"Once the world was not as it has since become” ~ from Love and Sleep
Thus begin the first paragraphs of the first two novels in John Crowley’s Aegypt Quartet.
When I read those paragraphs I experience a certain frisson in my mind as if it awakens something already unconsciously known. John Crowley’s prose does that to you. It has a grace and beauty that is rare in modern literature. It is mesmerising, uncanny and a joy to read.
I have been re-reading the first volumes of Crowley’s Aegypt sequence preparatory to the publication – finally! – of the last volume of the quartet early in May. It has been a long time coming as were all the previous parts. Aegypt the first volume was published in 1987, Love and Sleep followed in 1994 and Daemonomania appeared in 2000. The last book is called Endless Things. All up, it has been 20 years in the making, so I have been priming myself to be up to date for the last instalment. So far I’ve got to half way into Daemonomania. From there I can go straight onto Endless Things as my pre-ordered copy arrived last week. It’s a very handsome hard covered book. Much to my surprise, it was signed by the author, which instantly makes it more valuable and precious to me. John Crowley is one of my all time favourite writers, so to have a signed edition of one of his novels is really special.
John Crowley has produced several other books during the hiatus, The Translator in 2002 and Lord Byron’s Novel - The Evening Land in 2005, as well as several short story collections.
I discovered John Crowley’s writings in the mid 1970s, first reading his Science Fiction novels The Deep, Beasts and Engine Summer. When Little, Big – Crowley’s best loved and most well known novel-was published in 1981, I became a dedicated reader and have followed his career ever since. Little, Big is a sublime, almost perfect novel, but the Aegypt sequence may be Crowley’s masterpiece.
These books are about many things - magic, history, memory and other worlds both physical and mental - and, as professed by Crowley, involve many other books. There is a fictitious author, Fellowes Kraft, whose legacy of books is of overall importance in the series, there is Doctor Dee, the Elizabethan magician and Giordano Bruno the remarkable Italian philosopher and occultist. The hero/anti hero, Pierce Moffett, is a history teacher who is planning to write a book on magic, which will try to answer such questions as “Why do people believe Gypsies can tell fortunes”, and speculates on the idea that the world is not as it once was, but may have a secret alternative history. The 16th and 20th Centuries reflect upon each other as the action of the novels switches between them. The idea that the world was other than it has since become, is fascinating to contemplate. You only have to consider how the world has been irrevocably changed since September 11 2001. One can remember what it used to be like before 9/11, but those born or grown up since that date may think the world has always been as it has since become, having no memory of before to compare it with.
Crowley’s novels don’t appear to have that much action, as such. I can well imagine that his gently rambling erudite style would irritate some people. But, they are worth the effort (if you could call it that) for the subtle unravelling of plot, which unfolds, amid well-planned digressions, in a narrative that is always interesting and engaging. Crowley writes with such seductive beauty, one could just read the books for his prose and nothing else.
The Aegypt sequence, like Little, Big chiefly takes place in an otherwhere called the Faraway Hills, which Crowley indicates, is a short bus ride from New York. The characters are unaware of who they truly are or what destiny awaits them, though they may have a suspicion that something is going on of which they are an integral part.
It is hard to describe these books; you really have to read them, and in sequence.
Unfortunately the earlier books in the Aegypt Quartet are out of print, but you should be able to find them on second hand book sites like Alibris and ABE or even Amazon. Overlook Press will be republishing the whole series in Trade paperback in August this year. Aegypt (volume 1) will be renamed The Solitudes in this edition. It is the original name preferred by Crowley.
In a way, the Aegypt sequence reminds me of Whittemore’s Jerusalem Quartet. Crowley and Whittemore are maximalists in style and each of them is well read in history, world literature and esoterica. Both also explore the idea that the world has a secret history and both employ repetitive motifs – objects, ideas and characters that pop up at odd times throughout the narrative. The writing style and subject matter of both series is naturally quite different, but the similarity is there in the way the novels are structured.