Pierce Moffet wants to find a compelling book idea for a nonfiction history book. He discovers that the reason we think gypsies can tell fortunes is not because they came from Egypt (or even India for that matter), but because our ancestors thought gypsies came from Aegypt, a dream-Egypt sprung from the European imagination. In the Renaissance, before hieroglyphs were interpreted, Egypt was Aegypt to the Greeks, and the inscriptions on the temples of that far-off country were suspected of hiding all manner of ancient magical incantations and occult lore given by the Father of Magic, Hermes Trismegistus.
In one sense, Aegypt: The Solitudes is literary fiction, with the bulk of the action happening among the fictitious Faraway Hills region of rural Kentucky in the 1970s. Yet, it is also a historical novel with elements of fantasy. A couple of scenes happen in Renaissance Italy, Elizabethan England, and it even has a Goethian “Prologue in Heaven.” Except for one scene, in which a minor character named Beau imagines (with the help of drugs?) that he soars through the heavenly spheres, each of these “historical” scenes are chapters written by the fictitious historical novelist Fellowes Kraft, John Crowley’s alter ego. The result is an alchemy that gives “real” modern, American life a glowing significance in light of the “fictitious” historical past.
Winning the Life Achievement Award at the World Fantasy Convention in 2006, Crowley has made quite the contribution to American letters. His style feels casual and genuine, a smooth voice that puts you at ease in the pastoral setting of the Faraways.
After a fateful bus trip away from an anonymous life in the city, Pierce finds himself in the rural region, near the town of Blackbury Jams. We learn he is the sort of man who spends an inordinate amount of time coming up with thorough, even scientific answers to fanciful questions, such as what he would do if a djini granted him three wishes. But one question in particular begins to tantalize him: why do we think gypsies can tell fortunes? Little does he suspect that his scientific historicism and fascination with fairy tales will come together to form an intellectual synthesis.
Meanwhile, Rosie Rasmussen is trying to finalize her divorce with her husband Mike Mucho, and look over her three-year-old daughter Sam. She has trouble understanding her own lack of a desire to love Mike any more, wondering what she will do with her life as she consults with her divorce lawyer. Her escape during these emotionally troubling times is to read Bitten Apples by Kraft, a novel about a young William Shakespeare written in a realistic style. Crowley makes us read scenes from Kraft “over her shoulder,” writing certain scenes from Bitten Apples as scenes in The Solitudes. The historical-fictitious world of Kraft’s novels thus run parallel to the main, twentieth-century narrative. The result is that we inevitably compare the main plot to Kraft’s plots, noticing parallels between the past and present.
The disaffected, modern characters who search for meaning in rural Kentucky contrasts with the Renaissance setting of Kraft’s novels, subtly suggesting that the characters repeat mythic patterns in their day-to-day thoughts and actions. The way Crowley weaves these parallels seems almost accidental, but given Crowley’s sophistication as a writer, it is clear he intends readers to pick up on these “accidents.” Whether they have deeper significance is up to the reader to decide.
Since the novel is about Rosie and Pierce’s relationship to Fellowes Kraft, an author who they’ve never met, and his oeuvre, it becomes significant for past and present when, in Bitten Apples, a young William Shakespeare enters the house of Doctor John Dee on an errand. (To read more on what I wrote on Dee, click here and here.)
During his visit to the old Doctor, Will gets a primitive photograph taken of himself from the camera obscura in Dee’s garden. He is then invited inside his home where he comes face-to-face with Dee’s famous “crystal ball,” a smoky quartz stone the colour of moleskin. Dee uses it to scry for spirits. Will says he sees something in the smoke, a portent warning of fateful visit from a stranger—but whether he really saw anything, or only wanted Dee to think he saw something, remains ambiguous.
An innocent enough reply, Will’s “prediction” comes true when Dee makes the acquaintance of Talbot, or Edward Kelley, a con man who claims to be able to communicate with angels. While he deceives Doctor Dee on his desperate quest for spiritual meaning, Pierce and Rosie, in the twentieth century, ponder their own searches for significance and love.
But what changes the game for Dee—and Pierce—is the (re)appearance of Giordano Bruno. Bruno was a heretic Dominican monk in Renaissance Italy who develops a theory about an infinite universe while challenging the Ptolemaic world system. The heretic’s story is one that Pierce was familiar with since childhood. But never has Kraft delved into Bruno’s life in quite the way he does in the unfinished, untitled manuscript Pierce finds in the abandoned house of the late author of Bitten Apples
Pierce discovers that his whole life has been preparing him to read this one manuscript, a book that uncannily echoes his own intellectual journey to write a nonfiction book on the history of histories. The manuscript opens as follows:
“Once the world was not as it has since become.
It once worked in a different way than it does now; it had a different history and a different future. Its very flesh and bones, the physical laws that governed it, were other than the ones we know.”
As Pierce reacts to this stimulating subject material, Dee sees Bruno sailing for England in an attempt to flee religious persecution. Aegypt: The Solitudes leaves us off with the sense that the meeting between Dee and Bruno will be an epic meeting that could change the fabric of history itself. The first book of the Aegypt Cycle ends, as does Bitten Apples, with “THE BEGINNING.”
My personal reaction to Aegypt was not unlike Pierce reading Kraft’s manuscript: I felt as if all my research into historical fantasy, Guy Gavriel Kay, and even my novel, had finally prepared me to read John Crowley. I first heard of Aegypt researching the historical fantasy genre. The personal research I conducted for my novel Intelligence—research into Giordano Bruno, John Dee, hermeticism, and the Elizabethan era, for example—also found echoes in Aegypt: The Solitudes. It was rather like looking in a strange mirror, seeing myself reflected in Pierce and Kraft’s endeavours. While I cannot say with certainty that Aegypt will form the subject of my MA thesis, I believe I must reckon with it if I wish to continue studying historical fantasy.
The worst praise I could give for Aegypt: The Solitudes is that it is like reading a classier, finer, more intellectual DaVinci Code, if you leave out the thriller elements. Comparing Crowley to Dan Brown is unfair for a number of reasons, but if you like Brown’s thrillers of hidden histories and secret societies, you will have a natural affinity to Crowley, who is undoubtedly the better artist.
For those of you who love literary fiction and are thinking about dipping into historical fantasy, but are afraid you might not enjoy it, reading Aegypt will familiarize you with the ideas behind the best historical fantasy, while not obligating you to leave the confines of literary fiction. For those of you who love fantasy or historical fiction, then Aegypt‘s blend of history and fantasy offers a rewarding literary reading experience.
3 thoughts on “Aegypt: The Solitudes by John Crowley”
Not a title, nor an author, that I’d come across before but one — thanks to your superb review — I shall certainly be attuned to in the future. My enjoyment of a couple of Frances Yates’ studies from two or three decades ago is really all I knew of this strange but stimulating area. Plus, I liked the couple of Umberto Eco’s novels I also read around then, and from your description this reminds me of these. I really must look out for this, and for Phillips’ The Tragedy of Arthur, another intelligent novel I’ve been recommended a few times.
Thanks for the recommendations! Aegypt and Foucault’s Pendulum go hand in hand. The John Dee Edward Kelley dynamic appears as a subplot in each!
Yes, indeed! Much reading to do!