TOP 100 REVIEWERon 6 September 2009
"Whenever the world turns from what it has been into what it will be, and thus earns a different past and a different future, there is a brief moment when every possible kind of universe, all possible extensions of being in space and time, are poised on the threshold of becoming, before all but one pass into non-existence again; and the world is as it is and not as it was, and everyone in it forgets that it could ever be or has ever been other than the way it is now."
I remember when I bought this book when it originally came out in paperback in 1988. I was intrigued by the cover. And I remembered as a child hearing somewhere news that someone had supposedly found the twelve signs of the zodiac hidden in the landscape around Glastonbury. I was intrigued and the book turned out to be a damn good read. I am not a big fan of fantasy novels, but the fantasy element in this book is extremely well handled. And over the years, when I have had a clear out of some of my novels, I've always kept this in my collection and have recently had the chance to re-read it. I still think - more than ever - that it's a damn good read. It's on a par with Umberto Eco's `Foucault's Pendulum. And now I discover that this book forms the first part of a tetralogy.
It's 1976. Pierce Moffett is an unhappy teacher in the rural lands behind the east coast of the USA. He has "a glimpse of places long known to him by name but still more or less imaginary ... here was danger, and the chance for strange bliss." This may sound mundane, but soon we are taken from the bare reality of the small communities of this vast hinterland into strange lands and strange times - John Dee in Shakespearian London and Glastonbury, Giordano Bruno in Renaissance Naples and Rome - all at a steady pace, often returning to make sure that reality still has its place in the scheme of things. It's a book of histories, and one needs to have one to fully appreciate it: I think, when I first read it at the age of twenty, I was perhaps too young. The whole book's premise can be consolidated into one idea, namely "There is more than one history of the world."
Pierce Moffett's historical field "lay further off, or closer in, beyond anyway, geometrical paths through emblematic arches, statuary, a dark topiary maze, a grey vista to an obelisk." He was concerned why people think that gypsies can tell fortunes. More to the point, the many histories of the world calls for Dildrum to be told that Doldrum is dead, and a rudimentary photograph of Shakespeare to be taken by John Dee.
And it's a novel of the possibilities open to a man. It's a book of much wisdom and many truths. For instance, that "the interdiction ... against wishing for such things as artistic abilities - sit down at the piano, the Appassionata flows suddenly from your fingertips - applied in a way to wisdom too, to enlightenment, to heart-knowledge, useless unless earned ..."; or that "Time doesn't return, full circle, and bring back what is past; what turns full circle is the notion that time will turn full circle, and bring back the past."
The novel sometimes reads like a Charlie Kaufman screenplay; a story is told within the framework of its very telling. Admittedly, this can lead to a certain nebulousness in the structure. For example, there are hints concerning ley-lines. Are we supposed to take this seriously? Does the author take them seriously? Are we to treat the concept with a postmodernist detachment, as curious observers? The important point, we learn, is that John Dee believes in them. Meanwhile, Pierce Moffett does not take them seriously: "Star temples and ley-lines, UFOs and landscape giants, couldn't they see that what was really, permanently astonishing was the human ability to keep finding these things?"
The Kaufmanesque concept of the book also allows for much self-referencing, such as marked Lawrence Durrell's `Avignon Quintet'. For Pierce Moffett has a literary spirit accompanying him on his journey in the form of the recently-deceased Fellowes Kraft. In his discovered memoirs, Moffett reads how Kraft planned one more book before he died, "a book composed of groups ambiguous but clear, great solitudes ...; a book solemn and darkly bright and joyous in its achievement ...; a book empty and infinite at its center." (Is not this, then, the book written by John Crowley?) Then, towards the end of the book, do we not see the opening sentences of the novel's prologue replayed as the opening sentences of Kraft's unfinished book?
The final chapter hints at what might come in the second volume: "Things would be different now ... real connections might begin to be made ..." That instalment I now await to begin.