No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, March 12, 2011

2011/11: Aegypt -- John Crowley

Star temples and ley-lines, UFOs and landscape giants, couldn't they see that what was really, permanently astonishing was the human ability to keep finding these things? ... That's the interesting thing, that's the subject: not why there are ley-lines, but why people find them; not what plan the aliens had for us but why we think there must, somehow, always have been a plan. (p.286)
  1. Set in the mid-Seventies in upstate New York: Pierce Moffat, a teacher of history, is between jobs and on his way to an interview when the bus breaks down in a small town, Blackberry Jambs. Pierce bumps into an old friend, Spofford, herding sheep; decides he wasn't too keen on the interview anyway; ends up staying in Blackberry Jambs, researching dead author Fellowes Kraft, planning a book on the mystical science/magic of Aegypt -- that far old country that was sort of Egypt but not Egypt (p. 101) -- and falling in love.
  2. It's not at all clear, either from the cover or the contents, that this is the first volume of the Aegypt quartet. The edition I've read is titled Aegypt, but the book, first published in 1987, was reissued as The Solitudes in 2007, and (allegedly) "Completely revised by the author to further the power of the series as a whole". This phrase comes up all over the place in reviews, but I can't find an original source for it. Nor can I find a list of revisions.
  3. Most of the story focusses on Pierce, solitary as a pinball but Pierce is not so much an unreliable narrator as an unreliable observer: he doesn't always know what (or who) he's seeing.
  4. Crowley veers into the historical with episodes from the lives of John Dee and his sidekick Kelly, a.k.a. Talbot; a young Will Shakespeare (shown a photograph of himself taken by Doctor Dee); Giordiano Bruno, eventually to be burnt at the stake. These vignettes are tremendously evocative: for instance, Dr Dee standing on Glastonbury Tor, showing Talbot the Glastonbury Zodiac. The sun was sinking into the sea. [He] could almost hear it hiss. (p. 281)
  5. Crowley's prose is poetic, precise, vivid. Occasionally, though, it overflows: sentences that run on with wild enthusiasm, recondite phrases that, unpacked, seem (but perhaps aren't) paradoxical. Nowadays history is made of time: but once it was made of something else. (p.87) It's easy to go with the flow and feel one is achieving enlightenment: harder if one stops to think.
  6. There's a great deal on the science-ness of Renaissance magic and the arcane: that sense that a rigorous framework was in place, that knowledge rather than power was the Grail, that the universe was governed by rules and laws and forces beyond the world.
  7. Is it coincidence that the woman Pierce loved and lost is nicknamed the Sphinx? Given the Zodiacal elements, I think not.
  8. Nor is it a coincidence that several female characters have variations on the name Rose. (At least none has the surname Mundi).
  9. For all th weight of its matter, Aegypt has a subtle quiet humour rooted in the interplay of characters and the juxtaposition of sublime and mundane: I laughed aloud at Pierce's subvocal iterations of sentences in a book review he was writing, and his friend Julie's insistence on ordering dinner while he was trying to tell her about Aegypt.
  10. "For it wasn’t a good book at all, Pierce supposed, considered as a book, a novel; it was a philosophical romance, remote and extravagant, without much of the tang of life as it really must have gone on in the world — as it really had gone on if you meant this world, this only one in which, metaphors aside, we all have really and solely lived in ..." (p.388)
    I could not have put it better myself.

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