the moment I read it’s blurb, and discovered Dar Oakley to be a Crow, an immortal Crow, I found myself unable to connect with the leading character at all, and in none of my slow bursts of progression have I discovered the essential enthusiasm for the Crow and what happens to him.

The form of the book is that this is Dar Oakley’s story, as told to a contemporary human male that we instinctively connect with being Crowley himself. For the longest part of the book, some two-thirds or so of the novel, the narrator confines himself to occasional commentary on the stories he is repeating, or summarising. He is, for this period, nothing more than an intermediary, a translator from Crow into American English.

But as the present of the narrative extends into modern times, to the American Civil War and beyond, the narrator comes more to the fore. Dar Oakley makes a connection with a human, not his first, but perhaps his most substantial. This is Anna Kuhn, who loses her husband and brother-in-law in the Civil War, who becomes blind but, at the same time, infallibly perceptive of her surroundings, like Matt (Daredevil) Murdock, and through some form of transfer from the Crow, becomes a prominent spiritualist medium.

The narrator knows of her through his mother, herself an ardent spritualist. Kuhn has the feel of an historical character but she is fictional, albeit as a reimagination of Emily Dickinson. Her son becomes a hater of Crows, of Dar Oakley in particular, and a great Crow-killer, who eventually kills himself and Dar Oakley – not the first of our prominent crow’s deaths, but the last to be depicted in this book.

This leads us into the fourth and final part of the novel, named for its sub-title, and brings us to the period in which Dar Oakley, now wishing to die and die permanently, communes with our narrator. The latter has lost his wife Debra to a ‘new’ but unspecified disease, and he too is suffering from a terminal disease, also unnamed (my inference is cancer, or some related condition, but then I would incline that way, given my history).

Ultimately, he and a woman named Barbara, a sufferer from diabetes, decide upon a joint suicide, in Dar Oakley’s presence, enabling the Crow to guide them to the Door of Death and enter them into a land where the Dead live, where the narrator will once again find his Debra. But Death rejects them, and there are sent back to live, which is the point on which the book ends.

I’ve no doubt that this is a very good book. It has received very favourable reviews. But from the moment I read that it was about a Crow, my mind took against it, and I have never been able to get into the book.

It’s not that I have anything against beast-fable, which is how I would categorise Ka: though it is years since I last read any, I have, in my time, been a devotee of Watership Down, William Horwood’s Duncton Wood and The Stonor Eagles and I still have, somewhere in a plastic bag underneath another plastic bag, that copy of The Wind in the Willows, bought for me by my parents when we still lived at Brigham Street.

So as far as I am concerned, the fault with Ka, if there is a fault, is with me, not John Crowley or Dar Oakley. But I have finished it at last, and as I will not read this again, I will be putting the book up for sale on eBay this weekend. It is not the only book I have started but not yet finished: Alan Moore’s Jerusalem lies suspended and that was for Xmas 2016, so I do need to get a move on.

Sometime next year, I think it will be time to return to Little, Big, and beyond it, Aegypt. I am sorry to have failed with this latest book.

Daylight on Saturday: a novel of an aircraft factory

A few weeks ago, discussing John Crowley’s Four Freedoms, I referred to an obscure, long out of print, long-forgotten novel of J. B. Priestley, Daylight on Saturday, on a similar theme, the recollection of which overshadowed my ability to enjoy Crowley’s work. The novels have nothing in common save their setting, which is that of a munitions factory during the Second World War, but the love I’ve long had for Priestley’s book made it impossible to approach Crowley’s novel with a completely open mind.

There’s a world of difference between the two books, on every level, and not merely the contrasting backgrounds of America – free from direct assault from either protagonist – and Britain – victim of air raids and attacks, close to the edge of the battlefield. Curiously, both writers go for a similar type of background: Crowley’s factory-cum-mini-city is in the midwest, between the poles of each coast and its differing characteristics, whilst Priestley’s factory is in the Midlands, an often neglected region because it is neither the North nor the South.

In their differing ways, the settings represent neutral areas, between extremes.

But the two books couldn’t be more different. Priestley’s was written on the spot, as it were, in the middle of the War when no outcome was yet known or knowable. And it is confined to the factory itself, every page taking place within its walls, every character seen only in relation to their role in the factory, in the urgent need to work for a victory that, with all due respect to Americans, is far closer to them. Crowley writes from the future, looking back, recreating an era and an atmosphere. Priestley writes from within, reflecting what he sees about him.

Daylight on Saturday is, unavoidably, a less literary book. Some might call it a potboiler, though I think it’s far better than that. It certainly has its propaganda aspect, but then Priestley was a passionate Englishman who gave greatly of his time and effort to what could support the war effort: his Postscripts series, a weekly talk on BBC Radio, was one of the most popular programmes in the War Years (until it was stopped because it’s political stripe did not match that of Churchill).

But it’s also a social document, a record of what people did and thought during wartime. That alone lifted it far above one of Priestley’s other wartime novels, a thriller entitled Blackout in Gretley, in which wartime England was no more than a backdrop – an accurate one, naturally – to a story whose sole intent was entertainment.

Since you’re highly unlikely ever to find a copy of Daylight on Saturday unless old copies still exist, in bookshops of the mind that rarely exist any longer, I’d better be more forthright than usual about the contents of the book. The title alone sets a tone for the story: just as the action takes place entirely within the factory walls, so too is everybody’s lives. Literally, they only see daylight on Saturdays, for their working day at the time of year this is set begins before and ends after dark.

The factory is building planes, or rather parts for planes. It is full of men and women doing repetitive, unending tasks with complex, noisy machines, working with different levels of skill and competency at things that, in another, better day, they would never have gone near, never have had to go near. For women, it is an entry to a workforce that was previously all but banned to them. Over and again, just by showing you people doing these things, Priestley emphasises that the war has changed things and, even once won, it will continue to change things in a way no-one expected. The genie is out of the bottle, the worms are out of the can, look at it as you will, there will not being a going back, no matter how much people expect and want it, to before.

Priestley opens the book with a bravura sequence of eight chapters. The whole story is told from multiple viewpoints: all the important characters, and there are neither stars nor heroes within, become eyes for us to see through, several times over, and there is a continual interchange between our understanding of what is inside a person and the visions others around them have of them.

But Priestley sets things up by applying this approach to a daisy chain. A succession of characters lead us first one way, then another, their viewpoints interlocking to inform us of all we need to know, the baton passing in turn from our inside man or woman to someone encountered near the end of their chapter, who will in turn take us in a different direction, until we have seen enough to understand where we are and who we are dealing with.

The order runs through James Cheviot, general manager of the Elmdown Aircraft Company Limited, Bob Elrick, its Works Supervisor, Joyce Deerhurst, a rather nice and genteel machine worker and former milliners’ assistant, Alfred Cleeton, the foreman, Edith Shipton, Women’s Welfare Officer, Nelly Ditton, a former country girl and machinist, with a lop-sided face, Sammy Hamp, odd-job man, and Francis Blandford, Progress Development Manager.

There are others seen along the way, who form a vital part of the narrative: Stan Ogmore, charge-hand, shop steward and communist, Gordon Stonier, a machinist who is steadily going insane, Blandford’s assistant, Maurice Angleby and his secretary (and cousin), Freda Pinnel, and we see through their eyes at different times.

We see through many people’s eyes, including those of a pair of ageing music hall comedians, ding a Worker’s Playtime show in the canteen. Everyone goes to build up a mosaic image of this place at this time, what people think, what they expect, what they love and hate.

But it’s a moving mosaic: this isn’t just a portrait. The factory isn’t doing well. Production is dipping, despite everything everyone can do to try to push it back up again. Things are so dire that, in a few days time, a Ministry Delegation is coming to inspect the factory, a delegation consisting of a career Civil Servant with absolutely no qualifications to assess what he will see, and a former assistant manager of the factory, sacked for incompetence. There are difficulties regarding supplies that force Cheviot to tour subsidiary operations, creating an absence that has disastrous results.

If there is a hero, or at least a central character, it’s Bob Elrick. He’s a passionate, aggressive, bad-tempered, hard-drinking man with a temper that usually denies him allies at the wrong moment. He’s convinced that the factory’s trouble is the war, the absence of news, the absence of some sort of development that will involve and excite the workers, be it good or bad. Elrick harks back to Dunkirk, when he personally worked like a trojan, driving, directing, urging, performing miracles, and it’s not to difficult to see that he personally is lacking something like that, some crisis, some reason, need, excuse to hammer at things at full bore.

He’ll be proved right too, before the book ends. In the background of the news, there is a clash going on in Africa, at a place called El Alamein, where a glorious victory and an upsurge in morale will change everything at the factory.

But Ellrick’s frustration with life, his gut-deep opposition to the snobbish, aristocratic, autocratic Blandford, who sees society as permanently stratified and everyone below him as disposable, his choleric inability to use his advantages over Blandford to his advantage, his growing obsession with Joyce Deerhurst, who’s totally in the wrong place, become the story of his gradual, but inexorable downfall, a common man’s tragedy.

There are other stories. The shy, unpretty Nelly grows in confidence and stature as the book progresses, picked to go to London to appear on the radio opening her up and starting a confidence that she’s never before been allowed to develop. And Angleby, who starts as a protege of Blandford, seemingly no more than a conscientious and dedicated worker, lifting himself up by his bootstraps, who grows rapidly to become Elrick’s replacement as Works Supervisor, and more than a match for the haughty Freda, who initially planes to give him nothing but acid condescension, but who learns that she herself has depths and qualities never dreamed of.

There’s Gwen Ockley, a gifted, intelligent mechanic, veteran of the pre-War days, lost in a hopeless love for Bob Elrick, there’s recent arrival Arthur Bolton, cousin of the wife of Edith Shipton’s married lover, a man frozen inside by the loss of his entire family to a Nazi bomb, to whom Edith, in trying to explain herself, starts trying to transfer her feelings.

And then there’s Stonier. Who is mad, mad with a kind of religious fervour, hearing voices in his head, from the machines, especially the new one, that squeals and screams, with all the cutting edges over which blood must flow, and Stonier can see the young woman with the lop-sided face who has been chosen as the sacrifice, who works opposite him every day…

Elrick finally loses it over Joyce Dewhurst. He’s already been replaced by Angleby, but Cheviot had other plans to use Elrick to advantage, but Elrick knows it’s too late, you can’t take Elmwood out of him. His clumsy, obsessive lunge at Joyce destroys all that, destroys his future and then Stonier grabs Nelly and starts dragging her to the machine, but Elrick intervenes, at the biggest cost of all…

Yes, go on, say that the ending’s melodramatic, that it’s just a means of closing off a story that, without it, might have lacked a satisfactory resolution. But Priestley takes Elrick’s final moments off-stage, lets them be relayed afterwards, with commendable brevity, concentrating upon the aftermath for everyone. And in a way the ending is a triumph, for the horror of Stonier, the fear for the naïve Nelly, who nevertheless could contain more in her than she even hoped to dream, has been a steadily growing theme for so very long that it’s deflection is in itself a victory. A war victory, at cost, great cost.

For a very long time, John Boynton Priestley was a great English author, and he was decidedly English, a native of Bradford, a Socialist at heart, a man with certain quasi-mystical appreciations of Life and of Time. I know of him long before I read him, out of the library, beginning with a piece of whimsy entitled The Thirty-First of June. Reading out of the library, I went through most of his contemporary novels, many of which were undercut with a bitterness at the age, with what he saw as the perversion of England’s character by various influences, mostly those of cheap Americana.

Even then, there were still great books: 1968’s The Image Men, a great, sweeping, scathing attack on advertising, hypocrisy and politics, 1965’s Lost Empires, an evocation of the Music Hall days. But the best ones were older ones, closer to their time. My favourite remains 1948’s Bright Day, which one day I’ll talk about in more detail, Priestley’s own favourite until The Image Men, and all the way back to the book that made his reputation, The Good Companions.

I began to collect his work, which is what led me, after several years of diligent examination of second hand bookshops, to Daylight on Saturday. Eventually, I read it all, most of it in old hardbacks that are now all the evidence that the books existed, because unless a true, universal print-on-demand service comes into being, no-one will reprint such books, and not this moment of a specific, thankfully gone time.

Eventually, I kept a handful. I wanted to read them all, but over forty plus years of writing there were those that were better than others, and I kept the ones I knew I would want to re-read. Some good books went because, at the end of the day, I had better ones to keep: The Good Companions is structured around three completely disparate persons coming together in an unanticipated exercise, and Priestley used that formula a few times over, on books that were good, but not better.

There’s a case for ignoring Daylight on Saturday as a minor work by an author who, like so many others, has ceased to matter since his death in 1984. It’s not a case that will ever influence me.


As an addendum to the above, a quick check on eBay reveals a dozen available copies of Daylight on Saturday, not to mention myriad others of Priestley. You may wish to indulge…

Considering John Crowley: Four Freedoms

John Crowley’s most recent novel, Four Freedoms, published in 2009, is, like The Translator, a mainstream novel set in a recent history period, this time some twenty years earlier.
The story takes place during the Second World War, and centres upon a number of disparate individuals, drawn together to work at the gigantic Van Damme Aircraft construction plant, outside Ponca City, Oklahoma. Prosper Olandar, Vi Harbison, Connie Wrobleski and Diane Nunez are just four of many who have come into this place, a virtual city on its own, drawn or driven by various reasons to the effort to defeat the Nazis and the Japs.
I hadn’t read the book before writing this review and, not being American, I didn’t understand this significance of its title, which is an overt reference to a speech of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, on the Four Freedoms that he regarded as being essential for the lives of all American citizens. Midway through the novel, Crowley makes this reference explicit, through he only names two of the Freedoms whilst doing so.
However, it seems to me that he is using Roosevelt’s (locally) famous maxim as a reflection, a symbol, and that the freedoms the book refers to lies in regard to the fates of those characters who come together in these pages.
Four Freedoms is similar to Endless Things in that it continues Crowley’s plainer, less involved style. The narrative is more straightforward, the philosophical speculations about alternatives and motives is similarly withdrawn. At least the book continues Crowley’s minimal approach to plotting, lacking in strong storylines that require action.
The main character is the unlikely named Prosper Olander – all the other characters are given down-home names, plain and real, and reflective of the American Melting Pot. Prosper is an artist, a lover and a cripple, dependant upon crutches, unable to climb stairs, his legs imprisoned by braces. He is not a victim of polio, though that condition is assumed by others, but rather of spinal lordosis, coupled with an unsuccessful operation for spine-straightening, when he  was ten.
An orphan by that point, Prosper is brought up by a pair of lesbian aunts and a pair of wide-boy uncles, who try not to mix with each other any more than is necessary. These relationships persist until Prosper begins sleeping with a woman a few years older than him, Elaine, and when he refuses to use his artistic skills to forge gas stamps (Black Market fake petrol rationing coupons).
His uncles cut him off, Elaine abandons him at an Elevated Railway station because he can’t get up the stairs and his meeting with a curious man of social planning instincts, named Pancho Notzing, takes the two of them to Oklahoma, and Henryville, the company town that has quickly grown up around the Van Damme plant.
But despite his apparent deficiencies, in an era that noticed and made much of such things, Prosper doesn’t half get it on with the ladies. There’s the tall, strong Vi, escaping from a dying family farm, a top class softball pitcher and star of the works team. When she ends it, it’s just in time for Connie, following a husband who doesn’t want here and their boy here, and not just because he’s screwing someone else. And if that’s not enough, there’s Diane, latina passing for white, maybe or maybe not married, whom Prosper gets pregnant.
The back-stories of these ladies parallel that of Prosper, but the end is still the same: they go off and leave him. Vi meets up with a truck-driving lady-friend, and the pair go off to enter into a lesbian relationship. Connie really only has eyes for her husband, though she is punished for making the wrong choice by his being killed on service. As for Diane, Prosper sends her and his unborn child away with Martha, a jewish woman, a natural flyer, to her returned, war-traumatised husband, reuniting them quickly enough that he will never realise the the boy isn’t his.
I found Four Freedoms difficult and unsatisfying. Not difficult to read, for Crowley has lost not of his fluidity. But I never became attached to the characters in any way. I found it difficult to care about what happened to them, to remain interested long enough.
In part, this was because the book was too similar in its milieu to an old J. B. Priestley novel, a wartime propaganda piece, all but forgotten, but which completely absorbed me. Daylight on Saturday is set in a UK munitions factory, it’s title deriving from the early starts and late finishes that mean that the workers really only do see daylight on Saturday. It’s a mosaic novel, with multiple characters, the viewpoint passing from one to another as if along a chain, drawing together people of all shapes and sizes, minds and hearts, and ultimately leading to madness and the tragedy of a good man’s death in saving an innocent, and though I haven’t read it in many years, its simple strength, and Priestley’s deeply-characterised people given even dim memories of it a far greater potency than this less-then-rooted novel.
The ending, when it comes, seems rushed. The events of the war, which up to a very late point, have not penetrated this self-sufficient world, suddenly start tumbling over one another. The (fictitious) wonder bomber they’ve been building never gets off the ground, there’s Victory in Europe, plans are made for the return of the men, women are laid off to go home and cook, blacks to their places, cripples to be replaced by the able-bodied.
A twister destroys Henryville and the plant. Prosper and a number of his friends go on to the next phase of their lives, the book comes to an end.
Four Freedoms is about painting a picture of an age, with phenomenal accuracy if the book’s blurbs are to be believed. I may enjoy it more on a re-reading but, unlike The Translator, there is a complete absence of poetry herein.
Many years ago, I composed an aphorism that summed up my belief in what is the minimum necessity for a work of fiction, that it must make us care about something that never happened to someone who never existed. On that level, I cannot really pass Four Freedoms.

Considering John Crowley: Endless Things

Endless Things was published in 2007, and is officially the final part of Ægypt. It appeared twenty years after the story first began to see print, and thirty years after the themes and concepts came to John Crowley, in and around the year during which most of the work takes place. Crowley acknowledges in its pages that with this publishing, Ægypt is as close to complete as he can make it.
I have never known quite what to make of this book, and still don’t. From first seeing it, from the cover which, unlike the ornate art of its predecessors, consisted of a photograph of ancient books on groaning shelves, and the words beneath the title ‘A Part of Ægypt‘ – a part, not the final part – this book has never seemed to fit, never seemed to be truly part of the series I had then been reading for twenty years.
Nor does it provide an ending. The Solitudes, Love and Sleep and Dæmonomania progressed in multiform fashion, interweaving a number of stories, divided between, but not exclusively linked to a quartet of characters: Pierce Moffatt, Rosie Rasmussen, Dr John Dee, Giordano Bruno. It is as if all those stories stop, completed insofar as they have any resolution, at the end of the third book. What goes on does not feel part of the same story, its links principally being Pierce alone. But Endless Things – whose title echoes no prior work – is the final book to a different tetraology, the first three books of which I have not read.
Even the very mood of the book feels different, the tones, tempos and atmospheres of the first three dissipated, and the prose here is simpler, plainer, shorter. The best way I can think to describe the effect is to compare it to the James Bond series, continued by multiple authors after Ian Fleming. No matter how skilled they are, how authoritatively they ape Fleming’s mannerisms and modes, you can tell, on a single page’s reading, that they are not Fleming, and this is not true.
As I’ve said, the book is now almost exclusively about Pierce. Dr Dee is dead. So too is Bruno, burned at the stake but herein resurrected temporarily in an absurd and disbelief-shattering fashion by Pierce in an attempt to extend Fellowes Kraft’s unfinished book. Rosie Rasmussen flits in and out but, other than her marriage to Spofford, is now no more than the Director of the high-functioning, indeed flourishing Rasmussen Foundation. Rose has disappeared, and so has Mike Mucho, dismissed without trace, leaving no real legacy for their periods in the story.
The first book covers Pierce’s trip to Europe on the Rasmussen Foundation grant. He tries to follow Kraft’s long ago footsteps, but the journey is hopeless and helpless. Pierce is falling in upon himself, his book abandoned, but in execution and concept, his ‘quest’ for the Foundation unpursuable, Pierce himself rapidly developing into the most hapless, inutile human being imaginable, a state in which he remains until the end.
This section is interrupted with faint indications of a future, Pierce in a monastery, the reader meant to anticipate his future in a return to the Church and a complete withdrawal from the world, although the withdrawal is only temporary, a paid-for retreat to try to make Kraft’s book publishable, for Pierce’s destiny is to marry and adopt and adapt.
There’s an account of Kraft’s own journeys, and then that extension of Bruno’s career: foreshadowed elsewhere in references to donkeys, he escapes his execution by projecting himself into a donkey, a talking donkey at that, a move so horrendously stupid that on first reading I nearly threw the book across the room in disgust. But, as with so many little moves in the final stages on Dæmonomania, this is officially rejected, never happened (leaving me wondering why bother including this whole interlude at all).
Pierce returns to Blackbury Jambs and the Faraway Hills for the last time, not to stay but to merely give a broken account of his complete failure to do anything, before he vanishes, seemingly doomed by his own inadequacies. But, in need of a car, he ends up bumping into Roo, properly Kelly Corvino (even more properly Roseann Kelly Corvino, another example of the influence of the Rose, though this revelation is not made until the final few pages of the book).
Roo, whose nickname is a homonym link to the Crow family perpetuated in her surname, comes out of left field, in every way. She has no connection to the community of people with whom Pierce has been involved in Blackbury Jambs (save only for having slept with Spofford once, another piece of information not disclosed until very nearly the end). She’s loud and abrasive, she and Pierce argue frequently, she has no artistic, esoteric or hermetic interests, and she takes Pierce out, away and forward from everything that has gone before, removing him from all semblance of what we have been following as ‘the story’ since the opening pages of The Solitudes.
It is as if Aragorn, after the Battle of Helm’s Deep, walks away from it all, marries, settles down and becomes an accountant, and Tolkien chooses to follow him rather than go on with the rest of The Lord of The Rings, which peters out except for a couple of letters from Frodo, many years later.
Because, once Roo comes into the story, not only is Blackbury Jambs left behind but so too is the year (1977) in which this story is happening get left behind. The book extends through Pierce’s future over the next decade: marriage, Pierce’s return to teaching, Roo’s training as a nurse, their adoption of two girls from another country.
Behind the scenes, the Foundation flourishes, grows ever more corporate. Rosie hires Pierce to re-read Kraft’s last, unfinished book, which is what sends him into that misleading retreat in the Monastery: eventually, Pierce concludes that the book is finished, he just hadn’t read it properly all the previous times.
We move ever onward. Still a child, Sam sings a wordless song at her mother’s wedding, that we are told is the final end to the changing age that has been taking place throughout this story. The 1989 revolutions, the collapse of the Berlin Wall are fortuitous evidence, unhappened when The Solitudes was written/published, of the new age arrived, when there is no longer more than one history of the world. Ægypt stands revealed as Egypt.
To be honest, I find much of the final third of the book dull to read. It has disconnected itself so thoroughly from the other elements of this story that my interest attenuates and dwindles, waiting only for the pages that constitute Crowley’s ending, leaving an ending that I will not get to read, an ending to everything in The Solitudes, Love and Sleep and Dæmonomania, because that ending will not be written.
Mine is, I am aware, a minority opinion. I have never read anyone else who has criticised Endless Things in this way. Indeed, I have never read critical reaction to it in itself, other than as a part of the whole, seen entire and praised as such. But it’s a tremendous disappointment, a terrible flatness, knowing as I re-read the other three that there is nothing but suspension to come for me. Ægypt is essentially endless.

Considering John Crowley: Lord Byron’s Novel or, The Evening Land

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,, 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.

Considering John Crowley: The Translator

When The Translator was published in 2002, it came as a surprise, three surprises in fact. Firstly, it was not the expected final part of Ægypt, secondly, it was a mainstream novel, and a historical one at that, and thirdly, it appeared only two years after Dæmonomania, in complete contrast to John Crowley’s publishing schedule of the last two decades.
Because it was not of Ægypt, I did not buy it for some time, and re-reading it for the purposes of this blog, I can see that I have clearly underrated it. It’s a much simpler, more lucid book than its predecessors of that twenty year period. The absence of magic, and fantasy, leaves a more direct story, with which Crowley takes few liberties, and the absence of the constant philosophising and speculation of the Ægypt books makes for a much more direct read, without foregoing Crowley’s characteristic prose.
The Translator of the title is Christa ‘Kit’ Malone, a poet. We meet her, briefly, as a schoolgirl, one of a dozen or more young poets, briefly meeting President Kennedy in the first year of his Administration. Knowing which College she is destined for, the President speaks a name she has not heard before, Innokenti Isayevich Falin, a Russian poet in exile from the Soviet Union, who teaches there. We next meet Kit thirty years later, invited to Russia to discuss Falin with a small but intense group, some of whom knew him personally. She is known to them for having translated fourteen of Falin’s poems into English, publishing them in her first collection. They thirst for anything she can tell them.
The book then is made of her extended recollections, of Falin, of her younger years, of what she was when she first met him, at College, and what they became to each other, before Falin’s (soon foreshadowed) disappearance, without explanation on the night before the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.
But Kit doesn’t get to College on time, not until the second semester. She’s been brought up a devout Catholic, her family committed to the Church, but her faith ends when her adored elder brother Ben chooses to join the Army. She has sex – once – with one of his friends, becomes pregnant, is sent to a Catholic institution to have her baby in shame (her mother refuses an easier option), and has a baby that dies within a few hours of birth. This is what Kit brings to her College, along with a loss of the desire to write poetry.
Despite this she seeks, in vain it appears, to join Falin’s class, though she immediately withdraws when it appears to be impossible. Only Falin’s own invitation draws her in.
Though it is never expressed as such, Kit is turning into a rebel. She associates with left-wing friends who seek Fair Play for Cuba. She has a not-quite boyfriend, Jackie, who is sensitive, patient and supportive, but who, in the end, will be found to be an FBI plant in the group.
Crowley moves ahead at times, returning us to the ‘present’ of the story, where Kit is telling her story, and sometimes he drifts outside the story, relating elements of Kit’s future that lie well beyond the time period of the main story. Falin produces a number of unseen poems, draws Kit into assisting him in translating these into English, a process that, after it s all over, reawakens her own instincts.
But mostly, Crowley delves into the mystery that is Falin, the former Bespryzonye, the lost boy, whose past is a complete mystery that he has chosen to fill in as he chooses.
It ends with Cuba. The FBI, or so we believe, is pressing Kit to spy on Falin for them, relay what he says and does, uncertain as to his true allegiance: poets in Russia who display open dissidence are executed or disappeared, not exiled to Russia’s greatest enemy. Kit refuses to co-operate, reveals all to Falin, who sends her away. But by now both are in love (though the relationship remains non-sexual, not for want of hoping on Kit’s part). The Crisis brings things to a head in so many ways, not least in that Falin disappears. A few hours later, his car is fished out of a river, by a bridge. There is no body.
What happens to Falin remains unknown. That he has, in some manner, played a part of the defusing of the Crisis, and in consequence has had to go away is all that we are allowed to learn. Whether he has died – Kit is convinced not – is unimportant: he has had to leave the world in which Kit knows him, and thirty years later this is all she can bring to what, we quietly understand, is a final and most probably unavailing attempt to lock him into history, somewhere, that he might be remembered when those who remember him personally are no longer here to do so.
Kit acts as a translator in two senses, one being her corporeal role as the translator of Falin’s poetry, debating and discussing with him meanings, interpretations, how to say things in English that open out the experiences, the shorthands, that are evident to Russians who have lived under Stalin. But she is also the translator of his life, such as it can be told, experiences for which English, and the life of a ‘ruined’ Catholic girl, has no equivalents.
But as we reach the end of this book, we see that Falin is, himself, a Translator. That his love and the things he holds within translates the disjointed Kit into the poet she will become, for him, for herself, for poetry.
It’s a quite beautiful story, steeped in the atmosphere of the period, and it really should have been published in the UK, for us to freely share. The advent of Amazon, the ease with which American publishing has become accessible, has blurred realisation of how many extraordinarily good writers – Gene Wolfe is another – simply do not get published over here any more.

Considering John Crowley: Ægypt – Dæmonomania

Dæmonomania is the third part of the Ægypt cycle, and was published in 2000, although I didn’t get my copy until the following year, as an import arriving suddenly into the Manchester Waterstone’s. Indeed, to the best of my knowledge, The Solitudes, under its original title, is the last of Crowley’s books to have been published in the UK: praise be to import sections!
It comprises of Uxor, Mora and Pietas, is is the Fall, or Autumn, and it derives its title and much of its underlying themes from De la Démonomanie de Sorciers by Jean Bodin, a book intended to aid exorcists dealing with possession (this may be the very book by Master Bodin that Roger Nowell finds so unhelpful in Mist over Pendle).
Whilst Love and Sleep began and ended with a visit by Pierce Moffat, distraught and strained beyond endurance, to his mother Winnie in Florida, leading to his decision to take up the Rasmussen Foundation’s offer of a grant to travel to Prague, Dæmonomania twists time to deal at length with all the factors shaping and turning Pierce’s course to lead him up to that visit to Winnie: we are not yet to travel in the late novelist, Fellowes Kraft’s, footsteps, nor to learn if there was any truth, in a world on the cusp of changing, in his half-hinted claim of finding the Fountain of Youth.
Instead of spending much of its time in the past, those strands relating to Kraft’s book relating the course of Dr John Dee and Giordano Bruno excepting, Dæmonomania hews to the present, and primarily to Pierce. Pierce is struggling, is starting to fall to pieces. His relationship with Rose Ryder has become too complicated. He has lost the control by which he initially established it, the quasi-magical dominance he has used over her, his ability to manipulate her sexually.
What has done this is God. Pierce, raised devoutly Catholic, has lost God, abandoned him, but Rose, at first through fear of losing her job at the rapidly failing The Woods, has found God, or at least that version of him portrayed by Ray Honeybeare, via the cultish Christian organisation, the Powerhouse – themselves far from being what they purport to be.
It’s difficult to determine the true state of Pierce and Rose’s relationship. It is highly sexual, built upon an unspecified level of BDSM (in terms of specifics, Crowley goes no further than, in Love and Sleep, the buying of silk scarves and the agreeing of a safe-word) that implicitly intensifies. But coupled with Pierce’s use of quasi-magical effects to control Rose, it is extraordinarily difficult to judge how consensual the relationship is.
We see it primarily through Pierce’s thoughts, his fears and self-justifications, and though Rose’s own thoughts come to illuminate certain later parts of this volume, they never touch quite upon the extent she freely consented, or wanted, things to happen in this way. Pierce’s conviction, undercut with doubts, that he is drawing out of her something that is fundamental to her being, is only his view, and the whole relationship has queasy connotations.
Nevertheless, Rose becomes a Christian. She moves from Blackbury Jambs into the City, Conurbana. Before the book ends, she moves further, out of the story’s ambit, out west to Indiana, to the Powerhouse’s centre, her relationship with Pierce resolved, in her mind at least, never to be seen again, unless a late flash-forward is to be believed as literal.
I’ll come back to that, as tricky things start to occur in the final stages of this book. For now, let’s stick with the Powerhouse, who begin to involve themselves in the fortunes of Ægypt‘s other contemporary central character, Rosie Rasmussen. At this time, in this part, Rosie’s concerns are all wrapped up in her three year old daughter Sam. The brain seizures Sam experiences are investigated at painfully slow length. In the end, the diagnosis is not epilepsy, but something rather more indeterminate, a kind of maybe, or not-proven epilepsy. Sam must take medicine that she loathes for the rest of her life. Rosie must treat every day as one in which no seizure will occur.
But her ex-husband Mike, or rather Honeybeare and the Powerhouse through him, do not agree with the diagnosis. It’s not medical, but spiritual (of course it is, how in their minds could it ever possibly anything else?) Sam doesn’t need medicine, she needs exorcising, an exorcising that, when it comes, very late on, seems to require exorcising Mike as well as Rosie from her life, he being responsible for whatever has allowed the demon to find a way in.
To begin with, though, all is to be done legally. Mike applies to have custody re-opened. Rosie, rather than find herself forced by lawyer’s fees into taking up the Foundation Directorship she doesn’t want, fights it alone. And she loses her case, loses Sam, taken away almost as suddenly as in a kidnapping, because she went to the wrong part of the Court, and cold, callous, unChristian advantage was taken of her absence.
Though it spurs her into taking that Directorship, to work for Sam’s return, the loss leaves Rosie lost for a long part of this section of the story. Spofford is away, helping his buddy Cliff rehabilitate lost Vietnam vets. For a brief night, the equally, in fact even more hapless Pierce, fills in in her bed, consolation for each other. Though only Rosie is to achieve fulfilment.
Besides Rose, Pierce has a second struggle. His book is not progressing. Daily he’s losing faith in it, and even more so in himself to deliver it. Kraft’s unpublished novel about the separate courses of Dee and Bruno is losing its hold on him. Dee sees his scryer Kelley walk away, escapes Prague, returns penniless to England where he subsides in poverty and loss for twenty years until his quiet, all but unobtrusive death. Bruno is imprisoned for eight years as the Inquisition tries to make him recant, admit to blasphemies that he will not allow.
In the end, he is burned alive at the stake, in Dæmonomania‘s final pages. An ass, unnoticed by the crowd, breaks loose, just as foreshadowed in the early pages of the book, in a completely different context. This may not be noticed or granted significance by those reading Dæmonomania for a first time, ignorant of what is to follow.
So Pierce abandons his book, just at the point that it is growing ever clearer that the book he is engaged in writing is the book we are engaged in reading. Beau Brachman, a background figure, an enlightened soul, gives Pierce post-modern, metafictional advice as to what he needs to do, in both fiction and ‘real life’. At a Halloween Party, Come As You Aren’t, Pierce – supplementing the foreshadowing by dressing as an Ass – meets a masked man who seems to have no connection with anything, save that he is a writer. Only now, on this reading, have I connected this man, realised that he is Crowley himself, stepping into his own book to complain about his inadequacy to deal with such themes.
And then the plot, if it can be distinguished as such, goes strange. Pierce stumbles, makes mistakes, leads the tale towards disaster, speaks with Rose in a much-removed future time (if the scene can be relied upon to not be the fiction the book is becoming), only for the story to reset itself, time and again, the author intervening to correct, to say no, it didn’t happen like that, converting Pierce’s mistakes into opportunities that lead to the rescue of Sam from her exorcism, her restoration to Rosie.
There’s a strange undercurrent to this final encounter. The ‘assault’ is led physically by Cliff and Spofford, returned, in the nick of time, from their mission, but it is planned by Beau Brachman and it is he who vies directly with Ray Honeybeare, and he who warns that he will not be returning. What happens is not disclosed: we sense something beyond our ken, a moment when magic, true magic of a kind that is not supposed to exist in these two, transitioning ages of the cycle, takes place, with consequences that we instinctively see are ruinous to both parties.
Uxor = spouses/partnership. Mors = Death or Resurrection. Pietas = Journeys.
The third part is done.

Considering John Crowley: Ægypt – Love and Sleep

I’ve referred to the Ægypt Cycle as comparable to The Lord of the Rings and The Book of the New Sun, but there’s a significant difference to either of these works. Both LOTR and TBOTNS are composed of separate books, in which there is a sense of an ending, if only a temporary one, at the end of each volume. The more so with TBOTNS, where Gene Wolfe leaves gaps between the ending of each volume and where the next starts.
That isn’t so with Ægypt: More so than any other series I’ve read, despite the great difference in time and place between the concluding scenes of The Solitudes and where John Crowley picks up in Love and Sleep – published in 1994 – there is a sense of continuation, of complete continuity, as if the transition from one book to another is merely the turning of a single page, and not a wait of seven years to see the story continue.
This effect is partially created by the absence of any conventional ending to The Solitudes, any event or an anticipation of a coming event that represents a new phase, but in large part it is Crowley’s prose-style, serene, complex, abstract, but individual, involving, drawing you into a frame of mind in which the many pages are all of one, entire, composition.
Love and Sleep’s title echoes the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Poliphilo’s Strife of Love in a Dream). It is Summer, and it comprises the three Astrological Houses Genitor, Nati and Valetudo.
The book begins in the past, Pierce Moffatt’s past, living with his Uncle Sam and his cousins in rural Kansas in the early 1950s. The family is Catholic, devoutly so, at least among the children, who absorb the lessons of the nuns to such an effect that, when they discover and take in a half-wild girl, Bobby Shaftoe, as in the nursery rhyme, whose grandfather follows an obscure, obsessive Protestant sect, Pierce and his fellow members of a Hermetic gang do their desperate best to save Bobby from the eternal damnation that is sure to be coming her way, she not being Catholic.
This story, including the underlying element of a primitive werewolfism – of soul if not body – on the part of Bobby’s grandfather and guardian, Floyd, runs for the vast majority of Genitor, emerging, in somewhat surprising fashion, in Florida, where Pierce is visiting his mother Winnie, a visit that, chronologically, does not come until the end of this volume, when Pierce had undergone a racking experience.
Genitor = Parents. Nati = Children. Valetudo = Health.
Nati also bathes itself in the past, but this is the further doings of Doctor John Dee and Giordano Bruno – their paths crossing but once and then separating forever. Pierce continues to read Fellows Kraft’s unpublished novel, assessing its value for publication, searching on Boney Rasmussen’s behalf for a secret that may be only a joke, or may be, as Boney devoutly desires, the true secret of eternal life.
But Boney suffers a heart attack, from which he will soon die, trying to bind to his destiny both Pierce – a trip to Europe, to follow in Kraft’s footsteps and learn that secret hinted at in Prague – and Rosie Rasmussen, succeeding to him as Director of the Foundation. By the book’s end, one will accept and one will temporise, strongly minded to refuse an imposition.
There are other currents in the often unseen present. Rosie’s daughter, Sam, experiences brain seizures that might herald a diagnosis of epilepsy. Her still not yet ex-husband Mike Mucho, at the Clinic, The Woodlands, falls under the spell of the charismatic Christian preacher/healer, Ray Honeybeare, and begins urging Rosie towards the continued support of an institute which, in the half-hidden background, is eschewing treatment for faith-healing.
Mike’s no longer seeing Rose Ryder. Pierce steps in there, instituting a relationship, or perhaps only an affair that is based upon a manipulative dominance, displayed in a form of magic that Pierce attempts to conjure from and for his book, though in the end, in Valetudo, Rose’s interests begin to topple sharply towards the Honeybeare sect, and Pierce finds that in trying to impose a dominance on Rose, he has fallen into her spell, of a love that, when it is most needed by him, is no longer requited.
In the middle of Love and Sleep, in an obsession with dangerous undertones, Pierce conjured for himself a son, an imaginary twelve-year-old boy, Robbie, product of an old liaison, come to visit with Dad for the summer. Disturbingly, the relationship is overtly sexual on its first night, at a point where Crowley is still teasing his readership with the question of how unreal Robbie might be, but the magic invested in Robbie is undone and dispersed by the magic imposed on Rose.
Valetudo begins with Boney Rasmussen’s funeral, and the offers to assist/direct Pierce and Rosie’s futures. Slowly, their decisions, their conflicts, begin to define themselves. There is a tangent, a part of Kraft’s book, about the nightfolk, those called upon to do battles, Wolves against witches. A boy goes out on his first hunt, only to be trapped, smashed, in a wolf-trap. Floyd Shaftoe is turned onto his face by a young woman who does not need to be named for us, preventing his soul from returning.
Pierce, in Florida, distraught and devastated by love and incapability, decides to go to Europe. Summer ends, the Fall beckons. Years await us before the third book appears, but when it does, it will appear only as the turning of another page.

Considering John Crowley: Ægypt – The Solitudes


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.

Considering John Crowley – Little, Big

There is a moment in Little, Big that I didn’t notice when I read it the first time, nor the second. The book is almost 550 pages long in my precious first British paperback edition from Methuen, with its richly beautiful cover and Ursula Le Guin’s line that this is ‘A book that all by itself calls for a redefinition of fantasy’ prominently displayed in the centre.
It’s an absorbing, in every best sense of the word, work of art, a growing and living depiction of the life of a family in a strange house, situated at the heart of a pentacle of towns, and of a strange, block-wide castle in the heart of a decaying city, and people caught up in a Tale, people with old, warm names and roles to play that not all believe in.
Smoky Barnable and Daily Alice. George Mouse and Old Law Farm. Edgewood and Grandfather Trout. And Ariel Hawksquill and Russell Eigenblick, who is the Barbarossa, returned at last, his beard red and curled, to save his people.
And there is it, about 350 pages in, slowly emerging, blinking into the light. A story, a plot, a train of events, a drama. Building. After 350 pages in which, I slowly begin to realise, nothing has happened. 350 pages without a story, 350 pages that have sustained and refreshed and entranced without the need of a story – and until then I hadn’t noticed.
I first read Little, Big in 1981, the year of its publication, via a library copy. I remember being absorbed in it under the summer sun, a long, slow train journey, travelling backwards through a summer evening of long Pennine valleys. Thirty years on, I’m still no nearer to defining it. Le Guin’s blurb (and she is still the only blurb writer whose advice on a book will draw me) is correct, but at the same time the book itself refutes any definition of fantasy that we would normally accept. The only thing that can be said definitively is that Little, Big is a masterpiece.
Albeit, a masterpiece without influence, it seems. I am hardly the best read in fantasy, of any kind, and certainly not in the past twenty years and more, but I have never seen any signs of any writer who has been directly influenced by Crowley, in style or subject. Not that I would necessarily wish to read anyone so influenced. Then again, there are few writers directly influenced by Gene Wolfe, or so I believe, which I take to mean that those who have the ability to emulate the masters have too much ability to ever be anything but themselves.
Nevertheless, there are certain clues as to the nature of Little, Big, the first and most substantial of which being the book’s almost universally overlooked sub-title, or: The Fairies’ Parliament. Not that this is of intrinsic assistance to the reader, despite the Parliament of the sub-title appearing to be an important factor in the conclusion of the story, but it at least enables us to make a tentative identification of the novel – or perhaps I should refer to the same as the Tale – as a Fairy Story.
At the centre of the book, or as close to any centre as it possesses, is Smoky Barnable. Smoky – whose ‘real’ name is given only once, deep into the Tale, as Evan S Barnable, as an afterthought or as a token – begins this story by coming to Edgewood to marry Daily Alice Drinkwater. By doing so, he adds himself to the Tale, which has existed for a very long time before Smoky ever hears of it, but to which he is an essential part, even as he is the one person in the whole of the story who does not believe in it.
Smoky is the outsider, yet he doesn’t play the role we would expect of the outsider. He is the Man Who Doesn’t Know, who comes from outside the magic circle, to whom everything has to be explained, whilst the reader listens and learns. But though he is essential to both the tale and the Tale – these are distinct things – Smoky neither understands nor accepts the explanations he receives.
Nor are these given to him when the reader is present to eavesdrop. And, as Smoky relievedly confesses to his similarly-sceptical son, Auberon, late in the Tale, he has never believed, but has always pretended, because to him his life is a precious thing and if a pretence to believe the strange things everyone else in his extended family believes is what is needed, then he will pay it for the sake of what and who he loves.
So we, the reader, remain beyond the true knowledge underlying the Tale, that is, if knowledge is what it is.
The book is divided into six parts, or Books, and covers a great many years. In ‘Edgewood’, we are introduced to Smoky, his peculiar, eclectic background and education, his meeting Daily Alice Drinkwater and their blossoming love, unexpected for him, foretold for her, the conditions placed upon their marriage and his fulfillment of these, and the wedding, an act promised to so many others than just the Drinkwater family.
‘Brother North-Wind’s Secret’ moves backwards and forwards in time, taking us into the past of the Drinkwaters and the middle years of the Barnable marriage, including infidelities that are themselves a part of the Tale and a child stolen into another realm that exists close beside yet infinitely far away from Edgewood.
Twenty five years are jumped to reach ‘Old Law Farm’, as Smoky’s son Auberon moves towards the centre of things and the focus becomes the decaying, crumbling city (never named but instantly recognisable as New York). Auberon seeks his fortune in both literal and metaphysical manner, and seems to find it in the mercurial Sylvie. In the city we first meet Ariel Hawksquill, first hear of The Lecturer, first glimpse into what will grow to involve the second half of the book, as power awakens to Power.
In ‘The Wild Wood’, this pending situation develops, until the abrupt moment that Sylvie disappears, leaving Auberon bereft and sinking into misery and degradation. This causes him to meet Hawksquill, an unsuspected distant relative, in ‘The Art of Memory’, in which Hawksquill learns of the Drinkwaters and of a certain pack of Tarot cards, and Russell Eigenblick becomes Dictator, Barbarossa returned but as yet unfulfilled. It becomes clearer than ever that a War is being waged, and that those from beyond are losing, ae being wiped out but, in the final Book, ‘The Fairies’ Parliament’, we see how a long plan, of which the Drinkwaters and their extended family have been part, acted upon without their knowledge but with their consent, to win an ultimate victory, in transformation, but a victory that comes with grief, and loss.
I’ve been deliberately vague about the contents of the book, and I intend to remain that way. Firstly, because the book itself is deliberately vague. There are two strands developing, and Crowley chooses to portray the lesser of these two, the uninvolved, those who are waiting, in ignorance but in anticipation, unable to see the over story.
The latter is thus only glimpsed, shadows and hints. A pattern emerges, but that pattern is drawn from the reader’s interpretation, and what I might think is not necessarily what you might think. Sometimes we directly observe those who direct the Tale, seeing certain roles flash by, but these are widely-spaced and their position in the pattern is open to determination.
And I’ve no wish to force an interpretation on those who may not have read Little, Big, but who really ought to, to find for themselves what story is untold, except in places and times, to those who accept it, but to which we are not privy.
You’ll note that I’ve used the word ‘absorbing’ several times. This is the most accurate description of the sensation of reading this book. One meets it as a stranger, a stranger with unusual habits, but very quickly one is enfolded within. That’s why the absence of a ‘story’ seems so unimportant, negligible. The setting, the atmosphere, the strangeness settles around the reader, until he or she is a part of things. The language is warm and conspiratorial: it talks of things it knows but that you don’t, openly yet evasively, as if you are presumed to know already, to possess all the knowledge the characters share. It might be a fireside, at which an elderly grandmother tells tales of her childhood, and childhoods before her, that depend upon knowledge now faded but still alive, that you sense is on the edge of your mind, around a corner that, at any moment, you will pass, to understand, to share, to see, oh yes, now I see.
Crowley sustains, effortlessly, that mood for over five hundred pages and the effect of reaching the end is of nothing but loss. It’s gone, it’s not there any more, it is almost a legend but you were once part of its reality. It’s over.
Little, Big made John Crowley’s reputation as a writer. It is still, so far as I am concerned, his best book, but that is not to criticise any of his later work.Most writers produce something that is better than anything they have done before, or ever will again. Few writers produce something like Little, Big: or, The Fairies’ Parliament. It would be a grand exception to produce something better as well.