Thursday, October 13, 2016

A Few Words on Little, Big

A few days ago I finished listening to the audiobook (read by the author) of John Crowley's Little, Big — my second time through the audiobook specifically and third time through the text of the novel as a whole.*  I come away once again overwhelmed by what an amazing, marvelous book it is.

I want to recommend it to everyone.  Virginia Woolf famously said that George Eliot's Middlemarch was "one of the few English books written for grown-up people", a remark that strikes me as about 15% insightful and 85% silly.  But in the same way one could say that Little, Big was one of the few English books about faeries written for grown-up people.**  Middlemarch contains a village, at a fairly brief moment in time; Little, Big contains a family (it is family chronicle, a rather old-fashioned but marvelous form), stretched out over time and space (or, if not space, then location, the locations being the country house and the City).  It's breathtaking and heartbreaking and wonderful.  Its prose is not as pyrotechnic in a way that Nabokov's or Updike's can (at times excessively) be; but it is as good as theirs are, which is to say, as good as English prose gets.  Gene Wolfe (one of the few living writers in his class) said that Little, Big was "an education in modern fantasy all by itself"; Ursula Le Guin said it is "a book that all by itself calls for a redefinition of fantasy".  Harold Bloom's canonized it.  Seriously, people, this is an amazing book.

I want to recommend it to everyone: but with a word of warning.  It's not an easy book to get into.  Several very fine readers whom I have pushed it upon have begun it, seen its merits, but not finished it.  I myself began it several times before finishing it.  After I did so, I went online and searched for information about it, and found person after person saying some variation of, "it took me several tries to get into it but now it's one of my favorite books".  Well, me too.  It reminds me of what Umberto Eco said in his Postscript to the Name of the Rose:
After reading the manuscript, my friends and editors suggested I abbreviate the first hundred pages, which they found very difficult and demanding. Without thinking twice, I refused, because, as I insisted, if somebody wanted to enter the abbey and live there for seven days, he had to accept the abbey's own pace. If he could not, he would never manage to read the whole book. Therefore those first hundred pages are alike a penance or an initiation, and if someone does not like them, so much the worse for him. He can stay at the foot of the hill.  Entering a novel is like going on a climb in the mountains: you have to learn the rhythm of respiration, acquire the pace; otherwise you stop right away.
Just so: the same is true of the life of a family that lives in the country and waits for a Tale to unfold.

It is not a book that you "can't put down": it is that much deeper and more wonderful thing, a book that you must continually put down to catch your breath, to marvel at the view, to hold a phrase tightly in your mind in sheer delight.  But it is a journey worth taking.  Some reviewers have complained that "nothing happens" in the book: which is not at all true, though I grant that there is no punching or shooting (well, except for the person who ends up getting shot, I mean.  But not that sort of shooting).  But it is not a novel paced to the attention spans of the digital age.  It's the richer for it: but it has become for us, I think, a harder read than it was when it first came out.  But it will repay you richly if you make the effort.  Sometimes long journeys need to be taken on foot, to be the more marvelous when you finally, dusty and tired, arrive.

Two notes on two ancillary works of art that spring from the novel.

First, as I mentioned, I listened to the audiobook, read by Crowley himself.  It's marvelous.  Crowley is not a professional audiobook narrator, and does not have the characteristic style they do (with, for instance, their multiple voices for multiple characters); but the text is his, and his voice makes it (if possible) even better.  If you've gotten stuck in the book, try the audiobook.  (Local Ithaca folks might note it's in the TCPL system, though housed at a different library.)

Second, my friend Ron Drummond has been working for some years on a special limited edition of Little, Big, one with an author's corrected text*** and illustrations by Peter Milton — pictures not created for the book, but used to illustrate it.  That last — the entwining of a text with pictures made separately from it — sounds as implausible as, well, a novel about faeries for (in a Wolfian sense) grown-up people.  But, implausibly, miraculously, it works.  The other day Ron was kind enough to show me several chapters as laid out for the in-process edition.  What was remarkable to me about it is not only how well they graced the text, but the way in which Ron, taking details from various pictures, sometimes reversing or reusing them in creative and counterintuitive ways, has made out of Milton's art and Crowley's masterpiece something yet other, a third work of art, with its own aesthetic surprises and joys and marvels.  It is, perhaps, the art of curating (a underappreciated art in any event); but it is a first-rate example of it.  Ron has hit some speedbumps, and the edition as yet has no publication date,  but keep an eye out for it, and catch it when you can.

In the meantime, don't let that hold you up: get any old edition of the novel and read it — or get the audiobook and listen.  If you get stuck, keep going.  Don't let the amazing transition that occurs in the first sentence of part three throw you (it threw me, when I first hit it).  It's worth it.  If you finish it once, you'll want to read it again.


* The first time I used the admittedly old-fashioned medium of trees, pulped & smashed flat, and systematically dirtied in specific patterns.  Weird, I know.

** Don't let the word ''faeries" turn you off; these are neither Peter Pan's cute comrades nor Tolkien's wise warriors.  They are marvelous and terrifying and convincing in a way that I might have said, before reading the book, was impossible.

*** Used as the text for the audiobook edition, incidentally.

1 comment:

davidbreslin101 said...

For me, it's not so much a book you can't put down as a book to re-read, slowly. About immersing yourself in a place, a folklore, and in the lives of the characters. Most "thrilling events" take place discretely offstage, and the central image comes from a quiet scene of three people looking at the stars. Oddly enough, it feels a bit like "The Lord of the Rings" to me- unlike most of its successors in epic fantasy, that was a book that stopped to smell the flowers.