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Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land, by John Crowley, Morrow, 2005, $25.95.
The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines, by John Crowley, Subterranean Press, 2005, $35.
The Happy Place, Boston Review, October/November 2004, http://www.bostonreview.net/BR29.5/crowley.html.
Pogo, vols. 1–11 by Walt Kelly, Fantagraphics Books, $9.95 each (paper).
JOHN Crowley has long had my vote as the best American fiction writer of our time. His latest book, the intricate and enthralling Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land, is a palimpsest within a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma: the recreation of a lost novel, attributed to Lord Byron, discovered in the form of ciphered pages among the effects of Byron's daughter, Ada Lovelace, and with handwritten annotations by Ada. The ciphered text is then decoded, detailed, and discussed in epistolary mode by a small group of contemporary researchers; the group includes an estranged father and daughter whose relationship mirrors that between the historical Byron and Ada, as well as reflecting the relationship between the fictional characters in the newfound book, a novel of sensation titled The Evening Land.
Byron, of course, never wrote a novel. But he was present at what might be considered the Big Bang of genre literature, when, during the rainy summer of 1816, Byron, Percy and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Claire Clairmont (Mary's stepsister, impregnated that summer with Byron's child), Matthew "Monk" Lewis, and Byron's doctor, John Polidori, all spent time together at a Lake Geneva villa, reading Fantasmagoriana, ou Recueil d'Histoires d'Apparitions de Spectres, Revenants, Fantomes, etc.; traduit de l'allemand, par un Amateur (1812), a collection of German folktales translated into French (published in English as Tales of the Dead ).
Lewis's wildly popular novel The Monk had appeared two decades earlier, influenced by the work of Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe. So the fictional ground had already been well-tilled when Byron made his famous pronouncement (probably on June 16, according to Richard Davenport-Hines in his wide-ranging study Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin), "We will each write a ghost story." Mary Shelley subsequently produced Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus (1818). Her husband wrote "Alastor or the Spirit of Solitude" (1816) and later the visionary "The Witch of Atlas" (1820). The competitive and truculent Polidori, who appears to have played Salieri to Byron's Mozart, wrote something involving incest; but the physician's more lasting contribution to history's most fruitful ghost story contest was first published in 1819 as "The Vampyre, A Tale by Lord Byron." Polidori claimed to be outraged by the assumption that the story was written by his illustrious former employer, as well as the prevalent belief that the idea was cribbed from a story recounted by Byron at the Villa Diodati that fateful summer. Polidori did not, however, repudiate the fact that his fictional vampire, Lord Ruthven, was based on Lord Byron himself. This was not the first time Byron was fictionalized by a peeved acquaintance: his former lover Lady Caroline Lamb made him the eponymous protagonist of her own novel of sensation, Glenarvon (1816).
Yet where among all these literary fireworks is Byron's own contribution? A faint contrail remains in what is known as the Darvell Fragment, dated June 17, 1816. The fragment is reminiscent of the macabre tales in Count Jan Potocki's Saragasso Manuscript, Manuscrit trouvé à Saragosse, published in various parts beginning in 1804. Byron's very brief account of an aborted journey to Ephesus lacks the nightmarish clarity and frank ghoulishness of Potocki's work; it's at once tepid and overwrought, and brought to its unsavory, unsatisfactory conclusion by the untimely demise of Augustus Darvell.
"He smiled in a ghastly manner, and said faintly, 'It is not yet time!' As he spoke, the stork flew away. My eyes followed it for a moment—it could hardly be longer than ten might be counted. I felt Darvell's weight, as it were, increase upon my shoulder, and, turning to look upon his face, perceived that he was dead!
Thus ends Darvell and his Fragment, with neither a whimper nor a bang but merely a tearless thud. I hope Byron's ghost, unquiet or otherwise, takes no offense at my belief that The Evening Land, Crowley's version of the novel Byron might have written, is a better book than the one Byron would have written. The Evening Land, while not precisely tongue in cheek, draws deeply from the fizzing, spurting, bubbling, babbling, full-to-overflowing well of early eighteenth century popular literature. Crowley lets Byron's daughter Ada date the provenance of the book—
I believe the MS. of this tale to have been worked on, in desultory fashion, from the time of Lord Byron's residence in Switzerland following the separation from Lady Byron until some time during his residence in Ravenna, and to have been lost (or abstracted) during the move thence. But all this is speculation.
Byron separated from Lady Byron (Ada's mother) in April 1816 and left England for good, proceeding to Geneva and the Villa Diodati; he then removed to Ravenna late in 1819. So The Evening Land would be the novel he should have written in response to his own challenge, we will each write a ghost story.
What is surprising, then, is that there are no ghosts in The Evening Land; nor vampires, succubi, demons or, seemingly, any overtly supernatural element—save for the hint of a far-ranging secret society introduced at the very end of the novel-within-the-novel. There are, however, assorted zombies, somnambulists, doppelgängers, bears, abductions, rescues, ill-starred loves, and even a prerequisite nod toward sibling incest. The plot, if such a wild gallimaufry of incident and characters can be called a plot, revolves around Ali, a young man of unusual parentage, who, very early in The Evening Land,
finds, some three feet in the air, a form like a man's—face black, eyes starting from their sockets as they stare upon him, black tongue thrust out as in mockery. The strong rope from which this form depends is strung from the upper floor's stone brackets, and winds about him like a spider's thread. It is no devil from hell, caught in his own toils—and yet, it is all we know of such in this our earthly life—and his name is Legion. The man in the ropes is 'Satan' Porteous, Ali's father, Lord Sane, DEAD!
Well, that would certainly have gotten everyone's attention back in the Villa Diodati. The Evening Land relies so heavily, if hoarily (and with obvious intent), upon the lurid tropes and twists of popular entertainments of the olden time—gothic, romantic, picaresque, sensational—that it would be unfair to reveal much of its plot. Which, in any case, is meticulously braided with the two other narrative strands; the text of The Evening Land is alternated with these throughout.
The first of these revolves around Alexandra Novak, known as Smith, a young American affiliated with www.strongwomanstory.org, a U.S.-based "online virtual museum of women of science." Smith has gone to London to research the letters and papers of Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace, Byron's daughter. Ada (1815-1852) never met her father; a mathematical prodigy, she designed a flying machine when she was thirteen and four years later met Charles Babbage, inventor of the Difference Engine, with whom she had a lifelong friendship. (It was a tragically short life—Ada died at thirty-seven of cervical cancer.) The Difference Engine was still incomplete when Babbage began developing an Analytical Engine in 1834. In 1842 an Italian mathematician wrote a book about the Analytical Engine, in French, and Babbage encouraged Ada to translate it into English. She did, adding notes of her own that showed a remarkable grasp of the possibilities inherent in, as she put it, "the material expression of any indefinite function of any degree of generality and complexity."
Ada has become a modern heroine for women mathematicians and scientists, though Smith seems only vaguely familiar with her history when she touches down in London to research Ada for strongwomanstory. Smith's English host is Georgiana, a well-heeled collector who is interested in underwriting the website. The day after Smith's arrival, Georgiana is contacted by a mysterious man who claims to have some papers belonging to Ada Lovelace. Smith accompanies Georgiana to a meeting with the mysterious owner of the papers (I recognized him immediately, though this in no way detracted from the pleasures of the story yet to come; besides which I suspect he has more than one Secret Identity). He reveals a sea chest, surely the most useful deployment of a valise since Jack Worthing's arrival at Victoria Station in a black handbag. The sea chest contains seaman's papers and some letters that proved the trunk belonged to Lord Ockham, Byron's grandson. Some other papers in a folder tied up with ribbon. And a huge pile of other papers, not in a folder but wrapped up in a kind of shiny or greasy heavy paper; he took them out and opened the wrapping, and it was—well I don't know what. Somebody had taken a bunch of sheets printed with numbered lines, and filled in other numbers on the printed lines. Hundreds of pages. Beautiful old handwritten numbers. They looked like forms filled out, or test papers, or accounts of some kind. So many.
Georgiana agrees to buy the chest and its contents. The mysterious man is not seen again (or is he?).
This story is recounted through a series of e-mails and letters that flow between Smith and various correspondents, including Thea, Smith's mathematician lover back in the States; and Lee, Smith's father, from whom she has been long estranged, a former Byron scholar and now a well-respected documentary filmmaker and human rights advocate. Smith immediately enlists Thea into the cause of deciphering the numbered pages, which turn out—surprise!—to be the text of a novel called The Evening Land. Lee conveniently offers his own exegesis of both the text and of events in Byron's life, which are mirrored in the newly discovered book.
Crowley makes clever use of this string of coincidences in the present-day narrative, which reflect the over-the-top plotting in Byron's imaginary novel. The explanation and illustration of the cipher-breaking will no doubt enthrall many readers but exhausted this reviewer, who is Not Good with Numbers but was very impressed that Crowley is. Most intriguing is the third narrative strand, which is in the form of Ada's annotation of her father's novel—a brilliant take on Ada's work with Babbage on the Analytical Engine. Ada's notes for each chapter are initially straightforward, drawing on biographical and historical material, and filling in the blanks for contemporary readers unfamiliar with Byron and his circle while also presenting wide-ranging and fascinating tidbits of early nineteenth century arcana.
But as The Evening Land progresses, Ada begins to grow more debilitated with the cancer that will kill her, and her reliance on opium begins to produce more fragmentary, hallucinatory notes that take on an increasingly visionary hue, hinting at the story beneath the story beneath the story in Crowley's novel.
What then is Time? Is its course but one way? Or is it like a swift stream, that rolls some things along faster & some slower, leaves, sticks and stones, which may change places, and pass each other by, collide, and combine, even as all are borne along? I sometimes think that we lead many lives between birth and dying, and only one, or perhaps two, are ever known to us consciously; the others pass in parallel, invisible, or they run backward while the one we busy ourselves with runs forward. There is no expressing this in words; only in dreams or in the power of certain stimulants is it possible to experience them—the state where two things can, after all, occupy the same space.
Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land is a book that should, and I hope will, be read by many people, more than once. It certainly expands, algorithmically, to accommodate various readings. On the simplest level, it can be seen as a sort of Da Vinci Code for smart people. For Byron fans, and fans of Romantic or Gothic literature in general, it offers the pleasure of an extended riff on antiheroes mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Friends or enemies of postmodern theory will be entertained by the e-mail exchanges between Smith and her various correspondents, as well as by the correspondences between these people and their counterparts in The Evening Land and Byron's circle. Women heartened by the portrayal of Ada Lovelace may wish to carry copies of Crowley's book to the next Conference on Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workplace, where they can shake them in Lawrence Summers's face.
But I think that, at heart, this is a book about Time; one of the recurring themes (along with the anxieties and ecstasies of literary influence), if not the great recurring theme, in Crowley's fiction—which includes several variations on the subject, in particular "Great Work of Time," one of the finest time-travel stories ever written; and the Ægypt sequence. Not just historical Time, but cosmological Time, the Time Ada dreams of in her laudanum visions; a Time which may be populated with Beings we can only glimpse fleetingly through the scrim of our own time. Byron apparently sometimes thought of himself as one of these. In his biography of Byron, Andre Maurois refers to an incident referred to in the journal kept by Annabella, Lady Byron (Ada's mother); "He used to declare, for instance, that he was a fallen angel, not symbolically but literally, and told Annabella that she was one of those women spoken of in the Bible who are loved by an exile from Heaven."
And then there is the title The Evening Land. Both the historical Byron and his avatars in Crowley's book—one of whom bears the name Aengus, a la Yeats's Wandering Aengus, the immortal Angus Og who traveled East of the Sun and West of the Moon to Tir na nOg, the Land of Youth—are in love with the idea of America, the land to the West across the sea; the Evening Land. "There is always a West," Beau Brachman muses in Crowley's Dæmonomania. And in The Western Canon, Harold Bloom, perhaps Crowley's most illustrious fan, writes,
The central fact about America, according to the poet Charles Olson, is space, but Olson wrote that as the opening sentence of a book on Melville and thus on the nineteenth century. At the close of the twentieth century, our central fact is time, for the evening land is now in the West's evening time. Would one call the list of survivors of a three-thousand-year-old cosmological war a fetish?
"The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines" first appeared in 2002 in Conjunctions: 39: The New Wave Fabulists, a special issue guest-edited by Peter Straub along with the literary magazine's fulltime editor, Bradford Morrow. The novella contains no overt supernatural or fantastic element, though it does serve as a cautionary tale about the dangers of total immersion into the dark waters of Shakespearean scholarship. Crowley's haunting tale touches upon numerous subjects that are hallmarks of his work: the theater, Shakespeare, the first stirrings of Eros; the malleability of both literary texts and enduring love. The first-person account follows a young man and Harriet, a self-proclaimed "free spirit," who one summer in the late 1950s become involved in a midwestern Shakespeare Festival. Anyone who's ever fallen in love with the theater, or Shakespeare, or summer camp for that matter, will recognize the sunlit floating world that Crowley describes, with its romantic entanglements, slightly sinister director, and the breathless adolescent avidity of the narrator set loose in this summer Eden. A serpent is loosed in the garden, however, when a distinguished visitor to the festival introduces the narrator and Harriet to the theories of the Baconians, who believe that Shakespeare's plays were in fact written by Francis Bacon. The story takes a bleak turn, and ends on a note that some readers may find both unresolved and unusually dark for this most lyrical of writers; though not too dark for anyone who reads Crowley's Little, Big as a sustained recessional.
The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines has now been published in a handsome volume by Subterranean Press, which has been producing beautiful books by an impressive roster of new and established writers of the fantastic. The book is a must-have for anyone who missed this unsettling tale when it first appeared, as well as for those readers who wish the world could somehow magically expand, accordionlike, to contain boundless examples of Crowley's writings.
Finally, for readers who fit into the second category above, may I flag "The Happy Place," Crowley's essay on the inimitable Walt Kelly, creator of the daily cartoon series Pogo. The piece first appeared in the Boston Review in fall, 2004, and can be read online at http://www.bostonreview.net/BR29.5/crowley.html. It's a lovely, measured assessment, both of Kelly and the cartoonist's art in general; a far more insightful bit of writing than Jonathan Franzen's similarly themed New Yorker essay on Charles Schultz, which ran at about the same time last year.
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