Little, Big by John Crowley

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It’s the sort of book that once you turn the last page, you feel you ought to turn to the first and begin again. The themes are so big, the thoughts so anything but little, that I wonder what I’ve missed in the first time through.

There’s Destiny, for one thing.  War and death. Love. Ideas like that, any one of which could consume a whole novel all by itself. But Crowley has them crowded up together, banging against each other making them all Somehow related, and at the same time he strings us along at a carefully measured pace of his own. There is no hurry to get where he is going.

And even if we get there, wherever that may be, we find such an inter-connectedness that we may very well be back where we first started. It’s Brother North-Wind’s Secret: after Winter comes Spring, and after Spring comes Winter, in an endless cycle of birth and rebirth.

It turns out that Edgewood is the door, through which one must go, but it is also the way back. For one generation follows another; after Violet and John Drinkwater, come Daily Alice and Smoky Barnable, and their children behind them. They have tarot cards to guide them, and faeries to distract them, but still they must live the Tale as we all must do.

Poor Auberon leaves home for the City to find his fame and fortune. What he finds is beautiful Sylvie and a broken heart. He lives scandalously, and when he returns only his father is surprised to see him. There is mention of killing the fatted calf, and we’re instantly reminded of the Prodigal Son, whom rather than being turned away is received home with open arms.

Sophie’s daughter with George Mouse is a changeling; she has been stolen away by the faeries, but she, too, returns home to open arms. What healing takes place when the lost daughter is reunited with her mother after years of separation. Perhaps, in Crowley’s observations of family, it is not so faerie-like after all.

Daily Alice walks to the river first, and we’re never quite sure what becomes of her after she crosses over. Smoky, always left out no matter how well loved he is, follows. And so the family banquet becomes a wake first, to honor him. Each one of us has his own path. Ultimately, we walk it alone.

And so, before I go, a final question that Tom and I briefly touched on in the middle of the month. Do you think the Tale is just for the Drinkwaters? Or, are we all living it ourselves? I welcome your thoughts and ideas on this most magical book.

Little, Big (Book 3: Old Law Farm)

Photo credit here
Photo credit here

…they were led down concave weed-spined lanes in an endless land, down the twists and turns of a long, long story, a boundless and-then, toward a place something like the place Sophie at Edgewood contemplated in the dark-etched trump called the Banquet: a long table clothed in just-folded linen, it’s claw feet absurd in the flowers beneath twisted and knotty trees, the tall compote overflowing, the symmetrical candelabra, the many places set, all empty. (p. 263)

I want to be there. Even if I don’t know for what, or whom, we’re waiting.

Little, Big (Book 2: Brother North-Wind’s Secret)

photo credit here
photo credit here

I have grown so fond of these characters, felt such an affinity for Daily Alice and Smoky and Sophie, that I was a little shocked to read that Smoky had been unfaithful with Sophie. “Only three and a half times,” to be sure, but still he was unfaithful with his wife’s sister.

I guess I was even more surprised that this seemed to bother Daily Alice not at all. It seems that she and her sister have a closeness that not even a husband can come between.

Meanwhile, there is a chapter in this book entitled “Little, Big” such as the entire novel itself is called. We find the three (Daily Alice, Smoky and Sophie) holding hands all under the night sky. As Sophie watches the falling stars, Daily Alice contemplates her size within the world. Are we little? Are we big?

Daily Alice couldn’t tell if she felt huge or small. She wondered whether her head were so big as to be able to contain all this starry universe, or whether the universe were so little that it would fit within the compass of her human head. She alternated between these feelings, expanding and diminishing. The stars wandered in and out of the vast portals of her eyes, under the immense empty dome of her brow; and then Smoky took her hand and she vanished to a speck, still holding the stars as in a tiny jewel box within her.

So they lay a long time, not caring to talk any more, each dwelling on that odd, physical sensation of ephemeral eternity–a paradox but undeniably felt, and if the stars had been as near and full of faces as they seemed, they would have looked down and seen those three as a single asterism, a linked wheel against the wheeling dark sky of the meadow. (p. 178)

And another thing; I understand how it was that Smoky thought of himself as a whole crowd of people, for I’ve felt that way myself. Maybe not exactly as he does, but I’ve balanced my persons of woman, mother, wife, daughter, teacher and listened to their voices clamor in my ear each vying for undivided attention. How interesting that Smoky would feel that, too.

“Santa,” he wrote, “I would like to be one person only, not a whole crowd of them, half of them always trying to turn their backs and run whenever somebody”–Sophie, he meant, Alice, Cloud, Doc, Mother; Alice most of all– “looks at me. I want to be brave and honest and shoulder my burdens. I don’t want to leave myself out while a bunch of slyboots figments do my living for me.” (p. 165)

If Santa can fix that for you, Smoky, as you burn your Christmas Eve letter in the fireplace and watch the smoke go up the chimney into the night sky, you let me know.

As for Brother North-Wind’s Secret, it is as “simple” as the fact that after Winter, Spring comes. I think this is one of the first times that Crowley brings up the cyclical nature of the world, of its inhabitants. One generation follows another, passing down its sins and its secrets, while hope lies ever ahead.

Tomorrow, thoughts on Book 3: Old Law Farm. Please feel free to leave links to your thoughts, or comments, below.

Little, Big (Book 1: Edgewood)

photo credit here
photo credit here

I live on a street called Edgewater. It has trees all the way down a gently curving path lying parallel to the river. I’m sure it has tunnels harboring unseen creatures who live hidden in the bramble. But, it doesn’t have quite the same aura which Crowley has created for Edgewood, the first book of Little, Big. I don’t have quite the same home that his characters live in, try as I might to establish one.

Take for example, the domicile of the Junipers:

“It was a white bungalow snuggled within bushy evergreens. Roses just blown grew up trellises beside the green dutch door. White-painted stones marked the path from the door; on the darkling lawn a young deer looked up at him immobile in surprise, and dwarves sat cross-legged on toadstools or snuck away holding treasure. On the gate was a rustic board with the legend burned on it: The Junipers. Smoky unlatched the gate and opened it, and a small bell tinkled in the silence…

The house was tiny and tidy and stuffed with stuff. An old, old dog of the dust-mop kind sniffed at his feet, laughing breathlessly; he bumped into a bamboo telephone table, shouldered a knickknack shelf, stepped on a sliding scatter rug and fell through a narrow archway into a parlor that smelled of roses, bay rum and last winter’s fires. Jeff put down his newspaper and lifted his slippered feet from their hassock. “Edgewood?” he asked around his pipe.

“Edgewood. I was given directions, sort of.” p. 20

I’d practically like to stay there, with Smoky, with the Junipers. But Smoky is on his way to Daily Alice’s house, named Edgewood, being careful to follow her great-aunt Cloud’s directions. He is to arrive on Midsummer Day, walking not riding, with a wedding-suit in his pack old not new, and food made not bought. If he needs a place to spend the night he must beg for it, or find it, but not pay for it. This is what Nora Cloud has read in the cards.

And why might Smoky follow such an odd order? Because he loves Alice, to be sure. But also because he has been invisible and anonymous until he met her. And then he became solid.

It all seems very serious and fulfilling, until we come to the marriage ceremony which I had to read over several times, smiling for the way it turned a typically solemn occasion upside down:

Doctor Word fluttered the pages of his book and began to speak quickly, his words shot through with champagne and tremblings and the harmonium’s unceasing melody; it sounded like “Do you Barble take this Daily Alice to be your awful wedded life for bed or for worse insidious in stealth for which or for poor or to have unto whole until death you do part?”

“I do,” Smokey said.

“I do too,” Daily Alice said.’Wring,” Doctor Word said, “And now you pounce you man on wife.”

Aaaah, said all the wedding guests, who then began to drift away, talking in low voices. (p. 64)

There’s only one nagging question in the back of my mind. When Smoky follows Alice out of the wood, after their marriage, he loses her for a moment. He comes to a house in the Woods, where Mr. Woods welcomes him and Mrs. Underhill takes out a single hot-cross bun on which is drawn a five-pointed star in white icing sugar. Five pointed stars have appeared before, but what is also curious is that Smokey sees the wet woods he had come through with Alice, and far off, Alice herself, within the doors of a tall wardrobe. How strange that a wardrobe should appear here as well as in C. S. Lewis’ works, a magical wardrobe through which one leaves to follow one’s dream. Or, to find one’s Destiny.

Find thoughts on Book Two: Brother North-Wind’s Secret, tomorrow. If you wish to leave links to your posts, or thoughts on any part of Little, Big please feel free to do so. I’m looking forward to seeing the parts you highlight.

A Little, Big Read-Along; Care To Join In?

 

Peter Milton’s title page artwork for the upcoming 25th anniversary edition of John Crowley’s Little, Big.
Peter Milton’s title page artwork for the 25th anniversary edition of John Crowley’s Little, Big.

On a certain day in June, 19__, a young man was making his way on foot northward from the great City to a town or place called Edgewood, that he had been told of but had never visited.  His name was Smokey Barnable, and he was going to Edgewood to get married; the fact that he walked and didn’t ride was one of the conditions placed on his coming there at all.

So begins John Crowley’s book Little, Big. It is a book which won the World Fantasy Award in 1982 and celebrated its 25th anniversary this past February. The illustrations for that special edition were done by Peter Milton, the title page of which you can see at the top of this post.

John Crowley’s masterful Little, Big is the epic story of Smoky Barnable, an anonymous young man who travel by foot from the City to a place called Edgewood–not found on any map–to marry Daily Alice Drinkwater, as was prophesied. It is the story of four generations of a singular family, living in a house that is many houses on the magical border of an otherworld. It is a story of fantastic love and heartrending loss; of impossible things and unshakable destinies; and of the great Tale that envelops us all. It is a wonder. (back cover)

Little BigTom of Wuthering Expectations and Helen of a gallimaufry and I are planning on reading Little, Big by John Crowley this May.  With six “Books” inside, we could discuss Books 1-3 on May 16, and Books 4-6 on May 30. But, please don’t feel tied to that schedule. You could post as you read, or post not at all, whatever works for you. Everyone is so welcome to join us! Just leave a comment below if you wish to make it official, or simply dabble your toes in with us as we read along.

Magritte: The Mystery of The Ordinary

Let’s get surreal.

That is what the Art Institute of Chicago suggested we do, as we appreciate the works of surrealism. Particularly those of Magritte.

Yesterday, my mother, a dear friend, and I went through the exhibit which included well known paintings such as the locomotive coming through the fireplace:

The Art Institute reminds us about his purpose with this: “Seeking to make “everyday objects shriek aloud,” or make the familiar unfamiliar, Belgian artist René Magritte created some of the 20th century’s most extraordinary—and indelible—images.”

I laugh when I see his painting with the caption, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” Because it isn’t! Can you really smoke that thing?

But perhaps most interesting of all (to us readers) is the collection of books the Art Institute put in the shop to accompany this special exhibit on surrealism.

The Healing Trumpet by Leona Carrington

Impressions of Africa by Raymond Roussel

The City and The City by China Mieville

Selected Poems by Rene Char

 

Little, Big by John Crowley

The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Shulz

Selected Stories by Robert Walser

Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovskii

Memories of My Nervous Illness by Daniel Paul Schreber     
 
 
Nadja by Andre Breton
Locus Solus by Raymond Roussel
The Melancholy of Resistance by Laslo Krasznahorkai
 
The only one I own is John Crowley’s Little, Big. But, I surely want to become familiar with the other titles.

The Ocean At The End of The Lane

“I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in, could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt,  but I found joy in the things that made me happy.” p. 149
I will never love Neil Gaiman as much as his fans do. 
I have been sorely disappointed by Coraline and The Graveyard Book, while feeling only moderately enchanted with American Gods and Stardust.
Perhaps fantasy is just not the genre for me.
But, I will be the first to acknowledge the way that he “gets” the terrors of childhood. In reading this book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I was immediately pulled into the uncertainty of childhood with its unknown horrors lurking behind almost every shadow.
Worst of all is the powerlessness the child feels at the hands of the adults around him.
May there be a larger proportion of the Hempstock women’s kindness in all of our lives, than the evil residing in the likes of Ursula Monkton.
Neil, you have finally written a book which wholly absorbed me.

Stardust Read-Along: Chapters 1-5

“He stared up at the stars: and it seemed to him that they were dancers, stately and graceful, performing a dance almost infinite in its complexity. He imagined he could see the very faces of the stars; pale, they were, and smiling gently, as if they had spent so much time above the world, watching the scrambling and the joy and the pain of the people below them, that they could not help being amused every time another little human believed itself the center of its world, as each of us does.” (p. 96)

Neil Gaiman says of Charles Vess that “He is the nearest thing we have today to the great Victorian fairy painters, and without his art as an inspiration none of these words would exist. Every time I finished a chapter I phoned him up and read it to him, and he listened patiently and he chuckled in all the right places.”

But, who could be enchanted by one without the other? Gaiman’s novel, Stardust, is every bit as magical as the faerie world that Vess creates; the later in which we dwell with our eyes, the former with our hearts.

I wasn’t struck by the power of Stardust the first time I read through it. I read it. I enjoyed it. But, I wasn’t moved by it. Now before I go to bed, I read a chapter each night (for nighttime is the perfect moment for such a novel), and I am pierced by the innocence of youth as well as the drudgery of Wall compared to the illumination of Faerie.

“There’s a star…” Tristran began to explain, but his father hushed him to silence.

Mr. Bromios rubbed his chin and ran a hand through his thatch of black curls. “Very well,” he said. He turned and spoke to Harold in a low voice, saying things Tristran could not hear.

His father pressed something cold into his hand.

“Go on with you, boy. Go, and bring back your star, and may God and all His angels go with you.”

And Mr. Bromios and Harold Crutchbeck, the guards on the gate, stood aside to let him pass.

Tristran walked through the gap, with the stone wall on each side of him, into the meadow on the other side of the wall.

Turning, he looked back the the three men, framed in the gap, and wondered why they had allowed him through.

Then, his bag swinging in one hand, the object his father had pushed into his hand in the other, Tristran Thorn set off up the gentle hill, toward the woods.”

Now, you may have been reading about a boy leaving Wall to pass into the unknown world of the meadow beyond. But I was reading of every parent who must allow, and not only allow but encourage, his child to go in pursuit of his dream. We do not know what trials, nor what evil, await. In hope believing we send them off knowing that if we don’t we stagnate their lives, and their future, as well.

Tristran’s father had the courage to send him off, to a place where he could not himself go, knowing that each one has only one path to call his own.

I look forward to reading, and discussing the rest of Stardust with you on April 17. Thank you to Carl for hosting this read-along.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern


“You step into a bright, open courtyard surrounded by striped tents.
Curving pathways along the perimeter lead away from the courtyard, turning into unseen mysteries dotted with twinkling lights.
There are vendors traversing the crowd around you, selling refreshments and oddities, creations flavored with vanilla and honey, chocolate and cinnamon.
A contortionist in a sparkling black costume twists on a platform nearby, bending her body into impossible shapes.
A juggler tosses globes of black and white and silver high into the air, where they seem to hover before falling again into his hands, his attentive spectators applauding.
All bathed in glowing light.
The light emanates from a large bonfire in the center of the courtyard.
As you walk closer, you can see that it sits in a wide black iron cauldron, balanced on a number of clawed feet. Where the rim of a cauldron would be, it breaks into long strips of curling iron, as though it has been melted and pulled apart like taffy. The curling iron continues up until it curls back into itself, weaving in and out amongst the other curls, giving it the cage-like effect. The flames are visible in the gaps between and rising slightly above. They are obscured only at the bottom, so it is impossible to tell what is burning, if it is wood or coal or something else entirely.
The flames are not yellow or orange, but white as snow as they dance.”

Within these pages is a challenge set up for two young illusionists which is a test of endurance, not skill. “The one who survives is the victor…the winner lives, the loser dies. That’s how the game ends.”

Unless the two follow a different path, taking their own desires into consideration.

Hector chooses his daughter, Clara, and Alexander chooses the boy, Marco, and these children are ‘bound’ to each other with rings which melt into their fingers. With these rings, they have become pawns much like chess pieces on a board. They do not know of each other’s existence at first, and when they do meet, they fall deeply and terribly in love.

Is there any other way to fall in love but to sacrifice everything for it? To lose oneself in the possibilities? For life without the one you love would surely be worse than being the loser in such a game. Perhaps in a competition, emerging as victor is not the most important conclusion to a game. Perhaps it is coming away with what you deem most valuable.

The night circus is an illustration of life, I think, told in an incredibly imaginative way. I loved the black and white circus tents which appear only at night, the rêveurs who follow it wearing their scarves of red, the stories of the contortionist, and the illusionists, and the twins named Poppet and Widget. (Because of the former, I had to place my Little Red Poppet in the picture with the book; clearly she could belong to the circus with her red cloak, ruffled collar, and winsome spirit.)

There is a burning cauldron set upon spirals of white and black, an Ice Garden with frosty leaves, caramel described more deliciously than I can record it here, described as if I could taste it on the page.

Yet as wonderful and magical as a circus can be, there is an element of danger under its tents. Nothing is certain, and much of what goes on is an illusion of beauty. Of skill. Of strength. So who controls us? Are we in charge of our own destiny? Is there a “magician” who causes us to do his bidding?  And most importantly, what happens when we are tired of carrying it all on our own shoulders? Perhaps jumping into the burning cauldron, with its purifying flames, is indeed the only choice for those brave enough to choose their own fate.

Passages I loved:

~”People see what they wish to see. And in most cases, what they are told that they see.” (p. 28)

~”The past stays on you the way powdered sugar stays on your fingers. Some people can get rid of it but it’s still there, the events and things that pushed you to where you are now. I can…well, read isn’t the right word, but it’s not the right word for what Poppet does with the stars, either.” (p. 198)

~”I am tired of trying to hold things together that cannot be held,” Celia says when he approaches her. “Trying to control what cannot be controlled. I am tired of denying myself what I want for fear of breaking things I cannot fix. They will break no matter what we do.” (p. 295)

The Night Bookmobile

I sat with my son at Barnes and Noble this afternoon; it’s one of our favorite things to do together. We’ve drunk coffee, written in leather journals, and sat reading silently across the table from each other for almost twenty years.

As I perused the fiction aisles, with only gift cards to Borders in my pocket, I saw Audrey Niffenegger’s visual book, The Night Bookmobile. As eerie as you would suspect from someone who wears mahogany lipstick without mascara, calls Chicago home, and can credit The Time Traveler’s Wife to her imagination, this story is about a girl who encounters the bookmobile at four o’clock one morning while wandering from Irving Park to Ravenswood.

Inside, is every book she’s ever read.

But, she’s not allowed to be a librarian there because it’s only for the living…

In the After Words, I found this passage:

When I began writing The Night Bookmobile, it was a story about a woman’s secret life as a reader. As I worked it also became a story about the claims that books place on their readers, the imbalance between our inner and outer lives, a cautionary tale of the seductions of the written world. It became a vision of the afterlife as a library, of heaven as a funky old camper filled with everything you’ve ever read. What is this heaven? What is it we desire from the hours, weeks, lifetimes we devote to books? What would you sacrifice to sit in that comfy chair with perfect light for an afternoon in eternity, reading the perfect book, forever? ~Audrey Niffenegger