It's Alive!

Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, June 19, 2005

LORD BYRON'S NOVEL: The Evening Land

By John Crowley

Morrow. 465 pp. $25.95

Today is the birthday of one of the great horror stories of all time. It was a dark and stormy night in 1816 at a villa on Lake Geneva, Switzerland. George Gordon Byron, Percy Shelley and Shelley's girlfriend, Mary Godwin, were trying to scare each other by reading ghost stories. Lord Byron, already the subject of frightening rumors, suggested they write spooky tales of their own. Shelley never got anywhere with his, but Godwin -- only 18 at the time -- eventually produced Frankenstein , a story destined to come back to life again and again in a thousand different mutations. Byron, meanwhile, began a story about a mysterious old man who dies while traveling in the East, but he never wrote more than a couple thousand words. Or did he?

In an astounding display of scholarship and imagination, John Crowley has stitched together pieces of biography, literary history, textual criticism, computer science and cryptography to produce a novel about Byron's lost masterpiece. In the words of Dr. Frankenstein: "It's alive!"

We experience this novel as a collection of interspersed texts. The central one, named in the subtitle, is a romance, allegedly written by Lord Byron, called "The Evening Land." It tells the sprawling tale of Ali Sane -- abandoned as a baby in Albania, reclaimed to England as a young teenager by his evil father and finally launched on a life of terrible hardships, false accusations, narrow escapes, shipwrecks, duels, warfare and murder. (There are some zombies, too.)

Between the pages of this wildly ornate story appear footnotes written by Byron's daughter Ada, Countess Lovelace, who was a brilliant mathematician and a startlingly prescient theorist about what would become known as the computer. She has no personal memories of her father; her parents separated when she was less than a year old, and her mother took every precaution to crush any signs of paternal poetics (or madness). But Ada nursed a deep, if secret, affection for her father, she tells us, and when a lengthy prose manuscript in Lord Byron's handwriting was offered to her through a dark, circuitous path, she took it -- if only to preserve the document from the flames Lady Byron had fed with her husband's memoirs. "I have," Ada writes, "the temerity to provide a number of notes, illuminating where I can the matter of this curious tale, and connecting its accounts to the scenes of my father's life, of which, I am obliged to admit, I have often little personal knowledge."

Finally, mixed among chapters of Byron's novel and his daughter's notes are e-mail messages about the discovery of a curious packet of pages covered with columns of numbers written by Ada in the mid-19th century. (But I won't ruin it for you; like Don Juan, "I therefore deal in generalities.") Alexandra Novak, the protagonist of this modern subplot, has traveled to England to redesign a Web site on women scientists. But she quickly grows obsessed with determining what all those numbers mean, a project that requires the help of her lover, a computer scientist, and her father, a Byron expert (and sex criminal) from whom she's been estranged for many years. If you don't detect a parallel plot here, jump to the next review.

Crowley is growing into something of a specialist on textual mysteries. His most recent novel, The Translator (2002), was about an exiled Soviet poet whose verse may have secretly defused the Cuban missile crisis. That novel was more affecting, even if it wasn't the awesome Rubik's Cube this new one is. The mechanics of decoding Ada's numbers, the laconic nature of her footnotes and the disjointed repartee of e-mail conversations produce a fascinating puzzle, but they keep Lord Byron's Novel from developing the emotional intimacy that Crowley showed in The Translator when, for instance, Innokenti Falin and his American graduate assistant sit at the kitchen table, struggling to bring his forbidden poems into English.

Or maybe it's fairer to say that in this new novel Crowley has shifted even more of the work onto his readers: "Some Assembly Required." He hasn't stooped to the level of A.S. Byatt's mind-numbing The Biographer's Tale , which reproduced hundreds of jumbled note cards from a research project in process, but he does demand an extraordinary degree of attention.

The text of "The Evening Land" is such a miraculous imitation of Byron's style and such a clever incarnation of his biography that it's tempting to believe Crowley might have discovered a long-lost manuscript after all. But interest in it will depend upon how much you enjoy early 19th-century romances and how much you can tolerate stylistic excesses such as this: "It is a day in May, that one glorious day in May upon which all romances begin, and some true stories too -- this present one falling somewhat flatly between the two -- & the day, whether in May or November, fine or foul, is of no relevance whatever, and is only brought in to induce a sense of pleasant expectation, that the tale is commencing or rather re -commencing -- as it should." After several hundred pages of that, I began to pine for columns of numbers. The problem is compounded by the fact that Ali, the autobiographical protagonist of Byron's novel, is something of a blank: a brave, righteous innocent to whom strange and awful things happen and happen and happen without providing much development. He's a wooden statue tossed on the exciting waves of this plot.

True to Crowley's extraordinary subtlety, the most touching moments of Lord Byron's Novel step lightly through Ada's footnotes. Buried amid her explanations about various places, people and events mentioned in "The Evening Land" are casual asides that suggest the depth of her longing for a father she never knew. Those sighs of affection echo the sentiment we can detect in the e-mail messages between Alexandra and her father as they pursue this academic discovery while trying -- haltingly, timidly -- to breach years of blame, guilt and regret. By the end of this remarkable book, several hearts have finally found the peace they deserve, but our glimpses of young Ada -- brilliant, dying and essentially imprisoned by her mother -- attain the same haunting power as the legends of her untamed father. ยท

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company