by John Crowley
Published by Morrow
304 pages, 2002
Buy it online
Reviewed by David Dalgleish
In an interview concerning his latest novel, The Translator, John Crowley compares his method to the techniques of Flaubert, Dickens and Tolstoy, but notes: "I don't put myself in [their] class." His modesty is endearing but false. He is, of course, not nearly as famous as those giants of literature, but this is not due to a lack of genius on his part. Rather, his publishing history has not predisposed his work to receive the kind of critical attention which leads to canonical recognition.
Crowley's greatness was evident in his first novels, but they were marketed as genre science fiction and published in mass market paperback format. His writing has thus inevitably and unjustly remained in the borderlands of "respectable" literature, despite the praise earned within the field of speculative fiction by his third novel, Engine Summer, and his fourth novel, the sublime Little, Big. He has devoted and passionate readers, but remains a cult author rather than a literary celebrity -- and perhaps this is for the best.
Little, Big, one of the greatest of fantasy novels, was published in 1981. Since then, Crowley has written a few short stories and novellas (most notably the masterful Great Work of Time) and concentrated most of his attention on a vast four-volume novel called Aegypt, whose final installment is due next year. The Translator is a departure both from Aegypt and the fantastic. It is the first long work Crowley has written which is not an outright work of speculative fiction. It does, however, intimate a secret history of the world and suggest -- without confirming -- supernatural explanations for real events.
The Translator is, in effect, the first self-contained novel-length fiction Crowley has completed in 21 years. As such, it must bear the burden of great expectations. Perhaps inevitably, it fails to meet them, if only because it is not -- how could it be? -- another Little, Big, a work of perfect balance and almost infinite resonance. Even so, The Translator -- elegant, melancholy, thoughtful -- is the work of a master, wise about many things: love, history, poetry.
Set for the most part around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, The Translator focuses on the relationship between a young American woman, Christa "Kit" Malone, and a middle-aged Russian man, Innokenti Isayevich Falin. Falin is an exiled poet, teaching a class at an unnamed Midwestern college. Kit is a student at the college, and the protagonist of the novel, which is, amongst other things, the story of Falin's impact on her life. Parts of the novel take place during Kit's adolescence and her later years, but these scenes are filtered through her time at the college, her time with Falin, which marks her profoundly. Indeed, the novel implies that Kit's entire adult life is a postscript to her affair with Falin. We learn that she has gone on to marry and have children, yet we never see her interact with her family; we don't even learn their names.
Kit and Falin meet when she goes to sign up for her classes at the beginning of the semester and, as fate or chance would have it, she decides to enroll in his class, even though it is full, after a brief conversation. Their relationship, which eventually becomes a love affair, begins and depends on poetry: Kit gives Falin one of her poems, she reads his work and talks to him about writing and translation, decides to learn Russian and eventually becomes his translator. As they work together on transforming his words into English, they come to love each other, in a guarded, uncertain manner.
Despite Falin's given name, it is Kit who is the innocent in their relationship. This is not to say that she does not know suffering. She does. She has grown up in prosperous post-war America, but despite her sheltered upbringing, she has experienced two devastating losses in her young life. And although she has not yet felt the chill of the Cold War in her bones when the novel begins, she soon will. But she is still an innocent compared to Falin, whose suffering is of another order of magnitude.
As a child, Falin grew up in Stalinist Russia without a family, belonging to the world of the besprizornye, orphaned children living underground and in shadows, a kind of Dickensian dark mirror of Russian society. (They seem like a fantasist's creation; would that it were so.) As an adult, Falin lost a wife and a daughter, then relinquished his homeland. His ordeals represent the suffering of a nation. Kit's losses, however traumatizing, are those of an individual. But for both of them, poetry is a means of expressing their pain, an antidote to despair; and it leads them to solace because it leads them, indirectly, to each other.
Crowley tends to write novels of daunting narrative and epistemological complexity. This is not true of The Translator. It is by no means a simplistic book -- it is founded on ironies, ambiguities, and mysteries -- but it is, at heart, a love story of great clarity and tenderness. There could be something unsavory about a romance between a middle-aged professor and his admiring student, but Crowley is not Philip Roth or John Updike. He convinces us that what Kit and Falin feel is genuine; they are kindred spirits drawn together by mutual needs which have little if anything to do with lust. Those scenes which will stay with me longest are those involving Kit and Falin: her recital of lines by Baudelaire at his first class; a late-night conversation in a diner during which Kit first begins to understand all that Falin has been through; discussing how to translate a pun in Russian with no English equivalent. On the surface, these are scenes of apparent simplicity, yet the alchemy of Crowley's prose fills them with multivalent emotion.
Kit learns much about Falin as they spend more and more time together, but he never truly lets his guard down. He seems to know, as she does not, that their two selves are incompatible. Falin says, in reference to poetry, that "there is but one world, only there are many worlds within it, for it exists in more than one way at once; and these different ways cannot be translated into one another." He might as well be talking about his relationship with Kit. They are from different worlds within our one world, and the gap between them cannot be bridged, any more than a translated poem can capture the nuances of the original. And yet we still read poems in translation -- and for a brief moment, their lives rhyme felicitously, like a pun which exists in two languages.
There is much more to the novel beside Kit and Falin's relationship, but not all of it is quite as potent. The narrative shuttles back and forth in time, always with transparent precision, introducing elements which complicate the story, situating it within the broader context of the Cold War, the collision course of American and Russian history. There is a shifty U.S. government agent who spies on Falin and tries to enlist Kit against him. There is Kit's sort-of-boyfriend, who is involved with radical student groups. And there is a gradually revealed hidden narrative, which suggests that Falin may be a guardian angel of the Russian nation and that his poetry can save the world.
This last element is essential to the novel's narrative and its implications, but it also seems somewhat of an afterthought. Crowley never tips his hand to let us know whether we are meant to take it literally or metaphorically. The novel hovers between realism and fantasy, but gains little from the ambiguity. The symbolic aspects of Falin's life and death lack the weight and texture of the novel's more mundane elements, which are superbly rendered. It is thus somewhat hard to credit the notion that poetry can save the world, but easy to believe that it can give Kit back her life. | April 2002