A Hee-Haw to Apuleius

Colin Burrow

  • The Solitudes by John Crowley
    Overlook, 429 pp, £7.90, September 2007, ISBN 978 1 58567 986 7
  • Endless Things by John Crowley
    Small Beer, 341 pp, $24.00, May 2007, ISBN 978 1 931520 22 5

John Crowley’s novels are hard to describe. His best one, Little, Big (1981), is probably something you might call ‘fantasy’. It contains talking trout, and little people, and witches in New York, and an attempt by the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa to rule the world again, which is thwarted by a family who possess a magic deck of cards. What makes it not quite fantasy, or perhaps fantasy askew, or impure fantasy, is that its magic is invariably seen only out of the corner of the eye, as a flicker in the undergrowth; most of its characters aren’t quite sure they believe in what they think they might have seen. I haven’t read a book quite like it. It flirts with a slightly donnish whimsy and yet persuades you that a possible way of seeing the world is to believe that there are alternative worlds inside or alongside what we think of as the world. A lot of Crowley hallmarks were first seen in Little, Big: an interest in hermetic knowledge, a fascination with Giordano Bruno’s elaborate mnemotechnic schemes, and a belief that our world sometimes shifts its shape, even though hardly anyone notices it doing so. It all sounds unbelievably tiresome, but it is saved by its own wishful uncertainty as to whether any of it is true.

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