Friday January 15th, 2010

After the Fairy Tales



Jurgen by James Branch Cabell
Currently out of print

“I have finished Jurgen; a great and beautiful book, and the saddest book I ever read. I don’t know why, exactly. The book hurts me—tears me to small pieces—but somehow it sets me free. It says the word that I’ve been trying to pronounce for so long. It tells me everything I am, and have been, and may be, unsparingly. . . . I don’t know why I cry over it so much. It’s too—something-or-other—to stand. I’ve been sitting here tonight, reading it aloud, with the tears streaming down my face . . .”
—Deems Taylor, in a letter to Mary Kennedy, December 12, 1920

There are still some people around who remember when James Branch Cabell was among the most famous authors in America, celebrated by many of the eminent writers, artists, critics, and editors of his day. Hugh Walpole, Burton Rascoe, Carl Van Doren, Mark Twain, H. L. Mencken, and Sinclair Lewis all admired his work. (Accepting his 1930 Nobel Prize, Lewis said that Cabell would have been as good a choice.) Theodore Roosevelt had him to dinner. Aleister Crowley was an ardent fan. Twain died while reading Cabell’s Chivalry, which he kept by his bedside.

His literary career began in 1901, and he reached the apogee of his fame with the 1919 publication of Jurgen and a subsequent two-year obscenity case in New York. He remained wildly popular through the 1930s but, by 1956, Edmund Wilson, perhaps the most astute reader of  the 20th century, found it necessary to write a long essay in The New Yorker arguing for Cabell’s literary redemption. Wilson wrote: “The effect of the Cabell cult was eventually to leave the impression that its object was second-rate, and this is unjust to Mr. Cabell, whose distinction is real and of an uncommon kind.” He called the author “[a] comic poet, though one of—for modern times—almost unexampled splendor.” Reprinted  in Wilson’s The Bit Between My Teeth: A Literary Chronicle of 1950-1965, the essay runs to thirty pages.

Born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1879, to a wealthy and influential family with deep roots in the old South, Cabell was very much of the post-Reconstruction generation. (The accent, by the way, is on the first syllable, as in: “Tell the rabble my name is Cabell.”) His family and that of Robert E. Lee had been neighbors, and his grandfather and father had been Lee’s physician and student, respectively. His early works (including The Rivet in Grandfather’s Neck and The Cords of Vanity) dealt primarily with old Richmond society, a perspective analogous to Edith Wharton’s relationship to old New York. Like Wharton, Cabell was conscious of writing at the end of a world. Unlike Wharton, he was no realist.

Cabell’s style is ironic, ornate, and hilarious. Both the author and his characters are fond of recondite references to nonexistent works by nonexistent authors, sometimes many layers deep. Cervantes and Borges also loved to do this, and Cabell has much in common with both of them. He has been most often compared to Anatole France, but one could as easily measure him against Lewis Carroll, Twain, Oscar Wilde, Voltaire, or Rabelais. His characters, like those of Quentin Tarantino, tend to riff most elegantly at the moments of their greatest depravity.

Through the course of his first fifteen novels, Cabell moved increasingly further from his present and began to focus on medieval chivalry, a subject custom-made for a scion of the formerly feudal—and at the time nearly destitute—South. (Cabell wrote 50 books, 26 of which are novels that concern the descendants of a single character, Manuel, down through the ages.) The medieval fantasies culminated with Jurgen, the story of a middle-aged former poet turned pawnbroker, who one evening on his way home encounters a monk with a stubbed toe, cursing Satan for putting a stone in the road. Jurgen amuses himself by improvising a defense of the Devil, “who diligently goes about his work, a thing that can be said of few communicants, and no monks.” (Cabell could be relied upon for anticlerical potshots.) He meets a man further down the road who inquires as to how such a fine poet could have ended up in such a pedestrian occupation. The mysterious stranger misunderstands Jurgen’s wry response concerning the restrictions of domestic life, and Jurgen arrives home to find that his wife has vanished without a trace. Good form—and the expectations of in-laws—eventually compels Jurgen to search for her, which starts him on a series of adventures that would now be called a protracted mid-life crisis. They compose an extended allegorical meditation on marriage, Cabell’s primary, but often unnoticed subject.

A terribly funny book, it is also the book over which composer Deems Taylor recounts weeping. The sadness does not stem from any Old Yeller moment; indeed, things turn out rather better for Jurgen than he has any right to expect. The book’s sadness has more in common with the tears shed at weddings by the elderly, who know more about what’s in store for the bride and groom than they do. If the characters are cynical, the author is not, and this is what gives the book its force. It’s sad for the same reason it’s funny: because it seems to be telling hard truths. I found a copy at fourteen and became obsessed. I felt I had a window into the secrets of life. Grand Theft Auto is a safer choice for some young people than Cabell.

The obscenity case over Jurgen made Cabell famous, but there’s nothing in the novel anyone would recognize as obscene today, certainly nothing like the coarseness of, say, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which was the subject of legal prosecution nine years later. The many questionable passages in Jurgen consist entirely of double entendre, metaphor, and implication. One of the contentious scenes involved Jurgen and his lover Dolores, alone in her chamber, discussing mathematics (“penetrating examples” and such). Fortunately for Cabell, it was sufficiently obscene to excite the interest of The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, the attentions of which made him a star. (Cabell later publicly thanked The Society for the favor in a minor novel, Taboo.) One of the reasons the judge gave for dismissing the charges was that so few readers would be equipped to understand what was going on in the objectionable moments.

Few authors in modern times have fallen so far, so fast, and for reasons so little understood. Most authors fall from grace for simple reasons, often because in retrospect their work just doesn’t seem very good. Much of Cabell’s best work, however, remains fresh, certainly fresher than that of many authors whose fame eclipsed his. The most common explanation is that he wrecked his own career in a misguided attempt to turn his first, and best known, body of work—the Manuel novels—into a composite whole: a single 18-volume novel stretching from the Middle Ages to then-contemporary Virginia. But many literary reputations have survived worse, and there isn’t even a general consensus that the project (known as The Storisende Edition) was a failure. What’s more remarkable about Cabell than his eclipse is the fact that he never returned to fashion. This might be partly traced to the long-term admirers among whom his reputation did survive. They were overwhelmingly from far outside the world of belles lettres, authors and fans of science fiction and fantasy. Cabell was erudite—a writer’s writer who happened to enjoy immense popularity. His work was viewed as belles lettres in its own time, not as fantasy fiction, a genre he would have detested and the shelf on which he is now found, if found at all. But what’s a bookseller to do? There is no clear category for him.

One of the auxiliary pleasures of Cabell is that his books were frequently issued and reissued in exquisitely produced, often handmade limited editions, illustrated with engravings by Frank C. Pape, Ray F. Coyle, and others. These editions can often be had for little more than the price of a trade paperback, though the finest are rapidly becoming endangered species, cannibalized for their engravings.

For those who like to skim off the cream first, Jurgen is the clear choice. I find the somewhat less well-known The High Place (1923) almost as rewarding: less heartbreaking but more wicked. It is the story of a homicidally psychopathic, bisexual, 18th-century French nobleman’s search for the lost, half-remembered beauty for whom he has ardently yearned since childhood. As usual, it is really about marriage. The Silver Stallion (1926), The Soul of Melicent (1923), Chivalry (1909), and The Cream of the Jest (1917) are not so hilarious, nor so fantastical. All four are delightful, but less pyrotechnic.

When Cabell finished The Storisende Edition, he embarked on a second career under the truncated name Branch Cabell. There are quiet pleasures to be found in Let Me Lie (1947), a collection of essays about the South. Some scholarly commentaries about Cabell would be of interest to fans, such as Notes On Jurgen by James P. Cover (1928), which elucidates many of the hidden meanings, obscure folkloric references, riddles, and anagrams that abound in the novel.

Not everything has aged well. Cabell’s arch tone is harder to suffer in some of the more minor works. Many of the novels about Richmond are of little interest. He was a devoted genealogist, and three of his 50 books were privately printed genealogies that are of no interest to anyone who is not a Branch or a Cabell.

Despite the many pages devoted to sex, adventures, and youthful silliness in many of his best books, Cabell’s work is never about youth at all. Though his older characters often yearn for youth, or try to preserve it past its time, their yearning for it is always foolish, their loss of it never tragic. Real life for Cabell is always the part in the middle, after the fairy tales have been burnt off by experience. His heroes thirst for beauty and ideals, but inevitably find greater contentment when they give up their ideals. It may not be the sex that offended the moral sensibilities of an earlier age so much as the essential realism. Cabell’s characters sometimes find peace and a sort of wisdom, but they never seem to become better people. They merely become less motivated to do harm. They never find justice, but instead “something infinitely more acceptable.”

Peter Coates is an artist, programmer, and writer living in Brooklyn.

Mentioned in this review:

The High Place
The Cream of the Jest
The Bit Between My Teeth
Lady Chatterley’s Lover
Notes on Jurgen