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June 2002
 
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Books
by Elizabeth Hand

The Translator by John Crowley
William Morrow, $24.95, 294 pp

Little, Big by John Crowley
Reprint: Harper Perennial Library - 560 pages, $15.05

Otherwise, Three Novels by John Crowley: The Deep, Engine Summer, Beasts
Reprint (Omnibus edition): Harper Perennial Library, 560 pages, $15.05

Snakes-Hands: The Fiction of John Crowley Edited by Alice K. Turner and Michael Andre-Driussi
Wildside: No further publication available at press time

Queen of Camelot by Nancy McKenzie
Del Rey, $13.95, 623 pp

Strange Stories for Strange Kids edited by Art Spiegelman and Francois Mouly
HarperCollins, $20.00, 64 pp.

The Trouble with Angels

"I was waiting in Expectation of my own Change, and wondering, what Sort of Being I should be translated to."
-- John Fox, from the 1718 journal The Wanderer

In John Crowley's 1989 story "Novelty," a writer sits in a New York bar recalling a conversation with his editor.

. . . she had pressed him for a new book, something more easily graspable than his others. "A couple of chapters, and an outline," she said. "I could tell from that."

Well, he was sort of thinking of something, but it wasn't really shaping up, or rather it was shaping up rather like the others, into something indescribable at bottom . . . "What it would be," he said timidly, "would be sort of a Catholic novel, about growing up Catholic," and she looked warily up at him over her Campari.

This novel, indescribable at the bottom, turns out to be---in our world, at least -Ægypt, the projected four-volume "Gnostic ascension" that at present comprises Ægypt, Love and Sleep, and Dæmonomania. And yet---since this is a review of a Crowley novel with cats'-paws of other Crowley novels inside it---this indescribable book also turns out to be Crowley's newest novel, The Translator, which is not a Gnostic ascension at all, but a record of a Gnostic decline: the nearly invisible trajectory of a being falling (or fallen) from some sort of Otherworld to our sort of Earth.

Now there is a good foot-stomping, hair-pulling discussion to be had (not today, class) as to why so many of the great and near-great fabulists of the last century were or are Catholic men: from G. K. Chesterton and Charles WIlliams and Tolkien through Gene Wolfe, James Patrick Kelly, Tim Powers, and Crowley himself. The most obvious reason, of course, is that the Church provides an extraordinarily broad template for belief in the supernatural, which in the pre-Vatican II era encompassed not just a roster of the divine and demonic, but all manner of everyday magic: a calendar (throats blessed on St. Blaise's's Day, preventing not just TB but the common cold); recipes (for the Meatless Friday era) dress code (women's heads to be covered during Mass; if you forgot your hat, use a Kleenex ); amulets (Miraculous Medals, holy cards, rosaries); charms and prayers and exciting methods of expiating sin (flagellation, self-depilation, various scourges).

This is useful stuff, for guys at least. For those of us forced to wear Kleenex on our head in public, it had, perhaps, more limited appeal. Christa Malone, the heroine of The Translator, doesn't have to wear Kleenex on her head, but she endures many of the other indignities inflicted upon Catholic girls who came of age in the late 1950s and early '60s. The populist, cinema-friendly version of this era would give you mean (or beatific) nuns, paternal (not yet pedophilic) priests; repressed girls and clean-scrubbed boys making their way through the Forest Perilous of adolescence with a Baltimore Catechism as their guide.

Crowley's version is also cinema-friendly (The Translator would make a great movie) but far more like the real thing; i.e., pretty scary. Christa, called Kit, is the daughter of middle-class parents named George and Marion. Like their ectoplasmic namesakes in Topper, George and Marion possess the sort of relentlessly stoic optimism that survives even death---not their own but that of Kit's only and older brother, Ben. George has a spooky job, too: his hush-hush work with computers is funded by the Department of Defense. The family moves around a lot, and young Kit develops a Bronte-ish dependence upon Ben, the two of them creating their own private imaginary lands and languages as they flit from one Midwest town to the next.

This sibling bond, which nearly becomes sexual (and certainly emotional) obsession on Kit's part, is one of the delicately-rendered miracles of The Translator, a novel whose levels of meaning appear and shift under one's hands, as though they were written in invisible and ever-changing ink. Kit and Ben's emotional reticence, even or especially towards each other, embodies a certain kind of mid-century Irish American Catholicism, an immurement that burrows beyond mere repression into something darker, more explosive and dangerous (this is where alcoholics and junkies come in) but sometimes also artistically fruitful (this is where alcoholics and junkies like Eugene O'Neill and Jim Carroll come in). In D. H. Lawrence's memorable phrase, Kit Malone is one of "those who have not exploded"---but she's a bomb regardless.

The Translator's early chapters proceed too slowly, as young Christa bows her head before Stations of the Cross that would be familiar to her sisters under the skin, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Edna St. Vincent Millay: a teenage pregancy that ends in stillbirth; a failed suicide attempt (razors, natch); an exhilarating exodus to college; the death of a beloved male figure (badly timed to coincide with Kit's first drunk, thereafter denying her the Poet's great solace and affliction, Alcohol). These stigmata seem unearned somehow, stacking the deck against Kit as a normal human being even while adding to her credentials as a poet manqué. Her emotional imprisonment seems inevitable, despite the presence of campus friends and Joan Baez on the record player: one can easily imagine her like poor Mary Bailey if George hadn't rescued her from spinsterhood, locking up the Bedford Falls Library, alone, after dark.

Happily for Kit and reader alike, this is where Fate comes rustling into the liberal arts tower. On her second day at school, Kit signs up for Comparative Literature 401, The Reading and Writing of Poetry. The course is being taught by Innokenti Issayevich (I.I.) Falin, an emigre Russian poet and one of the greatest in Crowley's significant pantheon of great characters. Falin's impoverished Stalin-era childhood is evoked with Dickensian brilliance and pathos: orphaned, homeless, he became one of Russia's millions of lost children, the so-called Besprizornyi, 'those without;' "a constant threat, a grief, a fear . . . these other children, dark figures, hardly human they seemed . . ."

At once monstrous and pathetic, the Besprizornyi are real-life, multiple analogues of the terrifying figures of Ignorance and Want revealed to Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Their presence haunts both the novel and Kit herself, who finds that they are with her always: when she finally makes it to Russia in 1993 as special guest at a conference celebrating Falin's life and work, she sees besprizornyi still very much alive and at work, begging and thieving in St. Petersburg.

Like Kit, Falin is emotionally scarred, "without." As a boy taken into a besprizornyi cohort, he participated in the gang murder of another child. His wife and daughter died during the Stalin purges. Falin himself was imprisoned, ultimately exiled. His very presence in the U.S. is tainted---received wisdom seems to be that Falin is part of some shadowy Cold War exchange of prisoners, or worse.

Still, from his first appearance, Falin's aura is far less sinister than distinctly otherworldly. More than anything, he is eerily reminiscent (eerie if unintentional) of Bruno Ganz's beautiful, world-weary—but which world?— Damiel in Wim Wenders's 1987 film Der Himmel Uber Berlin (Wings of Desire). There are also obvious echoes here of Nabokov's stint as Resident Lecturer in Comparative Lit at Wellesley, though Falin has no demure wife cleaning the blackboard for him (and if he had, I'd hope Kit would chuck an eraser at his head). Like any self-respecting student, Kim seems to regard her teacher as ancient—forty-three or -four to her nineteen. He is, needless to say, utterly irresistible to her. Over the course of the school year becomes first his protégé, and, after she begins to study Russian at summer school, the translator of his poems into English, and his lover.

And here lies the real story nestled within all of The Translator's nesting Russian dolls, a story whose beauty and originality may be difficult to discern upon a first reading. The signal-to-noise ratio in this book is pretty high, even for a Crowley novel, the signal nearly lost in the static of Cold War skullduggery, mid-century Catholic nostalgia, campus hijinks involving the nascent Peace Movement and (less interference here) the grown-up Christa's pilgrimage to Russia, when she is closer to Falin's age at their first meeting. But the chapters in which Kit and Falin struggle to bring his poetry from one world and language into another, are among the most beautiful Crowley (or anyone else) has written—spare, elegiacal, erotically-charged, heartbreaking. More than any other American writer, Crowley reminds me of James Salter, that other great chronicler of desire and lost time: if Little, Big is paired with Light Years, The Translator makes a metaphysical companion to A Sport and a Pastime.

As far the actual poems cited in the text, Crowley does some clever boxing, since of course these are lost poems in another language, and Kit's translations are necessarily faltering in comparison. The Falin poems are in fact quite lovely (and Crowley does a very funny, pitch-perfect job in creating Kit's own adolescent verse). One which informs the entire novel is called "1963," though it was written a year earlier. Lke Rilke's Duino Elegies, it is about angels, an exegesis of Falin's poetic notion that there are Gray Gods which dispassionately oversee the cosmos, as well as other beings, not so dispassionate perhaps, which intervene with human affairs.

It is a notion which resonates through all of The Translator's myriad narrative strands: like a spider's single thread that, once touched, causes the entire web to shimmer. Falin's Russian and English poems mirror each other. So do Falin and Kit, who are, or become, not mere human lovers but the two Platonic halves of a single divided being, each trapped on the wrong side of the looking-glass, and only for this brief time united (at one point Falin tells Kit that a childhood Russian nickname means "nun," an unhappy reminder of Kit's inner solitude). As Falin says of Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There---

When I read I believed I discovered a flaw in it: would it not be impossible for Alice to pass through the mirror? She would I thought only kiss herself there: face to face, hand to hand, breast to breast. How to pass through? Then I saw, no, this is supreme genius of the book: that if Alice passes through her mirror, then Alice from the other side must also pass through; and while we read the interesting adventures if Alice in her mirror, at the same time there is another story not told, the adventures of mirror-Alice here, where she does not belong ... A poem could perhaps be written of her adventure?

The Translator is brilliant in showing us one-half of this adventure: Falin's. Kit, sadly, remains tentative on the page, which gave me the creepy feeling that she's trapped out there on the wrong side of the mirror, waiting to get out. Some of this is no doubt due to circumstances of time and place: if she and brother Ben been born just a few years later, they might have become Patti Smith and her daemonic doppelganger, Robert Mapplethorpe. The adult Christa becomes notorious as Falin's translator; she's supposed to be a poet in her own right, with scant reference made to a husband and children; but she seems tragically to be Falin's keeper of the flame and not, as is surely intended, a flame herself.

To be translated means to exchange one form for another, one mode of being for another, this world for that---here in rural Maine one can still read old tombstones that say BORN 1768 TRANSLATED 1823---and Falin's mysterious disappearance at the end of the novel points to his own transubstantiation into Christa Malone. The Translator is a singular achievement, an imaginary garden with a real poet, I. I. Falin, inside it; but Kit, like Eve and Lilith before her, is Love Locked Out of Eden.

"In a Dark Time," one of Theodore Roethke's most harrowing and beautiful poems, spaks of how his bipolar madness made his work possible. "The edge is all I have," he writes; and while Kit seems to have no edge, Crowley's melancholy novel aptly expands upon Roethke's words---

"Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind."

But a poem, of course, cannot ever be truly translated.

I Have Always Been Here Before

John Crowley's work reappears in print with the cyclical predictability with which classics like The Wizard of Oz and Peter Pan used to be broadcast on commercial televison, back in pre-VCR days. Last sighted in 1994 as handsome trade editions published by Bantam, Little, Big and the omnibus edition of Crowley's first three novels---The Deep, Engine Summer, Beasts---once again proceed in stately fashion across the publishing skyscape, this time as handsome trade editions by Harper Perennial, a tentacle of the same empire that published The Translator. Like those folks who possess every bootleg of Neil Young's work, Crowley purists already own every edition of Little, Big, including the electronic download and that little blinking chip we had implanted directly into our skulls at the turn of the millennium. First-time readers will want to take advantage of this opportunity to acquire the work in paper, since copies of earlier editions grow scarcer every year. The Deep and Beasts are very fine books, but Engine Summer remains one of the greatest science fiction novels of the last century, and one of the few that can be read again and again without ever quite giving up its secrets.

I suspect that Alice K. Turner and Michael Andre-Driussi, editors of Snakes-Hands: The Fiction of John Crowley, have long had the chip in their heads. (Harold Bloom, who provides the volume's introduction, is one of the few who have no need of a chip of any sort: his head glows on its own.) Snakes-Hands was originally published last year as a limited edition chapbook and quickly sold out. The present volume is an expanded version of the earlier work. It will probably have a longer shelf-life, since (for now, at least) it stands as the best introduction to and exegesis of Crowley's work, and will no doubt be picked up by university libraries as well as common readers.

Snakes-Hands covers all of Crowley's work to date, including The Translator (in a fine and elegantly-reasoned essay by William Sheehan). In addition to essays by the editors, there are pieces by Thomas M. Disch, William Ansley, John Clute, Adam Stephanides, Brian Attebery, Jennifer Stevenson, and James Hynes, among others. Hynes in particular contributes a valuable precis on Crowley's career and, especially, the Ægypt sequence. There's also an Ægyptian astrological chart, likewise a timeline compiled by Turner, very useful stuff for those of us stranded here in the 21st century, looking backward at the Faraway Hills.

Once and Future Everyone

I had almost stopped marvelling at the longevity of the Matter of Britain as genre fodder, when Nancy McKenzie's intelligent, gracefully-written and -conceived Queen of Camelot appeared. The Arthurian mythos has long since turned into a sort of literary Tarot Deck, its characters infinitely shuffled and dealt, so that this time Guenevere is the protagonist, this time Mordred, this time Merlin or Nimue or Arthur. Guenevere has had a long run, ever since Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon hit the bestseller list and made this reader, at least, long for the days when Elfy-welfy women were shoved into the convent and made to obey a vow of silence.

Queen of Camelot, despite its title and misty cover graphics, boasts no such heroine. The queen's name is spelled Guinivere this time, and she is a most compelling heroine. McKenzie does a commendable job of taking a tale told infinitum and making it new, and hers, most notably in the conception of Mordred---in McKenzie's hands, a young man raised by his loving stepmother, Guinevere. The restrained passion he develops for her as he grows up is both believable and very sexy, and in modern terms helps to explain the emotional mess all those highborn people got themselves into with the Round Table.

Queen of Camelot was first published as two novels, as The Child Queen and The High Queen; in her author's note, McKenzie states that the present, volume hews closer to her original concept of the tale told as a single book. It's a masterful---mistressful?---accomplishment. I can't wait to see what she does next.

Tales for Tykes

Finally, another installment in the Little Lit series, again edited by Art Spiegelman and Francois Mouly. Strange Stories for Strange Kids isn't that weird, really. For instance, there's nothing quite as off-the-wall funny as Daniel Pinkwater's best work for kids, Borgel, and as far as whacked-out deadpan goes, William Joyce's A Day with Wilbur Robinson is still a highwater mark for me. But Joyce and Pinkwater are not comic book artists per se (though their stuff could easily have been shoehorned in here, somewhere). For the most part, this book highlights the work of well-known comic artists like Marc Rosenthal, Claude Ponti, Jules Feiffer and Spiegelman himslf. Highlights include Maurice Sendak's "Cereal Baby Killer," Posy Simmonds "Mr. Frost," Claude Ponti's "The Little House That ran Away From Home," and Kim Deitch's "These Cats Today!" There's also Crockett Johnson's classic "Barnaby," featuring the cigar-chomping fairy godfather O'Malley, reprinted here in full. With great cover art by Charles Burns and endpapers by Kaz, this is the perfect gift book for everyone: reluctant reader nascent comics collector, or aficionado of contemporary illustrative art.

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