Sunday, 20 May 2012

It is a Tale which they Narrate

"The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true." — The Silver Stallion

                         This quote, which could easily be taken from Voltaire’s Candide, is actually from another ‘forgotten’ author I collect - James Branch Cabell. 

James Branch Cabell

He enjoyed a slight revival of interest in the 70s and 80s, when some of his many books were reprinted in paperback during the resurgence of interest in fantasy novels, but he remains now largely unknown to the reading public. 

Assorted novels

On the shelf.

He wrote over fifty books, twenty of which are linked through a common theme that runs through them, being the biography of Count Manuel and his descendents, in the fictional medieval French province Poictesme (pronounced pwa–tem). 

Page 1 - Jurgen - Dover reprint

The first novel of Cabell’s I read was Jurgen. In the book, the eponymous Jurgen, a middle-aged pawnbroker, cleverly defends the Devil so Koshchei, the god who rules the universe, rewards him by abducting his tiresome nag of a wife, Dame Lisa. Jurgen, unenthusiastically, sets out to rescue her and travels through fantastical realms, seducing the local women as he goes, including Helen of Troy, Queen Guinevere, the Lady of the Lake, a ghost, a vampire, the daughter of Count Manuel and even the Devil’s wife. Eventually, posing as the Pope, he reaches Heaven, where he is given the choice of all the women he has known in the past year to be his wife. He chooses Dame Lisa, on the grounds thatIn the tinsel of my borrowed youth I have gone romancing through the world; and into lands unvisited by other men have I ventured, playing at spillikins with women and gear and with the welfare of kingdoms; and into Hell have I fallen, and into Heaven have I climbed, and into the place of the Lord God himself have I crept stealthily; and nowhere have I found what I desired.”   

Subtitled A Comedy of Justice, Jurgen was published in 1919, and because of it Cabell was propelled to fame when the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice denounced it as ‘offensive, indecent, lewd, obscene and lascivious’. A two-year trial for obscenity followed, eventually the book was found fit to be read and the ‘indecencies’ were explained as double entendres that had innocent interpretations, with presiding Judge Charles Nott ruling that because of Cabell's writing style " is doubtful if the book could be read or understood at all by more than a very limited number of readers." Nevertheless, the controversy brought Cabell the attention he might never have otherwise enjoyed and Jurgen became one of the most talked about books of the 1920s. 

Booksellers in many parts of the country have testified to the fact that young men and women in hundreds sought surreptitiously to buy copies of Jurgen after the news of its suppression was spread abroad.Jurgen and the Censor - Report Of The Emergency Committee Organized To Protest Against The Suppression Of James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen. 

I was unaware of all this when I first read Jurgen, and to be honest I didn’t find it obscene in the slightest; I read it as a clever allegory and a magical philosophical diversion. Although greatly admired by many of his peers, including Mark Twain, H L Mencken, Sinclair Lewis and F Scott Fitzgerald, Cabell fell from favour as more ‘realistic’ authors, such as Hemingway, became popular, and critics judged his successive works were either too like Jurgen, or not enough like Jurgen. I looked for more Cabell, picking up the paperbacks mentioned earlier and finding old copies from the 20s, 30s or 40s in second-hand bookshops. 

Modern paperback editions.

Even today, with eBay and tinternet, they are hard to come by. I have a lovely first edition of Chivalry (1909), which is an ex-library copy from Leeds City Library. 

Chivalry - Front cover - 1909 First Edition

Chivalry -Title Page and Frontispiece - 1909 First Edition

I also have a few different versions of Jurgen, including a Dover reprint edition with illustrations by F C Papé. 

Half a dozen editions of Jurgen

Some I am still looking for – I still want a copy of the marvellously titled The Rivet in Grandfather’s Neck (I do have a PDF scan). 

The Silver Stallion - Title Page - 1926 -  First Edition

One of the joys of reading Cabell is solving the wordplay. Character- and place-names are sometimes, and sometimes not, anagrams, and working them out is both satisfying and adds to the story. Jurgen meets a tribe who worship a triple Goddess with the names Ageus, Sesphra and Vel-Tyno (that is, Usage, Phrases and Novelty). In Something About Eve, the hero, Gerald Musgrave, travels through six different lands named Doonham, Dersam, Lytreia, Turoine, Mages, and Mispec Moor (I’ll leave it to you to solve these). Puns make up some of the wordplay – Storisende is just ‘story’s end’, for example. Cabell also hid ‘prose poems’ in his texts – look at this excerpt from Jurgen

Prose Poem in Jurgen

His song is just such a poem – it has fourteen lines, each ending with the same word. 

In The Cream of the Jest is the magical Sigil of Scoteia, a magical broken talisman in two halves, which are found and re-assembled thus. 

If it is turned upside down, it is possible to read it*. In the book it is revealed to be the antiqued metal lid from a jar of cold cream, Harrowby's Creme Cleopatre. This novel inspired another of my favourite authors, Flann O’Brien (0f whom, more on another day), to write his magnificent At Swim-Two-Birds.

There Were Two Pirates - Title Page and Frontispiece - 1946 - First Edition

 *James Branch Cabell made this book so that he who wills may read the story of man's eternally unsatisfied hunger in search of beauty. Ettare stays inaccessible always and her loveliness is his to look on only in his dreams.

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