Some years ago, John Crowley published Missolonghi 1824, a short story about the poet Lord Byron's last days in Greece, when he lay dying of fever, attended only by a servant boy. The story draws a thin line between Byron's vivid dream-state and his pitiful reality, ending on a question in the poet's own mind (perhaps his very last thought?) about what had really happened and what he had only dreamed.
This brief tale not only anticipates Crowley's preoccupation with Byron in his daring new novel; it also distills an abiding theme of this celebrated author the greatest fantasist of our time into its essence: there are multiple realities, and the sum of them is only just out of reach, like a dream that can be recaptured.Lord Byron wrote no novel; this we know as fact. It would have been enough for any ordinary writer of fantasy to present an ingeniously fabricated piece of Byronic fiction, along with a credible foundation for its existence. But for Crowley, the presence of Lord Byron's novel within his own Lord Byron's Novel acts as but the fulcrum for all the various, radiating wonders of the book.
Enfolded within the discovery of the novel is the history of Byron's daughter Ada who, as a matter of fact, invented the first computer program in 1842. It is Crowley's piece of impertinence (as he impishly calls it in his postscript) to imagine that Ada preserved her father's unknown prose fiction in numerical code, in order to conceal it from her vengeful mother. Enfolded further into Ada's story is that of Alexandra Novak, the feminist scholar who stumbles upon Byron's encoded novel in her research on his brilliant scientist daughter. Alex was forcibly estranged from her rake of a father, just as Ada was from hers. It is Alex's father who strikes just the right note for us to rediscover Byron's greatness in our own time (and this is surely Crowley's primary objective): nil alienum humani. Nothing that is human should be alien to us. It is a tall order. Like so much else we can only imagine, John Crowley places it within our reach.