The last line of Little, Big suggests that the John Crowley’s fairy novel may not be about fairies as such:
Even the weather isn’t as we remember it clearly once being; never lately does there come a summer day such as we remember, never clouds as white as that, never grass as odorous or shade as deep and full of promise as we remember they can be, as once upon a time they were.
Not fairies, but fairy tales, stories. The novel is a pastiche of old stories, forms of stories, and stories about stories. The method is to create something original by assembling and rearranging things created by others. Thus a garden is lifted directly from Through the Looking Glass, and a fish from Rudyard Kipling or Richard Jefferies or both, and a photograph from the Cottingley Fairies hoax. Characters take the place of birds and reenact the medieval Persian Conference of the Birds. Folktale motifs are everywhere. Santa Claus is a character for a single paragraph. Every chapter begins with a quotation. In Book 5: Augustine, Ben Jonson, Shakespeare (Coriolanus), and one from Thomas Love Peacock that just about knocks the wind out of the novel. The entire section is titled “The Art of Memory,” from the 1966 Frances Yates book on the history of memory systems. The interaction between the novel and outside texts is dense and constant.
But the story itself is full of story-telling. I know, now, from book blogs, that many readers actively loathe art about art and postmodern screwing around with stories. Crowley’s novel is one of those.
Some of the story-telling metaphors that are built into the plot:
One character becomes a soap opera writer, transmuting the story I have been reading into another I only read about:
He save for the last a letter from Edgewood, some weeks in transit, a good long one from his mother, and settled to it like a squirrel to a large nut, hoping to find something within he could use for next month’s episodes. (Book 6, Ch. I, “Carrying a Torch”)
His grandfather wrote children’s books about adorable animals. Those also get looted for the soap opera. Part of one of the children’s books, Brother North-wind’s Secret, is read aloud to me by a series of schoolchildren, so I get a good look at that kind of story. This secret of this North Wind is different than the one in George MacDonald’s The Back of the North Wind. The source of the children’s book are – well, one of my favorite jokes in the book.
Three characters, in succession, become devotees of an unusual pack of tarot cards, one that does not have the usual Major Arcana (no Death, Devil, or Hanged Man) but has a series of Least Trumps that include The Bundle, The Banquet, and Multiplicity, the latter being the governing principle of a tarot deck. The seventy-three cards are constantly rearranged into many different stories that may or may not somehow imply a single larger story. The latter idea is stolen directly from Italo Calvino.
There are, of course, books:
Books! Opening with a crackle of old glue, releasing perfume; closing with a solid thump. he liked them big; he liked them old; he liked them best in many volumes, like the thirteen on a low shelf, golden-brown, obscure, of Gregorovius’s Medieval Rome. Those – the big ones, the old ones – held secrets by their very nature; because of his years, though the paragraphs and chapters passed each other under his scrutiny (he was no skimmer), he couldn’t quite get at those secrets, prove the book to be (as most books after all are) dull, dated, stupid. They kept their magic, mostly. (Book 3, Ch. III [Marlowe epigraph], “Books and a Battle”)
These old books lead the character to the book that is like another running joke, Architecture of Country Houses, the one book that could explain everything that goes on in the novel to its characters if they could only understand it or perhaps believe it.
“Dad,” Auberon said, “is this book true?”
“What book is that?”
Auberon held it up, waggling it to show the covers… “Well, ‘true’,” he said, “’true’. I don’t know exactly what you mean by ‘true’.” Each time he said it the invisible doubt-quotes around the word became clearer. (ellipses mine)
I have included a number of examples of Little, Big describing itself. The final major self-description is the use of the Art of Memory, which I will save for tomorrow. I also want to return to Calvino. And to that fish.