Tag Archives: John Crowley

maybe probably

To think is to speculate with images. Aristotle, Aristotle, Aristotle.
– John Crowley, Love and Sleep (236)


“Hiding” with permission by Tony Donovan, The Ivoryton Studio

My life, most likely as yours, can be told in many different ways. One story involves a barefoot girl, with tangled hair and a rat trap for a foot-rest, hiding. This photo of myself endures, partly because I can refer physically to the image, and also because it’s true. That is me. Maybe probably. As I read the first part of John Crowley’s Love and Sleep, this picture occupied a corner of mind.

“Oh all right,” he said at last, annoyed at himself for being unable to refuse; he had never been good at refusing. If he could not evade or avoid, he usually assented. (175)

Also me. But there are other tales. Another story involves my very dignified Irish American grandmother giving me many books in my teenage years—she loved historical fiction, and I read more about the various kings, queens, princes and dukes of the United Kingdom and Europe than I had any understanding or pedantic interest. One that stayed with me was of Mary Queen of Scots. I thought of that book and the little I vividly recall of it: Mary’s trusted Italian adviser, and also her horrendously botched beheading—”Jesú,” she said after the first non-fatal whack, while I read the second part of Love and Sleep. These stored images created out of books I have read, pages from the careful folds of my mind, would appear as I read Crowley’s complex tale.

Why was he here? How could he have come to be here?[…] Just because a world-age is governed by certain laws—the iron laws of tragic necessity, or the wooden ones of melodrama, or outlandish, constant Coincidence—does not mean we do not marvel to find ourselves subject to them. (466)

Love and Sleep, the second of Crowley’s AEgypt Cycle quartet fascinates me. This book’s focus is…magic. Alchemy and astrology, history, dreams, Eros, and angels. Perhaps focus is too strong a word. The book, like one of the threads or themes that Crowley intertwines, cycles in and out of the mind and heart. Perspicacity grows in hindsight, the cycle can only be seen once its passed. But there is a subtlety to the way the novel is told. It’s not that it ever shakes or stabs violently at the heart, it is more an assassin that swiftly runs by, from out of nowhere, and with one deft stroke runs you through. Pin point precision through the heart with a solid gold blade.

“Love-sick, ” Pierce said. His own heart had begun the steady rapid beat, little hard fist knocking at a cell-door, that had come to be nearly constant, had alarmed him enough to send him to a doctor, a real modern one, who listened and told him to relax.
“The soul ceases to be able to think of anything else, because the spirit can’t reflect anything else. The phantasmal reflection of the other person, let loose in your spirit, takes on a sort of phony autonomy.” (500)

” A real modern one” —I love that detail. And it’s those details that connect me on a strangely personal level to these stories—finding shared threads that match my own; weaving Crowley’s threads into the tapestry of my own history. There is a neatness,  a quiet controlled quality to his prose, and yet, his book is a Gordian knot: tightening then loosening, and tightening again, always a problem to be worked out, worked over.

He and all those who ransacked their vocabularies (in Latin, Italian, French, English) for words that meant what logos means in Greek — “word,” “idea,” “reason,” none of them right or large enough. Maybe because they had no word such as Meaning has since become in English.  (259)

I read Middlemarch years and years ago, but what I most remember is the way that that book snuck up on me, by the end —something of a beginning —I found I had given myself entirely to the story, and it to me. Love and Sleep shares that quality. It’s the glimpse of Meaning: the overall effect is a wind storm through the soul.

Magic is love: nothing but the power of love in the heart of the operator can move the souls of others; nothing but love can command the intelligences of the air. Without love even the simplest Art of Memory could not operate; without attraction and revulsion, what attaches the soul to images? (420)

This spring events large and larger have swept me further out to sea, perhaps towards an Unknown Island. The books I read associate themselves with my stories and memories, and they become a gust of wind, a part of my tale. My life is a story, a series of stories, and many stories shared. True,  Melancholy needs distraction (227) and I will take it. But more than that, because reading is not, for me,  mere distraction, reading is also connection—I gladly accept the gift of the gale. Let me see what tomorrow’s page will bring.

There had not been one, not one wish since childhood that his heart had been poured into, that was not about love. – John Crowley, Love and Sleep

Delusive Lullabies

It seems to flee itself, then doubling back,
It loses and regains its devious way
And, erring sweetly, sweetly goes astray

– Luis De Góngora/English translation Gilbert F. Cunningham, The Solitudes (appendix)*


The daughter of the foam has wisely found
Feathers are Love’s most fitting battle ground.

( First Solitude, line 1090)

Although I doubt many people will jump out of bed tomorrow morning and shout “I must have Góngora!” I wanted to mention these beautiful poems for two reasons. The Solitudes, written by the Spanish poet Luis De Góngora around 1613,  is a poem in two parts (there may have been more coming, but Góngora died before they could be realized). Ostensibly, the narrative of the poem is a man heartbroken by the smooth but “delusive lullabies” of love at the hand of a courtly lady. She dumps him, and he is literally dumped- shipwrecked, onto a distant shore. In the First Solitude he happens upon and is invited to a wedding:

Fit for a hero’s bride,
If not a monarch’s, well the youth might say;
And then remembered, with a stab of pain,
That he himself was, by a maid’s disdain,
A homeless castaway.
(First Solitude, line 732)

I was very interested to know how the original Spanish read, and in my Johns Hopkins Press edition the Spanish runs along the left page allowing me a peek at  the words – esclarecido, el joven, al instante arrebatado – the meaning (more literally) not a stab of pain, but an instant snatched, which I quite like as well.

It seemed to me that this stab at his heart causes him to fall into a deep reverie onto the bosom of Nature. Lovesick, he forcefully redirects his musings. I don’t think the story ever really comes back to our poor heartbroken young man, but where it goes we gladly follow.

A wing-borne Dido, rustling Amazon,
Leads chaster armies, rules a lovelier
Kingdom, with cork-bark girt instead of walls,
A veritable Carthage where the bee
Is queen, shining with wandering gold as she
From the pure ether drinks the juice that falls…

(Second Solitude line 290)

And there, as he describes a bee, in those lines, is my highest recommendation and point one. Between Dido (my apparent soul sister), my favorite tree (the crooked, functional, soft and lovely cork) and the bee’s ether, well…I’m done for – smitten.

As for my second point, I would have to point back to John Crowley’s AEgypt which is how, through the recommendation made to me by a beautiful poet and blogger I was motivated to acquire this book. AEgypt refers to The Solitudes quite a bit, but more than that, Crowley’s book is something of a loose model of the Solitudes. Not so much in story as in form. What I love about AEgypt is its overt love of knowledge. It is rich with classical, literary, and historical allusions.

Góngora’s unembarrassed collection of myths, Gods, and fancies are so earnestly exalted you’d have to be an ass not to love him for it. His extraordinarily detailed and lyrical perambulations through the countryside, and in the Second Solitude the waters, are magnificent.

When Dawn, in our antipodes, once more
With roses on her brow gladdens our sight

(First Solitude, line 636)

It was a lot more work to track this book down through my library system than it was to read it. All I’m saying is – it’s a lovely day today, I think I’ll take a walk and enjoy the bounty of the blue sky and the trails teeming with all that is good and beautiful in the world, and tonight I hope I sleep as well as this:

No heady wine moves him in dreams to vie
With Sisyphus, pushing his painful load
Uphill, then at the summit of the road,
Wake to the double mockery of a lie.
No trumpet shrills, no clattering drums reply,
To interrupt his sleep with warlike sound;
Only the watchful hound
Growls as he heard the breeze
Stirring dry oak-leaves on the neighboring trees.

(First Solitude, line 167)

* The opening quote is from a passage that was re-written, but this version remains popular to readers (such as myself ) and so was included for comparison’s sake in the appendix. It was replaced by lines 197-211 of the First Solitude.

Horripilating Certainty

What would she have done? How did people bear it, who had no place to go, when something dreadful had to be done and they weren’t ready yet to do it?
– John Crowley, AEgypt (115)


What makes people love each other? Why do they bother?…She must have known once. Because love had made her do a lot of things, and go to a lot of trouble…A cold loss of knowledge and dark ignorance were where her heart had been, and were all that these commonplace things, innocent tools and toys, called to; her dog Nothing, the name of the stone in her breast. (335-336)

Here’s one version: Reading Herodotus (Book Two) on Egypt, I came upon a mention of Apuleius’ Golden Ass. Apuleius led me to AEgypt. AEgypt, which is the first of a quadrilogy, wraps around these histories and stories several times and takes me back where I started. What is that? That this was exactly the next logical book to read. Some knowing wind that carries me forward? Coincidence?  I can not tell, but I do know that as soon as I opened this book I had a feeling. Like a good first kiss: a lovely feeling of- I’m going to like this. Unlike a kiss, books do not have to enrapture you from the start -but gee, it’s nice.

Although I love a good tangent, Crowley doesn’t go off on random explorations of earthly or heavenly oddities, the depth(s) of his story are seamlessly woven into the tale. The weft and warp make cloth, and yet the questions is, how many cloths?

“There’s more than one History of the World, you know,” he said. “Isn’t there? More than one. One for each of us, maybe. Wouldn’t you say so?” (73)

A wefting mythology slipping under a latent man and woman, a hippie party in a field, a broken down bus, religions and sheep – naturally. The warp of an academic and literary journey, angels whose names begin with A, Shakespeare, divorce, Roses, and lots of books. The fabric shimmers and shakes off loose threads of ancient lore, repeating symbols, and modern angst.

This is fundamentally a book about discovery. The filling in of the vast background of history is a pleasure to read, relieving the pressure of solitude: thoughts I’ve had, words I’ve said, connections I’ve felt, searching meanings I’ve hope for.

There is a sweetness and earnest perplexity in the protagonist Pierce that is enormously appealing. Trying to order the details of his life along the shelves of his history,  if not to make sense then at least an organized catalog of what has shaped him, what he knows, knew, or forgot…I see, I get it.  I suppose we all have our own systems- a personalized Dewey Decimal of the heart.

-he would receive, like a wave that reaches far up a dry shingle and then recedes, a dash of that day’s understanding: and for a moment taste its certainty like salt. (95)

The breadth of knowledge has no circumference and that  I see, I get it moment is a gift that readers like me covet and search for. In AEgypt Crowley has somehow perfected the ordinary voice of Everyman, with the extra-ordinary voice of our potential. If I knew ten thousand more things than I do, I might be on more equal footing:

Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples, for I am sick of love. Sick sick sick. (232)

The fact that Crowley does not announce that the above quote comes from the Song of Solomon makes me at once happy that it happens to be my favorite line from the poem, and also depresses me because there are probably one hundred other allusions that have swam free above my head. But, as one of the women I work for loves to say- we must take what we can get.

Infinite. He felt its infinity tugging at his heart and eyes, and felt an answering infinity within himself: for if it was infinite outside, then it must be infinite inside as well. (366)

Infinite inside as well. That must be it – the ember that refuses to extinguish.

Why must I live in two worlds, Pierce asked, why. Do we all, or is it only some few, living always in two worlds, a world outside of us that is real but strange, a world within that makes sense, and draws tears of assent from us when we enter there. (389)

Why is no longer a question, but a statement. Perhaps the truth is that one history is not enough. The infinite world is too vast, too mysterious to be contained in one. Our own history too large as well. The exertion of stuffing it into one clean narrative is what takes its toll on our souls. As Crowley writes, man is bound in love and sleep (343), but his point is that we are not interpolated on a single line. There is more. We are more. More than our histories told.

With a sudden awful certainty, Pierce knew that he would sob. (389)

All we like sheep
All we like sheep
Have gone astray; have gone astray
Every one to his own way. (32)


Things fall apart
in our house,
as if jarred by the whim
of invisible ravagers:
not your hand
or mine,
or the girls
– from Things Breaking, Pablo Neruda

I recently watched Annie Hall in my film class; it is easy to simply enjoy the angst ridden humor, but, there is an expectation in some scholastic environments that one think a little more deeply every now and then. And Allen does provide a lot of fodder,  particularly for those of us living in the second half of our lives.

In the film, Allen uses the concepts and ideas of psychology both visually and within the context of the story. His characters freely go in and out of their bodies and over time to comment on past influential events or to simply suggest the distance that is felt between our bodies and ourselves.

His love of New York City is always highlighted in his films and he has, of course,  some beautiful shots that emphasize the drama and energy of New York. I love his use of very long shots where the characters are heard having an intense conversation but only slowly come into view walking to us, it naturalizes the “medium” as it were, and if we take (at the dire risk of pontificating) Allen’s funny exchange over Marshall McLuhan in the theater waiting to see The Sorrow and the Pity, the medium really is the message. Films, like novels, as John Crowley once said to me,  must always end in a way that life does not- there is a very unnatural summing up that real life does not offer to the living. But the fakery of cinema becomes the message- that unsettling feeling of being a character in our own inescapable film. Who is this difficult person inside our bodies?

Yes, the body. Allen’s unembarrassed attention paid to his sexual life is refreshing, the woman in me must assess him sexually, he asks for it -even if the assessment does not necessarily compliment- there it is. He draws it out and it must stand. In a way, it is exactly the point. Why? Why is Alvy sexually vacant with his first wife, who was, in his opinion, perfectly lovely? Why is it so much more complete and satisfying with Annie?  That is an unanswerable question that many of us struggle with at one time or another. Why this person, and not that person? Allen confronts this essential aspect of romantic love, albeit from a very analytical angle.

D.H. Lawrence, of course, wrote a lot about physical intimacy and its importance to our feeling of being deeply connected to another person. For Lawrence, it is vital that humans allow themselves to really feel. Sex, being…well, physical, was his method of discussing the larger themes of life, meaning and connection in our bodies,  where, it shouldn’t be denied,  each of us dwells. Allen does this as well, (this theme comes up again and again in his films) he is without question, funnier, but, he is not quite as convincing because he is such a pain in the ass. However, he is asking the questions – why does it matter? Why can’t we control the “yes” switch as it were? Turning it on or off at will would make it all so much easier.

And finally why? Why do things fall apart? Is it just the law of entropy? The centre cannot hold. Allen cannot answer the questions, he can only offer a lame joke with an earnest punch line: We may only believe ourselves to be chickens (or in love) but don’t tell us we’re not – we need the eggs. And we need each other.

Life grinds
on the glasses and powders, wearing us threadbare,
smashing to smithereens,
the forms;
whatever is left of its passing abides
like a ship or a reef in the ocean,
and perishes there
in the circle of breakable hazard
ringed by the pitiless menace of waters.

– from Things Breaking, Pablo Neruda

that kind of a dream

Let him follow love.” Little, Big – John Crowley

When I mentioned to the author, John Crowley, that I was reading his book Little, Big I told him that I came to choose it for several reasons, one of which, was the title. I liked it. It reminded me of Little Big Man, a wonderfully strange book I read when I was pregnant with my third child, which reminded me of the other book I read at that time- War and Peace. I bring this stream of recollection up because as it turns out, Little, Big is the bridge between the two. No, I didn’t realize there was a bridge either, but there it is.

Little, Big, like Little Big Man is a fantastical tale, but like War and Peace it is an epic multi generational saga (including a very helpful genealogy tree) encompassing all the..little parts within and without the big. This was how my mind captured it at least, even if it was a slippery sort of tale at times. About half way into the book I happened to look at the spine and noticed a library sticker which categorized it as “Sci-fi Fantasy.” What the hell am I reading? I thought to myself. I don’t think I have ever read a sci-fi fantasy book before and was quite alarmed at finding myself fully engage, albeit accidentally, in one now.

“You will live in many houses, Mrs. Underhill had told her. You will wander, and live in many houses. She had wept hearing that, or rather later when she thought of it on trains and boats and in waiting rooms, not knowing how many houses were many or how long it took to live in one.”   Little, Big

I spent the next few days re-assessing the term. What does sci-fi fantasy even mean? Clearly I do not know. I can say that this book has the sort of oneiric quality that can leave one disoriented, grasping for a familiar matrix.  As a reader I don’t question this state of mind, I either:

a) re-read the previous paragraph or two to make sure it’s not me.
b) if applicable, look at the genealogy to make sure I know where I am.
c) keep reading.

“Forget a Tale is being told. Otherwise – oh, don’t you see, if we don’t know the little that we do, we’d never interfere, never get things wrong; but we do know, only not enough; and so we guess wrong, and get entangled, and have to be put right in ways- in ways so odd,”  – Little, Big

Keep reading. It is a long tale, but so wonderfully moving. My heart. It’s my heart that, after hundreds of pages, can feel so deeply for the characters. I love what and whom they love.

“The struggle was, as it had always been, to think rightly about what had happened, to come to conclusions that took in all aspects, that were mature; to be objective.” – Little , Big

Auberon’s attempts to make sense of and ineffectually free himself from his  broken heart is so beautifully and scrupulously detailed by Crowley that when my son (the very same third child referenced at the start) innocently played a song in the car in which the singer sang out to Sylvia- Auberon’s Sylvia! I cried.

“Why had he not known that love could be like that? Why hadn’t anyone told him? If he had known, he would never have embarked on it; or at least not so gladly.” – Little, Big

Little, Big is an enchanting, sibylline tale. I am not predisposed to take inordinate interest in fairies and magic, but in this odd tale it was hardly necessary. In a way they were just barely there and now over there and maybe it was something else altogether the way a dream is suddenly this and then that, but you understand that it is really none of these things and was always only this simple thing. It was only ever the Tale that came out the way it was meant to until it reached its end.

Disguise Incognito

“Do you understand,” said the other,  “that this is a tragedy?”
“Perfectly,” replied Syme, “always be comic in a tragedy.”
– The Man Who Was Thursday,
G.K. Chesterton

all paths lead…

I have mentioned my theory of seduction by authors. Not only by the words placed just so – to get you, sweet reader to open the book, turn the page, bask in the prose, lose yourself between the covers…. but I sometimes also repeatedly come upon an author’s name, book title, a quote, or photo until, thoroughly tempted, I finally read them.

Invariably I love the books that come to me this way- they seem to know me and are unerring in supplicating me to talk to them: there seems to me a certain conversation that takes place between writer and reader something like a…scriptversation that I am partial to.

“It was one of those quite arbitrary emotions, like jumping off a cliff or falling in love.” 

G.K. Chesterton was beckoning me, I mentioned this to John Crowley who suggested I read The Man Who Was Thursday.  It is one of the funniest books I have read in a while. Chesterton’s dry humor sent me into regular palsies of laughter: a hazard when reading in public.
While sitting in the garden of a convalescent home, waiting for my step father whom I drive to physical therapy, my laughter stirred a dozing patient several times. Every time she came to she’d faintly announce “I was dreaming!”

“My God!” said the Colonel, “someone has shot at us.”
“It need not interrupt the conversation,” said the gloomy Ratcliff. “Pray resume your remarks, Colonel. You were talking, I think, about the plain people of a peaceable French town.”

Chesterton’s brilliance is cleverly sprinkled into this tale, which is something of a mystery story- not so much in the detective sense, as that “mystery” is solved to the reader fairly early on, but in the metaphysical sense-

“Bad is so bad, that we cannot but think good an accident; good is so good, that we feel certain that evil could be explained.”

His writing style is so easy, he effortlessly takes the farcical absurdity of everything and turns it on its head again and again. I was almost too busy laughing to notice that the entire story was leading up to, or rather back to, the original theme: a constant sneaking towards profound circularity. The mystery is disguised as a mystery.

“He had found the thing which the modern people call Impressionism, which is another name for that fine scepticism which can find no floor to the universe.”

All our dreams can be nightmares and all our nightmares, dreams; meanwhile everything is disguised and revealed simultaneously.
Where is the floor? We are our own worst enemy – it’s so true, it’s funny.

” I regret to inform you,” said Syme with restraint, ” that your remarks convey no impression to my mind…It may be my literary fancy, but somehow I feel that it ought to mean something.”

* All quotes taken from The Man Who Was Thursday – G.K. Chesterton

Oh For Peripeteia!

forge a path

I read Moll Flanders many years ago and I remember being highly impressed by the peripeteia that she experienced in her tale. I wondered, at the time, if life was really like that. Would I have chapters? Twists and turns? Part 1, part 2, an epilogue?

Given the last 18 months, I’ve only to accidentally marry my brother to have a good chance of convincing Defoe’s resurrection so to pen my eponymous novel. It remains to be seen if my tale will fall into the picaresque genre, but we won’t think about that. Why think when you can read?

I was reminded of my mentor Moll while reading E.M.Forster’s wonderful book Aspects of the Novel (another very fine recommendation from John Crowley). The book is composed of a series of lectures Forster gave at Cambridge in 1927. He is so charming; also opinionated, erudite and quite funny. He compares works of literature to exemplify what novels are fundamentally composed of: story, people, plot, fantasy, prophesy, pattern and rhythm.

One of my absolute favorite things to do, although, sadly I rarely do it, is wine tastings. I love the side by side- this is different than that- I like this better than that–    activity. That is what Forster does. He wants to talk about prophesy in novels, for instance, so he compares two similar moments in two very different books, in this case- George Elliot’s Adam Bede to Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Each passage beautifully tells of a person facing death for crimes committed in spirit if not in actual fact, and they are similar. But as Forster describes the difference: Elliot is preacher and Dostoevsky is prophet. To read the difference is exhilarating.

“Dostoevsky’s characters ask us to share something deeper than their experience. They convey to us a sensation that is partly physical-the sensation of sinking into a translucent globe and seeing our experience floating far above us on its surface, tiny, remote, yet ours.” 

Aspects of the Novel is a joy to read on many levels: the excerpts, the comparisons, the analysis, not to mention fulfilling my fantasy of sitting in an English lecture hall circa 1900. I have a longing for a large hat and corset…

“The human mind is not a dignified organ, and I do not see how we can exercise it sincerely except through eclecticism.” – E.M. Forster

How do you say…

“That sounds like hell. Like…damnation. Waiting. After your one chance has gone by.” 
The Translator -John Crowley


The Translator by John Crowley is a beautiful story about – love. A Russian poet/professor and young American student have a deep, quiet, sort of an affair. The clarity of their love is contrasted with the complexity of actually living the love in a world on the cusp of the Cuban missile crisis and modern-world madness. The poet, Innokenti, asks her to help him translate his poetry into English:

“She thought, long after, that she had not then ever explored a lover’s body, learned its folds and articulations, muscle under skin, bone under muscle, but this was really most like that: this slow probing and working in his language, taking it in or taking hold of it, his words, his life, in her heart, in her mouth too.”

That passage is so wonderful: all at once Crowley connects the sensual beauty of communication in words, spirit and body.

At the very start of the book, the now adult protagonist, Kit, travels to glasnost Russia, having to defend/explain the quasi-secret relationship and man that she’s not sure she understood; she tells the story of her younger self. Kit’s initial defensive feeling highlights the judgments and secrets absorbed by the younger Kit. Consequently there is a profound yet subtle commentary throughout the story that exposes our constant need to justify and often hide ourselves. Afraid to be ambitious for our hearts, the horror is that all too often we pre-empt the process by talking ourselves out of our desires- we simply swallow our pain. Repression is our prison.

“She had let him say these things, she had let him put her out and had said nothing.”

Life is relentlessly complicated and love gets tangled up and smothered along the way. But through the telling she begins to understand him better. The fears we all face are terrifying, and sometimes, just knowing that someone loves you, just knowing that you love with an endless depth- is, for a few moments, everything. “Through him she had recovered a way to speak…” In this story words are powerful, perhaps world changing, still, I felt Kit’s wound: left open.

“There was a time when she refused to sleep, afraid that in the anti world it would come again, the huge hollow that opened in the world, or in her heart.”

I was fortunate enough to make Prof. Crowley’s acquaintance during the Yale Writer’s Conference that I attended. A lovely man, although not my teacher for the conference, he generously spent time with many of the participants. After an engaging discussion with him I ask, based on our conversation of (what else?) books,  which one of his I should read (he has written many). This was his suggestion, and I turn the suggestion, now a recommendation, around to all of you…