Books Within Books: John Crowley's Aegypt
Reviewed by Jed Hartman
25 March 2002
Cross my palm with silver and I'll tell your fortune.
(Why do people think gypsies can tell fortunes, anyway?)
I predict that you will meet a stranger -- a man named Pierce Moffett -- and that you'll be drawn into the story of his life. You'll go on a guided tour of the building that he stores his memories in. You'll explore the rooms of the house, and you'll wander through curving and twisting hallways; your guide will show you what memories are held in each room, in each piece of furniture: the ornate ormolu mirror over the bed, the "velveteen armchair . . . recently rescued from the street." You're not really sure where the tour is going to end up, but you trust the guide (having been led by him through other fantastic buildings in the past), and what he's saying is so interesting that you don't particularly mind the meandering.
This edifice was artfully constructed by an architect named John Crowley (is he any relation to that other famous Crowley, initiate of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn? And what's that word "Hermetic" doing in there, anyway?), who is also your guide. And the memory-house is a book named Aegypt.
John Crowley is quite a guide. His early science fiction novels The Deep and Engine Summer (recently reissued with Beasts in the three-in-one volume Otherwise) are interesting and unusual, though relatively slight. The Deep tells a story of conflict between the warring Red and Black factions, and the arrival of a mysterious Visitor; Engine Summer is a coming-of-age novel set in the far future, about a young man named "Rush that Speaks" going on "a quest to learn the secret of a lost age," as the back-cover blurb puts it.
Both books are worth reading, but neither holds a candle to Crowley's Little, Big (also recently reissued, after too long out of print), which is among my favorite books; it's magical and rich, funny, charming, transporting; a perfect blending of the true story about the 19th-century girls who saw fairies (whence the movie FairyTale) with quirky but complex characters (who have names like Daily Alice Drinkwater, Smoky Barnable, and George Mouse) and a labyrinthine five-sided house populated by an odd family with ties to the world of Faerie.
So I've been looking forward to reading Aegypt for quite a while. And although this book differs from Crowley's previous books in a variety of ways, it's well worth reading.
But calling it "this book" suggests that there's only one, which is a bit misleading; in fact, the book is at least three books, one nested within another. Aegypt, the novel by John Crowley, is about a history professor named Pierce Moffett in 1970s New York. We learn about Pierce's personal history -- his youth in his uncle's house in Kentucky, his academic training, his experience of the transformations that the '60s bring, the women that he falls helplessly for but never really understands -- as we learn about his gradual discovery of hints that there may be a history of the world other than the history we're familiar with. ("Those who do not remember their own histories," Pierce thinks at one point, "are condemned to repeat them." (pt. 2 ch. 7)) Pierce eventually decides to write a book about this other, phantom, history, a book which he decides to call Aegypt. And during the course of his researches, as he leaves New York for the village of Blackbury Jambs (near the city of Conurbana), he uncovers an unfinished book by (fictional) historical novelist Fellowes Kraft -- a book named, of course, Aegypt.
All three books (or are they really just one?) attempt to unravel the mysteries of the hidden history Pierce is researching. The tag line associated with Crowley's novel is "There is another history of the world"; to me that line initially suggested shadowy conspiracies a la Illuminatus! or The Crying of Lot 49 (the latter being an intentional resonance, no doubt, given that two characters in Aegypt have the last name Mucho (as in Mucho Maas) and the protagonist's name echoes "Pierce Inverarity" from Crying), but Aegypt's mysteries are deeper and less sinister than those of the great conspiracy novels. Pierce's secret history "is as different from History yet as symmetrical to it as dream is to waking." (pt. 1 ch. 5) There are suggestions that this other history was once the real history of the world, but that the world has somehow changed, leaving this other history to us only in legend and lore.
Crowley's Aegypt consists of multiple books in another sense as well: large portions of the book (including the opening) are excerpts from Fellowes Kraft's historical novels, notably one about young Will Shakespeare running away from home to join a traveling theatre company, and one about young Giordano Bruno (a 16th-century monk who perfected the art of the memory-house) running away from the monastery (or more precisely from the Vatican) to become an itinerant lecturer. Mixed in with all of this is the story of John Dee, magician/philosopher to Queen Elizabeth, and his search for a way to communicate with angels and learn the mysteries of the spheres.
Which reminds me to mention that Aegypt is not a new book; it was first published in 1987. But it's been recently reissued in a fine electronic edition by ElectricStory. (Love and Sleep is also available in an ElectricStory e-book edition.) I read it on my Palm handheld computer, over the course of a couple of weeks, in spare moments here and there -- before going to bed, while waiting in lines, and so on. It's nice to have a novel with me everywhere I go; to be able, for example, to easily read one-handed on a bus or train or subway while holding onto a strap or rail with my other hand.
This format worked well for me, but I have to admit that it's probably not for everyone. I'm comfortable reading even from a rather small computer screen. In this case, about six words in a line, about 80 words on a screen -- call it a quarter of the number of words per page of a trade paperback book page. The screen resolution isn't as high as would be ideal, but I don't tend to notice such things. But your experience may depend on the computer you read it on; for example, you can read it using Microsoft Reader on a Windows computer, which would be less portable but more readable.
One very nice thing about reading this book in electronic form is that the reader I used, Mobipocket, like many e-book readers, allows you to create a "bookmark" at any point in the text, and to enter a brief label for each bookmark. This approach adds far more information to bookmarking than dog-earing pages or even attaching Book Darts to pages; makes it easy to glance over bookmarks and see which one is for what. And being able to annotate the book is particularly useful for a book as circuitous as this one can be.
Still, probably the most pleasant on-screen reading experience would come from sitting in front a computer in a room in your house.
And we find ourselves back in a room of the house of memory -- haven't you been in this room before? Yes, perhaps, through a different door, but the first time the guide let it pass by without comment, and this time he tells you its history, which lets you see why it was important the first time you went by it. For example, it might help you understand why people think gypsies can tell fortunes.
Aegypt is a novel that provides readers with keys to reading it. The characters talk frequently about books, both their own and those by others (and about lives as books, and books as lives); much of what they say can be taken as applying to Crowley's Aegypt. Similarly, there are several discussions of Meaning, of how to interpret the world, that can be applied to interpreting the book: "perhaps Meaning . . . arose just in the way flavor arises out of a conjunction of spices and herbs and long cooking and a sensitive palate, and yet is not reducible to any of those things; was a name only for the nameless conjunction, the slight clutch in his throat, the hum in his ears, Oh I see, I get it." (pt 1 ch 6)
Gradually, Pierce begins to get it, to sense the Meaning in the world, to pierce the veil of history -- and to learn what may be the truth (or may have been believed to have been the truth) about ancient Aegypt. He's on a fool's quest; he's a Parsifal/Percival figure, abandoned by his father, attempting to learn the ways of the world. He reads books by Fellowes Kraft, historical fictions in which Giordano Bruno and John Dee learn of the ancient writings of Hermes Trismegistus, ancient and mythical magician/philosopher/king of Aegypt, whence the word Hermetic. Pierce intends to write a book called Aegypt; Kraft has already written most of a book called Aegypt; both seem to be, in some way, Crowley's book. And therein lies one of the oddities of Crowley's book: although it was published as fantasy, I believe there's only one scene in which something unequivocally fantastical occurs to the characters in Crowley's book. All the other fantastical scenes are apparently scenes from Kraft's books, although they alternate with "real-world" scenes of Pierce and his friends. But in addition to the one scene of fairly unequivocal magic in Pierce's world, there are many hints at deeper connections. In particular, in a scene from one of Kraft's books, Dr. Dee attempts to decipher a mysterious manuscript; his first attempt at deciphering it begins "IF EVER SOM POWR WITH 3 WISHES TO GRANT" (pt. 2 ch. 3) -- which is a distorted version of the opening lines of Crowley's novel, discussing (in fascinating detail) Pierce's lifelong pondering on what to do if he were ever awarded three wishes. So Kraft, the fictional author, writes about a fictionalized version of a real historical character, who decrypts a mysterious manuscript to get the beginning of Crowley's book. This kind of inversion and distorted reflection happens, at various levels and in various ways, throughout the novel.
Which reminds me to mention the structure of Crowley's novel: it's divided into three parts, corresponding to the first three houses of the Zodiac. I haven't checked, but I assume that the three sequels cover the remaining nine houses. (And here we are back at houses again.)
And the structure, of course, is reflected in the content of the novel as well; Pierce meets an astrologer who explains what the various houses mean, which gives the reader more hints about what the sections are about, and perhaps even about how the overall arc of the story may play out across the four volumes. When a book has this many interlocking levels -- rooms within rooms -- it's nice when it provides the reader with some of the keys needed for its own unlocking. You don't have to be a gypsy fortuneteller to find ordered patterns (and flavors of Meaning) in the vast tapestries of interconnected histories that Crowley shows us here.
So why do people think gypsies can tell fortunes? I won't tell you that, but Crowley will. All you have to do is step through this door. . . .