1961 is a strange year, heavy with the threat of nuclear war. It is Kit Malone’s first year at college, and it is pervaded not only with the jarring tensions of the news and of conflict among student groups, but with poetry, and the crucial importance of language even when — especially when — the world is about to end.
Kit writes poetry herself, and she decides to take a challenging course from Falin, a Russian poet who has been exiled from the Soviet Union. The two poets form a relationship — not a romantic relationship, but one based on their mutual love and understanding of language, despite the wide differences in their experience and culture. Despite the fact that Kit speaks no Russian, Falin asks her to translate his poetry. The novel explores what translation could possibly mean in this context, why poetry is so essential (Crowley takes for granted that it is — he is not asking this question), and what language is. It asks, tentatively, whether language and poetry might be minor angels of the nations, and whether they might be able to change events when the great grim gods of the nations are at war. It never dismisses or discounts pain or loss, but it traces, gently, the power of poetry to help us name it, say it, and therefore overcome it.
There is, as you might imagine, quite a bit of poetry in this novel. Some of it comes from Russian or American or British or French or even Roman poets, and of course you can follow those tracks and get more of that. But a lot of it is Kit’s poetry, or Falin’s, and it’s written by Crowley himself. I was surprised (why was I surprised?) at how good it was. Kit’s poetry is the poetry of a genuinely talented college student; Falin’s is beautiful and bitter, a little reminiscent of Akhmatova. Two different voices. I often ask myself with Crowley, how does he do that?
I couldn’t possibly show you all the marvelous interwoven threads of this novel, the way words and angels and the land and books come tenderly together to form an almost perfect book. (There’s an incredible scene in which a library is a sanctuary, the way churches were long ago; it’s too long to quote. You must just read it.) Crowley is a master of writing about emotion without ever being sentimental or manipulative. He weaves the theme of lost children through the book, for instance: Falin, as a child, lived with the besprizornye, thousands of children who lost their parents under Stalin’s regime and formed their own sort of ragged, desperate union. He lost his wife and child to famine, and then was exiled. Kit, too, loses a child, and that loss haunts her ability to speak; she loses her brother to an “ammunition accident” at the very beginning of what will become the Vietnam war. Falin’s losses are those of a nation; Kit’s are those of an individual. But this is never heavy-handed, never played for tears. It is the facts of the matter, and our ability to put it into words, that matter. Poetry is an antidote to pain, and it is solace, because it brings us together.
This novel is so exquisite that I have had trouble writing about it. I finished it weeks ago, in early January, and I’ve been unable to stop thinking about it ever since. It’s apparently simple, but it is based on irony, mystery, and ambiguity, like a pun in another language that has no English equivalent. It’s got sunbursts of humor in it; it’s undergirded by profound compassion; its prose is superb. I thought I’d never read another book by Crowley that I loved as well as Little, Big, and indeed this one is quite different, but I may have found one that’s closer to my heart. “There is but one world,” Falin says, “only there are many worlds within it, for it exists in more than one way at once; and these different ways cannot be translated into one another … Like poems. You cannot translate. You can only make other poems.”