Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley

In the acknowledgments page for Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land, John Crowley refers to his ninth novel as an impertinence. He's referring, one assumes, to his own audacity in putting words--an entire novel's worth of them--in the mouth of the romantic poet Lord Byron, most famous for, well, being infamous--mad, bad, and dangerous to know (in her review of Crowley's novel, Elizabeth Hand cleverly points out that more people are familiar with this piece of wittiness--by Byron's former lover Caroline Lamb--than are acquainted with a line of his poetry). But the word, its with airy, frivolous connotations, seems also to capture the novel's tone--an atypical one, in Crowley's bibliography. His novels usually have a palpable heft--even his early forays into science fiction, svelte volumes clocking in at barely 200 pages, made for meaty, substantial reads. Lord Byron's Novel, in contrast, is positively lightweight.

The titular novel--composed, according to Crowley's alternate history, between 1816 and 1822, when a bitter divorce (occasioned at least in part by Byron's scandalous behavior, which included homosexual affairs and another with his half-sister) drove Byron into a self-imposed European exile from which he was never to return--takes up the bulk of Crowley's novel. It is as pitch-perfect a pastiche of a 19th century gothic romance as one could hope to encounter, complete with moonlit castles, evil fathers, secret siblings, unjust convictions, thwarted romances, zombies, and talking bears. Or would 'parody' be a more accurate description? My mother, when she talks about the Beatles' early films, likes to say that however silly and inconsequential the Fab Four's cinematic forays might have been, you could always tell that they'd had a great deal of fun making them. A similar sense of fun suffuses Crowley's (whose infatuation with Byron apparently goes back several decades) Byronic ventriloquism--we can tell that he had a blast inhabiting the poet's head and writing in his voice. Less obvious is whether we, in turn, are also intended to enjoy ourselves--to laugh with, or even at, the narrative's excesses. Are we meant to take The Evening Land at face value, as a straight-faced pastiche? If so, how are we to keep a straight face when confronted with the likes of this:
'Have done!' cried Ali, thrusting him away. 'Have done, or I will--'

'What shall you do? What shall you do? Have a care, Sir! Remember--all in a moment, and in defiance of consequence, I gave thee life--all in a moment I can take it away again. "The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away."'

'Devil!'

'Ah!' said Lord Sane. 'You know that exalted Being is said to have a knack for quoting Scripture to his own purposes. Here is another--"If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out"--therefore challenge me not, Sir, not though you be the apple of mine own!'

'I warn you, provoke me not further,' Ali said, lifting his balled fist before the great Lord's face, 'or indeed I know no what I may do. I have borne more than flesh can bear, and I am no more than flesh!'

'Raise not your hand against me,' said his father. ''Twould be a sin of dreadful note--moreover, 'twould be useless--for weapons can do nothing against me--no--I see you shudder to hear it, yet 'tis true--hanging would also be inefficacious--for, you see, I cannot die!'
In 2002, The Evening Land is discovered by Alexandra "Smith" Novak, an American historian researching the life of Ada Lovelace, Byron's only legitimate child, who achieved some small fame as a colleague of Charles Babbage and who is recognized today as the author of the world's first computer program. What Smith actually discovers, in a chest belonging to Ada's son, is the manuscript in encrypted form, and she enlists the aid of her mathematician girlfriend, Thea, in breaking the code, and of her father, Lee, a former Byron scholar, in authenticating the text and parsing it back into recognizable language. Crowley reproduces Smith, Thea and Lee's e-mails, which, in sharp contrast to the stylistic excesses of The Evening Land, are written in a perfunctory, utilitarian language (there's a spectrum of language skills here--Lee comes closest to writing good letters. Smith is at about high school level and uses 'like' a great deal too much. Thea refuses to use punctuation). The two styles complement each other nicely--just as we start to grow weary of the flowery, overwrought Byron segments, along come the modern characters with their spare directness, and just as we begin to long for some semblance of poetry, Crowley sends us back to Byron and his undeniable rhythms and cadences--but emotionally they leave us perpetually unsatisfied. If Byron's over-the-top melodrama elicits amusement more often than sympathy, then the modern segments don't seem to elicit any emotion at all.

In interviews, Crowley has said that the genesis of the modern characters was in the need for someone to educate the readers about the facts of Byron's life, and the characters rarely seem to rise above their roles as providers of info-dumps. There's allegedly a great deal of tension between Smith and Lee--this is their first contact with each other since Lee fled from prosecution when Smith was only four years old (think Roman Polanski, although given the similarities between Lee's career track--literature professor turned documentary filmmaker--and Crowley's, I wonder whether Lee might not also be the closest the novel comes to offering us Crowley's unadulterated voice). Their interactions on the page, however, are largely benign--they are pleasant and courteous with each other, tentatively reaching out to one another and then... meeting. The middle act of their story seems to be missing--possibly it took place when Smith was a child, or perhaps there's too much missing from the relationship for it ever to come into existence (in one of the rare instances of biting emotion in the correspondence, Smith tells Lee that there were moments in her childhood in which she felt the need for his presence, and later admits that she lied--a childhood without a father seemed normal to her, and in her adulthood she makes up a story for Lee because she feels that she ought to have missed his presence, but didn't).

The flatness of Smith and Lee's interactions is especially problematic because their circumstances are intended to mirror those of Byron and Ada--whose voice makes up the intermediate narrative level in Lord Byron's Novel. Byron last saw his daughter when she was only one month old, and in the years of his exile his attempts to contact her were rebuffed by his wife (who in Crowley's history--and apparently in real life as well--is painted as a domineering, holier-than-thou ghoul). It was to protect her father's novel from her mother (who in real life consigned the poet's memoirs to the fire), Crowley tells us, that Ada, dying of cervical cancer, encrypted the work, adding her own notes to each chapter. As pain and disease begin to take their toll on her, Ada's notes turn into ruminations about her life, her mathematical work, and her relationship with an absent, by then long-dead, father. In his review of Lord Byron's Novel, John Clute calls Ada's voice Kinbote-like, and although he is clearly correct to point out Crowley's debt to Nabokov, it strikes me that there is a significant difference between Ada and Pale Fire's pathetic, deluded annotator. Unlike Kinbote, who reads his own life into a poem wholly unrelated to him, Ada is clearly The Evening Land's intended audience--in many ways, its recipient. The Evening Land is a thinly veiled roman a clef whose protagonist, Ali, is an idealized version of Byron himself. His life story is intended to exculpate Byron from those charges he considers unjust, to apologize for the mistakes he did make, and finally, to offer himself and his daughter a wish-fulfillment fantasy, in which some version of Byron absconds with Ada's fictional counterpart, and the two take off to parts unknown. Ada's affectionate but clear-eyed response to this fantasy marks her out as the novel's most compelling and fully human character, and it is a great pity that we end up spending the least amount of time hearing her voice.

A few months ago, when I wrote about Julian Barnes's novel Arthur & George, I pointed out that Barnes was borrowing emotion from history--repeating the facts of a historical injustice, almost without comment, and expecting his audience to react with appropriate outrage. It's probably not entirely fair to accuse Crowley of doing something similar in Lord Byron's Novel, but it certainly seems to me that his primary motivation in writing the novel was to tell Byron and Ada's story, and to have a great deal of fun playing around with Byron's voice. Apart from the fantasy that makes up the novel's premise, there seems to be very little of John Crowley in the novel--by which I don't mean that I miss the author's voice, but rather the sense that he has something to add to a historical story that he clearly finds entirely fascinating. There's a fourth narrative level to Lord Byron's Novel that I haven't mentioned yet. The person who brings The Evening Land to Smith's attention (and who may also be the person who sells the manuscript to Ada in the mid 19th century) is called Roony J. Welch--an anagram of John Crowley. To be honest, I find this conceit unbearably twee and I'd prefer to simply ignore it, but it does raise some interesting questions about the novel's insularity. As I said earlier in this review, there's a very definite sense that Crowley had a great time writing in Byron's voice and writing about Byron, and this grinning self-insertion is perhaps intended to draw attention to his unabashed fascination with the poet and his life, to point out that we've been invited to John Crowley's playground. But doesn't it also suggest that, just as Lord Byron's novel was intended for a single reader, so was John Crowley's novel? To a certain extent, all authors should write the novel they'd love to read, but in Lord Byron's Novel it seems to me that Crowley may have taken this approach too far--that he may have turned himself into just another reader, which leaves the rest of us in a rudderless boat, listening to nothing more than a historical reenactment.

All this is not to say that Lord Byron's Novel makes for an unpleasant reading experience. It is, in fact, a smooth and elegant read which goes down like a glass of water, and is by no means unenjoyable. Whether we're meant to take it seriously or not, The Evening Land is a thoroughly entertaining romp, and for all their unrelenting niceness, Smith, Thea and Lee's emails are appealing. It just seems to me that for all the work that obviously went into it, for all the playful games with authorial voice, narrative levels and cryptography, there ought to have been a bit more substance to the novel--especially coming, as it does, from the pen of one of the most interesting and intelligent authors in the English language.

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