Aegypt by John Crowley

Gollancz, 1987; 11.95; 390pp
reviewed in Times Literary Supplement, 20-26 November 1987

From The Deep to Little, Big, John Crowley's novels have grown steadily in size. But there has been no accompanying increase in flab. Rather, the greater the length, the greater the richness of the language, the depth of perception and the sense of solidity, reality and wonder. This new book continues that exponential growth. It is as sizeable as Little, Big, and the first volume in a projected sequence of four; and it makes even its predecessor seem shallow by comparison.

Crowley is an artificer: the structures he creates, the object of paper and ink he finally produces, are all as vital to Aegypt as the story he has to tell. He makes no secret of the fictionality of his work. It opens with an author's note, which is later reproduced by the main character as the author's note to his own book, and the breakdown of the distinction between the real and the fictional is part of what Aegypt is about. The best way of describing this multiform novel might be to compare it to one of Crowley's most vivid creations. The house of Edgewood is a splendid architectural curiosity which presents a completely different facade whichever way you approach it. Aegypt is a literary Edgewood, full of different facades, all of which have the same heart.

History lecturer Pierce Moffett stops off in the Faraway Mountains on his way to an interview for a new job, and never completes the journey. What he finds in the town of Blackbury Jambs provides him with a retreat, and the inspiration for a new book. This book is about Aegypt, a country of the imagination which may be congruent with the real Egypt, and which has been, throughout history, a source of magic and inspiration. His book, which he is only starting work on by the end of this volume, is about creativity and the historical imagination, and it shares more than a few features with Crowley's Aegypt.

One of Moffett's inspirations for the book is the historical novelist Fellowes Kraft, former resident of Blackbury Jambs, whose books themselves form a considerable part of the content of Aegypt. Thus we meet Giordano Bruno whose advanced ideas set him at odds with the sixteenth-century Vatican; and we see Doctor Dee and a young William Shakespeare discovering angels in a scrying glass.

All this would be rich enough for most novels, but it barely gives a glimpse of what is to be found here. In Crowley's universe everything interacts with everything else. The families in Blackbury Jambs with whom Moffett comes into contact all have their parts to play; as do the child-minder whose meditations take him out into the depths of space; Rosie and her child, getting over a divorce, whose family possessions include the papers of Fellowes Kraft; and above all the astrological system that seems, in some way, to subsume the rest.

I don't know whether this system is a recognized one or has simply been invented by Crowley; in the long run it doesn't really matter. The twelve houses each have their own attribute, and the main part of this novel is divided into three, each chapter bearing the name of one of these zodiacal houses: 'Vita', life; 'Lucrum', possessions, and 'Fratres', family and friends, are the first three signs of this zodiac; and it is possible to see that each chapter reflects, obliquely, the attribute of the house it is named for. It seems likely that the full significance of this, as of so much else in the book, will only come clear when the full zodiac of twelve houses and four novels is laid before us.

This may suggest that Aegypt is a dense, slow, difficult book, and in a sense it is. But its own vivid reality is an absorbing one, and it leaves the reader impatient for the second volume.