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Down to a Sunless Sea by Lin Carter

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lin Carter was important to my early literary education, such as it was. Were it not for his books Tolkien: A Look Behind ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and Imaginary Worlds: The Art of Fantasy I may have never found some of my favorite writers, such as Lord Dunsany, Mervyn Peake, Peter S. Beagle, and the great James Branch Cabell.

But Carter’s own fiction did not beckon my attention. The books of his I saw looked like hackwork, rehashes of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Leigh Brackett. And, what with their garish covers, I avoided them as if they were the Gor books by John Norman.

Well, as if to break a long habit, I bought two Gor novels, not long age. I took a dip its pages. Not exactly my cup of tea, and I did not get very far. Which does not mean I found anything objectionable. They seemed somewhat like throwback fiction, good Burroughsian fun. But of course their reputation is harshly negative, especially along “political correctness” lines. That is, as Jack Woodford might have said, there is no Communism in them, and (I hear tell) Norman does not believe today’s accepted feminist fictions, er, norms. I do not either, so I may return to Gor some day.

Not long after I put down Norman’s Tarnsman of Gor a few months ago, I bought a few Lin Carter fantasy/science fiction paperback on a whim. And I then read the one that seemed to have the most promising beginning, Down to a Sunless Sea, one of his last books, written, I gather, while he was dying of cancer.

The romantic-sexual interest in the book is not too far from what I have heard to be John Norman’s. The hero is masculine, and the two women are distinct and familiar feminine types, though both Martian. There is no political correctness in it, just as there is no Communism. But there is frank sexual talk, and acceptance of the Sapphic practice. Not very far from Woodford territory, after all, though the focus is on the hero, not the heroine — which is where it almost always was with Woodford (who claimed to have written the same book over and over).

This retro-sexuality does not bother me. It seems pitiful and weak to even bring it up. Masculine and feminine are archetypes, and reflect a lot of biological and historical reality. To object to it now is merely to accept current ideological fashion as Eternal Truth, which is of course bilge water.

Carter combines, as he states in his afterword, Brackettian fantasy with a Merrittesque descent into a Lost World. The first half or more of the short novel is adventure; the second half introduces our ragtag band of outlaws to a fantastic underworld civilization that is mainly shown to us in a slightly dramatized utopian format. The point being: the utopia is too good for these depraved, uncivilized Terran and Martian adventurers.

I cannot say that this seems in any way exceptionable — or very exceptional. Except — yes, there is an “except”: the writing, on the sentence level, is superior to popular No Style style writing of current popular fiction.

So, there is more than one way that Down to a Sunless Sea is throwback fiction. And more than one way that this is not at all a bad thing.

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The Loud Literary Lamas of New YorkThe Loud Literary Lamas of New York by Jack Woodford

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bitter fun, Woodford at peak invective. The target? The book publishing industry at mid-century.

His main advice? Ignore publishers; self-publish.

Whether this advice be good or ill, the contempt and wit and contrarianism sparkle on every page.

If you are interested in writing, in literary culture, or, more generally, in American character, this book by an authentic American character is almost required reading.

Besides, the book is short.

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The Certain Hour: Dizain des Poëtes (Biography of the Life of Manuel, #12)The Certain Hour: Dizain des Poëtes by James Branch Cabell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first tale in The Certain Hour (1916), “Belhs Cavaliers,” is set in the England of 1210 A.D., and features a love triangle of

1. the hero, Raimbaut de Vaquiras,

2. the open antagonist, Guillaume de Baut (Prince of Orange), and

3. Dona Biatritz, with a fourth figure added to form a sort of love rhombus, Raimbaut’s servant,

4. the converted Saracen, Makrisi.

“Love prefers to take rather than to give; against a single happy hour he balances a hundred miseries, and he appraises one pleasure to be worth a thousand pangs.” The musings of the hero, at the outset.

The tale appears to be heading for tragedy, but romantic melodrama concludes the foray into doomed love — the doom being a happy ending.

First published in Lippincott’s Magazine, June 1915.

The second tale in the book is “Balthazar’s Daughter.” It is the only tale I had read before the present reading of all the book’s stories. It is quite good. Like all of the tales, it is what in the movies we would call a costume drama. But here we witness an early example of the sly sexual innuendo that would land the author in court and on the bestseller list: methinks the “jewels” that the heroine would like to see at court — and especially of which her interlocutor says the eminent men of the court would be delighted in showing her — might refer not merely to “the four kinds of sapphires, the twelve kinds of emeralds, the three kinds of rubies” etc. mentioned by the tale’s antagonist, Duke Alessandro.

The story first appeared in The Smart Set, May 1913. Cabell turned the story into a one-act play, The Jewel Merchants (1921), which was used as a libretto for an opera, by Louis Cheslock (1941).

The book’s third story is “Judith’s Creed,” which first appeared in Lippincott’s Magazine, July 1915. Our protagonist is none other than William Shakespeare, confronting his Dark Lady. Here is a defense of his modus operandi by the Bard: “The man of letters, like the carpenter or the blacksmith, must live by the vending of his productions, not by the eating of them.” His former lover, his “dark lady,” expresses disapproval of the “paunchy, inconsiderable little man” he has become, and for his lifelong besetting sin, “money-grubbing.” Judith, mentioned in the title, is his daughter; her creed is her much more natural, humble view of the world than contemplated by literary people demanding greatness.

The fourth story was apparently written directly for the volume, and deals with the author of the famous lines “Gather Ye rosebuds while Ye may.” Yes, Robert Herrick is the subject of “Concerning Corrina,” which more than suggests that the poet was an adept of the dark arts. Though technically a mystery-horror story, it is best categorized as a philosophical comedy.

The next is “Olivia’s Pottage,” originally titled “The Second Chance,” published in Harper’s Magazine (October 1909). It is a story I could not properly read. Oh, I read it, every word, but had trouble following it, or caring. Could be my fault. Or it could be the author’s early and quite unsuccessful effort.

“Verse-making,” says the hunchback dwarf Alexander Pope in the sixth story, “A Brown Woman” (Lippincott’s Magazine, August 1915), “is at best only the affair of idle men who write in their closets and of idle men who read there.” The great poet has fallen in love. With a milkmaid. And yearns to be happy. “To write perfectly was much,” our narrator informs us, “but it was not everything.”

Standing in the way of any traditional arrangement for happiness, however, is his own physical construction: “My body is at most a flimsy abortion such as a night’s exposure would have made more tranquil than it is just now.” So he does the honorable thing. And then fate throws in a monkey wrench.

“It is deplorable how much easier it is to express any emotion than that of which one is actually conscious.”

Yes.

“Pro Honoria” saw the light of the reading public’s gaze in 1915, courtesy of McBride’s Magazine. That is all I will say for it. The next story, “The Irresistible Ogle,” is something else again.

Selah.

After many months with this volume misplaced in one of my cluttered rooms, sitting in a corner under a few other books nowhere near as well written or conceived, I finally got back to this story collection last night. It is two months more than a year after I first opened up the pages of the Kalki edition (1920) of this book, and high time that I plowed through to the end.

It is easy plowing.

“A Princess of Grub Street” is yet another story of a writer and his love life. Normally I get tired of this sort of thing — stories about writers and stories about love. But when Cabell is telling the tale, and wit and elegance are what is paraded before us, not ripped bodices or psychological confessions of an embarrassing sort. This is all very civilized.

But there is a touch of frivolity here, too, and I have to admit something that probably will not please the litterateurs: this story would make a fine “rom-com” for either the silver screen or Amazon Prime, or suchlike. Here we have a tale of Prince Hilary (nicknamed “Prince Fribble”), a young nobleman who, to escape a life of dreary service to the class of royalty and duties of state, fakes his death with the help of his heir and cousin, and flees Saxe-Kesselberg for England, to live a life of poetry, hack writing, and freedom. And of course finds love.

Taking the name of Paul Vanderhoffen, he eventually becomes a tutor to the young charge of Leamington Manor, Mildred Claridge:

Prince Fribble would have smiled, shrugged, drawled, “Eh, after all, the girl is handsome and deplorably cold-blooded!” Paul Vanderhoffen said, “I am not fit to live in the same world with her,” and wrote many verses in the prevailing Oriental style rich in allusions to roses, and bulbuls, and gazelles, and peris, and minarets — which he sold rather profitably.

But there are complications to Fribble’s plan to live a quiet life of literature and penury. A visitor from Saxe-Kesselberg demands his return to the life of ruling.

“I repeat to you,” the tutor observed, “that no consideration will ever make a grand-duke of me excepting over my dead body. Why don’t you recommend some not quite obsolete vocation, such as making papyrus, or writing an interesting novel, or teaching people how to dance a saraband? For after all, what is a monarch nowadays — oh, even a monarch of the first class?” he argued, with what came near being a squeak of indignation. “The poor man is a rather pitiable and perfectly useless relic of barbarism, now that 1789 has opened our eyes; and his main business in life is to ride in open carriages and bow to an applauding public who are applauding at so much per head. He must expect to be aspersed with calumny, and once in a while with bullets. He may at the utmost aspire to introduce an innovation in evening dress,—the Prince Regent, for instance, has invented a really very creditable shoe-buckle. Tradition obligates him to devote his unofficial hours to sheer depravity——”

Fleshed out, as I say, this would make for great filmed comedy, especially with the final moments of his courtship of Mildren, which he had not been aware he was pursuing. And yes, I would keep in the long, droll, flowery speeches.

Which is why it will not get made. Not in the Ideal Form.

The story first appeared as “Prince Fribble’s Burial” in The Red Book (May 1911).

The final tale, “The Lady of All Our Dreams,” first found public view in The Argonaut (November 23, 1912), as “The Dream.” And here we meet one of Cabell’s recurring characters, the author John Charteris, who served as the fictional mouthpiece for Cabell’s first literary manifesto, Beyond Life: Dizain des Demiurges (1919). The tale begins, after the usual Cabellian prefatory verse and fake citations, this way:

“Our distinguished alumnus,” after being duly presented as such, had with vivacity delivered much the usual sort of Commencement Address. Yet John Charteris was in reality a trifle fagged.

And so the All Passion Spent motif serves as a contrast to the passion to come. Charteris characterizes his public speechifying as a “verbal syllabub of balderdash” when confronted by his lost love, Pauline. She expresses her disappointment at what he has become, and is becoming: comfortable.

“So I am going to develop into a pig,” he said, with relish,—“a lovable, contented, unambitious porcine, who is alike indifferent to the Tariff, the importance of Equal Suffrage and the market-price of hams, for all that he really cares about is to have his sty as comfortable as may be possible. That is exactly what I am going to develop into,—now, isn’t it?” And John Charteris, sitting, as was his habitual fashion, with one foot tucked under him, laughed cheerily. Oh, just to be alive (he thought) was ample cause for rejoicing! and how deliciously her eyes, alert with slumbering fires, were peering through the moon-made shadows of her brows!”

We have here Cabell’s recurrent theme: lost love, compromise, artistic egoism, and . . . many of the themes that bubble up on consideration of Cabell’s own twice-married life, ably narrated with enough veracity in As I Remember It (1945). And always there are dreams and regret, with Charteris (Cabell) saying:

Pauline, I haven’t been entirely not worth while. Oh, yes, I know! I know I haven’t written five-act tragedies which would be immortal, as you probably expected me to do. My books are not quite the books I was to write when you and I were young. But I have made at worst some neat, precise and joyous little tales which prevaricate tenderly about the universe and veil the pettiness of human nature with screens of verbal jewelwork. It is not the actual world they tell about, but a vastly superior place where the Dream is realized and everything which in youth we knew was possible comes true. It is a world we have all glimpsed, just once, and have not ever entered, and have not ever forgotten. So people like my little tales. . . . Do they induce delusions? Oh, well, you must give people what they want, and literature is a vast bazaar where customers come to purchase everything except mirrors.

And there is even a question of a past murder — ostensibly perpetrated by Pauline herself — as there was in the biography of young Cabell.

So, I suspect if you want to find about what this author, of the famous families Branch and Cabell, was all about, this tale might be a touchstone. Note, future biographers.

And though this ends with humor, the humor — liquid, you know — flows from the reader’s eyes.

The Certain Hour ends as it begins, in poetry — it is not for nothing that it is subtitled Dizain des Poëtes in the 1920 edition, and all subsequent printings. The prefatory poem, “The Ballad of the Double Soul,” is quite good. Excellent even. But this last one, “Ballad of Plagiary,” is not quite so easy to understand, or is not as profound — or is so profound that I cannot now understand it.

Explain it to me.

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