Monday, January 6, 2014

Review of Love & Sleep by John Crowley

Some time back, I wrote areview of The Solitudes, the first part of John Crowley's Ӕgypt Cycle.  Last year, I read the second, Love & Sleep, and I thought I'd update the review.

Love & Sleep is in most ways a continuation of a single work, and therefore possesses much the same qualities: the blend of rural life, intense academia and historical drama, as historian Pierce Moffatt seeks to show that the world not only changes at crucial stages of history, but changes retrospectively, so that what was once true no longer is.

However, this book doesn't simply pick up where the last broke off.  For about the first third (this, like The Solitudes, is divided into sections corresponding to three of the twelve Houses of the Moon) Crowley examines Pierce's childhood, which was only hinted at in the first book.  We see him growing up with his cousins, reading arcane works of mythology and mysticism, and developing his obsession with Ӕgypt (not to be confused with Egypt) and the Invisible College.  This was a name given to the Rosicrucians, but Pierce forms a gang of the name with his cousins, dedicated to the concept that they're the last survivors of the lost, ancient world.

We also see his relationship with a wild mountain girl called, of all things, Bobby Shaftoe ("And the girl had some sort of nursery rhyme name...") with whom Pierce experiences his first, child's stirrings of sexual desire.  We also, though, see something of Bobby's grandfather, who appears to have mystical, out-of-body experiences (unless, of course, they're just vivid dreams) which tie in with some of the occult themes of the sixteenth century episodes.

These continue the stories of John Dee (left) and Giordano Bruno (below), historical scientists and magicians, though concentrating this time rather more on Dee, taking them from Oxford to Prague, where Dee is commissioned by the Emperor Rudolph to turn lead into gold.  Crowley makes it clear that this much-misunderstood alchemical ideal was not primarily, if at all, for avarice, but meant to aid the mystical aim of creating "philosophical gold".

Dee and his assistant Kelley (pictured togethered below left) are guided by a spirit called Madimi, an intriguing figure who — if not actually a figment of their imagination — may be an angel or something more sinister.  Growing in the course of the book from apparently a seven-year-old girl into apparently a woman, Madimi guides their steps, promising the dawn of a new age.

Meanwhile, the book also explores further Pierce's new life in the Faraway Mountains, in particular his relationships with Rosie Rasmussen and Rose Ryder — two women he originally confused.  We discover a lot more about Rosie through her own POV, almost equal to Pierce's in these sections, and something more about Rose through Pierce's POV, though she remains an enigma for now.  It can hardly be a coincidence that both names reflect the rose at the centre of the symbolism of the Rosicrucians — or the Invisible College.

In among this, Pierce pursues his studies, seeking to understand his mystical theory of history and therefore prepare for the change which, he's convinced, is already underway.  He seeks for the one thing — hidden in plain sight, he believes — which has survived from the former age in which different laws of nature held sway, and magic works.  And, by the end of the book, he's convinced he's found it.  But you'll have to read the book to find out what it is.

The book ends (preparing for its transition into the third volume and the seventh House) with a vast wind storming through both the sixteenth century and the twentieth, perhaps heralding the coming of the new age in both.  And winds blow throughout the book.  In a passage which clearly expresses Pierce's idiosyncratic view of history, there's a discussion of the strange phenomenon of the wind that scattered the Spanish Armada — a wind for which, Crowley claims, there were no reports whatsoever at the time:

Perhaps there was a wind, and it somehow left no trace in the primary records of the time...Or perhaps there really was no wind — until the awesome fortunate power which commentators attributed to it belatedly conjures it up.  Only when the myth of the big wind...settles firmly on the humps of historian's {sic} pens does it begin to blow backward from the later time to the earlier, where kings, popes, and ambassadors can feel it, though sailors and ships do not.

Perhaps...  Crowley constantly teases the reader as whether or not there actually is any magic in the book.  Perhaps Bobby's grandfather just had vivid dreams.  Perhaps Dr Dee's angel was really a trick by his assistant.  Perhaps all Pierce's discoveries are really just an overactive imagination fed by a yearning for the mystical.  And perhaps, Crowley seems to imply, it doesn't greatly matter.  A principle of Renaissance magic was that there's a parallel between the macrocosm (the universe) and the microcosm (the human), and if Pierce's quest is merely one of self-discovery, that doesn't invalidate it.

Like the first book, Love & Sleep is an absorbing but not easy read.  The prose is often dense and the vocabulary send me many times to the dictionary (the word semhamaphore defeated even the uncut Oxford English Dictionary) and Crowley breaks grammatical rules with gay abandon, though only for carefully calculated effect.  Though I suspect the example in the quote above is an honest-to-goodness typo.

Nevertheless, it's a book well worth sticking with, and I'm looking forward to reading the third book, Dӕmonomania.  After a suitable rest.

1 comment:

  1. I am glad the second book was just as enjoyable as the first. Based on the example you gave- I think it will send my for the dictionary as well. :) Always nice to enjoy a book and get the chance to savor it.

    Wishing you a happy 2014!