Wednesday, July 25, 2012

John Crowley, The Solitudes (1987)

The time has come to dig into Crowley's four-volume Ægypt cycle--twenty years in the making, the first volume having been published in 1987, the last in 2007 (so twenty years plus however long this first one took to write).  This was originally simply entitled Ægypt, but reverted to its intended title when all four were published in a uniform edition in 2007-9.  Apparently, these editions (which are the ones I'm reading) were revised in some way, but I have no idea how or how much.

So wuzzit about?  Well…let's return to that title: "Ægypt."  A question that the novel raises a number of times before answering is: why do people think Gypsies can tell fortunes?  The simple answer, per Crowley, is that it's because they're assumed to be from Egypt, and ancient Egypt, during the Renaissance, was considered to be the home of mystical, occult practices.  One problem, though: that's actually nonsense.  People in the Renaissance knew almost nothing about ancient Egypt.  The ability to read the Egyptian language had been lost long ago, not to be recovered until the early nineteenth century; the Renaissance idea of the culture was based on very fanciful interpretations combined with gnostic texts that purported to be, but really weren't, Greek and Latin translations of actual Egyptian documents.  Actual Egypt Egypt didn't have any of these mystical traditions.  All those mortuary practices that we fixate on as being elaborate metaphors for the progress of the soul and whatnot were very practical and literal-minded.

So this stuff wasn't what we would call "real"--but it was real, in the sense that it formed the basis for an entire worldview, parts of which continue, like fragmentary dreams, to influence our thinking to this day.  This is Ægypt: a sort of phantom country that overlays regular Egypt, existing and not existing.  Of course, this concept doesn't just apply specifically to Egypt; it also describes all kinds of archaic cosmologies, alchemies, and other discredited beliefs (a lot of which do purport to be of Egyptian origin, however).  A shadow history of the world, of sorts.

The Solitudes is the story (or the beginning of the story) of Pierce Moffett, a history professor who, finding that his employment has become, for various reasons, rather tenuous, resettles in a small town in rural Pennsylvania with the aim of writing a book about the above-outlined ideas.  He finds that this town was previously the home of a writer of historical fictions named Fellowes Kraft, whose work he had read as a child.  The novel includes large chunks from Kraft's writing, as what starts as a story about the young Will Shakespeare becomes a story about John Dee and later Giordano Bruno--both figures whose thought existed on the borders between (what we today think of as) magic and science (and good god is Crowley's casual erudition ever impressive--the guy carelessly throws out names and events and philosophies like it waren't no thang).  Eventually, Pierce stumbles upon an unfinished manuscript by Kraft, which seems to be doing, in fictional form, something very much like what he himself had been planning on writing about (the equivalence between these different versions of the world on top of each other and Crowley's book, Kraft's book, Pierce's hypothetical book, and a mysterious book that Dee attempts to translate is apparent--there's definitely a metafictional aspect here).  And, naturally, the question arises: is this more than sheer metaphor?  Are there, in fact, multiple histories of the world?

If it's not clear yet, let me unambiguously note that I find this shit absolutely enthralling, not least because the historiographical issues here are clearly related to the sorts of things I'm writing about for academic purposes.  It should be noted, though, that The Solitudes feels more like a preface than it does a single self-contained novel--ie, like the pieces have been arranged so that now stuff can really happen.  I must admit, however, that I honestly am having difficulty imagining what the rest of the cycle is going to have in store for me--it is kinda easy to see how it could potentially get really, really repetitive.  There is, towards the end, this rather eyebrow-raising passage, as Pierce's mentor is giving a lecture:

"A hero sets out," Barr said, not turning back to his students but facing the sparkling quad and the air.  "To fine a treasure, or to free his beloved, or to capture a castle or find a garden.  Every incident, every adventure that befalls him as he searches, is the treasure or the beloved, the castle or the garden, repeated in different forms, like a set of nesting boxes--each of them however just as large, or no smaller, than all the others.  The interpolated stories he is made to listen to only tell him his own story in another form.  The pattern continues until a kind of certainty arises, a satisfaction that the story has been told often enough to at least seem to have been really told.  Not uncommonly in old romances the story just breaks off then, or turns to other matters.

…so are you trying to tell us something, or what?  Warning us off the rest of the series?  Well, it won't work, but I'll keep all this in mind.

Any review of The Solitudes would be incomplete without mentioning the kitchen-sink aspects.  A great strength of Crowley's, both here and in Little, Big, is, paradoxically, how committed he is to a realist project.  Sure, you can read plenty of genre novels that start off realistically before getting all crazy, but in such cases you almost always have the clear sense that, okay, this is just prologue; it's all going to be in the service of the fantasy.  Whereas in Crowley, you don't get that impression at all.  The realistic stuff is valuable in and of itself; in fact, it's a good part of the whole point, and thus when fantastical elements are woven in, there's a real sense of verisimilitude--ie, this isn't just a world that was created specifically to show us magic tricks; this is the world. 

Accordingly, apart from the brief, engimatic "Prologue in Heaven" that opens the novel, nothing that could be called fantastical occurs until nearly halfway through the novel.  Instead, we get a lot about Pierce; his background, his romances, his philosophical approach to history.  Of course, this would all be for nought if it wasn't any good, and most of it is quite good.  However, it must be allowed that there are parts in which it seems difficult to fit all of this in with the "Ægypt" aspect of the book--parts that feel, dare I say it, a little self-indulgent.  And that's not even to mention the novel's other main character, Rosie Mucho (née Rasmussen).  I didn't mention her earlier because there's just not a lot to say about her.  She lives in the town that Pierce eventually moves to, and, although she gets a lot of screen time (what does it say about us that we use movie/TV metaphors to talk about books?), she doesn't do much: she undergoes a messy, ambivalent divorce, and she reads a bunch of Kraft novels as escapism.  She serves a purpose inasmuch as she provides a different perspective on all this historiography than Pierce's idiosyncratic one--and there's an obvious, if trivial, resonance to the fact that her ex-husband's new girlfriend (with whom Pierce confuses her) is named Rose--but she does not, thusfar, seem to be a key component of this story.  She sort of sticks out in that regard.

I shouldn't complain too much, though; after all, this is only the first book of four.  There's plenty of time for things to work out, and in spite of everything, I thought The Solitudes was basically great, with the same sparkling prose as Little, Big.  I look forward to seeing how Crowley keeps up this narrative for another fifteen hundred pages.


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