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Jurgen by Cabell

Chapter 34, in which our hero learns
the true nature of torture in hell:

Now the tale tells how the devils of Hell were in one of their churches celebrating Christmas in such manner as the devils observe that day; and how Jurgen came through the trapdoor in the vestry-room; and how he saw and wondered over the creatures which inhabited this place. For to him after the Christmas services came all such devils as his fathers had foretold, and in not a hair or scale or talon did they differ from the worst that anybody had been able to imagine.

“Anatomy is hereabouts even more inconsequent than in Cocaigne,” was Jurgen’s first reflection. But the first thing the devils did was to search Jurgen very carefully, in order to make sure he was not bringing any water into Hell.

“Now, who may you be, that come to us alive, in a fine shirt of which we never saw the like before?” asked Dithican. He had the head of a tiger, but otherwise the appearance of a large bird, with shining feathers and four feet: his neck was yellow, his body green, and his feet black.

“It would not be treating honestly with you to deny that I am the Emperor of Noumaria,” said Jurgen, somewhat advancing his estate.

Now spoke Amaimon, in the form of a thick suet-colored worm going upright upon his tail, which shone like the tail of a glowworm. He had no feet, but under his chops were two short hands, and upon his back were bristles such as grow upon hedgehogs.

“But we are rather overrun with emperors,” said Amaimon, doubtfully, “and their crimes are a great trouble to us. Were you a very wicked ruler?”

“Never since I became an emperor,” replied Jurgen, “has any of my subjects uttered one word of complaint against me. So it stands to reason I have nothing very serious with which to reproach myself.”

“Your conscience, then, does not demand that you be punished?”

“My conscience, gentlemen, is too well-bred to insist on anything.”

“You do not even wish to be tortured?”

“Well, I admit I had expected something of the sort. But none the less, I will not make a point of it,” said Jurgen, handsomely. “No, I shall be quite satisfied even though you do not torture me at all.”

And then the mob of devils made a great to-do over Jurgen.

“For it is exceedingly good to have at least one unpretentious and undictatorial human being in Hell. Nobody as a rule drops in on us save inordinately proud and conscientious ghosts, whose self-conceit is intolerable, and whose demands are outrageous.”

“How can that be?”

“Why, we have to punish them. Of course they are not properly punished until they are convinced that what is happening to them is just and adequate. And you have no notion what elaborate tortures they insist their exceeding wickedness has merited, as though that which they did or left undone could possibly matter to anybody. And to contrive these torments quite tires us out.”

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The artwork featured here are details from that produced by Virgil Burnett for the Limited Editions Club edition of Jurgen, 1976. The female figure is of the vampire Florimel, who was created from the mind of Jurgen’s father, Coth, as fit punishment for his own sins. She is featured in the chapters on hell as one of Jurgen’s two romantic dalliances, the other being the wife of Grandfather Satan.

Chapter 39, in which our hero laments the
affection shown to him by his demon lover:

“It is my title she loves, not me,” reflected Jurgen, sadly, “and her affection is less for that which is really integral to me than for imperial orbs and sceptres and such-like external trappings.”

And Jurgen would come out of Florimel’s cleft considerably dejected, and would sit alone by the Sea of Blood, and would meditate how inequitable it was that the mere title of emperor should thus shut him off from sincerity and candor.

“We who are called kings and emperors are men like other men: we are as rightly entitled as other persons to the solace of true love and affection: instead, we live in a continuous isolation, and women offer us all things save their hearts, and we are a lonely folk. No, I cannot believe that Florimel loves me for myself alone: it is my title which dazzles her. And I would that I had never made myself the emperor of Noumaria: for this emperor goes about everywhere in a fabulous splendor, and is, very naturally, resistless in his semi-mythical magnificence. Ah, but these imperial gewgaws distract the thoughts of Florimel from the real Jurgen; so that the real Jurgen is a person whom she does not understand at all. And it is not fair.”

Then, too, he had a sort of prejudice against the way in which Florimel spent her time in seducing and murdering young men. It was not possible, of course, actually to blame the girl, since she was the victim of circumstances, and had no choice about becoming a vampire, once the cat had jumped over her coffin. . . .

Chapter 39, in which our hero continues his
search for justice (and his missing wife):

“It is a comfort, at any rate,” said Jurgen, “to discover who originated the theory of democratic government. I have long wondered who started the notion that the way to get a wise decision on any conceivable question was to submit it to a popular vote. Now I know. Well, and the devils may be right in their doctrines; certainly I cannot go so far as to say they are wrong: but still, at the same time—!”

For instance, this interminable effort to make the universe safe for democracy, this continual warring against Heaven because Heaven clung to a tyrannical form of autocratic government, sounded both logical and magnanimous, and was, of course, the only method of insuring any general triumph for democracy: yet it seemed rather futile to Jurgen, since, as he knew now, there was certainly something in the Celestial system which made for military efficiency, so that Heaven usually won. Moreover, Jurgen could not get over the fact that Hell was just a notion of his ancestors with which Koshchei had happened to fall in: for Jurgen had never much patience with antiquated ideas, particularly when anyone put them into practice, as Koshchei had done.

“Why, this place appears to me a glaring anachronism,” said Jurgen, brooding over the fires of Chorasma: “and its methods of tormenting conscientious people I cannot but consider very crude indeed. The devils are simple-minded and they mean well, as nobody would dream of denying, but that is just it: for hereabouts is needed some more pertinacious and efficiently disagreeable person—”
And that, of course, reminded him of Dame Lisa: and so it was the thoughts of Jurgen turned again to doing the manly thing. And he sighed, and went among the devils tentatively looking and inquiring for that intrepid fiend who in the form of a black gentleman had carried off Dame Lisa. But a queer happening befell, and it was that nowhere could Jurgen find the black gentleman, nor did any of the devils know anything about him.

“From what you tell us, Emperor Jurgen,” said they all, “your wife was an acidulous shrew, and the sort of woman who believes that whatever she does is right.”

“It was not a belief,“ says Jurgen: “it was a mania with the poor dear.”

“By that fact, then, she is forever debarred from entering Hell.”

“You tell me news,” says Jurgen, “which if generally known would lead many husbands into vicious living.”

“But it is notorious that people are saved by faith. And there is no faith stronger than that of a bad-tempered woman in her own infallibility. Plainly, this wife of yours is the sort of person who cannot be tolerated by anybody short of the angels. We deduce that your Empress must be in Heaven.”

“Well, that sounds reasonable. And so to Heaven I will go, and it may be that there I shall find justice.”

“We would have you know,” the fiends cried, bristling, “that in Hell we have all kinds of justice, since our government is an enlightened democracy.”

“Just so,” says Jurgen: “in an enlightened democracy one has all kinds of justice, and I would not dream of denying it. But you have not, you conceive, that lesser plague, my wife; and it is she whom I must continue to look for.”

“Oh, as you like,” said they, “so long as you do not criticize the exigencies of war-time. But certainly we are sorry to see you going into a country where the benighted people put up with an autocrat Who was not duly elected to His position. And why need you continue seeking your wife’s society when it is so much pleasanter living in Hell?”

And Jurgen shrugged. “One has to do the manly thing sometimes.”

from Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice, James Branch Cabell

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This year, 2017, marks the centenary of The Great American Novel almost no one has even heard of.

Let me take that back. A bit. It is not as if the book were unknown. Critics have written about it. The story has a following, if small.

But it has, as far I can tell, never once been suggested as a contender for that dubious title, The Great American Novel. Indeed, most of the author’s cabal of readers put it third or fourth on their contentious “Best of” lists.

Still, I buck all trends. I assert that this particular hundred-year-old work is its author’s best in long form; that it qualifies for the status of meta-novel, thus giving it a cachet necessary for serious consideration by literary critics; and that it has enough contact with mainstream Americana (just enough) to qualify for the Great American status.

The book? No more evasions . . .

James Branch Cabell’s The Cream of the Jest: A Comedy of Evasions.

A thousand copies were printed in September, 1917. Two and one half years later, a second printing came out; six months after that, a third; the next year, a fourth. In 1922, a slightly revised Fifth Edition was published, with the previous editions’ Preface turned into Chapter One, and prefixed, now, with an introduction by Harold Ward. This edition became the template for the British printings. With the 1926 eighth edition, the text was established for several later Modern Library reprints, as well as Cabell’s own final revision for what he called the “Storisende” edition of 1930.

I own, at present, the Second Edition, a later Modern Library edition, and two paperback editions: the Ballantine Adult Fantasy (“unicorn head”) reprint of the Storisende, and an elaborate scholarly treatment edited by Joseph M. Flora.

After the first edition, and the spectacular notoriety of 1919’s Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice, Cabell devised a 20+ volume cycle that he dubbed, with sly pleonasm, The Biography of the Life of Manuel. In this cycle, ordered by the fictional events, not date of authorship, The Cream of the Jest appears as the final book-length comedy, followed by Straws and Prayerbooks — an indirect sequel to 1919’s Beyond Life and, like the earlier better-known work, a droll explication of Cabell’s literary philosophy — and a strange hodge-podge called Townsend of Lichfield, about which, well, one may learn more of (and understand less) from Cabell himself in Preface to the Past (1927), pp. 281 – 309.

My advice to the literary reader is to forget The Biography — all the other books the author fused into one well-ordered chaos — and begin with a later edition of The Cream of the Jest without reading any prefatory matter. Start with Chapter One and proceed. If you happen to find yourself with an earlier edition, read the preface assigned to the fictional “Richard Fentnor Harrowby,” and continue on to the first chapter.

The author’s bizarre framing of his Biography’s tales have much the same resonance of Jorge Luis Borges’s meta-fictions. They confused me when I first read them. Trying to sort fact from fiction is not easy when the forewords written by the author, which give off all sorts of cues to non-fiction status, turn out to be, instead, mixtures of fantasy, scholarly earnestness entwined with scholarly irony, and a propensity to dispense not wholly reliable autobiography.

This fictional/non-fictional framing is carried to extreme in Beyond Life and Straws and Prayerbooks, which, as I state above, are literary manifestos disguised as fiction. Both books make for strange reading, but are necessary for anyone interested in what makes books like The Cream of the Jest “work.”

Which brings me back to this one volume, itself. It is not quite a novel. And yet it is. Perhaps it is an example of modernism smuggled in from the literary attic, wherein the Guardians of Literature had placed most of the dusty old tomes of belles lettres along with medieval romance and Gothic fancy. Or perhaps it is a work of post-modernism, a clever wedding of highbrow fantasy to popular romance.

One could also argue that it is the last gasp of the Genteel Tradition in American literature, except Cabell, though suave and well-mannered, was never genteel in Santayana’s sense. He daringly broke too many taboos for that.

The Cream is really what its subtitle proclaims: a comedy. As such, it indirectly but thoroughly confronts the inevitable failures of romance as a way of life, while reëstablishing its necessity in the same breath.

Cabell, being a comedian, has it both ways. He is both a romancer and an ironist. As a fantasy novelist (The Cream is half-fantasy dream study), he attempts to “write beautifully about beautiful happenings.” But as a philosopher, he hammers a kind of realism that in the hands of naturalist novelists turns into a now all-too-familiar sanctimonious nihilism. But caution: his hammering is on the order of Nietzsche’s “philosophizing with a hammer” — what is meant is not brute force debunking but, instead, a gentle tapping as if at tuning forks and small bells. The idols of the age (and all ages) are being sounded out.

In this, Cabell places himself in a tradition he was not entirely comfortable within: of George Meredith and Thackeray, as well as the philosophical comedians of a later generation, such as Iris Murdoch. Egoism he carefully calls up for apt ridicule, as he does the deadening hand of normality, of mediocrity.

Cabell more readily hails from late-19th century aestheticism, especially the work of Anatole France. Echoes of Balzac’s Droll Tales can be easily detected. The popular romancers of Cabell’s day, such as Maurice Hewlett, might exert a background influence. But Cabell’s own favorites among his contemporaries included British literary fantasists, including Lord Dunsany, author of The King of Elfland’s Daughter, and Arthur Machen, author of The Three Imposters.

This puts Cabell utterly at odds with the mainstream of 20th century highbrow literature. And one might think it would have put him at odds with H. L. Mencken, America’s most enthusiastic promoter of the sociological novel. And yet, Mencken was an admirer. Perhaps what the Sage of Baltimore most liked was Cabell’s philosophy, that unmistakable thread of irony. Mencken called Cabell “the most acidulous of anti-romantics.”

So much for romance.

But Mencken also praised Cabell’s prose style. In fact, Mencken was capable of writing close to Cabell’s mode. In praise of Cabell he characterized the Southern gentleman as “a scarlet dragonfly embedded in amber.” Exactly.

Which might now indicate Cabell’s enduring interest for a few of us. His heart was in romance, his head was in irony, and his philosophical stance was . . . fancy footwork. Nimbly he stepped in and through several genres. The Cream of the Jest was one of the last of his fictions to be rooted in the mundane world of his time. With this work he firmly carved out a niche in high fantasy. It is half a comedy of manners and ideas, and half a fantasy, in brilliant union. The bulk of his work to follow proved more thoroughly fantastic, often set in the mythic province of medieval France, Poictesme. After wrapping up the Biography of the Life of Manuel, he jettisoned his first name, and produced several trilogies of quite distinct fantasy, including a successful dream trilogy, under the moniker Branch Cabell. At some point he brought back his first name, and, in the end, essayed a final foray back to the roots he planted in Cream, with his last (and  brilliant) comic fantasy, The Devil’s Own Dear Son.

The Cream of the Jest immediately follows three earlier comedies set in the Virginia of his youth: The Eagle’s Shadow, The Cords of Vanity, and The Rivet in Grandfather’s Neck. Of these, the first is a fairly standard romantic comedy, the second is a dark comedy of egoism and betrayal, and the last is a masterwork focusing on the waning culture of Southern honor anchored in a sad “comedy of limitations” (to quote the subtitle). Only The Rivet holds up as a complete literary success. There were also several volumes of short stories, and a non-fantastic medieval romance, The Soul of Melicent (later retitled Domnei.)

But The Cream of the Jest transcends all that preceded it. With this work, the author finally “finds his voice.” Truth is, he always had his voice. What he had not developed until The Cream was a way to unite his philosophical interests with his love of literary japery and a wholly successful and absorbing tale.

Of course, opinions vary. Many readers complain that nothing of substance happens in The Cream of the Jest. And this is true if “of substance” means sword fights and lawsuits and such: the “action” is mostly dream, and, even when set in the humdrum of automobiles, face cream factories, and politicians, almost all interior.

One of the great turning points in the story is in Chapter 27 (Book Fourth: V in the early editions), “Evolution of a Vestryman.” Here Felix Kennaston, our hero, becomes a Christian, and a leader in his local Episcopalian church. It reads like a comedy. Indeed, it reads like a parody of C. S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy. But it came first, and one wonders whether Lewis might not have read the tale in disgust, and later, by cryptomnesia, took the half-remembered Cabellian argument to heart and became a Christian himself. Lewis was 25 when the book hit British libraries and bookstores.

I do know that Lewis hated Cabell. Cabell was so modernist compared to Lewis. Cabell the ironist could hardly please Lewis’s dogmatic earnestness. And yet Cabell himself had entered the fold of his Richmond, Virginia, Episcopalian Church, and become a member in good standing. He was more than half-earnest, himself, in this crucial chapter. Later, in other works, he defended Maundy Thursday and its Anglican rites, as being based on legends that might “possibly be true.” (Lewis became a member of the Anglican Church, churning to the top the cream of the jest: Lewis and Cabell were co-communicants.)

The ambiguities here as elsewhere set Cabell against the tide of rabid secularism. And yet his own comedies do more than merely suggest a caustic irony. What is going on here?

Cabell understood the hollowness, in fact, of the ancient traditions. But he also asserted that they were beautiful. Whether true or not, he had no intention of throwing the old ways completely aside. He was a post-modernist traditionalist conservative who was also a liberal doubter. But let us retain our bearings. What he doubted most was the advisability of a full embrace of modernity’s ongoing nihilism project.

Cabell lived his life as if tradition were worthwhile enough to preserve, if not embrace without a wink. And he wrote his fictions as if in full dialogue with the past. Indeed, that is what The Cream of the Jest really is: a philosophical dialogue with the past and its charms, while seriously acknowledging their tendency to disappear when attempted to be grasped. Just as his hero Kennaston wakes up from his dream whenever he attempts to touch his dream woman, Ettarre.

In The Cream of the Jest, we witness not the revelation of a special American Dream, but the reality of Dreams Universal. Which is American enough for me.

The year 1917 sports a few more prominent literary centenaries, the most important being the publication of T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock, and Other Observations. (Eliot was also a co-communicant of Lewis and Cabell.) It is also the year that popular fiction made an important step into the future, with Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars. J. R. R. Tolkien began work on what eventually became The Silmarillon; Christopher Morley produced Parnassus on Wheels; and Norman Douglass published South Wind.

A century earlier, establishing bicentennial possibilities, Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Northanger Abbey saw posthumous success; Walter Scott’s Rob Roy hit presses on both sides of the Atlantic; and Thomas Love Peacock’s delightful Melincourt debuted.

But these are very different stories.

My story? This year I celebrate

  • my Finnish heritage, with the centenary of the birth of independent Finland;
  • my family history, with what would have been my father’s hundredth birthday, had he not died four years ago; and, perhaps most of all,
  • the centenary of the publication of The Cream of the Jest, which I read at age 17 . . .

the one novel that seriously treats personal love and cultural literacy as a romance that, while inevitably comic, even the most cynical dismiss at their peril.

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Mike Ashley, in his book Science Fiction Rebels: The Story of Science-Fiction Magazines from 1981 to 1990, did not get everything right, alas. imageIn describing the stories in the Mid-December 1983 issue of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, he badly characterizes one of my favorite stories from that period, “Reasonable Doubt.”

This clever effort,

the debut story by Fred Singer, considers the violent attitude of certain humans towards aliens who are trying to foster relationships with Earth.

Now, I do not want give away the story, here, but it deals with what we might call the is/ought problem inherent in some popular forms of Social Darwinism. The premise of the tale is that humanity differs from the successful galactic species by being competitive and individualistic — and violent. This passage explains the story’s main thrust:

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It is not primarily about violent humans thinking dark thoughts about the newly-arrived aliens, not really. That would be the knee-jerk mod-lib misinterpretation. It is about aliens judging humans for humamity’s reactionary tendencies.

The aliens, are old-fashioned Progressive/new-fashioned alt-righters. They worry about what to do about the “problem” of a quick-adapting species that could disrupt the galaxy’s civilized order, spreading the poison of violence.

The aliens’ eventual plan, stated in the story’s opening, is to destroy the human species — or perhaps transform it in some twisted way so that it would become more like every other galactic species. That is, conformist and collectivist.

This being a human-centered story, the aliens’ intention is not considered a good thing: the predicament drives the plot, which ends in police over-reaction. The story, then, could be interpreted as a repudiation of modern, progressive prejudices — and conservative ones as well.

The two things that trouble the aliens the most? Humanity’s universal incest taboo and common belief in some form of a deity.

The former idea, merely mentioned in conversations within the story, helped give rise to complaints about the editorial direction Isaac Asimov’s was heading, towards increasing sex and violence, as Mike Ashley explains in his book. I tend to dismiss such complaints as prudery. Nothing sexual in this story, anyway, can be considered gratuitous. It is classic stefnal story-telling. And the reason for the one element of sexuality? Because sex is a huge part of almost all animal life, and if a species is to be judged. . . .

Which is what the story is, a Day of Judgment tale.

Yes, humans are violent. But Homo sapiens is the only pre-space civilizing species, the story’s alien relates, that, while being based on individuality and competition — and conflict, too — has conceived of “non-aggression” as well as concocted gods to nudge the species somewhat forward out of its violent past.

The narrator is a well-to-do lawyer, and he it takes upon himself to come to his kind’s defense.

I know nothing about the author, this Fred Singer. (I am pretty sure that the Fred Singer I have met isn’t he.) I have not seen any more of his work.

But I like this story, which I think should be dragged out of the memory hole and read by today’s sf readers. Maybe it should be anthologized. Perhaps the Sad Puppies might find something of interest here.

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The general picture I received from reading Currency Wars, by James Rickards, looks like this:


The world’s trade policies are run by leaders who stand in a circle, each holding a firearm. All of the major players then point their guns at their own heads, screaming, “Stop or I’ll shoot!”

Politicians and media people applaud wildly.

It’s the world leaders who point at others and shoot that we call bad players.

But they all seem nuts to me.

Those of us who learn on our own to think for ourselves do not require immersion into the work of writers who relentlessly promote “rationality” and “reason.” We accept it as bedrock. We move on.

That is my usual explanation to my friends who admire Ayn Rand, or who went through an  “Ayn Rand phase,” or were once or (alas) are now self-describing as a “student of Objecctivism.” She was of little use to me. I read her “too late” for her work to have an impact.

I waited until I was 22 before I opened the pages of The Fountainhead. I had read, the year before, the essays making up The Virtue of Selfishness. I liked the novel. But I was not blown away. I grew leery of the essays. But it took me a while to see her central error.

I had already discovered the “pro-liberty” novels I needed in my teens: The Once and Future King, Titus Groan, Brave New World and others. As for philosophy, I had read Plato, Aristotle, John Locke and as much as I could find out about anarchism in my backwater locale before I found and devoured Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, which did indeed “blow my mind.” But I did not come to any big conclusions about political philosophy for several years, until after I had read more, including some economics.

Before political philosophy, I confronted religion. Also without Ayn Rand’s help.

I started, in a sense, with C.S. Lewis’s Miracles, which, as a Christian, I judged dishonest, and moved on to consider a wide array of ideas. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man was a bit of a challenge, in that I learned a lot from the book, but came to disapprove of its basic modus: attacking low-level exponents of a philosophy (the textbook writers who annoyed him so much) without addressing that philosophy’s high-level theorists (Ogden, Richards, Ayer, Stevenson). Surely that was a form of intellectual dishonesty as well.

So I by the time I was 20 I was reading existentialists and Walter Kauffmann and C.S. Peirce and many others. I had put aside Heidegger. I had bracketed Husserl. I was thinking for myself. By 22 I had moved from a sort of Millian liberalism to something like a full-blown libertarianism, without any input from Rand.

Hence my jesting status as a member of the Null Rand League. I am one of those individualists — rare in my generation — who has not been influenced by Ayn Rand directly, except in the negative, and whose intellectual inheritance comes from other sources. I had read Lysander Spooner and Auberon Herbert and Herbert Spencer and F.A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises before I ever read one word of Ayn Rand.  (I had also read Marx, Schumacher, Wilson and many, many others of an anti-libertarian stripe.)

And when I did finally get to The Fountainhead (and only because a cute girl I knew had read it), I was impressed with parts of it, and creeped out by a few things as well. (I have written about this before.) As for her philosophy at large, I have many problems with it. (Also written about elsewhere.) So I simply am not the go-to person to write a level-headed reappraisal of Rand. I have never been bitten by the bug. I have never had to recover, or fight it off to any great extent.

So Charles Murray’s recent piece on the subject is worth consulting. I have no problem with it. And I do have many friends who would concur. Though he does not float one idea I have often heard — that her best work of fiction was her first.

But, once again, I have read neither We, the Living, nor Atlas Shrugged. I cannot even stomach a foray into the much shorter Anthem.

This conclusion to Murray’s review seems spot on:

Ayn Rand never dwelt on her Russian childhood, preferring to think of herself as wholly American. Rightly so. The huge truths she apprehended and expressed were as American as apple pie. I suppose hardcore Objectivists will consider what I’m about to say heresy, but hardcore Objectivists are not competent to judge. The novels are what make Ayn Rand important. Better than any other American novelist, she captured the magic of what life in America is supposed to be. The utopia of her novels is not a utopia of greed. It is not a utopia of Nietzschean supermen. It is a utopia of human beings living together in Jeffersonian freedom.

The “greed is good” theme that progressives revile so much in Rand is, to the extent it is there, of course idiotic. Greed is the excess of acquisitiveness, which is a necessity; despising profit and the profit motive is for witless ninnies. But the excess of a virtue is not virtuous. It is the definition of vice. Even suggesting that greed is good is folly.

But hey: Rand extolled what she called “selfishness” more often than greed. And redefined it, and balled it all up, too, in the process. But give her her due.

So it is good to see an interpretation on the utopian element in Atlas Shrugged interpreted in a way more in line with the moral and political philosophy of Bastiat and Spencer than with what we might think of as Ayn Rand’s.

Whatever she wrote about the subject, I didn’t need her to tell me. I worked out my thoughts on utopianism by reading Nozick, William Morris’s News from Nowhere, and many other books, and by confronting economic theory and the realities of history . . . on my own, without one one guide to call “hero” or “master.”

Or Mistress.

Unmoral and The Autobiography of Jack WoodfordIf you are researching American sexual mores and family values, in addition to the “usual suspect” list of literature, you might consider reading Jack Woodford’s 1934 effort, Unmoral. The first chapter is a brilliantly conceived and written work of fiction, very suggestive . . . of a great work to follow. But what actually follows is a talky novel of ideas, where the theme is “the new world to come.” Many crisp passages deliver what must have been, in the 1930s, “daring thought,” but which will today strike most readers as merely the present reality or its discarded afterbirth. Here is a typical passage, from the mouth of the heroine, Nausicaa Bradford:

Americans pass a law against liquor and go right on drinking; they frown, publicly and openly upon the relationship of mistress and lover, and go right on having such relationships under cover. They draw up huge categories of business ethics, and American business is rotten to the core. It’s America’s fetich: this, “Save the Surface and You Save All,” theory.

Not exactly deep, but perceptive of the time and of the direction of trends. And like all of Woodford’s writings, it is something of a hoot. Like Mencken, Woodford’s attitude carried him a long way.

This “novel of ideas” mostly takes the form of pre-coital and post-coital negotiations and manifestos, in which the heroine makes quite clear to her various lovers that she doesn’t love them, but still wishes to engage in the physical pleasures of life. There is a quaintness about this, as one often encounters with a philosophy graduate on a first date.

Indeed, before the end, the author finally marshals his personal philosophy, not as one of “selfishness,” but of “selfness.” This is not so much a pre-echo of Ayn Rand, but an echo of Max Stirner and his followers, one of which coined the delightfully ungainly term “selfyness” to capture the same set of notions Woodford here pushes.

Woodford, master of brevity, cleverly dropped the “y.”

To modern readers, the elision of any description of the love-making, or even the mention of certain concepts by name (“fellatio” being the first to strike one by its pointed absence), seems itself dated. Woodford could not get away with, commercially or perhaps even legally, at that time, such frankness as practiced by Henry Miller, whose first work of explicit sex talk and sexual activity, Tropic of Cancer, came out in the same year as Woodford’s Unmoral. And was banned.

Woodford, ever the consummate hack, saw little point in writing books only to have them banned. He wanted to be paid. This book, published by his own publishing company (the better to reap as many rents as possible), was intended to sell, and sell steadily. And it does appear that Woodford was something of a success in his day.

While Woodford referred to his craft as that of the art of the “sex novel,” Unmoral, aside from being a novel of ideas (if mostly sexual), is also, in a sense, an example of a very American form of novel: the novel of success. Yes, a “success novel.” Horatio Alger and all that. His heroine, Nausicaa, is a business triumph, and some of the ideas in the book express her developing philosophy of how to get ahead — and not just in bed.

The key to understanding the book is one that C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb might appreciate: Woodford dedicated the book to his daughter, Louella. The book was surely designed to serve as a life manual, specifically for her. And she apparently took to the message. Three years later she produced a novel with the gotcha-dad title Maid Unafraid.

Prose style aside — Woodford purveyed a clean, crisp prose that nevertheless delightfully fails to be pedestrian or serve as an example of today’s dreadful “no style” style — the quality of the book is uneven. The first chapter, I repeat, is a perfect specimen, and shows that the author was fully capable of writing excellent short fiction competently. But the bulk of the book is talkier than Crome Yellow or Point/Counterpoint, and, today, sparks more intellectual or historical interest than literary value. But by the end, and with the last sex scene (this time not marred by elision, but cleverly if tastefully told), the genius of the first pages returns.

I am sure were I to wade through, again, his many volumes of writing advice (Trial and Error; How to Plot a Brainstorm; etc.) , I would receive pearls of wisdom regarding the importance of a good opening and a good closing. Well, here, in Unmoral, Woodford lives up to precisely that standard: Great start; fine finish. Unfortunately . . . what a middle!

But that’s to be expected, right? Wasn’t it Iris Murdoch who said that the novel must be very Aristotelian,  having, as she put it, a beginning, a muddle, and an end?

Unmoral is, by this standard, perfectly Aristotelian, even if more Stirnerite and Nietzschean in substantive philosophy.

Astute followers of that long-gone age’s culture will note a few of the more interesting citations, such as to James Branch Cabell. Woodford ably squeezed in mention of his favorite contemporaries. As, I suppose, should we all.

Unmoral and The Autobiography of Jack Woodford

This pitch being delivered, don’t forget the home run: Woodford’s Autobiography remains his best book.

twv

Over at io9, Charlie Jane Anders asks a fun question: “What’s your favorite novel that defies genre classification?” In the discussion that follows, a number of books were trotted out, including thick novels by Mark Helprin and John Crowley. But I didn’t notice my favorites. So I’ll list them here.

First, there are two ultra-early classics of the meta-novel, Tristram Shandy and Jacques the Fatalist and His Master. These are joys to read, but certainly don’t fall within the usual formulae of novel-writing. Similarly, Finnegans Wake takes off with the prize; it certainly isn’t easy to categorize, unless, like me, you designate it as the world’s longest nonsense prose poem.

But, more in keeping with later genre writing are four classics of “fantasy.” The word deserves the scare quotes because, well, they aren’t just, or quite, fantasy as we usually think of it.man-who-was-thursday

G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday is a true original. It is a satire. It is something of a mystery. It is a spy novel. It is a contemplation of anarchism and statism, both. And it goes off the rails into totally weird territory with its bizarre ending, one of the most outrageous in literature.

Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, on the other hand, is world-building, fantasy of a different order, but it doesn’t go all mystical towards the end. It is, in a sense, a satire on the conservative temper, and a paean to non-compliant individualism. Though called a fantasy novel, Titus Groan contains no magic — other than its very effective literary technique, grotesquerie and ultra-Dickensian one-upmanship. Gormenghast, its sequel, carries on this amazing concoction flawlessly, to a rousing conclusion. Titus Alone brings us into a bizarre world later explored by the likes of Jack Vance, Michael Moorcock, and Gene Wolfe. It is science fiction, not fantasy. But its focus is always at the individual level. It is also, alas, not flawless. I sometimes think of the Gormenghast trilogy as a duet, with forgettable coda. But perhaps I merely need to re-read the three books in order.

Next, I come around to my favorite meta-novel, James Branch Cabell’s Cream of the Jest: A Comedy of Evasion. This work is a dream novel; a languorous high fantasy; a clever anti-romance set in the world of the genteel-tradition South. It contains a chapter on the conversion of the main character to Christianity, very much like C.S. Lewis’s later actual conversion, related in the memoir Surprised by Joy. But it’s not exactly a wholly serious theological event, and most readers cannot help but infer some caustic irony in this droll take on religion. And yet, in his own non-fiction accounts of his Episcopalianism, Cabell advanced the logic of hesitant acceptance as his own. Cabell, who in more outrageous fantastical modes (say, as in Jurgen and The Silver Stallion) regaled us with the vast bureaucracy of the afterlife and the heavens, offered a Christianity that it would be difficult to get very excited about. No wonder Lewis hated Cabell. And yet they are such similar fellows: Anglican Christians who loved romance, loved the ancient myths and fairy tales. But they parted company, for Cabell understood what really made the world go round, and developed a jaded philosophy to incorporate lust and the unobtainable ideal. Lewis made certain to make sure that ideals were utterly obtainable.CreamoftheJest

While Cream of the Jest seems to me a great masterwork, woefully unappreciated by academics who (rightly) drool over Nabokov’s even more outrageous jests, Cabell’s other masterpieces are mostly easier to confine within a genre — with a few receiving the requisite drool from die-hard fantasy readers. The Rivet in Grandfather’s Neck is a comedy of romance, entirely realistic. The High Place, “The Music from Behind the Moon: An Epitome,” and the tales in The Silver Stallion are all high fantasy, if with deep comedy and a pointed philosophy at base. Smirt, Smith and Smire are three dream novels, “extending the realism of Lewis Carroll.” Hamlet Had an Uncle is a grim retelling of the stories that Shakespeare transformed into his greatest play. The only other true genre-buster is Beyond Life, a bizarre excursion into the territory of the literary manifesto, written in the form of a fantastic dialogue and containing a discussion of the world’s greatest book collection.

Mention of literary criticism reminds me of C.S. Lewis’s best non-fiction book, An Experiment in Criticism, a curious work that defends fantasy from the rather puritanical snubs of the critical snobs. In it you will find much to exercise your mind, but no defense of Cabell. But this meandering into the oeuvre of Tolkien’s erstwhile friend is not without purpose. Not only his his experiment worth consideration for fantasy and genre-bending literature, Lewis also produced one of the great masterworks of genre-busting fantasy, Till We Have Faces. As a novel that basically serves as the author’s answer to Job, there is nothing like it. And since it is also an extraordinarily moving and intelligent retelling of the Psyche myth, it, too, defies easy categorization, and thus deserves mention in the same breath as the greatest work by Chesterton, Peake, and Cabell.

wirkman

No! No! No!

It has been nearly two score years since I first read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. I read it a second and perhaps a third time, but it could be as long ago as thirty years since I last read the much-loved children’s classic. It is not my favorite work by that author. I prefer the sequel epic The Lord of the Rings, his comic tale Farmer Giles of Ham, and the great short story “Leaf by Niggle.” But I do have very fond memories of reading it, and I looked forward to the film version created under the watchful eye of Peter Jackson.

I saw the movie Saturday night, in 2D. (Lacking two working eyes, I cannot watch 3D movies. Besides, as my friend Mr. Monteith points out, it is always best to wait for a 4D version — that is where they add the plot.) I had been prepared. I understood that the filmmakers had stretched the story, and that it would not be completed with this particular episode.

On the face of it, this is somewhat galling. Jackson had made The Lord of the Rings as a trilogy of movies, and that had made a certain amount of sense. It was presented to the world as a trilogy of books. But taking a shorter, simpler story and stringing it out? Not really necessary.

But he was obviously attempting to make a prequel in the same grand manner as his earlier Tolkien efforts. So stretching it out came naturally. After all, there were a lot of story notions embedded in Tolkien’s extensive notes to the trilogy.

The truth of the situation, though, is this: The Lord of the Rings was not a trilogy (or “triology,” as my cousins and I mispronounced the word back in the days of our youth, by a most rational epenthesis, interpolating “trio” into the word). It was six books crammed into three volumes. And the biggest problem with Peter Jackson’s movies was the writing team’s first major decision, to cut out the bulk of the last book, “The Scouring of the Shire,” and not giving it its own movie. (This would have allowed the third movie to end with the triumphant bowing of all to the hobbits.)

So, as if to balance the radical redaction of LotR, The Hobbit was beefed up.

Still, I have no great complaints about the movie. I enjoyed it. I wish to be counted among the film’s admirers. The Rivendell sequence was a logically developed episode, and the backstory about the bad blood between the lead dwarf, Thorin Oakenshield, and a pale orc conqueror (whose name I forget and who I will not look up), did not strike me as intrusive to the story.

What was intrusive were the battling stone giants, a rock-em-sock-em-robotic pair that seemed merely to add danger and violence to the story prior to the entry into Misty Mountain caves. The amount of improbable physical misadventure was tarted up in the movie, as well, laid on with a trowel. As was the Misty Mountain orc with the goiterish double chin — but at least he was a bit of comic relief.

The best scenes in the movie are at the very end, eagles’ rescue to the contemplation of the destination of the Lonely Mountain; the Riddles in the Dark, with a brilliant Gollum, once again; the droll episode with the trolls; and the party at Bag End.

I understand that I am nearly alone in liking this party sequence. But certainly in conception and nearly in execution, this is a great introduction to the story, and I wish that all the frame story and backstory could have been dropped in favor of extending this episode, for it is pure Tolkien. The party is why some of us took to Tolkien so eagerly. The humor, the nostalgia for peace and safety and security, the intimations of mystery and adventure: these are all here in the story.

And it is here that we are introduced to the young Bilbo Baggins, played by the actor best know for his portrayal of Dr. Watson in the recent British series Sherlock. This is one of the most brilliant bits of casting in recent memory. He is perfect for the role.

We are introduced to the dwarves in this great scene, too. They number twelve amusing (if minor) characters, plus their leader. The most obvious flaw in the movie is that we never really get to know the twelve dwarves very well.

And yet it is with the leader, Thorin Oakenshield, that I have my biggest complaint. He is the only one of the dwarves to look basically like a bearded leading man. He doesn’t have an oversized nose, big ears, funny hair, stocky torso, or any other touch that would indicate he is of a different species from Man.

This bothers me because it suggests a latent racism, or (more properly) speciesism. He is the “heroic” dwarf of the fellowship. But since he looks like human, and not dwarvish, the suggestion is that Men are heroic, Dwarves are not.

There are weird racist subtexts throughout Tolkien’s Middle Earth stories, many of them deriving from Tolkien’s focus on fighting the Pure Evil of Sauron. But perhaps we can overlook all that, just as we overlook Peter Jackson’s repeated images of the Flaming Vagina (the Eye of Sauron in the earlier movies; the eye of Smaug in the current tale).

Thorin is put through a minor arc in this movie. He was a skeptic about Bilbo from the beginning, accepting the hobbit only on Gandalf’s insistence. He is mostly dour throughout, molto serioso. But in the end he . . . hugs the hobbit. Thankfully, there is not as much hugging of hobbits in this movie as there was in the earlier trilogy. Peter Jackson and his cohorts cannot help but impute to Middle Earth culture the habits of today’s scandalous over-huggers.

More grating yet, Thorin shouts Jackson’s favorite cinematic cliché: “No!” Frodo repeated this mantra upon the fall of Gandalf in the mines of Moria, and the dwarf Gimli repeated it a few minutes earlier, upon the discovery of the demise of his kinfolk. I find this annoying because, well, I have never seen it done in real life. It seems like a cinematic tic, to me. I have had any number of bad things happen to me. I did not apostrophize a “No” at the time.

There is only one real justification for shouting “No!” in a Middle Earth tale, and that is if it is in the sentence “No More Trilogies!”

Erik Anderson has produced a nifty book, Vistas of Many Worlds: A Journey Through Space and Time. In my “unboxing video,” below, I mention that it would have been ideal for my boyhood self. Why mention that? Well, the very idea of this book appeals to youthful enthusiasm. It is a scientifically accurate explanation and depiction of “the heavens” from a variety of alien perspectives: We see what the stars would look like from other worlds, and we see what the stars and major astronomical events would have looked like in the past . . . and might look like in the future.

Not long ago Neil DeGrasse Tyson urged filmmaker James Cameron to redo the night scenes at the sinking of Titanic so that they would be astronomically accurate. For some of us, it’s not just that things should look plausible. They are better if they are scientifically accurate.

Anderson, the co-author of a pair of published papers in astronomy, has the information to plot stars. And in this book he puts the stars in their place. And us in the ideal places to view the stars.

So that’s why I judged it “exactly the kind of thing I would have liked when I was a kid” in my video (I was into all things science when I was young — indeed, I lectured on astronomy to my First Grade class at age 7):

I’m obviously not a professional videographer. But I thought it would be amusing to do an “unboxing video” of a book. I’ve seen them done of computer and electronic equipment. Why not a book? Well, in editing I cut out most of my yammering, and the video turned out to be something of a sales pitch. This is appropriate, since it looks like the book won’t be in a lot of stores. But it is available on the Net:

I strongly recommend it. The book is high on the “neat” scale.

Surely there are a lot of people out there like me, generally interested in science but not expert in fields such as astronomy. What we like about subject matters like astronomy often comes down to wonder as much as the scientific method. Erik Anderson’s new book captures both that “wonder” element as well as the science. The commentary is concise, and the pictures are gorgeous.

And it may be the perfect gift for your science fiction nerd friends and relatives. What do you get such folks? You can hardly buy them an sf novel or movie — they’ve probably read it or seen it. But they don’t have this. Not yet, anyway. It’s just out.