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Endless Things: An Ægypt Novel, by John Crowley, Small Beer Press, 2007, $24.
IT HAS BEEN two decades since the publication of Ægypt, the first book in John Crowley's sequence now known as Ægypt. As Crowley states in his Last Author Note,
With Endless Things, the work I have always in my own mind called Ægypt is as complete as it will ever be, and consists now of four parts: The Solitudes, first published as Ægypt in 1987; Love & Sleep, 1994; Dæmonomania, 2000; and the present volume…. The conception and writing go back ten years farther.Crowley describes Ægypt as a single novel in four parts. [The four books will be reprinted, with slightly altered text, in a uniform edition beginning with The Solitudes in Fall 2007.] I've read all of the volumes, save the last, more than once over the last twenty years. But I have not read Ægypt all as a piece, in one swell foop, which would give a very different experience of the work. And so I have never read Ægypt as I gather its author originally intended, without the rising expectations engendered by publication of each successive volume at six- or seven-year intervals, without a sense of scriptus interruptus heightened rather than allayed by the appearance during that time of two very different novels, The Translator (2002) and the Byronic mash-up Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land (2005); three story collections—Novelty (1989), Antiquities (1993), and Novelties & Souvenirs (2004); and an unsettling novella, "The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines" (2005).
I vividly recall my initial encounter with the first volume of Ægypt in April 1987. As I began to read it, the story grew intimately entwined with the season's new warmth and falling rain, a sense of doors and worlds opening, not just on the page but all around me. I'll recapitulate here the bare bones of Ægypt's plot, for new readers unfamiliar with the work. In dealing with Endless Things, I'll try to avoid spoilers, though the work as a whole is so massively erudite and complex I'm not sure I could reveal its secrets; I'm not sure I even understand them. But I'll try.
Crowley's book famously asks the question, "What if the world has a plot?" and then tenders as response, "there is more than one history of the world." In truth, this meta-novel is more concerned with correspondences, symbolic and spiritual and philosophical, than it is with more conventional narrative tropes. The tale opens with a brief prologue, an angelic vision granted in 1582 to the English alchemist Dr. John Dee, adviser to Queen Elizabeth I, translator of Euclid, and author of a work on symbolic language titled Monas Hieroglyphica. The action then shifts fleetingly to a second prologue set in 1952, where we glimpse an eleven-year-old boy named Pierce Moffett in bed, reading a novel about the Renaissance philosopher-scientist Giordano Bruno, a book written by a once-popular (fictitious) historical novelist named Fellowes Kraft. Only then does the reader—you, me, though maybe also Pierce—turn the page to find the adult Pierce some twenty-odd years later (I will hazard a guess at 1976, for reasons detailed further on).
Pierce is now a youngish university teacher of history and literature, a "gypsy scholar" wandered off from the 1960s' bright caravan of questing spirits and hapless pilgrims. He is between jobs, en route to an interview at a college in upstate New York, when his bus breaks down and leaves him stranded in a small village, in sight of a fair prospect in the Faraway Hills. There he unexpectedly runs into an old hippie friend. The friend invites Pierce to stay on with him in the Faraway Hills, rather than to wait for the next bus, and Pierce agrees.
A whole lot of stuff happens.
Among other things, over the course of the following years, and through the first three novels, Pierce (who is the same age as John Crowley) proposes to write a book (which resembles Ægypt) that is a sort of alternate history of our world, a book "that would have an even bigger story inside it. About history. About truth."
"See," he said, "when I was a kid I thought or imagined that there was a country—Ægypt—which was like Egypt but different from it, underlying it or sort of superimposed on it. It was a real place to me, as real as America.…"Pierce's decision to remain in the Faraway Hills unexpectedly leads him to embark upon a quest—a true quest, as any great artistic endeavor is—when he becomes amanuensis for the dead novelist Fellowes Kraft, whose last, seemingly unfinished manuscript is entrusted to Pierce by Kraft's friend and literary executor, Boney Rassmussen. In taking on this task, Pierce becomes close to Boney's great-niece, Rosie. He becomes romantically involved with another Rose (there is also a third, hidden Rose), with whom he practices a form of erotic magic involving bondage (rituals which are mentioned in association with Giordano Bruno in Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, by the late Romanian scholar and adept Ioan Culianu, a friend of Crowley's).
Pierce's research ranges across time and space, and in and out of the works of Fellowes Kraft, whose fictionalized histories of John Dee and Giordano Bruno begin to have unsettling resonances with Pierce's own experiences and those of his antic, sometimes eerie friends and lovers in the Faraway Hills. Pierce has a sort of breakdown near the end of book three, complete with what may or may not be hallucinations; he has already conjured up spirits and lovers, human and animal, and had an encounter with a masked figure who rather resembles John Crowley.
As this synopsis probably makes clear, Ægypt is a work of mind-spinning complexity. The reader grows confused sometimes, trying to keep it all straight, and in its opening chapters, Endless Things seems to have perhaps dizzied its author too. There is a necessary but rather maddening recap, not so much of the vast work's plot but of its symbolic and philosophical underpinnings, including a concise history of the origins of Rosicrucianism that made me think longingly of the old National Lampoon parody of same.
But once one has dutifully followed Pierce across Europe, retracing the footsteps and hoof prints of Fellowes Kraft and Giordano Bruno, among others, Endless Things wondrously takes flight in a manner that, while not entirely unexpected, is still surprising and, in its final pages, almost unbearably moving.
Harold Bloom named Ægypt "my favorite romance (to give its true genre) after Little, Big," the latter book being the one that Crowley's reputation, until now, has rested upon in the minds of most readers and critics. I will be surprised if that doesn't change with the publication of the completed Ægypt, which seems to me to be one of the great literary achievements of our time. The book it most resembles is not a A Dance to the Music of Time or The Alexandria Quartet, books it's often compared with; but Robert Graves's The White Goddess. Subtitled "A historical grammar of poetic myth," Graves's masterpiece is a brilliant poetic work, a remarkable book if viewed as fiction; but a shoddy, often daft, and undeniably subjective piece of scholarship.
Whereas Ægypt, while purporting to be fiction, offers lucid and penetrating scholarly insights into all manner of Renaissance and classical thought and literature, in an allusive, elusive, discursive spiral dance that, in addition to the various writers already mentioned, embraces Shakespeare, Apuleius, Dante, Ovid; the Italian historian Carlo Ginsburg, and Dame Frances A. Yates, as well as the Bible, the Cabala, the Tarot; "A Pilgrim's Progress" and "The Romance of the Rose," with (I surmise) a shout-out to T. S. Eliot's "Four Quartets," wherein "the fire and the rose are one."
Near the beginning of Endless Things, Pierce ponders a Y, "A sign for human life, its form taken from crossroads and treeforks and the springing of arches." Y, of course, is also a question, the question, and Pierce's long journey is marked by countless divergences and countless questions, not just his own, but those of all the others whose lives mirror his, across time and history. Shortly before his bus breaks down on that fateful day in 1976, Pierce broods on the subject of three wishes; a subject on which he has spent a great deal of careful thought. His first two wishes "seemed airtight, clinker-built, foolproof to him, he had even recommended them to others, like standard legal forms." Wish Number One is for safety and health (physical, mental, long-lived) for himself and his loved ones; Wish Number Two for a guaranteed, not onerously obtained income. Wish Number Three—"the odd one, the rogue wish"—is more difficult to decide upon, though Pierce half-heartedly considers a sensible, seemingly dull option. It is this wish, perversely in the spirit of both careless wishes and impish spells, from Midas's to Puck's, that ultimately comes to pass.
Because while Ægypt is all about memory, it is also about forgetting, and dreaming. Not dreaming in the strictly biological sense but dreaming as in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and its literary cognate, Apuleius's The Golden Ass; the dream-theater Tolkien explicates in his essay "On Fairy-Stories," where he writes that
If you are present at a Faerian drama you yourself are, or think that you are, bodily inside its Secondary World. The experience may be very similar to Dreaming and has (it would seem) sometimes (by men) been confounded with it. But in Faerian drama you are in a dream that some other mind is weaving, and the knowledge of that alarming fact may slip from your grasp."Little, Big, Crowley's exquisite 1981 fantasy about a young man who marries into a faerie family, is (among many other things) an homage to Lewis Carroll's Alice books. As one treads deeper and deeper into Ægypt's labyrinth, Pierce, the clue at its center, evokes Looking-Glass World's sleeping Red King and also Alice, who wonders who has been dreamed into being, herself or the King? Like Smokey Barnable, the Protagonist of Little, Big, Pierce finds himself with a role to play in a sacred wedding; he is both foolish and beloved, asinine and the owner of wisdom hard-won, a limner immured in the process of transformation.
The year in which John Dee has the angelic vision that opens Ægypt, 1582, is the same year in which Giordano Bruno wrote a play called Il Candelajo, "The Chandler" or candle-maker. Bruno was thirty-four, the same age I suspect Pierce is when he is stranded in the Faraway Hills. Eighteen years later, in 1600, Bruno was burned at the stake in Rome for heresy, after having spent eight years in an underground dungeon, although the history Crowley creates around him allows for other possibilities; infinite ones.
"Behold in the candle borne by this Chandler, to whom I give birth, that which shall clarify certain shadows of ideas," Bruno writes in his play.The great winds of Change and Time blow through Ægypt as they do our world; they fan the blaze of Giordano Bruno's pyre but don't extinguish his alchemical flame, which burns on in Fellowes Kraft and Pierce Moffett and, I daresay, John Crowley himself. At the end of Endless Things, Pierce Moffett finds himself in a place not unlike Little Gidding, his vision like ours expanded so that it can encompass an entire world and its history in an eyeblink, past and future transformed into an eternal present through the alchemy of the word. Ægypt is a metamorphosis, a metensomatosis, a memory play and a meta-novel; a story about many stories, a book with a larger book inside it. The further in you go, the bigger it gets.
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