Richard's Literary Byways: Jurgen, by James Branch Cabell

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  • #261
    RichardB
    Participant

    [This is the first in what will hopefully be an occasional series in which I introduce you to works you may not know, but which I have enjoyed at some time or other]

    The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible words, and the pessimist fears this is true.

    You may have seen or heard this quotation before. If you have, and if you took the time to wonder where it comes from, you might have assumed it’s from Oscar Wilde. It does rather have his ring to it, but it’s not one of his. It’s from the writings of James Branch Cabell, an author who is pretty much overlooked these days, even by devotees of the genre he mostly worked in, fantasy.

    Fantasy, Jim, but not as we know it. For Cabell, despite his background as a Southern Gentleman (born in 1879 in Richmond, Virginia into an old and illustrious family who’d already been settled in the state for over two hundred years), was an iconoclast, and his writings were a vehicle for that. Nothing was safe from the laser of his acerbic, sardonic wit and the urbane elegance of the prose he expressed it in: the traditional tropes of fantasy (a wizard in one of his books has a wife who constantly scolds him for wasting his time on impractical nonsense instead of doing something useful), the customs and aspirations of his fellow-men, love and romance (People marry for a variety of reasons and with varying results. But to marry for love is to invite inevitable tragedy.), religion, even himself. He took the piss out of everything, endlessly and mercilessly.

    In the early twentieth century this was far more shocking than it would be today, and in 1919 the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice brought a case against one of his books, Jurgen, for obscenity. After the case had dragged on for two years Cabell and his publisher won, the book predictably became a best-seller, and Cabell was catapulted into celebrity. He reacted in three very typical ways. He referred to the prosecutor who brought the case as ‘my friend and benefactor,’ he inserted into later editions of the book a satire on its own court case, and he predicted (accurately) that his fame wouldn’t last very long.

    The ‘obscenity’ in Jurgen is actually pretty mild, being entirely extrapolated from suggestiveness and double entendre. Like this:

    ‘But you upset me, with that big sword of yours, you make me nervous, and I cannot argue so long as you are flourishing it about. Come now, put up your sword! Oh, what is anybody to do with you! Here is the sheath for your sword,’ says she.

    It turned out that what had really got the book into trouble was blasphemy, as it was viewed. The offence had been caused by certain highly irreverent passages concerning the nature of God and Heaven.

    Jurgen remains the only one of Cabell’s books that has never been out of print. It is also probably the most accessible of them, and a good place to start. Its opening sentences still make me chuckle.

    It is a tale which they narrate in Poictesme, saying: In the old days lived a pawnbroker named Jurgen; but what his wife called him was very often much worse than that. She was a high-spirited woman, with no especial gift for silence.

    (Poictesme, a province vaguely set somewhere in medieval France which, in Cabell’s words ‘has escaped the wear and tear of ever actually existing,’ and which is bounded by regions of even greater geographical vagueness, is his recurring setting.)

    As the story opens Jurgen, on his way home from his shop, comes upon a monk who has just tripped over a stone, and is cursing the Devil who put it in the road. Jurgen, who is firmly of the belief that he is ‘a monstrous clever fellow,’ leaps playfully to the Devil’s defence.

    ‘… Consider this monarch’s industry! day and night you may detect him toiling at the task Heaven set him. That is a thing can be said of few communicants and of no monks. Think, too, of his fine artistry, as evidenced in all the perilous and lovely snares of this world, which it is your business to combat, and mine to lend money upon.’

    Further along the road he meets ‘a black gentleman,’ who thanks him for his kind words and wishes him a life free from care. ‘Save us from hurt and harm, friend, but I am already married,’ Jurgen replies. When he gets home his wife is nowhere to be found.

    Jurgen accepts the situation with equanimity, but because his wife’s relatives all assure him that it is the manly thing to do, he sets off, without any great enthusiasm, in search of her. He is told (by a centaur) that he must seek satisfaction from Koshchei the Deathless, ‘who made all things as they are.’ Asking how he might find him, he is told, ‘Roundabout. There is never any other way.’

    And a roundabout way it turns out to be. Jurgen has many curious adventures, meeting again the lost love of his youth, regaining his own lost youth and losing her all over again, and travelling to many places not marked on any known maps, including both Heaven and Hell. Everywhere he goes, even in Hell, he finds a delectable lady to dally with; everywhere he goes he finds he can’t quite be satisfied, either with the place or with the lady. By the time he finally finds Koshchei he has come to the conclusion that he was really better off as he was before.

    ‘She was certainly very hard to live with. On the other hand, I had become used to having her about. I rather miss her, now that I am again an elderly person. Indeed, I believe I have missed Lisa all along.’

    In the end Koshchei cancels out the whole year Jurgen has been on his quest, and Jurgen finds himself right back where he started, once again a middle-aged pawnbroker walking home from his shop to his wife and his supper.

    Although it is perfectly possible to read Cabell’s books simply for the story, there is a lot more to them than appears on the surface. He constantly plays games with the reader. He claims to derive his stories from a variety of scholarly works of folklore, all of which are imaginary. In most of his books (Jurgen is an exception) there is at least one appearance by an enigmatic person called Horvendile, who appears to have the fate of all the characters in his hands. He may be some sort of god, he may be the author himself interacting with his own characters – or he may not. Personal and place names may be anagrams, puns, or derive from obscure languages – or they may not. References abound to little-known byways of folklore and mythology. In every book of his that I’ve read there is at least one mention of a rather sinister sounding ritual involving a small square mirror and two white pigeons, which appears to have great significance but which is never properly described nor explained. You can never be certain whether anything is what it seems on the surface or has some deeper significance. The only thing you can be sure of is that Cabell’s tongue is firmly in his cheek. Once, when asked about the name of his setting, Poictesme, Cabell said that when pronounced in the correct French manner it sounds like someone spitting.

    As for the bleak philosophy that underlies all of the tomfoolery and jesting, the following words that Cabell put into the mouth of his most famous character, Jurgen, are revealing if you’re aware that Cabell, though twice married, maintained that the only woman he ever really loved was a lost love of his own youth.

    ‘Why, it seemed to me I had lost the most of myself; and there was left only a brain which played with ideas, and a body that went delicately down pleasant ways. And I could not believe as my fellows believed, nor could I love them, nor could I detect anything in aught they said or did save their exceeding folly: for I had lost their cordial common faith in the importance of what use they made of half-hours and months and years; and because a jill-flirt had opened my eyes so that they saw too much, I had lost faith in the importance of my own actions, too. There was a little time of which the passing might be made endurable; beyond gaped unpredictable darkness: and that was all there was of certainty anywhere.’

    Cabell was on more intimate terms than most of us care to be with despair – in every photograph I have seen of him he is staring coldly at the camera, his mouth set in a hard straight line – and his defence against it was that sardonic laughter

    I have to say that Cabell’s writing is a Marmite thing. I myself have had a love-hate relationship with it ever since I discovered it nearly fifty years ago, and I have to be in the right mood to read it. Even though I’m as ready to enjoy the shooting down of sacred cows as much as anyone, Cabell’s all-embracing pessimism can get a bit too much. Another of his books, The Silver Stallion (which, by the way, is the source of the quote at the head of this piece) is, despite moments of high (and low) comedy, the most bleakly cynical book I have ever read, and I once stopped reading before finishing it because its relentless nihilism was depressing me too much.

    But sooner or later I come back to Cabell. I enjoy the grace and wit of his prose, admire the breadth of his imagination and the depth of his erudition, am intrigued by his games and by the air of mystery and of the unknown that is never far away. And yes, he can still make me laugh.

    Footnote1: Cabell’s name is not pronounced as you might think. He provided the following handy guide:
    You can tell the rabble
    My name is Cabell.

    Footnote 2: Ladies, I should warn you that you may find his depiction of women rather lacking in respect – he seems not to like them very much unless he is worshipping the unattainable and idealised – but we must remember that he was a man of his time.

    #269
    Jules
    Participant

    Really interesting reading, Richard. The name was familiar but I haven’t read anything by him. It’ unusal for me not to have at least sampled something by a historic fantasy writer. I can see what you mean about his writing being a bit Marmite. It was making me wince and laugh at the same time.

    #302
    JaneShuff
    Participant

    Thank you for this, Richard. I enjoyed reading about Cabell, who I’d never heard of. You convey a great flavour of the man and his writing. He doesn’t sound like my cup of tea tbh. I hope you’re going to post some more literary byways and also more of your railway and suchlike stories…

    #314
    Daedalus
    Participant

    Fascinating stuff Richard. Not an author I recall coming across, though the title quotation is familar. It soulds as though he had throughly subverted many of the common tropes of fantasy before that genre really got going.

    #324
    RichardB
    Participant

    Yes, there wasn’t much fantasy being written then, certainly not on the industrial scale we have today.

    Obscure though Cabell is to the reading public, he has been quite influential in his genre. He nfluenced later writers of humorous fantasy like Jack Vance and Fritz Leiber, whose stories also feature protagonists who fall some way short of heroic perfection. The challenges to conventional mores that made Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land such a favourite in the sixties counter-culture were, according to Heinlein himself, due to reading Cabell. And when I read Neil Gaiman’s Stardust I found Cabell’s footprints all over it – even though I didn’t know then that Gaiman is a fan, and despite the fact that it is many ways very different from Cabell’s stuff.

    Jane, it’s somehow particularly pleasing to hear that you enjoyed the blog even though it hasn’t made you want to read the book.

    • This reply was modified 3 years, 1 month ago by RichardB.
    • This reply was modified 3 years, 1 month ago by RichardB.
    #356
    JaneShuff
    Participant

    I always approach a new blog from you, Richard, with a feeling of anticipated pleasure. I am never let down.

    #379
    Athelstone
    Moderator

    Another excellent blog, Richard. You got me to invest my beer-tokens in Keith Roberts and now it looks like I’ll be blowing the dust off my wallet for James Cabell.

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