John Crowley continues to amaze with the breadth of his creativity. His 2005 book, Lord Byron’s Novel, explores the life of that notorious poet and his near-unknown daughter Ada, later Ada Lovelace, a mathematician who, mentored by Charles Babbage, foresaw the capabilities of computers, even in the 1850s. The vehicle is a single page of a destroyed manuscript which refers to a full-length novel penned by Byron, burned at her mother’s request by Ada. But this single page contains a cipher – a number series which when decoded, applies to columns of numbers written on a stack of pages in Ada’s papers.
The researchers, in 2002, suspect that Ada burned the manuscript out of deference to her mother, but not before rendering it in a code only broken by their diligence. Crowley’s novel is the result, with footnotes by Ada commenting about the likely personages and encounters her father’s novel refers to. Meanwhile, a thread of communications between researchers introduces another story. In effect, this novel is three: Lord Byron’s itself, The Evening Land, is everything one might hope for from a poet, adventurer, ne’er-do-well, a rebel dubbed “Satan” by his detractors. Ada’s chapter-by-chapter observations offer a counterpoint to his words. The communications of his 21st century discoverers open yet another view onto a man who lived fully and died young.
What is it about Crowley? What muse has come to dwell with him, giving unique insight to his subjects, which themselves range from the fairy tale Little, Big; to his novel Four Freedoms, about Americans who during WWII moved from the margins to center stage while the young white male (dominant) group was overseas at war: women, racial minorities, cripples – their efforts were needed to supply military materiel, so they were allowed economic power and privilege previously closed to them. Crowley explores the mystic undercurrents of modern life in his Ægypt trilogy. Then, his novel The Translator is patterned on the life of Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, expatriate due to official persecution. In this deceptively short work, we see the poet, teaching a seminar at an American university, cultivate an undergrad woman – not a Russian speaker/reader – to translate his poetry into English. Their simpatico relationship enables her to express his words, not literally but from the heart, in another language.
And here we have him reaching into the past, resurrecting a poet of faltering reputation, along with his daughter never given due recognition. Crowley seems engaged in a sort of literary healing, in which his clear insights rescue people from the niches into which society has confined them, setting them on a path of honor and respect. If curiosity drives what you read, Crowley should be on your list, on your bookshelf, and his voice in your mind.