When I was a little girl, my room contained an adult-sized birch desk whose expansive surface was protected by a quarter-inch thick sheet of glass, with green-tinted bevelled edges. Long before I could read, and also long after learning how, I spent stretches of time staring into that bevel, convinced I saw another world inside, and that patience would reward me with a glimpse of its inhabitants.
My other strong belief was that anyone could see The Past unfolding if they whizzed round fast enough. Long before I could spell “physics” or “philosophy”, I’d intuited the theory of block universe. I still sneak glances over my shoulder. You never know.
When I discovered John Crowley’s Little, Big, in the late 1980s, it felt as if it was written specifically for me — as if my bevel, my birling, my consuming fascination with houses, and my love for Manhattan had converged in this dreamy, romantic story about a family able to move between reality and magical reality. They commune with faeries and with the stars, live in an inconstant house (“It’s so many houses, sort of put inside each other or across each other.”), and in metropolitan spaces that I can almost, but never quite, pin to familiar New York neighbourhoods.
Intoxicated with pleasure, I dove deep, lingering in Crowley’s richly imagined world and his lush sentences. Ever after I kept the novel within easy reach, recommending it often. But I didn’t reread it, worried that it wouldn’t stand up, or speak to the woman I’ve become.
Let me backtrack. Little, Big isn’t entirely obscure, though I’ve encountered few who’ve read it, even in my bookish circles. I don’t, however, move in fantasy circles, nor did I remember — or perhaps I blocked the memory — that this is a fantasy novel. There are no dragons or superheroes, no ancient gods trapped amid the humans, no made up names for household objects, no sense of moving through a vaguely medieval landscape. The Drinkwater family and all its branches —the Brambles, the Mouses, the Hawksquills, the Barnables (don’t those syllables please the tongue?) — live in a recognisable, relatively contemporary world, though not, it has to be said, in the mundane world. (In that regard it’s cousin to another of my favourite books, Mary Poppins.)
Yet I see, looking at my battered mass market edition, whose cover fell off and whose spine is shredding its corners, the clear announcement that Little, Big won the World Fantasy Award for best novel in 1982. In 2009, to celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary, there was a loving piece in The Guardian flagging up an “ultimate” silver jubilee edition from Seattle’s Incunabula Press. (Massively delayed, it’s allegedly going to be ready soon).
Crowley has written nine novels and three collections of short fiction. He’s written essays and criticism, and simultaneously maintains a career as an award-winning screenwriter for films, documentaries and television. (This and other info can be found here.)
His peers admire him. Harold Bloom called Little, Big “a neglected masterpiece,” and wrote an introductory essay for the anniversary edition. Ursula K LeGuin said, “This book is indescribable; a splendid madness, or a delightful sanity, or both. A book that all by itself calls for a redefinition of fantasy.”
Anna Smaill, writing for Tor in 2016, said, “The [novel] I was holding was basically an ever-expanding universe.” And The Times (London) said, “To read this tale, blazing with light, is to live again once upon a time that never was.”
That last comment — that’s the crux of it for me. I’m with Fran Lebowitz who, when asked why she reads, told The New York Times: “I read in order not to be in life. Reading is better than life. Without reading, you’re stuck with life.”
I returned to Little, Big in anticipation of writing this letter, and to my relief, discovered it’s still a world I want to inhabit. It’s eccentric. The men are mostly shorter than their women. Woods are Tardis-like, getting bigger the deeper you walk into them. Neighbours and their cottages might disappear, proving impossible to revisit. Perversity lingers at the edges, though the story’s never prurient. Love is intense and lasting, people know each other intimately, nevertheless mysteries abound. Destinies are prophesied in The Tale, and revisited via a kind of tarot deck. There is a prophetic dog, and an oft-consulted trout —who may be an ancient relation — inhabiting a cold, deep pool near the house. There is a mage whose Memory Palace makes Sherlock’s look like a Quonset hut.
Little, Big abounds in the dense, lavish writing I have always loved: chewy sentences that beguile and delight. Here, for example, a young couple meet after a long absence, on the eve of their wedding:
“First she wanted to taste the sweat that shone on his throat and fragile clavicle; then he chose to undo the tails of her shirt, that she had tied up beneath her breasts; then, but then impatient they forgot about taking turns and quarrelled silently, eagerly over each other, like pirates dividing treasure long sought, long imagined, long withheld.”
Just one more long quote, partly because it’s a perfect description of familial misalignment, partly because — well you’ll guess. Father (Smoky) tries to talk to his son (Auberon):
“Through the whole of their lives together, it had been as though he and Auberon had been back to back, fixed that way and unable to turn. They had had to communicate by indirection, through others, or by craning their necks and talking out the sides of their mouths; they had had to guess at each other’s faces and actions. Now and then one or the other would try a quick spin around to catch the other unawares, but it never worked, quite, the other was still behind and facing away, as in the old vaudeville act. And the effort of communication in that posture, the effort of making oneself clear, had often grown too much for them, and they’d given it up, mostly.”
I have only scratched the surface. To enjoy this novel I recommend emulating the character who, on arriving in the city, “dispersed utterly and gratefully in it like a raindrop fallen into the sea.”
How did it stand up, thirty years on? Little, Big inspired me to attack life more ferociously, and to resume my habit of peering into bevels, searching for magic.
Lee Randall is a thwarted madcap heiress living in a flat overlooking a busy Edinburgh park. A bibliophile with an Edifice Complex, she writes, reads, programmes festivals, chairs events, and gorges on old movies, memorising their campest comebacks. Claim to fame: typed the Andy Warhol diaries (twice) pre-publication. Find some of her writing here, all of her wittering on Twitter @randallwrites. (Or buy her stuff, here)