For all the recent talk of an axis of evil, Americans—even secular Americans—seem to possess an almost unshakable need for an axis of good, as personified by seraphic civil servants of the divine. Our fictional angels are everywhere, from Mark Twain’s satire on religious fundamentalism, “Extract From Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven,” and sentimental post-war films It’s a Wonderful Life and The Bishop’s Wife to postmodern variants in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Filmmaker Wim Wenders played off this nicely in Wings of Desire and its sequel, Faraway, So Close!, wherein Peter Falk, an avatar of American pop culture, portrays a benevolent fallen angel wandering through Berlin.
In his elegant and heartrending new book, The Translator, novelist John Crowley engages the themes of exile and redemption, the classic elements of angelic literature from Milton to the present day. The novel is set on a Midwestern university campus in the months preceding the Cuban Missile Crisis, when two lost souls—Innokenti Falin, a Russian émigré poet, and his young protégée, Christa Malone—embark upon one of the most perilous of all human undertakings: the writing and translation of lyric poetry.
Crowley, a writer whose cult following includes Harold Bloom, is best known for his award-winning novel Little, Big and the multi-volume (and as yet uncompleted) Aegypt sequence, a Nabokovian alloy of gnosticism, Renaissance history, and counterculture excess that evokes the multivolume novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time set to the strains of the sci-fi novel Barefoot in the Head. The Translator, by contrast, is a chamber piece: easier to absorb at one sitting and a good introduction to a magisterial body of work.
The Proustian effort of Aegypt has taken up much of the last two decades for its author, who lives with his wife and twin daughters in rural western Massachusetts. Interviewed by phone recently about the hiatus from Aegypt that led to The Translator, Crowley mused, “What was it like? Weaving a house of green withies after hewing timbers for years. No, that’s not right. Being invited to a waltz in the middle of a military campaign? I don’t know, but it was a great freedom, a great sweetness, and was finished more quickly than any book I’ve ever written—one year was all it took.”
Crowley’s friend, poet and novelist Thomas M. Disch, had suggested that he write a novel featuring a poet. Much of the beauty and romantic passion that inform The Translator stem from Crowley’s delicate portrayal of Falin, whose poetry first bloomed amid a Dickensian childhood spent among the homeless besprizornye, the lost children of Stalin’s Russia. “We believe poets have access to realms of knowledge we do not,” says Crowley. “If you then do the work of reading the poems—and often it is work, emotional and intellectual—it can make the case seem more ambiguous. Our neighbor’s self-immolation is unfortunate; Sylvia Plath’s is universal.”
These “realms of knowledge” are clearly accessible to Falin, an appealingly melancholy professor of literature who brings to mind both Nabokov during his stint at Wellesley and Bruno Ganz’s gentle guardian in Wings of Desire. Yet Falin’s very presence on an American campus in 1962 creates its own suspense: Is the Russian poet a spy? Counterspy? A Cold War hostage of fortune? As Falin’s young student Christa grows more involved both with her own poetry and the lovingly detailed process of translating Falin’s work, it becomes apparent that the “lesser angels” referred to in one of Falin’s poems are not metaphorical. They are genuine agents of a supranatural world. Yet like the rest of us, these lesser angels suffer and may serve as pawns to the “nation’s angels” that watch over the world with arrogant detachment. This is how Falin puts it in one of his poems: “But so that order may also be preserved/(Which has always concerned the great ones more)/The nation’s angel is the greater, older, and more terrible,/And from his sight the lesser always hides./Lost, pale and bare, he shivers and sings/And there is no reproach so stinging as his smile.”
With the onset of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it becomes terribly clear to Christa that these “nation’s angels” are real. Falin cannot hide from them any more than he and Christa can hide from the Department of Defense operatives who stalk them both. Here Crowley draws on his own experience of what he calls “the Former End of the World.”
“It’s hard to express to those too young to have experienced it what it was like living with both the certainty that the bomb would fall and the certainty that it couldn’t. The Cuban crisis was the moment when that contradiction came the clearest: It was like moments in dreams when you suddenly understand that you are in mortal, dreadful danger from what you thought was harmless.”
But while The Translator provides Christa, and readers, an epiphany of sorts, there is no “angelus ex machina” bringing about a simplistic happy ending. “In many of my books I have posited such beings,” says Crowley. “They don’t so much oversee as go on about their own concerns without noticing when they help, or hurt, us.”
He concedes that while he doesn’t believe in such beings, “in The Translator I conceived of one who just might be on our side. I didn’t know when I wrote it how badly and how soon we, and not we alone, would need such a one. I didn’t know the solid-seeming structures of our world could be as vulnerable as though they were fictions. Still there are none, and we have to make do with only ourselves.”