Whenever I read a book by John Crowley, I seem to have the same experience. I want to read it quickly to the end, to find out what will happen to these characters with whom I am so deeply engaged, and I also want to read it very, very slowly, so that I wring every drop of pleasure from the rich, textured prose, the ideas that are startling and yet at the same time make me say Yes, of course, and the moments of poignancy, pain and joy that sparkle from the page. Which desire wins out depends on my mood at the time.
In Love and Sleep, Crowley expands on the idea that he first presented in The Solitudes. What if the old magic was once real? People believed in alchemy, astrology, demonology, the philosopher’s stone — what if they believed in them, not because people were stupid or ignorant, but because those things were real powers then? What if something happened, some great shift in the world, and now, not only have those powers lost their potency, but they never could have had any potency? The world is as we know it; the physical laws of the universe tell us we can never turn lead into gold. But what if once, we could? Pierce Moffett, the historian who is the main character of these novels, chews this notion over.
He had read to this conclusion once, and then he had pondered it for a long time before he saw what he had here, which was an explanation for the history of magic that answered every need, solved every historical crux, satisfied the skeptic and the ardent seeker both, and had only the one drawback of its complete absurdity.
Love and Sleep pushes this idea farther. Pierce is writing a book about this shift. On the cusp of the great change that renders the old powers impotent and sets new powers in motion, there are a few great seers and thinkers who are aware of the change. Might they not hide something for the new age to find — a cup, a crown, a jewel, a stone? Of course, most of those things would have lost their virtue when the change came. But suppose, just suppose, that something was left, some Holy Grail, that retained its power. What would it be? And if we are on the cusp of another change, Pierce asks, what will those unimaginable powers look like in the next age, and what can we hide for them to find?
This is the grand, underlying idea of Love and Sleep. But the details are like the rich details in a tapestry, leaves and flowers and beasts and birds everywhere you look. The books are organized according to the twelve astrological houses, and Love and Sleep includes the houses of Genitor (the house of parents, ancestors, and childhood environment), Nati (the house of children, sex, and creative expression), and Valetudo (the house of health, servitude, and acquired skills.) Thus we see Pierce’s childhood in rural Kentucky, the Appalachian girl he meets and furtively baptizes (named Bobbie Shaftoe, I know, but these books are like that; Pierce lives in Blackbury Jambs), and Floyd Shaftoe, her werewolf grandfather. We see the Elizabethan magician John Dee and his partner speaking to a spirit who looks like a child, and Pierce creating an imaginary child who might be a spirit. One beloved character becomes ill and dies, yearning after the impossible Elixir of Life; another develops epilepsy; a third falls prey to a religious cult; Pierce finally learns to drive. One Rose begins to explore the reason that her heart has turned to stone; another changeling Rose stands just out of Pierce’s reach. And all of this reaching and striving, all the effort to find the greater powers of this world, is tangled up in love and sleep: the two mortal forces that will always fetter us and bless us in equal measure.
This is not an action-packed novel. The strands of the book’s plot are thick and soft as they weave through the motifs Crowley has chosen. His prose is gorgeous, seductive, serene, hypnotic. But he creates moments of such joy or such aching poignancy that it’s impossible for me to describe them to you. Instead, go start with The Solitudes and read them for yourself:
But if that moment of possibility was gone (was not anything but illusion now, and therefore had not ever been anything but illusion) then what was it that had come close to him in his sitting room as he looked out at the roses? What had brushed by him and touched his cheek?
Only the wind of its passage away.