John Crowley’s “Aegypt”: Novels within Novels & the Meaning of History

No one can deny that John Crowley is a brilliant writer.  

Certainly Harold Bloom thought so.  In his book The Western Canon, he praised Crowley’s 1981 novel, Little Big, and referred to it as “a neglected masterpiece.”

Crowley has won many awards, including the Award for Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Art and Letters in 1992 and the World Fantasy Award in 1980.

So why is Crowley little-known in the twenty-first century?  Perhaps it is because he is hard to classify; his work straddles the line between literary fiction and fantasy. But for most of his career he has written complex novels of ideas, in which characters gain new perspectives through strange encounters with books, people, and places.

In his 1987 philosophical novel, Aegypt, now published under the title Solitudes, the first of  the Aegypt Cycle tetralogy, Crowley explores the relationships of language, time, history, and fiction.  The hero, Pierce Moffatt, a historian and a professor at Barnabas College in New York City, is disturbed by the blurring of  lines between fact and fiction in the late ‘60s. The astronomy professor is teaching astrology: Pearce objects to the this pandering to fuzzy thinking. An amused professor tells him he is not “plastic” enough, and he should humor the students and “entertain them.”

Pierce continues to teach history, but reluctantly changes the curriculum.

His students apparently wanted something else. They liked the stories they were gleaning from the wide reading, and made round sounds at the notions he put forth, which they entertained indiscriminately, mixing them with other mental guests in a bash that Pierce found hard to crash.  They had come to college, not as Pierce’s generation seemed to have gone to college, to be disabled of their superstitions, but to find new and different ones to adopt; [they] were vague about whether the Middle Ages came before or after the Renaissance…

Slowly Pierce becomes enchanted by the nomadic free spirits of the time.  His social life in New York City begins to revolve around liberal “hippies,”  particularly drug-taking  women who believe in astrology and the Age of Aquarius. And though he loses his job due to debts, drugs, and skipping classes, he lands a book contract to explore the tenets of New Age philosophy in the context of Renaissance history, science, and philosophy.

Aegypt is now published as Solitudes

Things start looking up for Pierce when he moves to the charming town of Blackberry  Jambs, New York, where his friend Spofford,  a Vietnam vet and  former student, has a sheep farm.  The town is not quite pretty, but the people are interesting, and it has the requisite health food stores, galleries in churches, and a good public library. 

Crowley brilliantly portrays a motley group of fascinating characters in Blackberry Jambs. One of my favorites is Rosie Mucho, née Rasmussen, who is getting divorced from her husband, a quack therapist, and has moved with her daughter into the house of her elderly uncle, who is in charge of the Fellowes Craft Trust.  The late Fellowes Craft was a best-selling writer of historical novels,who lived his entire life in Blackberry Jambs. Rosie is addicted to Craft’s historical novels: we read excerpts from his smart, entertaining novel about Shakespeare and long to read more. 

 Coincidentally, Pierce, who was homeschooled in Kentuck, became a Fellowes Craft fan because the state library sent his mother a box of books every month for the purpose of teaching. For some reason, Fellowes’ novels were among them. When Rosie and her uncle offer Pierce a job helping them sort through Craft’s archives, he becomes fascinated by an unfinished novel which blows up “Pierce’s false history of the world.”

“Why must I live in two worlds, Pierce asked, why.”

His world view is changing, and it is painful.

And thus we go on to the second novel in the Aegypt quartet, Love & Sleep.

2 thoughts on “John Crowley’s “Aegypt”: Novels within Novels & the Meaning of History”

  1. Sounds interesting.
    For my t.b.r. list (now in three volumes).
    The divide between astrology and astronomy is recent – the great Renaissance astronomers who established heliocentrism doubled up as astrologers – not always willingly. My own favourite story about astrology was the newspaper astrologer who received a letter from his editor beginning “As you already know, we are dismissing you with effect from…”

    1. You’d love this book, because Pierce knows all about the divide and the different worlds these viewpoints create. One of the novels written by the fictional character Fellowes Craft is about Giordano Bruno, a philosopher and believer in the teachings of Copernicus.
      And thanks for the astrology joke!

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