Little, Big by John Crowley

special issue on re-reading : part one
Little, Big

When I take up a work that I have read before (the oftener the better) I know what I have to expect. The satisfaction is not lessened by being anticipated. [. . .] In reading a book which is an old favourite with me (say the first novel I ever read) I not only have the pleasure of imagination and of a critical relish of the work, but the pleasures of memory added to it. It recalls the same feelings and associations which I had in first reading it, and which I can never have again in any other way. Standard productions of this kind are links in the chain of our conscious being. They bind together the different scattered divisions of our personal identity. They are land-marks and guides in our journey through life.

— On Reading Old Books, from the Selected Essays of William Hazlitt 1778 : 1830. Edited by Geoffrey Keynes. Nonesuch, 1930.

John Crowley’s Little, Big is a book which I have read more times than I can count. It is also in that rare category of books which I give away (sometimes even the copy in my hand). Readers of the Endless Bookshelf will have seen allusions to my readings over the years (Appraisal at Edgewood, the summer of 2007, or Chapter XIV in A Conversation larger than the Universe or  “Strange Enough to Be Remembered Forever”). Everything which Hazlitt enumerates applies to re-readings of Little, Big. This year, when I picked up the novel, I paid attention to recurrences of words and parallels. I don’t say repetitions or doublings because the words often function — that is to say, carry meaning — in a new way when they return to the surface later in the book.
Contradictions across scale run through the book: rooms which seem larger than they are, or are smaller than they look — when Smoky is visiting the Woods (88), and Room 001 to which Sylvie delivers the package (331) — and the resonant phrase, the further in you go, the bigger it gets, is recited by Doctor Bramble in his lecture (43), by Hannah Noon at the wedding of Smoky and Alice (63), and by Auberon in the city park (351), with many echoes. “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” (178).
John Drinkwater told Violet, “I proved that every room needed more than two doors, but couldn’t ever prove than any could get along with only three” (50), which is a succinct an organizing principle of periodic recurrence as one could ask for. Take three examples. First: Smoky writes Alice that he has discovered a plaque reading Mouse Drinkwater Stone 1900 on a pillar at the entrance to a park (13) and a generation later Auberon begins brushing new leaving ivy and obscuring dirt from the plaque as Ariel Hawksquill holds a key to the gate (350). And second: the word constellation, invoked when Smoky is on his way to Edgewood (21), in the beautiful passage when Smoky and Alice and Sophie are looking at the stars on the last night of summer (177-8), and as Ariel Hawskquill contemplates the night-time paradox of the Cosmo-Opticon, when “the blackish Zodiac and the constellations could not be read” (343). And in between “Jolly, round, red Mr. Sun” who rises as a schoolboy reads from one of Doc’s fables of the Green Meadow in Smoky’s classroom (128) and the “ghastly red round sun” as it sinks late one afternoon when Mrs. Underhill takes Lilac on a tour of New York and Old Law Farm (312) are the lives of individual characters and the fate of afflicted nation under the Tyrant. In George Mouse’s successive awakenings from the effects of a “new drug he was experimenting with, of astonishing, just unheard-of potency” (500), familiar objects reassemble themselves into another fabric of reality. These recurrences in Little, Big are the Tale itself, inseparable now from the experience of the reader.

Little, Big is a source of great pleasure each time I read it. This pleasure is only increased by reading about the novel, in, for example, John Clute’s review in  the Washington Post Book World for 4 October 1981, or Snake’s Hands, edited by Michael Andre-Driussi and Alice Turner (which prints, twenty years later, Tom Disch’s contemporary review of Crowley’s “masterpiece”).

— — —

detail from an invitation, 1981

Little, Big was published on 16 September 1981. Above, detail from an invitation to Little, Big Day in August 1981. And below, the author’s inscriptions to Thomas M. Disch in copies of the novel :

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bantam trade edition (1981) and the Gollancz hardcover edition (1982) :

Little, Big (1981)

and the recent Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks edition (2015) with a fine, concise introduction by Graham Sleight :

 

In truth, with certain books, there are any number of reasons to have more than one copy. Little, Big is one of those personal “land-marks” (as Hazlitt calls them). To quote Tom Disch :

It’s readers who make a book a classic by reading it and getting their friend to read it, by treasuring it and making its wisdom part of their own. Little, Big deserves to be that kind of book.
So read it.

[HWW]

recent reading : july & august 2021


— Michael Swanwick. The Lonely and the Rum. A Conversation between Greer Gilman and Michael Swanwick. Dragonstairs, 2021. (Edition of 125 copies).
——. Five Rings. Dragonstairs, 2021. (Edition of 32 copies).
——. The Thousand Year Old Fan Reminisces about His Youth. Dragonstairs, 2021. (Edition of 5 copies).

— — —

we might find our selves
in some place we did not know

— Mark Valentine. Astarology. Salo Press, [2021]. Flirtation no. 14.
Collection of verse and found poetry.

— — —

— John Le Carré. The Constant Gardener. A Novel. Scribner, [2001].
Intense book, and reading it now evokes such a sense of the world before . . . [from the Camden Public Library book sale tent].

— Mark Samuels. The White Hands and Other Weird Tales. Tartarus, 2003.

— L. P. Hartley. The Collected Macabre Stories. [Edited and with an introduction by Mark Valentine]. Tartarus. 2001.

— I. U. Tarchetti. Fantastic Tales. Edited and translated by Lawrence Venuti. Original illustrations by Jim Pearson. Mercury House, [1992].

— [John W. Wall]. Ringstones and Other Curious Tales by “Sarban”. Peter Davies, [1951].

— John Burke. We’ve Been Waiting for You and Other Tales of Unease. Introduction by Nicholas Royle. Ash-Tree Press, 2000.

— Richard Grant. Another Green World. Knopf, 2006.
Dark, dark, dark green. A fabulous cosmopolitan novel of the interwar years and the descent into the maelstrom of the second world war.

— Emma Tennant. Two Women of London. The Strange Case of Ms Jekyll and Mrs Hyde. Faber and Faber, [1989].
——. The Bad Sister. A Novel. Gollancz, 1978. Excellent, dark book with resonances of Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner.
——The Last of the Country House Murders. Jonathan Cape, {1974].
Tennant’s books comprise an astute feminist critique of the British class system, with pitch perfect observation of the modes of speech and the assumptions prevalent among the caste into which she was born and whose primacy the novels reject. She plays nimbly with literary model and precedent, even in the near future dystopian pastiche detective story, The Last of the Country House Murders. Is she taking an axe to the furniture or chopping new path through the woods?

— H. R. Wakefield. They Return at Evening. A Book of Ghost Stories [1928]. Ash-Tree Press, 1995.


— Elizabeth Hand. Black Light. Harper Prism, [1999].
High school and the psychogeography of Kamensic.

— — —

— Ian McEwan. My Purple Scented Novel. Vintage, [2018].

— Ithell Colquhoun. The Living Stones [1957]. Cornwall. With a foreword by Stewart Lee. Peter Davies, [2020 reprint].

— Margery Allingham. The White Cottage Mystery [1927]. Bloomsbury Reader, [2016; 6th ptg]. Melodrama.
——. Sweet Danger [1933]. Penguin, [1963]. How Campion met Amanda, with a Ruritanian meander.
——. Police at the Funeral [1931]. Macfadden, [1967]. Your family is not as dysfunctional as this one.
——. Flowers for the Judge [1936]. Heinemann, [1967].
——. Coroner’s Pidgin [1945]. Heinemann, [1965]. The world was different, once.

— Max Beerbohm. Seven Men [1919]. Introduction by Joh Updike. NYRB Classics pbk.
Enoch Soames, ‘Savonarola’ Brown, et al.

recent reading : january to june 2021

— A. J. Liebling. The Honest Rainmaker. The Life and Times of Colonel John R. Stingo. Doubleday, 1953.

— A. J. Liebling. Chicago: The Second City. Drawings by Steinberg. Knopf, 1952.

Liebling sparkles, and writes so engagingly that my utter lack of interest in horse racing becomes an irrelevancy; and every page contains an aphorism, a charming turn of phrase, or something memorable. The temptation to quote . . . .

— — — —

— Mark Valentine. Sphinxes & Obelisks. Tartarus, [2021].
Essays and discoveries in books.

— — — —

— Elizabeth Hand. The Best of Elizabeth Hand. Edited by Bill Sheehan. Subterranean Press, 2021.

— — — —

— Nevil Shute. Lonely Road [1932]. Heinemann, [1953].
Smuggling and political intrigue, and the prison of class.

— Eric Partridge. A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English [etc.]. Edited by Paul Beale. [Eighth edition]. Routledge & Kegan Paul, [1984].

— A Bibliophilic Tribute to Joel Silver. Compiled and edited by Richard Ring.  Providence, Rhode Island, 2021.

— Letters from Rupert Brooke to his publisher, 1911-1914. [Introduction by Geoffrey Keynes. Edited by Edith Scott Lynch]. Octagon Books, 1975.

— — — —

— Robert Sheckley. Is That What People Do? Short Stories. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, [1984].
A perennial favorite.

— — — —

— Arthur Machen. The Hill of Dreams. Tartarus Press, [1998]. With plates by Sidney H. Sime, introduction by Mark Valentine, plus introductions by Machen and Dunsany.

— Rex Stout. The Second Confession. A Nero Wolfe Novel [1949]. Bantam Books, [May 1961].

— Arkady Martine [AnnaLinden Weller]. A Memory Called Empire [2019]. Tor pbk, 4th ptg.

— The Sorceress in Stained Glass and other Ghost Stories. Edited by Richard Dalby. Tom Stacey, [1971].
An excellent anthology of uncommon supernatural tales, from Le Fanu to ‘A Vignette’ by M. R. James. Dalby’s first book.

— L. T. C. Rolt. Sleep No More. Twelve Stories of the Supernatural. Ash-Tree Press, 1996. With an introduction by Christopher Roden, afterword by Hugh Lamb.

— Richard William Pfaff. Montague Rhodes James. Scolar Press,  1980.

— The Legacy of M.R. James. Papers from the 1995 Cambridge Symposium. Edited by Lynda Dennison. Shaun Tyas, 2001.

— Thomas Pynchon. Gravity’s Rainbow. Viking, [1973].

— Ramachandra Guha. The Commonwealth of Cricket. A Lifelong Love Affair with the Most Sophisticated Game Known to Humankind. William Collins, [2020].

— Robert Shearman. We All Hear Stories in the Dark. [Illustrated by Reggie Oliver]. [Volume I]. [Introduction by Angela Slatter]. DIP, [2020].

— A. N. L. Munby. The Alabaster Hand and Other Ghost Stories [1949]. Ash-Tree Press, 1995.

— — — —

— Michael Swanwick. The Book of Blarney. [Dragonstairs, 2021]. Edition of 50.
—— ——. The Postutopian Adventures of Darger and Surplus. Subterranean, 2020.

— — — —

— Jon A. Jackson. Go by Go. A Novel. Dennis McMillan, 1998.
Labor unrest and murder in Butte: “just a way of talking about something that maybe can’t be talked about otherwise”.

— Gene Wolfe. Interlibrary Loan. Tor, [2020].

— Lou Dischler. My Only Sunshine. A Novel. Hub City Press, 2010.
Red Church, La., 1962, sugar and salt, bank robberies, Tijuana Bibles, and an alligator : and the gonzo narrative voice of nine-year-old Charlie Boone [signed copy, gift of DD].

— Thomas Pynchon. Bleeding Edge. Penguin Press, 2013

— Walter Klinefelter. The Fortsas Bibliohoax. Revised and Newly Annotated by the Author with Bibliographical Notes and Comments including a Reprint of the Fortsas Catalogue. Press of Ward Schori, 1986.

— Sinclair Lewis. It Can’t Happen Here. A Novel. Doubleday, Doran, 1935.

— David Rapp. Tinker to Evers to Chance. The Chicago Cubs and the Dawn of Modern America. University of Chicago Press, [2018].

— Jon A. Jackson. Grootka. A Detective Sgt. “Fang” Mulheisen Novel. Foul Play Press | Countryman Press, [1990].

— Samuel L. Clemens. The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson and the Comedy Those Extraordinary Twins by Mark Twain [1894]. Introduction by Sherley Anne Williams. Afterword by David Lionel Smith. Oxford University Press, 1996.
Clemens is brilliant about fraud and race, which is, fundamentally, the Matter of America.

 

Some good things in this strange year

Dear friends and readers,

here is the third update of the Endless Bookshelf during the pandemic year 2020, when time has seemed at once to dilate and to compress. It has sometimes been difficult for me to write new work in a sustained manner. Blurred lines, or the deadline of no deadline. Others may enjoy virtual conferences but these have not attracted me or prompted me to finish a story the way that a scheduled reading slot at Readercon always used to. It has, however, been a year of many good books old and new.

— Elizabeth Hand. The Book of Lamps and Banners. A Novel. Mulholland Books, [2020]. I am the dedicatee of this book, and perhaps more. It is a signal honor to be part of the latest in Liz Hand’s chronicle of the adventures of Cass Neary. I had read some early versions of the novel in typescript, but when I got my copy on publication day in September, I was compelled afresh. As Cass says, ‘I couldn’t rest.’ I read it straight through into the early hours of the morning. A pretty intense philosophical object is at the heart of the novel (see below under recent reading). Disqualified from reviewing the book and constrained by my own conscience from naming it the best book of the year (or declaring a tie with The Private Life of Books), I am free to urge you all to read the novel. I am pleased to present

A Singular Interview* with Elizabeth Hand

Henry Wessells The London of the Cass Neary novels always seems rooted in lived experience. How did you come to the house of Harold the bookseller?

Elizabeth Hand You’re absolutely correct that nearly everything in the Cass novels is drawn from my own experience (with a few exceptions — murders, fatal overdoses, ritual sacrifices, etc.). Harold Vertigan’s rare bookshop-cum-home is no exception, though as you well know, Harold actually lives and works in the NYC metro area.

For the book, however, I transplanted him to North London, to a particular minuscule enclave, Vale of Health, a hamlet in Hampstead. I came across it some years ago while wandering on the Heath, one of my very favorite things to do in London. Vale of Health is a tiny village hidden toward the upper part of the Heath, with a very few very narrow winding roads and mostly small old houses, some linked by cobblestoned alleys lit by old-fashioned lamps — they resemble some lost corner of Narnia.

The whole place appears utterly charming and otherworldly (not excepting the parking area filled with caravans, trailers, and retired food and ice cream trucks). So of course I knew I would have to use this lovely setting as the scene of an awful murder: the fictional Harold, with his wide-eyed delight at all things, his mild eccentricities (bare feet, seersucker in winter), impeccable taste (fine champagne), and deep knowledge of the book trade, could only live (and die) in a place like the Vale of Health. His real -life counterpart, on the other hand, will be discovering rare books and edible mushrooms for decades to come on this side of the great grey water.

* I thank my friend Michael Swanwick for this useful conceit.

— — — —

— Ng Yi-Sheng. Black Waters, Pink Sands. Math Paper Press, [2020]. This newest book from the author of Lion City presents two recent performances written by Ng Yi-Sheng: Ayer Hitam: a Black History of Singapore, and Desert Blooms: the Dawn of Queer Singapore Theatre. Ayer Hitam is a remarkable history of the world through an examination of the history of Black people in Singapore.

— — — —

The weekly Field Notes of Chris Brown, a newsletter of ‘ecological fact as applied science fiction’: https://edgelands.substack.com

— — — —

The Avram Davidson Universe

During this year, Seth Davis has brought many stories by Avram Davidson into audio book format, and initiated a monthly podcast The Avram Davidson Universe. I was happy to be a guest: it was a fun conversation with Seth Davis and a chance to consider “O Brave Old World!”, one of the stories from The Other Nineteenth Century. https://www.buzzsprout.com/1310005/6138964-the-avram-davidson-universe-henry-wessells-o-brave-old-world

Other guests have included Ethan Davidson, Eileen Gunn, and Michael Swanwick, who named Avram Davidson as “the best American short fiction writer of the twentieth century’.

— — — —

The release of The Booksellers documentary to a worldwide audience. https://booksellersdocumentary.com

# # #

Tom La Farge

Tom La Farge (1947-2020) died on 22 October. Tom was author of The Crimson Bears (2 vols., 1993-95), a modern classic worthy of a wider audience. Harvard class of 1969 (and former president of the Harvard Lampoon), with a doctorate from Princeton, he was the most literary man I have ever known. Quietly and without heeding fashion or compromising his vision, he wrote his books. He taught a generation of students in the English department at Horace Mann School. I knew Tom since 1993, and wrote about the early phase of his literary career in an essay for the New York Review of Science Fiction, now available here:

https://endlessbookshelf.net/bargeton.html.

Tom’s interest in writing with constraints, approached ‘dialogically and not ideologically’, led him to form the Writhing Society, some fruits of which can be found on its blog, http://writhingsociety.blogspot.com. He had recently completed The Enchantments, a series of three novels published 2015-18. Tom is survived by Wendy Walker and his son Paul La Farge.

— — — —

In Memoriam ‘Dirleddy’: Jan Morris (1926-2020)

My review of the remarkable fantasy of historiography and ultimate travel book, Hav (2006), originally published in the New York Review of Science Fiction for April 2007:

https://endlessbookshelf.net/hav.html

# # #

Back to Basics

current reading:

— Isabel Yap. Never Have I Ever. Stories. Small Beer Press, [forthcoming, February 2021]. Fantastical stories, published 2012-2018, by Manila-born author Isabel Yap, with three stories original to this collection. This arrived in today’s mail, and I am eager to read it!

— — — —

— Samuel L. Clemens. The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson and the Comedy Those Extraordinary Twins by Mark Twain. Introduction by Sherley Anne Williams. Afterword by David Lionel Smith. Oxford University Press, 1996.

— — — —

— Herman Melville. The Confidence Man His Masquerade [1857]. Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library, 1984. Edited by Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, G. Thomas Tanselle. Northwestern Newberry Edition, volume ten. ‘As among Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims’, all along the river shore and on the planks of the Mississippi steamboat Fidèle, a work that cries out for performance. To read it is rewarding work.

— — — —

re-reading:

I am re-reading Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) in small bites, in the Penguin Classics edition (I have read it in first edition and in the 1892 Bentley edition); and over the past months have read several of the Travis McGee novels of John D. McDonald. I have been reading or re-reading at Samuel L. Clemens in the Oxford Mark Twain, a hybrid uniform edition: photofacsimile texts in standardized format with great new essays (Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay for The Diaries of Adam and Eve is outstanding; and Toni Morrison on Huck Finn).

— — — —

— Joanna Russ. How to Suppress Women’s Writing. University of Texas Press, [1983]. Always a delight and a provocation to read: ‘growth occurs only at the edges of something’. See also below, in the Commonplace book.

— Robert Louis Stevenson. Treasure Island. Illustrated by N. C. Wyeth. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925. A favorite book: foxed, shaken, the same copy I first read at age eleven.

recent reading:

— Tom Mole. The Secret Life of Books. Why They Mean More than Words. Elliott & Thompson, [2019]. This was fun. Clearly the author and I share some interests and predilections beyond the chance similarity of titles.

— Michael Swanwick. Rainbow Clause. Dragonstairs, 2020. Eight short short stories in his ongoing investigation of the taxonomy of American myth.

— [Donald E. Westlake] Richard Stark. Dirty Money [2008]. A Parker Novel. With a New Foreword by Laura Lippman. University of Chicago Press, [2017].

— —  Deadly Edge. Random House, [1971].

— — Slayground. Random House, [1971].

— — Plunder Squad. Random House, [1972].

— P. D. James. A Taste for Death. Knopf, [1986].

— — The Skull beneath the Skin. Scribner’s, [1982].

— — Devices and Desires. Knopf, [1990].

— Feux Follets. Revue de création littéraire. Départment des Langues Modernes à UL Lafayette, [2020]. L’imaginaire louisianais in a nice rich anthology.

— Big Echo Interviews 2017-2020. Edited by Robert G. Penner. Big Echo, [POD: 6 November 2020].

— Lester Del Rey. The World of Science Fiction 1926-1976. The History of a Subculture. Garland, [1980].

— David Rothkopf. Traitor. A History of Betrayal from Benedict Arnold to Donald Trump. Thomas Dunne Books, [2020].

— Philip K. Dick. The Slave Race. With a Preface by Adam Newell and a frontispiece by Sharon Newell. Sangrail Press, 2020. Edition of 250 numbered copies. First 25 copies issued with an original blockprint initialled & numbered by the artist. A nice production.

— Michael J. DeLuca. Night Roll. Hamilton, Ontario: Stelliform Press, [2020]. A very good supernatural story of a new Detroit.

— Megan Rosenbloom. Dark Archives. A Librarian’s Investigations into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, [2020]. This is an advanced philosophical subject. The prose does not rise to the level of the topic. Far more interesting and informative is Jennifer Kerner’s interesting study, Anthropodermic Bibliopegy, (2019). See also the archives for November & December 2009.

— Mark Valentine. The Blue Coronation Bench. Photography by Julian Hyde. Voices in a Lane, 2020. Edition of 40. The hidden mystery of the everyday.

— Michael Swanwick. Blue as the Moon. Dragonstairs, 31 October 2020. Stories for Hallowe’en. ‘White as a Sheet’ is brilliant: swift and utterly devastating in the spiral of its change in tone.

— John Howard and Mark Valentine. Powers and Presences. Dust-Jacket & Title Page Art by Paul Lowe. [Neuilly-le-Vendin]: Sarob Press, 2020. Three new novellas and two short essays in appreciation of Inkling novelist Charles Williams (1886-1945).

— Strange Tales. Tartarus Press at 30. Edited by Rosalie Parker. Tartarus, [2020]. New stories from Reggie Oliver, Rebecca Lloyd, Mark Valentine, D. P. Watt, N. A. Sulway, and others.

— Mike Ashley. Starlight Man. The Extraordinary Life of Algernon Blackwood. Constable, [2001].

— Mike Ashley. Algernon Blackwood A Bio-Bibliography. Greenwood Press, 1987.

— M. John Harrison. Light. Bantam Books, [2004].

— — — —

— Maria Dahvana Headley. Beowulf. A New Translation. MCD x FSG Originals, [2020]. Making it new: ‘stories that haven’t yet been reckoned with’ (from her introduction, dated on a distant day, 3 March 2020)

# # #

Commonplace book

‘To begin at the beginning: The United States has always been a corrupt society.’ — Gore Vidal

— — — —

‘Could it be that all these authors were not — as I had unthinkingly assumed — in subsidiary
traditions, but parallel ones? And that the only thing unique, superior to all others, and especially
important in my tradition — was that I was in it? Was centrality really a relative matter?’
— Joanna Russ, How to Suppress Women’s Writing

— — — —

a beautiful rain from Ireland in the mail (on the current issue of The Green Book)

— — — —

The America that never existed is always more powerful in our imagination than that which was there and now isn’t.
This American sentence is far more frightening than its English source:
‘The England that never existed is always more powerful in our imagination
than that which was there and now isn’t.’
— David Southwell (who is not responsible for my détournement)
http://folklorethursday.com/?p=970

— — — —

‘If, as a Black, Southern woman reader, I can find a way to connect to so many stories by other writers whose works don’t center me, then I know others can do the same when they encounter works that place them on the margins’ — Sheree Renée Thomas, in Locus

— — — —

Sailing, Creeping, Boring — William S. Reese

— — — —

There is an exhibition of early ownership marks and other aspects of the physical evidence of reading, at the RAI Library in Barcelona La vida privada dels llibres del CRAI Biblioteca de Reserva, Barcelona https://crai.ub.edu/sites/default/files/biblioteques/Reserva/expo/index.php

— — — —

The Temporary Culture website is fully functional and allows readers to purchase all current books of the press — including the new edition of The Private Life of Books — and a selection of other books and material of interest. https://temporary-culture.com

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Thank you for reading. Happy New Year!

Henry Wessells