Thursday, January 24, 2008

Fantastical Writing

I am inordinately fond of John Crowley's Little, Big, a remarkable book in just about any way you'd care to measure it. It's not to everyone's taste, but for those of us who dig it, the book becomes a baptismal experience. Whether the reader plunges in, a la full immersion, or partakes via smaller touches of anointment, the experience of reading it is almost always heady. I went the latter route. I spent five years on my first reading of it. Even the smallest scenes have an ornate romanticism that I wanted to savor, rather than gobble. There are precious few books that can sustain a reader's attention for that length of time. I've developed the habit of purchasing every used copy I stumble across, so that I can take the book with me on trips and leave it behind in the guest-rooms I've stayed in.

Here is Michael Dirda's appraisal of Crowley's just completed Aegypt. I've picked up the first book in this series many times. I've never managed the trick of reading it, though: all those pages are so ... intimidating. Dirda's essay might just give me the courage I need to make a proper go of it. Link via ALD.

This also brings to mind David Langness' rave for Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin (also in the pages of PASTE 38, but not (yet?) available on-line, alas). Langness says, "Winter's Tale is Harry Potter for grown-ups, C.S. Lewis for agnostics, Tolkien for the matriculated, García Márquez for everyone." I tend to think Helprin is a powerful, if not always compelling writer. The first Helprin I read was A Soldier Of The Great War, which was something of a sensation when it was first published. My wife and I took turns reading it to each other during a cross-Canada road trip in our first year of marriage: the perfect conditions for just such an enterprise. The last 300 pages required some motivation on our part to crack open the book, take a deep breath and get into it, but once our inertia was overcome the joy of the experience quickly returned. The book left me with the impression that Helprin, like his titular hero and frequent narrator, was a man intent on expelling every breath in aid of asserting his meaningfulness. I picked up Winter's Tale, expecting to be similarly charmed.

It didn't happen. I've still got it on my shelf; every year or two, I'll pick it up again and give it another go. So far I haven't made it past page 50. I won't blame Helprin for my inability to get into it ... no, wait: on second thought, I believe I will. Helprin's narrative personality is incredibly charismatic; it is large (as in, "Larger than life," which usually means "Larger than your daily tedious chores") and it is forceful, and it is used to getting its way. With any charismatic personality, I can usually get quite a kick out of an evening or two in their presence. Push it beyond that, however, and I start to look at the time and think of the chores that require my attention. So it is with Helprin's charisma. This hardly qualifies as "criticism" on my part -- consider it a deficit of my own personality. Charisma, forcefulness and larger-than-life are qualities that have carried Dostoevsky's novels into a second century of renown; no reason why Helprin's work shouldn't carry over in a similar way.

As always, if you think I'm out to lunch on any of this, the comments are yours.


Rob In Victoria said...

"I've developed the habit of purchasing every used copy I stumble across, so that I can take the book with me on trips and leave it behind in the guest-rooms I've stayed in."

We've talked about this before, haven't we? The way Little, Big tends to make cultists out of its admirers?

Not only do I do a trip around the local used bookstores every few weeks (to disseminate to the unknowing...), but a very battered paperback of L,B travels with me whenever I take to the road - if I'm reading on an airplane, it's probably Little, Big.

I'm thinking of having "The things that make us happy make us wise" tattooed in a vine on my left forearm...

Rob In Victoria said...

Oh, and as regards the Aegypt cycle - well worth reading, though more daunting than Little, Big. It'll all be out in trade paper by year's end, though: a perfect set to put on your Christmas list.

(Dare I confess that I spent way, way too much money and subscribed to a copy of the 25th anniversary edition of Little, Big from ?)

Whisky Prajer said...

Ooooooh, man ... I looked at that edition, but couldn't quite convince myself to part with the money. I expect it's very, very nice.

L,B makes for the perfect traveling book: you can read as much or as little of it as you like, and be satisfied by the experience.