It is not easy for the perceptive critic to doubt [the literary permanence of James Branch Cabell, as surely exceeding that of all writers in England save arguably Hardy and Conrad]. One might as sensibly deny a future to Ecclesiastes, The Golden Ass, Gulliver’s Travels, and the works of Rabelais as to predict oblivion for such a thesaurus of ironic wit and fine fantasy, mellow wisdom and strange beauty, as Jurgen.
– Burton Rascoe, Literary Editor at the New York Herald Tribune, 1921
Well, I’ve run into a bit of a problem with this review. The thing is… it’s a bit too long.
So I’m going start out instead with a short flow-chart summary, which may save you from having to wade through the full review.
- Are you interested in the history of the SF&F genre? If so, you should read this book. Cabell may be forgotten today, but he’s one of the truly seminal figures in the genre and this is his most famous novel. Neil Gaiman has called Cabell his favourite author; Robert Heinlein and Jack Vance began their careers by unabashedly trying to emulate him; James Blish, Lin Carter and Poul Anderson contributed articles to a journal devoted to studying him (Roger Zelazny sent in letters). Michael Moorcock and Ursula Le Guin agree, for once, in praising him. Fritz Leiber, Gene Wolfe, John Brunner and Terry Pratchett are just a few other writers believed to have been influenced by him.
- Are you interested in the history of American literature, or the history of 20th century literature? If so, you should read this book. Cabell was routinely considered one of the half dozen or so titans of American literature throughout the 1920s and 1930s (having been a highly acclaimed writer’s writer before that). H.L Mencken called him the greatest living American writer; F. Scott Fitzgerald put him third in his personal canon after Joseph Conrad and Anatole France; his wife Zelda called him her favourite author of all, and one of only two writers (along with Edith Wharton) who had ever made her cry. [Zelda Fitzgerald, Robert Heinlein, and Neil Gaiman all agreeing on their favourite author: how can you not want to read him?] Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis are just two examples of writers who boasted of Cabellian influences, and when Lewis became the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and mentioned, in his speech, the other American writers of his era who might have been equally deserving, Cabell was the third name to come to his mind. And quality aside, the court case surrounding Jurgen was the literary cause célèbre of its day, making it, and Cabell, icons for a generation. Oh, and Mark Twain said that Cabell was the author he most enjoyed reading.
- Are you looking for a hilarious light read? If so, do you find writers like P.G. Wodehouse and Terry Pratchett funny? If so, read this book.
- Are you looking for an insightful study of the nature of human existence, or at least human existence as it might appear from a very particular personal perspective? If so, read this book. It wasn’t the icon of a generation for nothing.
- Are you interested in the Mediaeval Romance, or in Victorian Revivalism? In Malory, and Rabelais, and Bunyan, and Scott, and Tennyson, and William Morris, and T.H. White? But you don’t mind them being made fun of a little? If so, read this book.
- Are you interested in cultural and sociological modern history, and would appreciate satire directed at early-20th century American society? If so, read this book.
- Do you like beautiful prose? And do you like the prose of Wilde, and Chesterton? If so… well, it’s not a must-read, but if you have the time I’d certainly recommend it.
- Do you need your books to have a strong driving plot, with no time for diversions and amusing episodes? Well, don’t worry too much, since it’s not a long novel – but it may not be perfect for you.
- Do you need gritty, authentic realism? Must everything be dry and serious? Does everything have to happen next to a kitchen sink, and should more dialogue be conducted through grunts than through speeches? Then this may not be the book you want.
- Do you want your books to have a clear, wholesome sense of moral certitude and respect for upright conventional mores? Then the fact that this novel was banned and the author prosecuted for indecency might be a clue that this one may not be entirely up your alley.
- Are you now strongly tempted to go and read Jurgen? If so, go and read Jurgen. Like I say, it’s not a gigantic book, and this is a very long review, so you’re probably better off just reading the novel right now. You can always come back for my thoughts about it later. If not, but you are considering maybe one day getting around to adding it to your TBR pile, then do, please, feel free to read this review…
So… if you’re going to read on past this point, and if you’re all sitting comfortably, let us begin…
Jurgen was frightened, a little. “Well, well! But it is usually the deuce and all, this doing of the manly thing. How, then, can I come to Koshchei?”
“Roundabout,” says the Centaur. “There is never any other way.”
“And is the road to this garden roundabout?”
“Oh, very much so, inasmuch as it circumvents both destiny and common sense.”
“Needs must, then,” says Jurgen. “At all events, I am willing to taste any drink once.”
“You will be chilled, though, travelling as you are. For you and I are going a queer way, in search of justice, over the grave of a dream and through the malice of time. So you had best put on this shirt above your other clothing.”
“Indeed it is a fine snug shining garment, with curious figures on it. I accept such raiment gladly. And whom shall I be thanking for his kindness, now?”
“My name,” said the Centaur, “is Nessus.”
Once upon a time there was a novelist named James Branch Cabell (it rhymes with ‘rabble’); and he was considered by all intellectually-minded people of his age to be a very fine novelist indeed. He was considered, in fact, to be perhaps the greatest American writer of his age, and an eminent contender to be awarded the Nobel Prize; some, like Zelda Fitzgerald, even considered that he was the greatest writer from any country, in any language, in the entire world. His older colleagues, like Mark Twain, acclaimed even his juvenile works as masterpieces (indeed, Cabell’s first major work, Domnei, was written at Twain’s request); his younger colleagues, like F Scott Fitzgerald (who disagreed with his wife, and placed Cabell only third in the world, after Joseph Conrad and Anatole France) and Sinclair Lewis wrote fan letters to him, courted him for back-cover blurbs, and sought his advice and inspiration (Fitzgerald boasted that his second novel, The Beautiful and the Damned, had been influenced by Cabell, while Lewis tore up his first draft of his future masterpiece, Main Street, having made a pilgrimage to spend an afternoon receiving Cabell’s advice on the manuscript, and in gratitude he dedicated the finished novel to Cabell).
And the most famous work by James Branch Cabell, and generally though not universally considered his masterpiece, was an odd little novel called Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice. And these excitable intellectuals and fellow-authors made a great fuss over Jurgen, which was considered in its day not merely an incomparable masterpiece and one of the Great American Novels, but an icon for an entire generation. One academic survey of the history and condition of the American novel, published and taught in schools in the early 1930s, concluded that Jurgen was the one American novel published since Huckleberry Finn that had a genuine claim to immortality. [which, let’s remember, would mean putting it ahead of The Great Gatsby, The Sound and the Fury, The Sun Also Rises, The Turn of the Screw, The Age of Innocence, Sister Carrie, Main Street, Babbit, The Jungle and so forth]
And now, in all of this, one particular strange thing may have caught the reader’s eye. It’s an odd little thing indeed, barely worth mentioning, but it sort of nags on the mind when you think about all this, and it’s this: nobody today knows who the fuck this guy is.
So who is he?
James Branch Cabell was a Virginian writer born in 1879. His family was from aristocratic, slave-owning stock – his great-grandfather had been Governor of Virginia – although they had come down in the world somewhat by Cabell’s time: his father was a pharmacist and his mother the daughter of a Confederate lieutenant colonel. Early in his career, he attracted the attention of H.L. Mencken, who sought to nurture a liberal renaissance in Southern literature and saw Cabell as a standard-bearer for that movement. With the support of writers like Mencken and Twain, Cabell became one of the most acclaimed young authors among the American intelligentsia of the first two decades of the 20th century. In 1919, he published Jurgen; but this was the era of Prohibition and Progressivism, and Jurgen was promptly banned, the printing plates seized by the police, and Cabell himself placed in the dock on charges of indecency at the behest of the Society for the Prevention of Vice. The trial lasted two years, and propelled Cabell (no stranger to controversy: having been thrown out of college for ‘overly intimate’ relations with a professor, he went on to be suspected of involvement in the murder of his mother’s lover) to general fame, and Jurgen, which spent two years circulating as a form of samizdat worth more than its weight in gold (so few copies having been printed before the ban), to the status of a bestseller. For the remainder of the ‘20s, Cabell was transformed from a struggling “writer’s writer”, acclaimed but little known, into both a cultural icon and a sound commercial venture. But as the mood changed in the ‘30s, Cabell fell out of favour again, and by his death in the late ‘50s he was almost entirely forgotten by the general public.
Nessus tapped with his forefinger upon the back of Jurgen’s hand. “Worm’s-meat! This is the destined food, do what you will, of small white worms. This by and by will be a struggling pale corruption, like seething milk. That too is a hard saying, Jurgen. But it is a true saying.”
Jurgen is an early fantasy novel. Like almost all fantasy novels of the era, it did not identify itself as a straight tale of fantasy, instead employing a very thin framing device: in this case, Cabell claims to be merely describing the contents of a traditional cycle of folk legends, a ‘Jurgen’ legend that the reader is to assume exists in much the same way as the ‘Arthur’ cycle, or the ‘Faust’ tales.
Perhaps, though, the best starting place to describe Jurgen is the prose style, which is elegant and at times beautiful. In his elegaic moments, he is reminiscent of Oscar Wilde in his prose poems and fairy tales, precisely and finely sculpted. More often, he reads like P.G. Wodehouse: an urbane flippancy, a mordant wit, and a taste for deadpan absurdity. All the comparisons – perhaps Chesterton, perhaps Saki – are to English authors. This should be no surprise (although to me it was): Cabell is always referred to as a Virginian gentleman, but those who knew him well spoke of him as specifically an English gentleman – Mencken suggested he was specifically the last 18th century English gentleman left alive. At the same time, Cabell’s forward to the later editions of Jurgen make clear that he acknowledges only Twain, Poe and Whitman as of any value in the history of American letters to that point – in his view, it would seem, the young American writer must seek inspiration in other traditions.
If we imagine for a moment that we are being forced at gun-point to deliver a one-line summary of this novel to a simple-minded TV executive with a short concentration span, the description “it’s like if Bertie Wooster were dropped into Camelot” might be one of the best options. It’s not really true, but it perhaps starts us off pointing in the right direction.
[Critics and fellow writers of the time appear to have compared Jurgen (favourably) to France’s The Revolt of the Angels; I couldn’t comment]
Pressured to name a single comparison novel for this, I’d be tempted by Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday (for its beauty, wit, and anarchic verve), but would probably settle on T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. Like White, Cabell takes the body of his content from the Romantic tradition, particularly as filtered through Victorian revivalism – we are in the world of Walter Scott, of Tennyson, perhaps of William Morris, as well as, at times, of Classical myth and Biblical apocrypha, and, oddly, of Russian folklore, although it should be noted that Cabell is also familiar with the mediaeval romances themselves, and references them obscurely – and like White he tells his tale in a decidedly modern, elegant yet down-to-earth manner. Like White, Cabell has two purposes in this juxtaposition of form and content: to use modern cynicism to milk laughter from the ridiculous of the romantic tropes, and to use the sincerity and ideals of that romanticism to shame and satirise the cynicism of modernity. Cabell, however, is much more full-blooded in pursuit of both aims. As a result, he is much funnier than White, and funny much more of the time, and at the same time he is more biting, and more frequently profound. In the process, however, he becomes more heightened and more symbolic – less grounded, and less solid.
Part of that is that where White is telling a broadly conventional story, Cabell is not. Jurgen is not an epic, but, at least superficially, a picaresque. At its core is the eponymous Jurgen, a middle-aged pawnbroker in the realm of Poictesme in (notionally) the 13th century who, after his wife is blessedly abducted by occult forces one Walpurgisnacht, reluctantly decides that despite the joys of her absence he must “do the manly thing” and win her freedom. To do so, however, he must take a “roundabout” route, and it doesn’t take the grieving husband long before he adopts an approach to the heroic quest that essentially involves meeting a lot of pretty young women and trying to persuade them all to have sex with him. His adventures take him from castle to castle, land to land, to heaven and to hell, and into the beds of goddesses and vampires.
But the boy loved her, and was happy, because her lips and heart were his, and he, as the saying is, had plucked a diamond from the world’s ring. True, she was a count’s daughter and the sister of a count: but in those days the boy quite firmly intended to become a duke or an emperor or something of that sort, so the transient discrepancy did not worry them.
And yet while the form is that of a picaresque, the intent is something deeper. Jurgen is in a way the story of a soul, and a summation of the human condition, or at least of a part of the human condition (particularly though not exclusively the condition of young men). It may perhaps be seen therefore as a sort of modern Pilgrim’s Progress, as Jurgen’s adventures parallel the striving soul of man in his passage through life – there also seems to be some (perhaps accidental) mirroring of Kierkegaard. [Or perhaps a closer analogy might be Alice in Wonderland?]
At heart, then, Jurgen is not the story of a lothario wandering from bed to bed; it is the story of a man having a mid-life crisis. Jurgen is convinced of the injustice of the world – convinced that “life is a wasteful and inequitable process”, specifically in how it continually fails to recognise his importance as a “monstrously clever fellow” (one of several phrases Cabell repeats again and again, like the lines from fairy tales) – and he is determined to get justice for himself. The poignancy, however, is in Jurgen’s essential confusion: he knows he wants something more from life, but he can never quite put his finger on what it might be, and though he knows he deserves better, he can’t quite explain why.
On one level, Jurgen is perhaps the grandfather of all the rogues in Fantasy: all the loveable thieves, silver-tongued bards, and witty assassins. But he is also deeper than those characters, because alongside our pleasure at his being a monstrously clever (and charismatic) fellow there is real pity, and perhaps even ridicule, because at times he resembles nothing so much as an abandoned child left to fend for himself in a world that is much crueler and more unjust than he can let himself believe. We are caught between admiration, pity, and a contempt not only for his actual misdeeds but more fundamentally for his colossal narcissism and single-minded egotism – the very traits that give him his enjoyable, perhaps even admirable, charisma and confidence. He himself is trapped between an impulsiveness that drives him to take whatever he wants, and an ineffable disquiet that leaves him unsatisfied by anything he can acquire.
Jurgen was a little embarrassed, for his apparent intimacy with a lady who had been dead for sixty-three years would be, he felt, a matter difficult to explain…
That alone would be amusing and interesting: but the best moments of the novel come from Jurgen’s perspicacity. Though Jurgen spends most of his time pursuing short-term goals and praising himself, at moments he is able to see through his own self-portrayal and recognise just how lost he his, just how dissatisfied, just how little he lives up to his own standards.
Fortunately, Jurgen has fantastic powers of intentional ignorance – an ability both to shrug off self-knowledge and carry on doing exactly what he was doing before, and also to constantly re-frame his own actions, for his own benefit, to give himself the temporary and superficial impression that actually everything is wonderful (his complaints that the world is unfair are only slightly more common than his self-congratulation over his own noble behaviour). This does not, in the long-term, address his problems… but Jurgen is not a man who thinks in the long-term. In fact, he avoids such uncomfortable thinking really quite devotedly.
Or perhaps the true defining characteristic of Jurgen is his pleasantness – his equanimity. It is a reflection of that same dissatisfaction, the same inability to say what it is that he wants: in consequence, he can never really say what he doesn’t want either. He meets all events with optimism (he may sigh and say that things are unfair, but he soon shrugs his shoulders, asks himself “but what could I do about it anyway?” and gets on with having sex with the next woman he finds), and he treats fairly with everybody. Well no – he treats quite terribly with some people. But only because he cares about his own well-being more than anything else: his sins are only driven by lust, greed, narcissism, and a sociopathic disregard for the feelings of everybody else (just as he is sometimes able to see into his own soul, he also has moments of empathy – but for the most part he’s able to ignore them), rather than by any actual hatred for, or condemnation of, other people. That, in a way, makes him both more and less admirable, and more and less despicable. Nothing is beyond the pale for Jurgen: the whole story kicks off when, on Walpurgisnacht, Jurgen stands up for Satan as misunderstood and underappreciated, and attempts to give the devil his due. No matter what others do, Jurgen will never commit to anything more than a mild criticism of their tactlessness or unfashionable conduct. And indeed, Jurgen’s equanimity is mirrored in his author, who refuses to either praise or to condemn, and who takes everybody’s beliefs seriously.
I think this is probably why the book was banned. Certainly, if you come to this book looking for indecency in the sex scenes, you will be found very wanting indeed. This has got to be the most innocuous banned book ever, at least in terms of explicit content. Jurgen may be a lothario, but his affairs are all conducted in both literal and literary darkness, wholly through the medium of innuendo, implication, context and double entendre (these vary from the delicately witty to the thunkingly ‘my what a big sceptre you have’ obvious). It is said by some that perhaps the real motivation of Cabell’s enemies (whom he later thanked profusely for granting him his fame and fortune*) was the novel’s disrespectful attitude toward organised Christianity (though the novel also mocks atheists and Crowleyans), and there is a little more ground for offence there. But I think the real difficulty was probably just the attitude of the book, which defies all ideologies and conventions. It is nonchalant. It is insouciant. It refuses to take anything seriously. Massacres and diabolical orgies are spoken of in exactly the same tone of voice with which one might otherwise speak of tea parties and traffic jams. For those whose form-of-life depended on taking absolutely seriously, without irony, such issues as the virtues of chastity or the sanctity of the priesthood, this nonchalance was probably more threatening than any overt polemic could have been. [Though I think it is even more damning to the rebels than to those they are rebelling against]
*Cabell always revelled in opposition – he made a habit of using brutal or anaemic critical responses as advertising for his books. When critics suggested that the illustrations for The Soul of Melicent were better than the writing, he compiled all their remarks to that effect, and printed them as an advert for the novel in his later books, with the helpfully informative warning added: “Now issued without illustrations.”
For the devils, he found, esteemed polygamy, and ranked it above mere skill at torturing the damned, through a literal interpretation of the saying that it is better to marry than to burn.
And more than that: Cabell clearly suggests that Jurgen and his equanimity are not exceptional at all. Jurgen is an Everyman – not every man may act precisely has he does, but there is clearly intended to be an element of universality about his confrontation with existential dread, about his fundamental agnosticism, his pettiness, his fickleness. If this really were The Pilgrim’s Progress, he’d be called ‘Modernman’ rather than ‘Jurgen’.
He is a modern man – and this is a modern book. It’s not what you’d normally think of as ‘Modernist’, in a concrete-and-Bauhaus sense – it’s as deeply skeptical of Progress as it is of Tradition – but it may perhaps be Modernist in a way that would be recognisable to F.H. Bradley, to T.S. Eliot and so forth: all attempts at truth are false; some are less false than others, but the least false truths sometimes cannot all be believed at the same time. It’s a deeply pluralist form of Modernism.
Part of that is a degree of metatextual playfulness more often associated with a later era. As I explained at the beginning, Jurgen is presented as a recension of old folk tales, allowing the narrator to use the mask of his fictional primary sources to get him out of any difficulty: any difficult moment in the plot, or any potentially controversial moment, can simply be skipped over due to the mediaeval source being lacking, or being inappropriate for modern readers. And yet the attentive Cabellian knows that the content cannot be genuine. For one thing, at one point the heroes of two other Cabell novels wander onto the stage, and have a discussion about how they may be characters in a story. One of them is in the habit of breaking the fourth wall and talking about The Author, because he really does believe he is a character. He’s quite right: he is indeed a character in a novel. He’s in fact a blatant self-insert of the author. However, the novel he’s a character in is a novel within a novel by Cabell, and the Author he is a self-insert of is himself a fictional character invented by Cabell (he’s a blatent self-insert for Cabell, his author). This is all more metaphysically significant within the novel than it may at first appear.
[The framing as a mediaeval tale with elements of excessive ‘mediaeval frankness’ edited out is truer than it appears: some of the lacunae in the text are indeed places where Cabell’s ur-text was censored by the demands of his editor]
“What do these poor enamoured creatures matter when to you my heart is ever faithful?”
“It is not your heart I am worrying over, Jurgen, for I believe you have none… However, let us not talk about it. For now it is necessary, absolutely imperative, that I go into Armenia and take part in the mourning for Tammouz: people would not understand it if I stayed away from such important orgies.”
A similar issue is Cabell’s/Jurgen’s (and Jurgen is in many ways a version of Cabell himself: for instance, Jurgen’s comically dismissive attitude toward his shrewish wife, for whom he settled largely to inherit her father’s pawnbroking business to pay his bills while he works on his poetry, becomes more interesting when you learn that at this point in his life Cabell had been married for half a decade to a significantly older widowed woman of considerable means (with six children), largely in order to pay his bills before he became a famous novelist) use of parenthetical remarks sources. Like a good mediaeval man (as our school-years readings of the Canterbury Tales have taught us all), he continually resorts to quoting the auctoritees to justify his actions. Like a good con-man, he manages to continually invent quotations and citations to suit any occasion.
Except that the joke is, at least partly, on us, when we realise that most of the great and ridiculously-named authors he quotes are real. They’re not always recorded as having said the things that Jurgen attributes to them – but largely that’s because most or all of their works were lost in the Fall of Rome. Maybe in the world of Jurgen, Jurgen’s quotes are actually accurately, and only appear fraudulent. It’s a trick Cabell himself used: when a reviewer once criticised a novel of his for the liberties it took with history, Cabell excoriated the poor education of the reviewer, who had not realised that its history, and its sources, were entirely accurate, but merely presented so as to appear falsified.
…and then that methodology comes full circle with Cabell’s indecency trial. Cabell was, eventually, fully exonerated – due primarily to the ignorance of the judge, who mistakenly believed that Jurgen really was based on mediaeval source texts that Cabell had done his best to bowdlerise appropriately. Either that or the judge just claimed to mistakenly believe it, while not believing it, because he believed that the Puritans would believe that he believed it…
Anyway, I think I may be going off on a tangent here. That’s appropriate to the novel, but not a good habit….
So what is Jurgen in the end, and what does it amount to?
A riotously hilarious, delightfully beautiful, and surprisingly moving novel, that manages to be both a summation of (one perspective of) human life and a trivial, episodic travelogue through an imagination. [Cabell claimed his method with Jurgen was to make a note of every single plot idea he had while writing the novel, and then include all of them]
In particular, what this novel is not is aged. Some old books, we claim to like, but really only like with caveats: oh, it’s really good, we say, given how old it is. Oh, once you accept how old-fashioned it is, you can that it’s really good. Oh, perhaps we can’t fully appreciate it now, but surely you can see how it must have seemed when it was written…
…that doesn’t apply here. It’s as accessible as anything written a couple of months ago. Well yes, there are idiosyncrasies of its era. Its prose style is no longer quite in fashion – but not in a way that makes it a chore to get through. You don’t have to be a Wilde or a Wodehouse fan – if you laugh at Pratchett, for instance, you’ll probably enjoy the humour here. [And I found this much funnier than most Pratchett, for the record] And I guess some of the literary and cultural references are a little more obscure now – few people today actually read Scott. But to be honest, the gist of this stuff has become embedded in our culture, particularly if you read any sort of fantasy, and it doesn’t matter too much if you don’t get quite all the allusions – I’m sure I didn’t.
“Two years afterward I followed the Emperor Locrine in his expedition against the Suevetii, an evil and luxurious people who worship Gozarin peculiarly, by means of little boats…”
While we’re talking about flaws, some people are going to find the novel offensive. That’s inevitable: like I say, it’s insouciant. I suspect that no matter what orthodoxy is around in any future age, it’ll lead a minority of people to be vocally annoyed with Jurgen. It’s an anti-idealist novel – and idealism never dies, it only swaps out its ideals (perhaps it is significant that Jurgen is a pawnbroker by trade). Today, I think the biggest issue with the book is likely to be the portrayal of women, who tend to be either seductresses, shrews/hags, or (not so) innocent maidens, and who are unambiguously objectified by the protagonist, without much condemnation from the author. You could counter this by saying, with support from the text, that the novel is to some degree criticising the way that society forces women into these prescribed roles. But the deeper explanation is that this is a psychological novel about a man’s spiritual journey: most characters are symbols on some level, and the women in particular, while each having their own personality, struggle to define themselves in any way other than as the object of Jurgen’s lusts, loves, irritations and idealisations. To blame the author for the way that Jurgen subjugates the reality of women to his preconceptions and symbolism is to misunderstand the book entirely. Or perhaps not entirely – maybe it is the author’s fault. The author, after all, has a lot in common with his protagonist. But if the author does tend to see the women in his life as objects and symbols… well, maybe we all struggle to see the people in our lives as people, rather than as the backdrop to our own epics. At least Cabell acknowledges his limitations. That, indeed, may be one of the primary messages of Jurgen: better to acknowledge one’s own flaws, to be uncertain about oneself, than to conceal one’s own imperfect humanity in the armour of this or that crusade. Oh, and it’s worth pointing out, in passing, that it’s not as though the men in this story, other than Jurgen himself, have any great characterisation either – less than the women, in fact. The objectification of the women is only more obvious because they’re the ones Jurgen is staring at, while the men remain in his peripheral vision.
[It’s worth noting perhaps that there was always a less enthusiastic reception for Cabell among women – indeed, apparently it was mostly female outrage that lead to his being put on trial (there’s a poem from the time about how men of the era would secretly read Cabell in private, but publically denounce him so as not to anger their wives). And indeed, in addition to being an anti-Puritanical book, it is also an unashamedly male book, written by a man about a man, for a predominately male audience. That some women should react with anger is understandable. Other women, however – particularly those less content with their place in society – have seen things to find positive in Cabell, however, specifically in his pluralism, his lack of hypocrisy, and his challenge to conventions. There’s a feminist response to Cabell by a little-known female writer of the thirties, which may illustrate the point. In it, the heroine, in a magical land, having met Cabell at the summit of the mountain of literature, watches Cabell’s novels performed as plays. “Tellectina saw,” it says, “for the first time in her life, that sex was a matter for humor not for morals; and saw too how easily men won women and how quickly they tired of them – and she made a note of it.” The plays go on, and Tellectina makes notes of all the ways Cabell shows men abandoning, being disillusioned by, and being frustrated by women, and she “sees marriage from the man’s point of view.” And yet, “oddly enough she saw at the same time another stage … on which other comedies, complementary to those before her eyes, were being enacted simultaneously… and she laughed in the darkness, and there lurked under her laughter a poignant note of sadness.” In the end the heroine decides to build her own home on the same mountain as Cabell, “but at a slightly different angle.”
I think both these concepts get to the heart of what seems to be Cabell’s approach: the idea that different, complementary yet distinct stories can take place at the same time, from different perspectives; and the idea of looking at things at a slightly different angle. Just because Cabell is writing about a man’s life doesn’t mean that he thinks there is no place for stories of a woman’s life. Indeed, he was friends with and a supporter of several female writers of his day – particularly with fellow Virginian Ellen Glasgow, a writer who confrontationally stressed the exploitation and victimhood of women at the hands of men. Cabell’s women, at least in this novel, are not just victims, even though they are exploited by men – they are just as duplicitous, just as interested in sex, just as lost and confused, as the men (one of Cabell’s catchphrases is “but she/he doesn’t understand me” – every husband and every wife admits the virtues of their spouse, but sadly confesses to not being really understood – of course, like Jurgen’s sense of justice, they never quite manage to explain what it is that has not been understood about them). You could see that as anti-feminist (and in 1919, daring to suggest that women could be just as horny and depraved as men was indeed liable to bring accusations of misogyny). You could also see it as feminist.
The impression I get from Cabell is that he thinks that everybody is trapped in their own story, everyone enacting their story surrounded by all these other people who think they are the all-important figures of their own tragedies, in the same way that Jurgen accidentally wanders into the novels of Perion and Horvendile (or has them wander into his) and nobody can agree what story they are in. Cabell is trying to help us to understand what is going on in the head of this one unexceptional man – and it isn’t always pretty, but if we demanded that he were pretty, we wouldn’t be understanding him at all. I think that anyone who feels that Cabell is too masculine an author (notwithstanding that at the time his critics accused him of effeminacy) should maybe try to see him as an invitation to others to tell their own stories at, as the response said, a slightly different angle. I’ve also just, purely by coincidence, run across a particular remark by Ursula LeGuin (who, incidentally, praises Cabell’s prose and understanding of fantasy, though I don’t know her views on his political implications). It’s about Tolkien, but it’s also applicable here. Le Guin says: Those who fault Tolkien on the Problem of Evil are usually those who have an answer to the Problem of Evil – which he did not. What kind of answer, after all, is it to drop a magic ring into an imaginary volcano? And I think that gets to the crux of it as regards Cabell too. Cabell is probably not a writer you will like if you already know the answer to life, whatever answer it is you may happen to have. Cabell is a writer you will like if, like Jurgen himself, you don’t have an answer; if, indeed, like Jurgen, you’re not entirely sure even what the question is. In particular, Cabell’s wide-ranging content and disarming style give the liberating impression that everything is potentially up for discussion.]
“What is art to me and my way of living?” replied the tumblebug, wearily. “I have no concern with art and letters and the other lewd idols of foreign nations. I have in charge the moral welfare of my young, whom I roll here before me, and trust with St. Anthony’s aid to raise in time to be God-fearing tumblebugs like me, delighting in what is proper to their nature.”
The other problem is structural. Because much of the novel is episodic, I felt it lacked tension. I found it enjoyable to read a chapter here and there – the chapters are very short – but it wasn’t a book I felt compelled to power through in one sitting. That’s not necessarily a flaw, to be honest. If you want a novel you can read in 10-minute or 30-minute excerpts that will bring a smile to your face, Jurgen’s the novel for you. In some ways it’s almost a perfect work-day novel in that sense! If you do try to read it through in one go, though, this feeling of a lack of driving pace may be exacerbated by the rich but repetitive style. It’s the sort of writing that, even if it delights you for a few pages, may well become trying over the course of the entire novel.
Fortunately, Jurgen doesn’t tire out its welcome – or not much, at least. It’s not a very long novel, and it does begin to cohere more dramatically in its later chapters: I found myself just beginning to weary in the middle, but getting right back into the spirit of things as they got more serious.
It’s not perfect, I ought to say. Aside from the above quibbles, I did feel that Cabell is best at the grand satire, the satire of life and of things as they are, rather than the narrow satires of contemporary issues – I understood and sympathised with his criticisms of early 20th century American democracy, but I felt that the more specific, and the more bitter, he became, the more tiresome he got [the dullest part is his pastiche of Thelema].
In that regard, it’s worth mentioning the Foreword. There are at least two versions of the Foreword. The original Foreword was a fairly short thing, entirely metatextual: it explains Jurgen’s mythological origins, and sets up the continuing mockery of those who attempt to penetrate and untangle symbolism in art and mythology, offering multiple scholarly interpretations and explanations of what Jurgen (or rather, the original Jurgen-cycle) actually means. It’s not Cabell’s best work – I felt these points were better made more subtly in the body of the novel – but its tongue-in-cheek playfulness isn’t too bad a place to start the novel, and will appeal to some.
“Others, with better moderation, do either entertain the vulgar history of Jurgen as a fabulous addition unto the true and authentic story of St. Iurgenius of Poictesme, or else we conceive the literal acception to be a misconstruction of the symbolical expression: apprehending a veritable history, in an emblem or piece of Christian poesy. And this emblematical construction hath been received by men not forward to extenuate the acts of saints.”
– PHILIP BORSDALE.
After the indecency trial, however, Cabell responded by writing the trial back into the novel itself, which he explains away by saying that a new fragment of the Jurgen myth, hitherto unknown, has recently been found. As it doesn’t quite fit in its place in the text itself, he puts it into the Foreword, and this is unfortunate. Because although it’s not terrible, I think it’s Jurgen at its worst. It depicts Jurgen/Cabell put on trial by the Philistines/Americans (Philistia is a country in the novel, an analogue for America) – and while it’s sharp and biting and defenders of art against the masses can nod approvingly, it does get into this too-obvious, too-specific territory. In particular, the “noble martyred artist put on trial by the philistine masses” schtick is exceptionally hard to pull off graciously**, and while Cabell was clearly in the right he doesn’t, in my view, really start the reader and the author off on the right foot together, taken as a way to begin the novel, particularly for people who have never read Cabell before. Fortunately, a few chapters in this initial bumpiness has been long forgotten…
**For the one exception, see Wilde in his trials. And his De Profundis isn’t always gracious, but it is beautiful and moving – Wilde looked good in martyrdom, which may have been on some level his intention. But sadly the same cannot be said of very many other writers.
But if Jurgen is so good, why haven’t we heard of it? How did Cabell go from the pantheon of greats to a nobody? What the hell happened?
Well, one problem Cabell has had has been that he is somewhat stranded between two camps. Because at the same time that Cabell was at the height of his fame, ‘fantasy’ was being transformed from an eccentricity of certain literary writers – something amusing and pleasant to Mr. Cabell, Mr. Chesterton, Lord Dunsany, M. Verne and other decent gentlemen – into an entire genre of, frankly, generally low literary merit and rather proletarian readership. It must have been hard to take seriously a man writing in the genre of Lovecraft and Howard and the dozens of other less notable hack-scribes of the pulp magazines. Certainly Cabell didn’t take the nascent sword and sorcery genre very seriously, or respectfully. When Cabell underwent a brief revival in fame after his death, when some of his work came back into print in the 1970s, it was marketed at the burgeoning fantasy audience, and the response from more literary observers was scornful – if you try to find literary appraisals of Cabell from a few decades ago, from outside his fandom and from outside fantasy, you can find a quite unpleasantly sneering tone, in no small part through his association with the then-abominated fantasy genre.
There was, of course, no water in Hell; indeed the importation of water was forbidden, under severe penalties, in view of its possible use for baptismal purposes: this sea was composed of the blood that had been shed by piety in furthering the kingdom of the Prince of Peace, and was reputed to be the largest ocean in existence.
But it isn’t just the fantasy that’s the problem. Part of it is his own decisions: in particular, frustrated his own by popularity, he put aside his critically-acclaimed career, organised his oeuvre into a titanic cycle of tangentially-connected works, The Biography of the Life of Manuel, which combined fiction and non-fiction, fantasy and non-fantasy, classic works with low-quality filler, and arranged it all by a new internal chronology, thoroughly confusing and alienating readers, and then wrote very little more, and only under the new by-line of “Branch Cabell”. He did briefly attempt to co-edit (with Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson) a literary magazine, but promised contributions didn’t materialise, everyone got bored, and it wrapped up quickly. At the very time that Cabell’s reputation was in jeopardy, he retreated from the field. It also didn’t help that Cabell’s reputation was never wholly based on his novels anyway – he was also a noted critic and essayist, a branch of literature that promptly collapsed in esteem completely.
But mostly it’s his style – not just his prose style, but his way of approaching literature. As the glittering twenties faded into the sombre thirties, the era of the Great Depression and the looming shadow of World War II, Cabell’s dedication to elegance and refinement appeared effete and pretentious, and his commitment to symbolism, allegory and suggestion seemed naïve and irrelevant. As one critic of the thirties put it, it seemed as though the fields of the earth were aflame, and men starved for bread, and Cabell wandered about hawking expensive and unfulfilling delicacies. People wanted to read novels that recognised the blood on the streets. They wanted grit. Jurgen may have a little blood and it may have a fair bit of darkness, but what it does not have is grit. As a result, it was authors like Steinbeck and Hemingway who rose to prominence, with a very different approach to how best to depict the essence of life. If you’ll forgive me stretching Wilde too far: in an era when people realise they are living in gutters, those who talk about the beauty of the stars are apt to find themselves unwelcome.
“And poetry is man’s rebellion against being what he is…”
Cabell wasn’t alone, of course. When Sinclair Lewis became the first American ever awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1931, his speech mentioned the other American writers of the era who might have been equally deserving (mirroring his mentor Cabell’s condemnations of Philistia, Lewis mentioned them in the context of how angry ordinary Americans would have been if any of them had won – fully as furious as they were were that Lewis himself had won – as they were all indecent and immoral people whom decent Americans could not approve of). Cabell was the third name who came to his mind, and the list is interesting (from a little reading around, it seems pretty close to the critical consensus of its day): Theodore Dreiser; Eugene O’Neill; James Branch Cabell; Willa Cather; H.L. Mencken; Sherwood Anderson; Upton Sinclair; Joseph Hergesheimer; and, as a token example of promising young writers, Ernest Hemingway. [Other lists of the era generally also include Edith Wharton, and earlier ones include Booth Tarkington, while most exclude Hemingway; Zona Gale and Glenway Westcott are frequent inclusions to top the list up to a round number, while Robert Frost, Amy Lowell, T.S. Eliot, Ole Rolvaag, Christopher Morley, Elinor Wylie, Elizabeth Roberts, E.E. Cummings and others also merited consideration; Hemingway and Dos Passos were considered by some to be promising young writers, while Fitzgerald and Faulkner were considered second-rate (and Faulkner and Hemingway in particular appear to have been widely hated by critics, supported only by a minority).]
The name other than Cabell’s that stands out there is that of Joseph Hergesheimer – considered by a poll of critics in the early 1920s to be the most important American writer then alive but now, like Cabell, largely forgotten. That this should be true of both men is no coincidence. Though Hergesheimer never had the publicity-boosting legal history of Cabell, nor the cross-over appeal into Fantasy, their careers had similar trajectories, largely, it appears, due to similarities in style. Both men were considered cultured, European and Decadent – elegant, polished, a little tantalisingly lascivious in subject matter. Both men found themselves on the wrong side of history in the 1930s. America’s pre-eminent critic of the era, Edmund Wilson (whose columns were carried by The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Atlantic, The Nation, Vanity Fair and other outlets, as well as appearing in best-selling compilations) dismissed the two of them in one breath as “provincial fops”. Cabell in particular, though he admitted that he was blessed with all-too-frequent bursts of extraordinary imaginative intensity, he considered “largely insipid”, and he found him to represent symbolically the whole cultural decay of the entire South ever since the Civil War. [Though later he mellowed somewhat: he allowed that Cabell did at least write for adults, unlike the “juvenile trash” of Tolkien, his predecessors Malory and Spenser, and other fantasists, whom Wilson believed were published and read only due to the psychological deficiencies and retrogression of the British people; by the year of Cabell’s death, Wilson had accepted that perhaps he might at least be considered on the same level as Flaubert and Swift, if not really among the great Literary writers]
“It is Atlantis you behold, and the sleeping of ancient Time, while Briareus watches.”
“Time sleeps quite naked, Anaïtis, and, though it is a delicate matter to talk about, I notice he has met with a deplorable accident.”
“So that Time begets nothing any more, Jurgen, the while he brings about old happenings over and over, and changes the name of what is ancient, in order to persuade himself he has a new plaything…”
Who’s right? Lewis, Mencken, the Fitzgeralds… or Wilson? Don’t ask me. If you want the popular answer, it’s obviously Wilson. The writers he opposed, like Cabell and Hergesheimer, Lewis and Anderson, have fallen from grace (to varying degrees), while the writers he championed, like Hemingway and Faulkner, and later Steinbeck, have become the canon. I can’t say that he was wrong – partly because I haven’t read enough, and partly because I’ve never seen what it is that Great Literarature and its Critics are interested in anyway. I feel qualified to consider the quality of a book, but when it comes to Literary Fiction, that’s a fashion and a style, and I’ve never grasped the art of being fashionable. So maybe the consensus is right. Maybe Cabell was never a Great Literary Giant in the first place, but only a writer of funny, clever, interesting and moving books.
But now we come to the other camp, and here there is no room for forgiveness. Why in the hell don’t fantasy fans know who Cabell is?
It’s not as though the genre has been unaware of Cabell, on some level. Indeed, along with Dunsany and Howard and Burroughs and Morris and MacDonald he’s probably one of the most influential parents of the genre. He has, for the genre, always been a writer’s writer. Sword and Sorcery after Howard attempted quite unapologetically to imitate Cabell: Jack Vance’s early magazine submissions were apparently entirely Cabellian, and the influence is said to still be very strong in his Dying Earth books; Fritz Leiber, too, is counted a devotee, and not above letting the references show (his famous rogue, the Grey Mouser, borrows Jurgen’s favourite phrase in calling himself “a monstrous clever fellow”). Michael Moorcock praised Cabell highly – not surprising for a writer who clearly yearned to take fantasy back to the literary sophistication of Cabell’s oeuvre – and I suspect his multiverse-spanning cosmology of the Eternal Champion may be inspired by The Biography of the Life of Manuel (a similarly tangential cycle unified by the conceit that the life of Manuel, who dies in the first volume, is continually recapitulated in new forms throughout the cycle). Lin Carter attempted to revive Cabell’s reputation in the 1970s through his editorship of the influential Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, a sort of early equivalent of the Fantasy Masterworks series: of the 65 books of the series, 6 were Cabell novels, with introductions by Carter. Carter also contributed articles to one of the more prominent Cabellian journals (yes, there used to be multiple Cabellian journals). So did Poul Anderson; while Roger Zelazny only sent in letters (as did, with no relation to the fantasy genre but interesting to note in passing, Martin Gardner).
[Tolkien probably was not greatly influenced by Cabell. But it’s perhaps amusing to point out a point of commonality: one of Cabell’s characters, Horvendile, is free for reasons we won’t go into here to wander throughout Cabell’s fantasy realms, from book to book, and acts as a representative of Cabell himself. ‘Horvendile’ is one spelling of the old Germanic character ‘Orwandel’, who also shows up, via an Old English spelling, as Tolkien’s Eärendil the Mariner. While we’re on the subject, Horvendile/Eärendil is also Hamlet’s father in the original version of that story]
A conscience is all very well in its place, your majesty; and I, for one, would never have been able to endure the interminable labour of seducing and assassinating so many fine young fellows if my conscience had not assured me that it was all the fault of my sister-in-law…
Moving to science fiction, John Brunner is known to have been a fan, while James Blish actually edited a Cabellian journal. Most prominently, Robert Heinlein’s motivation to become a writer is clear in the subtitling of his (posthumously published) first novel, For Us the Living: A Comedy of Customs (Cabell subtitled all his Biography books with ‘A Comedy of…’) as well as more directly in his later Job: A Comedy of Justice (mirroring Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice); the strongest influence, however, was on Stranger in a Strange Land, which Heinlein explicitly wrote as an attempt at a ‘Cabellesque’ novel (yes, people used to use the word ‘Cabellesque’). In later times, the echo of Cabell can be seen in perhaps his closest modern analogue, Terry Pratchett – I can’t find out for sure whether it’s intentional or merely convergent evolution combined with a second-hand influence through the S&S that early Discworld parodies, but some of the similarities in ideas are striking, and there are some details that may be either coincidental or else overt borrowings (both Cabell and Pratchett, for example, have cities called ‘Pseudopolis’ in their settings). Given Cabell’s former stature and Pratchett’s voracious reading habits as a child, it’s hard to believe that Pratchett wouldn’t have been familiar with his predecessor. If he wasn’t, he’d certainly have found out about him later: Pratchett’s close friend and collaborator, Neil Gaiman, has cited Cabell as his favourite author.
Come on, people – Zelda Fitzgerald, Robert Heinlein and Neil Gaiman all agree on their favourite novelist. How can more people not give him a try?
In Ye Olden Days, it made sense for fantasy fans to not want to try to read Cabell. This isn’t pulp fiction. It’s silly. It’s also very serious. And it may have gone over the heads of people who bought pulp magazines mostly for their mildly arousing cover depictions of semi-naked busty women chained up by slavering lizard-people (not that there’s anything wrong with that). But fantasy is bigger now, and more mainstream. People are used to the idea that fantasy can be funny, and to the idea that fantasy can be clever, and to the idea that fantasy can be meaningful.
I am become as a rudderless boat that goes from wave to wave: I am turned to unfertile dust which a whirlwind makes coherent, and presently lets fall.
Jurgen is all three. And it may be almost a century old, and it may in some minor respects be identifiably of its time, but it is much more relevant and readable than an awful lot of acknowledged SF&F written in the intervening years (and if it’s the political aspect of the way the novel treats women that’s your problem – well, in that case Jurgen is a lot less objectionable than an awful lot of what’s still being published today!)
This isn’t one of those “you should read this to understand the history of the genre” novels… although that advice would be completely correct. This is one of those “you should read this novel” novels. Maybe the boat has sailed for Literary Fiction and its definitions of What Counts – maybe rightly, maybe wrongly, I couldn’t say. But genre fans should absolutely be considering bringing Jurgen, and maybe Cabell as a whole (I don’t know, this was my first Cabell – but if I can find others, it won’t be my last!) back into the fold.
You’re never going to read another new Terry Pratchett novel. So read an old James Branch Cabell. You’ll be in good company.
“I, Smoit of Glathion, who conquered Enisgarth and Sargyll in open battle and fearlessly married the heiress of Camwy!”
Adrenaline: 2/5. Although it does ramp up a little toward the end, for the most part this is a comfortable book that ambles amusingly from place to place. It also makes heavy use of speeches, particularly at the beginning and the end. It wasn’t actively boring… but until I got near the finale, I felt no pressure to race through it. As I say in the review, this may be a better book to read in snippets than to dive into in a long weekend.
Emotion: 3/5. Cabell is capable of emotive moments. Indeed, Zelda Fitzgerald said that his The Rivet in Grandfather’s Neck was one of only two books she ever read that made her cry (along with Wharton’s Ethan Frome). But in Jurgen, his default mode is detachment and equanimity, and the emotive moments are brief and sparsely scattered.
Thought: 4/5. Under the faux-Romantic escapades, this is a thoughtful book that addresses key questions of The Nature of Human Experience. It doesn’t necessarily give any radically new answers, but clearly willing to engage with the issues in a way that most books this fun and silly just aren’t. It’s also a clever and erudite book that rewards thoughtful reading, without really requiring it.
“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.”
Beauty: 5/5. As I say in the review, Cabell’s prose has two forms: flippant wit, and elegaic prose-poetry. Both forms are beautiful and polished. I’m not sure I’d quite rate him a better stylist than, say, Chesterton or Wilde, but that’s good company to be keeping.
Craft: 5/5. Maybe we might fault him for it going on a little long in the middle and being a bit too heavy-handed once or twice. But I’m not sure that’s fair. I think Cabell wrote pretty much exactly the book that he wanted to write.
Endearingness: 5/5. This ‘endearingness’ score, how much I liked the book, instinctively, emotionally, almost as though it were a person (rather than how much I admire the book) is always the most subjective part of my reviews – but rarely as much as it is here. The thing is, for me this book was a total delight, through and through. And a big part of that is the humour. It is hilarious. I did, literally, honestly, have to stop reading at one point because I was laughing too hard. I would find myself grinning broadly within a few paragraphs almost every time I picked it up. It is so fun, and so funny, and the themes and the beauty just put the final icing on it. But the problem is, humour doesn’t always translate, and some forms of humour are trickier to grasp than others. This is the hard sort. Cabell has few actual jokes, or at least not brilliant ones. The comedy is cumulative, and it relies on fast-talking patter in a Bertie Wooster accent, on deadpan absurdity, on wickedly black humour, on a light touch of very polite farce, on irony, and on biting satire, with the odd punchline thrown in just for variety. If you get this, it’s funny, and that sustains the entire novel. If you don’t get this, then you will be reading pages and pages and pages of… well, trivia and nonsense that will totally perplex you and leave you baffled that anyone would waste their time writing or reading such a ‘book’. There is much less here to pull you through the novel, if you don’t enjoy the writing or the humour, than there is in, say, Terry Pratchett – it is much less grounded and plot-based than Pratchett (much more like his The Last Hero than his Night Watch). So I loved it. I’m not alone: when Mark Twain was in his final illness, it was Cabell’s books he asked for, as the literature that brought him the greatest joy. But I don’t know, you may hate it.
Originality: 5/5. Yes, the general conceit of a man with a modern sensibility put into a Romantic setting for comic effect has been done by others. But most of the time I had no idea what was happening next, or how it was going to end. For example, I can confidently say that “finding a way to avoid being converted into a solar myth by the machinations of the philologists” has never featured as major challenge for the protagonists in the novels I’ve read up to now. Never has the correct application of trivia about the naming practices of the mediaeval papacy loomed so large over a plot. I have never read anything quite like Jurgen before.
Echo: 1/2. And I’m even busting out my virtually-never-seen additional score. For those who have forgotten, what I mean by ‘echo’ is that feeling that some books leave you with when you have finished reading them, of out-of-place-ness, of not being correctly aligned with reality, of the book not having quite finished working through your mind. Surprisingly for a book that wasn’t that immersive at the time, this one did leave me somewhat discombobulated.
“And do you really think, Jurgen, that I am going to explain to you why I made things as they are?”
“I fail to see, Prince, how my wanderings could have any other equitable climax.”
Overall: 7/7. BRILLIANT.
Jurgen may have been buried by the dusts of history and forgetfulness, and it certainly isn’t going to please everybody, with its detached irony and its cold wit, and its meandering picaresque; but it really is one of the classics of the genre, and it deserves to be read by many, many more people. At the very least, this is a seminal influence on the Fantasy genre that may cast a new light on many famous works of the canon; for readers who appreciate its sense of humour and its delicate poignancy, it can also be an uproarious and moving slice of entertainment. Mark Twain was right: Cabell is worth reading.