Archives for posts with tag: James Branch Cabell

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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In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Ballantine put out a number of high fantasy paperbacks. The publisher called the series “Adult Fantasy,” and many of them featured the unicorn head colophon as well as introductions by Lin Carter. I rate the books here, for no particular reason. I have not read them all yet. (But I would probably sell my complete set for $500. Inquire.) And it is worth mentioning, most of my ratings do not figure in the quality of the forewords, which range from the excellent (the Kai Lung books) to the inaccurate (James Branch Cabell’s The Cream of the Jest) to the maddening (The Man Who Was Thursday — do not read the foreword before you read the novel: Carter gives away one of the big surprises).

Several of the books I label “not read” (with the letters “nr”) are the result of me giving up on them. I have never been able to get into E. R. Eddison, and the joys of Lovecraft have so far eluded me.

I offer my judgments with asterisks, in the usual five-star manner, common in movie reviews. (Four-star may be more common, for all I know, but I went with the odd number.) Five stars mean not only did I enjoy the book, but think it has great literary merit. Three means either I enjoyed it, but think it lacks high literary merit, or I did not enjoy it, but confess to seeing its literary merit nevertheless. One star means I definitely did not enjoy it and I regard it as not good. Two means a fairly low interest from me, personally, and recommendation, literarily.

Well, here’s the list, taken from The Haunted Bibliophile, marked with my judgments.

Precursors to The Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series

  • THE HOBBIT, J.R.R. Tolkien. August, 1965. ****
  • THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING, J.R.R. Tolkien. October, 1965. ****1/2
  • THE TWO TOWERS, J.R.R. Tolkien. October, 1965. ****1/2
  • THE RETURN OF THE KING, J.R.R. Tolkien. December, 1965. *****
  • THE TOLKIEN READER, J.R.R. Tolkien. September, 1966. ****
  • THE WORM OUROBOROS, E.R. Eddison. April, 1967. [nr]
  • MISTRESS OF MISTRESSES, E.R. Eddison. August, 1967. [nr]
  • A FISH DINNER IN MEMISON, E.R. Eddison. February, 1968. [nr]
  • THE ROAD GOES EVER ON, J.R.R. Tolkien & Donald Swann. October, 1968.  *
  • TITUS GROAN, Mervyn Peake. October, 1968. *****
  • GORMENGHAST, Mervyn Peake. October, 1968. *****
  • TITUS ALONE, Mervyn Peake. October, 1968. ***
  • A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS, David Lindsay. November, 1968. *****
  • THE LAST UNICORN, Peter S. Beagle. February, 1969. *****
  • SMITH OF WOOTTON MAJOR & FARMER GILES OF HAM, J.R.R. Tolkien. March, 1969. ****
  • THE MEZENTIAN GATE, E.R. Eddison. April, 1969. [nr]

The Series proper

1969

  1. THE BLUE STAR, Fletcher Pratt. May. **
  2. THE KING OF ELFLAND’S DAUGHTER, Lord Dunsany. June. ****
  3. THE WOOD BEYOND THE WORLD, William Morris. July. [nr]
  4. THE SILVER STALLION, James Branch Cabell. August. *****
  5. LILITH, George Macdonald. September. **
  6. DRAGONS, ELVES, AND HEROES, Lin Carter, ed. October. **
  7. THE YOUNG MAGICIANS, Lin Carter, ed. October. ****
  8. FIGURES OF EARTH, James Branch Cabell. November. ****
  9. THE SORCERER’S SHIP, Hannes Bok. December. ***

1970

  1. LAND OF UNREASON, Fletcher Pratt & L. Sprague de Camp. January.  **
  2. THE HIGH PLACE, James Branch Cabell. February. *****
  3. LUD-IN-THE-MIST, Hope Mirrlees. March. ****
  4. AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD, Lord Dunsany. March. *****
  5. PHANTASTES, George Macdonald. April. **
  6. THE DREAM-QUEST OF UNKNOWN KADATH, H.P. Lovecraft. May. **
  7. ZOTHIQUE, Clark Ashton Smith. June. ****
  8. THE SHAVING OF SHAGPAT, George Meredith. July. *****
  9. THE ISLAND OF THE MIGHTY, Evangeline Walton. July.  ****
  10. DERYNI RISING, Katherine Kurtz. August. [nr]
  11. THE WELL AT THE WORLD’S END, Vol. 1, William Morris. August. *****
  12. THE WELL AT THE WORLD’S END, Vol. 2, William Morris. September. ***
  13. GOLDEN CITIES, FAR, Lin Carter, ed. October. [nr]
  14. BEYOND THE GOLDEN STAIR, Hannes Bok. November. **

1971

  1. THE BROKEN SWORD, Poul Anderson. January. [nr]
  2. THE BOATS OF THE `GLEN CARRIG’, William Hope Hodgson. February. **
  3. THE DOOM THAT CAME TO SARNATH, H.P. Lovecraft. February. [nr]
  4. SOMETHING ABOUT EVE, James Branch Cabell. March. ****
  5. RED MOON AND BLACK MOUNTAIN, Joy Chant. March. ***1/2
  6. HYPERBOREA, Clark Ashton Smith. April. ***
  7. DON RODRIGUEZ: CHRONICLES OF SHADOW VALLEY, Lord Dunsany. May. ***
  8. VATHEK, William Beckford. June. ****
  9. THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY, G.K. Chesterton. July. ****1/2
  10. THE CHILDREN OF LLYR, Evangeline Walton. August. *****
  11. THE CREAM OF THE JEST, James Branch Cabell. September.  *****
  12. NEW WORLDS FOR OLD, Lin Carter, ed. September. [nr]
  13. THE SPAWN OF CTHULHU, Lin Carter, ed. October. [nr]
  14. 37. DOUBLE PHOENIX, Edmund Cooper & Roger Lancelyn Green. November. [nr]
  15. THE WATER OF THE WONDEROUS ISLES, William Morris. November. ****
  16. KHALED, F. Marion Crawford. December. ****1/2

1972

  1. THE WORLD’S DESIRE, H. Rider Haggard & Andrew Lang. January. [nr]
  2. XICCARPH, Clark Ashton Smith. February. ***
  3. THE LOST CONTINENT, C.J. Cutcliffe-Hyne. February. **
  4. DISCOVERIES IN FANTASY, Lin Carter, ed. March. ***
  5. DOMNEI, James Branch Cabell. March. ****
  6. KAI LUNG’S GOLDEN HOURS, Ernest Bramah. April. ****
  7. DERYNI CHECKMATE, Katherine Kurtz. May. [nr]
  8. BEYOND THE FIELDS WE KNOW, Lord Dunsany. May. *****
  9. THE THREE IMPOSTERS, Arthur Machen. June. [nr]
  10. THE NIGHT LAND, Vol. 1, William Hope Hodgson. July. [nr]
  11. THE NIGHT LAND, Vol. 2, William Hope Hodgson. July. [nr]
  12. THE SONG OF RHIANNON, Evangeline Walton. August. ****
  13. GREAT SHORT NOVELS OF ADULT FANTASY #1, Lin Carter, ed. September. [nr]
  14. EVENOR, George Macdonald. November. ****

1973

  1. ORLANDO FURIOSO: The Ring of Angelica, Volume 1, Translation by Richard Hodgens. January. [nr]
  2. THE CHARWOMAN’S SHADOW, Lord Dunsany. February. ***1/2
  3. GREAT SHORT NOVELS OF ADULT FANTASY #2, Lin Carter, ed. March. [nr]
  4. THE SUNDERING FLOOD, William Morris. May. *****
  5. IMAGINARY WORLDS, Lin Carter. June. ***1/2
  6. POSEIDONIS, Clark Ashton Smith. July. [nr]
  7. EXCALIBUR, Sanders Anne Laubenthal. August. **
  8. HIGH DERYNI, Katherine Kurtz. September. [nr]
  9. HROLF KRAKI’S SAGA, Poul Anderson. October. [nr]
  10. THE PEOPLE OF THE MIST, H. Rider Haggard. December. **

1974

  1. KAI LUNG UNROLLS HIS MAT, Ernest Bramah. February. *****
  2. OVER THE HILLS AND FAR AWAY, Lord Dunsany. April. *****

Honorable Mention (Related Follow-up Volumes)

  • MERLIN’S RING, H. Warner Munn. June, 1974. [nr]
  • PRINCE OF ANNWN, Evangeline Walton. November, 1974. *****

In looking over this list, I see that it is obvious that I need to re-read some of these, give others another try, and maybe amend my judgments here and there.

The books I have pictured here are ones I have extra copies of. I am more than willing to sell these for c. $10 per copy. Inquire.

twv


Virginia author James Branch Cabell (1879-1958) wrote comic romances (a term perhaps less confusing than “romantic comedies”) on a set of themes. One of these themes is expressed in the idea that there exist women too beautiful for many men safely to look at.

In The High Place: A Comedy of Disenchantment, young Florian espies the sleeping Melior (ensorcelled in a castle ensconced upon a High Place) and it unsettled his life, sending him into a flagrantly immoral life of lust, murder, and (in the end) world-shaking cataclysm.

In Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice, the title character — having been given a temporary visage of youth — finds himself with the opportunity to remove a sleeping Helen of Troy’s blanket, but cautiously refrains. This restraint allowed him to return to his normal life as a pawnbroker, and bargain with Koschei the Deathless for the retrieval of his wife from distant realms, to take up her former position as his nagging partner.

Mere fantasy? The peculiar obsession of a perverse mind?

I doubt it.

Sexual selection is powered, in great part, by enticement based on beauty. Flowers are beautiful, the peacock’s feathers are beautiful, and so can be women (to varying degrees). The more beautiful the more likely to attract the bee or the mate, and thus the greater the beauty the more likely they are to procreate, thus spreading the world with more beautiful beings. In some species it is the male that displays the more elaborate enticements to mate, the peacock and peahen being a prime example. In Homo sapiens, it is the woman who attracts chiefly by physical beauty — and the men more moved by that beauty. But, admittedly, among humans the variety of sexual attractions and sexual strategies makes everything vastly more complicated than a themed story.*

But this is a major force in life and its evolution, not a mere technical display, an acquired habit of culture, as so many of today’s trendy people pretend to believe. Lust for — and enchantment with —  sexual beauty is built into our psyches, well, most male psyches, anyway, as amply demonstrated in science and literature. And it rules, often with the whip hand. Beauty suffuses nature, and the lust for beauty spurs life to continue. Further, because it runs so deep, it can be as (or more) powerful than the drive for mysticism, for the numinous.

Carl Gustav Jung suggested that organized religion exists to curb the unsettling power of mystical experiences. By formalizing the Divine, and limiting it to certain rites, places, times, it allows for mundane life to continue.

Traditional marriage and family life did something similar. The mundane curbs the sheer transcendent power of Beauty. To prevent destruction.

Nowadays, the most beautiful of women are plucked from obscurity, farded to perfection, and paraded about for all to see. This alone — with instantiations from modeling, to acting, to pornography (which some would say and was once widely believed were all allied arts) — may be a major factor in modern culture . . . to the unsettling nature of family and community life.

If Cabell were right, this modern development leads to disaster for some men, and perhaps a problem for many men as well as most women. The disaster might be a bit more humdrum than the one perpetrated by Florian.

Behind all the romance, irony, symbols, and elegant prose, Cabell’s philosophic argument was that the natural curb for this aspect of sexual bedazzlement is marriage: one woman to one man, quickly followed by motherhood and fatherhood, thereby speeding up the process known to all: nature’s universal answer to all enchantments, including life itself. Decline and Death. Mother Sereda bleaching all. That suffices to dull the beauty in life.

twv

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* Of course there are anomalies, outliers to life’s main story. Gay men and lesbian women look on the world of beauty and sexuality rather differently, each. And certainly confirmed bachelors like me have a different perspective on the story than do married men and, of course, women. But the central story will always be the one that directly carries on the regeneration of life. We outliers must recognize our place. And when society bends to the outlier, to make their stories central, as it seems to be doing now, we can expect cataclysms. Brave New World was not Utopia.

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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.

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.