John Crowley is an underread American writer whose Aegypt series is one of my favorite tetralogies. I am not alone: Michael Dirda has written about it in The American Scholar and Harold Bloom includes it in his Western canon. The quartet consists of Aegypt (reissued as The Solitudes), Love and Sleep, Daemonomania, and Endless Things.
I recently returned to Aegypt, the first novel in the quartet, and loved it. In fact I enjoyed it much more, because the first time I read the books out of order. I began with the last book, Endless Things, because it was widely reviewed in 2007. And then I scrambled to find used copies of the other books. I do not think all were in print then.
Aegypt manages to be one of the most intricate novels of the 20th century, and yet it is also lucid, accessible, and delightfully imaginative. It begins in the late 1970s, but it shifts back and forth in time, even to the Renaissance, and the influence of the 1960s as experienced by the hero Pierce Moffett is powerful. Pierce, a lazy historian who has never finished his Ph.D. dissertation, has been a popular history instructor at Barnabas College in New York. But he has lost both his vocation and teaching job after a mind-blowing affair with a drug-dealing diva. Needless to say, he did not do his best work on cocaine.
Those of us who grew up in the ’60s or ’70s will recognize the experimental history curriculum at Barnabas College. Pierce is encouraged to change the syllabus to accommodate students of the Age of Aquarius. (By the time I was in college, I was so bored by experimental education that I studied classics.). And reading about Barnabas College reminds me not to take too seriously the changing college curricula today. Everything will change again in 20 years to accommodate a generation who will revolt against political correctness.
Crowley writes amusingly of the college in the ’60s,
Barnabas College, like a fast little yacht, had quickly tacked with the new winds that were blowing, even while old galleons like Noate were wallowing in the breakers. Courses in the history, chemistry, and languages of the old everyday world were semester by semester cut to a minimum (Pierce’s History 101 course would, eventually, very nearly reach the present day from time-out-of-mind, even as the 200-level courses, out of his provenance, came to deal chiefly not with the past at all but in possibilities, in the utopias and armageddons that all adolescents love). The old standard textbooks were chucked, replaced by decks of slim paperbacks, often the students’ own choices, they are after all (said Doctor Socrabasco) paying the bills. Veteran teachers faced with this fell tongue-tied or turned coats garishly; young ones like Pierce, his students’ coeval almost, still had trouble facing children who seemed to have come to Barnabas chiefly to be instructed in a world of their own imagining.
And so, having lost his job, Pierce has to find a new job outside of New York, and he can hardly imagine living out of New York. He rides a Greyhound bus to another small college where he has an interview. But when the bus breaks down in the Faraway Hills, he by chance meets his former student Spofford, a Vietnam vet who now raises sheep. And Spofford hosts an outdoor party which has the effervescence of a modern Midsummer Night’s Dream.
And then the next day Pierce learns he doesn’t have a job interview after all–the letter was some kind of automated mistake, sent after someone else was hired for the job. Spofford suggests that Pierce stay and research regional history. But Pierce returns to New York and gets his old teaching job back, partly because he is inspired to try a new line on history inspired by the alternative culture of the Faraway Hills.
A scholar of the Renaissance, Pierce lands a book contract to write an alternative history of the Renaissance dominated by gypsies, myth, astrology, crystal balls, Shakespeare, hermeticism, the Italian heretic Giordano Bruno, and the occultist John Dee. And he refers to the source of this non-traditional magical history as Aegpt, an imaginary country. And of course he moves to the Faraway Hills to write his book.
The other main character, Rosie Rasmussen, has left her husband and moved with her daughter into an eccentric uncle’s house. They run a family foundation, and she is hired to work on some projects, including putting local historical novelist Fellowes Kraft’s papers in order . And she is connected to Pierce through Spofford, who is in love with her, and also through Pierce’s love of Fellowes Kraft. Rosie is escaping from her problems through reading the complete works of Fellowes Kraft which she finds surprisingly good. (I like the excerpts, too, especially the chapters from a novel about Shakespeare’s boyhood.)
And then Pierce discovers a lost manuscript by Kraft about Giordano Bruno, which complements and changes his own work.
Mind you, this book is weird. You’ll be happily reading about one character or another, and then suddenly you’re reading about Giordano Bruno (and I admit I was not entirely fascinated by him). Overall this is a very enjoyable book. But there are many, many threads, and it is not for everyone.
Crowley has a distinctive American voice. He occasionally descends into sentimentality, and I do think that’s an American thing, but he also has an enormous vocabulary and arranges words in beautiful sentences. He is an intellectual who reminds me of Robertson Davies, not in style, but in wide-ranging knowledge of hermeticism. In Davies’ The Rebel Angels (which I wrote about here), Renaissance scholars are scrambling and competing to find documents by Rabelais, and there is much involvement with gypsies, tarot cards, and the occult.
The eclectic Crowley has won an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Literary Award and a World Fantasy Award . This year his novel Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr (which I wrote about here) has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award for best novel. I am rooting for him.