- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 21, 2006

LORD BYRON’S NOVEL: THE EVENING LAND

By John Crowley

Morrow, $25.95, 465 pages

LITTLE, BIG

By John Crowley

Harper Perennial, $15.95, 538 pages, paper

LUD-IN-THE-MIST

By Hope Mirrlees

Cold Spring, $11,

239 pages, paper

REVIEWED BY BRUCE ALLEN

One of 2005’s most accomplished novels probably won’t show up on many 10-best lists, and to my knowledge is not being considered for any prestigious non-genre awards.

Yet John Crowley’s eighth — and most risky — novel is an ingeniously engineered Swiss timepiece of a tale that ought to appeal as much to general readers of literary fiction as to aficionados of adult fantasy fiction, a rich field still unmined by far too many, despite the recent high visibility of such popular authors as Gregory Maguire (of “Wicked” fame), Terry Pratchett (the Disc-World Novels), and Neil Gaiman (“American Gods,” “Anansi Boys”).

Mr. Crowley, their highly esteemed colleague, has reclaimed the top of the fantasy heap by drawing his inspiration from an irresistible premise: That a celebrated night in 1816 in a Swiss villa — which featured a ghost story “contest” among Romantic period luminaries, and produced Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”) — also inspired a boisterous potboiler actually completed by notorious libertine poet George Gordon, Lord Byron (not begun, then abandoned, as Byron’s biographers would have us believe).

In Mr. Crowley’s telling, said novel came into the possession of Byron’s daughter Ada, Countess of Lovelace, a formidably gifted amateur scientist whose accomplishments included brief collaboration with Charles Babbage, father of the modern computer. Fearing that her mother would destroy the manuscript (as Lady Byron had burned her husband’s journals), Ada “translated” it into a numerical code, thus preserving it for posterity.

Posterity assumes the form of Alexandra Novak (aka “Smith”), an American scholar who’s in England researching Ada’s life for a website celebrating the achievements of women in science. Gradually realizing that something more than numbers and symbols has been bequeathed by Ada, Smith (despite e-mailed protests from her lover Thea, a fact-oriented mathematician) enlists the help of her estranged father Lee, a lapsed Byron scholar with a “notorious” history of his own — of gross sexual impropriety with a female minor.

Thus Mr. Crowley juxtaposes successive chapters of Byron’s fiction (“The Evening Land”) with Ada’s often plaintively personal “Notes” on its details, and e-mails among Smith, Thea, the website’s English supervisor, and the chastened Lee, still as hopeful of a reconciliation with his daughter as was Ada Lovelace with the vilified deceased spirit of her mercurial father.

Confirming Lee’s observation that “everything in Byron tends to be Byron-sized,” the recovered novel tells how Ali, the Albanian bastard son of “satanic” Scottish nobleman Lord Porteous (also called Lord Sane) suffers abduction to England and separation from his sweetheart (and nominal “sister”), is falsely accused of his father’s murder, escapes prison and returns to Europe for military and amorous adventures, and meets his ultimate fate — as did Byron — in the war for the liberation of Greece.

Perhaps, Lee further speculates, this rumbustious yarn was written in response to a novel (Lady Caroline Lamb’s salacious “Glenarvon”) that had demonized Byron, and comprises “a roman a clef of his own, only truer to his nature as he perceived it, and the story of his adventures.”

For numerous facts of Ali’s life indeed echo what we know of Byron, notably suggestions of sexual ambiguity and incest. Unfortunately, Ali is a thinly portrayed character, really only a device on which to hang plot events, possessing none of his ostensible creator’s unquenchable vitality.

Fortunately, though, this is not a crucial flaw, thanks to Mr. Crowley’s superb indirect characterization of Ada, and his deployment of the complex tensions that conjoin, divide and illuminate her story, her father’s — and John Crowley’s.

A reader’s enjoyment of the extended Byron pastiche will depend on one’s tolerance for 19th-century fustian, derring-do, and hyperbole. “The Evening Land” is an unholy mixture of melodramatic bravura storytelling, Dickensian character drawing (seen in such arresting peripheral figures as Ali’s semi-dashing friend Peter Piper and his wily attorney Wigmore Bland), and perhaps a dash or two of (the pseudonymous) Kurban Said’s anachronistic Middle Eastern romance “Ali and Nino.”

And of course it’s not the whole story. Mr. Crowley’s dramatizations of computer and mathematical reasoning and research are presented with a clarity that even a Luddite nonspecialist such as this reviewer can grasp and appreciate. Not least, we may thank him (and Ada) for reawakening our interest in the eternally fascinating Byron, surely one of the most engaging figures in the whole range of English, or any other literature.

John Crowley’s wares may also be sampled in a recent reissue of his World Fantasy Award-winning 1981 novel “Little, Big,” widely regarded as one of the indisputable classics of contemporary fantasy.

This is a multigenerational saga spun from its unassuming protagonist Smokey Barnable’s successful courtship of his — well, unearthly — sweetheart, Daily Alice Drinkwater. She’s the daughter of a huge extended bohemian family who claim descent from an Englishwoman (Violet Bramble) who had made a pact with the Land of Faerie before emigrating to America to marry a Drinkwater.

The family’s eerie ancestral home Edgewood, where most of its actions occur (and its lavish history likewise resides), forms a hinterland of sorts, and is of magical dimensions (“the further in you go, the bigger it gets”) which both direct the Drinkwaters’ peculiar behavior and supply Mr. Crowley’s lovely title.

Deft allusions to Arthurian legend, Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, and other mythic archetypes give “Little, Big” — which may also remind you a bit of Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” — a matchless, rapturous texture and resonance. It’s a great novel.

Also current: forgotten English author Hope Mirrlees’s eccentric 1926 masterpiece “Lud-in-the-Mist.” It’s the story of Nathan Chanticleer, Mayor of Lud (which borders a Faerie land, where the dead “live”), who must protect his mortal constituents from the irrational restraint caused by consuming fairy fruit — especially when his own young son is thus seduced.

A brilliant topography rather than a sustained narrative, this is a visionary romance which teasingly suggests multiple levels of meaning (England’s rigid class distinctions; the decimation of its population by World War I; the hell of addiction; the irrational unconscious cheek-by-jowl with the rational conscious mind).

It’s a spinning top of a story that entertains and enchants even as it mystifies. Long revered by fantasy readers, it’s much too good a book to remain their exclusive property. A bit like fairy fruit, actually: not the average reader’s usual fare. But hey, if you haven’t tried it… .

Bruce Allen writes for Kirkus Reviews, The Boston Globe, Sewanee Review and other publications. He lives in Kittery, Maine.

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