John Crowley's prose, always a delight, just keeps getting better. Here it's polished like fine crystal: no flashy lyricism, no polysyllabic raids on Roget, just limpid phrases that speak freshly and place you, antennae quivering, in the center of the scene. "The Translator" presents itself as a quiet, small, well-lighted novel, a chamber piece with only four or five speaking parts. On those terms, it succeeds just about perfectly.
In a sense, all of Crowley's novels, even those set in some far future, have been historical novels. Lately, he's become confident enough to choose periods his readers can remember. His ongoing tetralogy (begun in "Aegypt") has been bringing the mid seventies back to life with perfect political and cultural pitch; "The Translator" does the same for the repressed, restless, hopeful, doom-haunted Zeitgeist of the few years between Eisenhower's fifties and LBJ's sixties. Within that grey-lit zone unfolds the story of a campus romance. Its special tincture of the erotic with the Platonic - when a Russian interlocutor, many years later, asks our heroine Kit whether she and Professor Falin were "lovers", she is honestly unable to remember - would have rung false in any other epoch.
But while Kit narrates her simple story, Crowley has many other fish surreptitiously sizzling in the fire. He is studying the nature of translation, the nature of personal identity, the nature of national identity; the ways in which poetry fails to be genuine poetry both when it is, and when it is not, politically "relevant." And finally the themes and the personal histories of this uncharacteristically realistic novel do not appear to be resolvable, apart from the angelic mythology explored in Falin's final poem.
I rate this book at four and a half stars, but I round it up because of my strong feeling that there's much more here than has yet met my eye. Perpetually fluttering his wings at this volume's edges and crannies is the figure of Vladimir Nabokov - also a "translator", also a Russian poet in exile, like Kit a fan of Lewis Carroll's Alice, and who famously adopted a position with regard to political relevance in art seemingly diametrically opposed to the one taken by Crowley's Falin. So, I suspect that this book is even more carefully crafted than its exquisite surface would suggest. In particular, its' worth considering whether by the time the story ends it is only poems that have been "translated."