Figures of Earth: A Comedy of Appearances; by James Branch Cabell

No soul may travel upon a bridge of words


In 1919, the year of the publication of Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice, few people knew who James Branch Cabell was. He had, for some time, been quietly accruing a small but passionate brigade of die-hard fans – people like Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, and Scott F. and Zelda Fitzgerald – but his work had not yet broken through even into the general awareness of the U.S. literati, let alone onto the bestseller lists.

In 1921, the year of the publication of Figures of Earth: A Comedy of Appearances, quite a lot of people knew who James Branch Cabell was. The two-year prohibition of Jurgen at the behest of the Society for the Prevention of Vice, the associated highly-publicised trials, the subversive allure of the samizdat copies of the book that had been circulating at sky-high prices in the interim, the chorus of intellectual voices in his support and the thundering denunciations of the popular press all ensured that Cabell was – if still not exactly widely-read – at least widely known about. An audience, ready-made by the misfiring PR campaigns of his enemies, waited with bated breath for his next opus, begging to be seduced…

…and that’s probably where things began to go wrong.

I’ll leave the description of the problem to Cabell himself, in a foreword to my copy of the novel:

The fact was forthwith, quite unreticently, discovered that in “Figures of Earth” I had not succeeded in my attempt to rewrite its predecessor: and this crass failure, so open, so flagrant, and so undeniable, caused what I can only describe as the instant and overwhelming and universal triumph of “Figures of Earth” to be precisely what did not occur… the, after all, tolerably large portion of the reading public who were not disgusted by Jurgen’s lechery were now, so near as I could gather, enraged by Manuel’s lack of it.

It followed that – among the futile persons who use serious, long words in talking about mere books, – aggrieved reproof of my auctorial malversations, upon the one ground or the other, became in 1921 biloquial and pandemic.

…even the dedicatees of the novel (Untermeyer and Mencken he particularly singles out; other parts are dedicated to Follett, Hergesheimer and Walpole, and the original foreword to Lewis) lined up to deride the result.


Now, I have to say, this rather baffled me at first. Surely, I thought, the problem here is not that Figures of Earth fails to rewrite its predecessor, but that it does so too exactly, its virtues all the worse for the extra wear? Jurgen is a tragicomic, satirical novel about a man who travels an imagined mediaeval Europe, engaging in a series of trysts with various symbolically distinctive women, generally having his own way yet remaining discontented, the whole told in a weirdly archaic and pseudo-archaic but thoroughly poetical voice, leavened with fin de siècle deadpan wit.  Figures of Earth, meanwhile, is a tragicomic, satirical novel about a man who travels an imagined mediaeval Europe, engaging in a series of trysts with various symbolically distinctive women, generally having his own way yet remaining discontented, the whole told in a weirdly archaic and pseudo-archaic but thoroughly poetical voice, leavened with fin de siècle deadpan wit. The satire is more bitter, the verbiage more otiose, the jokes more obvious and trite, the weak characterisation even weaker, and the irritatingly misogynist jokes about shrewish wives (which is to say all wives, apparently) even more repetitive. It’s not different, it’s just wose.

That, at least, is what I thought halfway through the novel. It’s also probably what I thought two thirds of the way through the novel, though by that point I thought it largely through inertia.

But now I’ve finished it, and suddenly… all is clear.

How do the stories of Jurgen and Manuel differ? Well, what Cabell focuses on in his foreword is the way in which Jurgen, while gallantly draped in the stiff upper lip of gentlemen of the era, is an essentially transparent character, who emotes broadly and moves in straight lines, while Manuel is largely a blank canvas. He is, Cabell says, a figure whom even the poets have never loved, or trusted; we must simply say that such-and-such were the deeds of Manuel, “such and such were the appearances… make what you can of them.” We do not, in other words, have access to the inner thoughts of Manuel.

[which perhaps explains why Cabell is one of the dedicatees of Mary Gentle’s Rats and Gargoyles stories, which similarly refuse to share the thoughts of their characters with the reader]

The fact that the subtitle of the novel is A Comedy of Appearances is something that might seem at once to make sense… but only really makes sense, I think, later on. The appearances in question may not be what they appear.

Then there is a second difference, to which Cabell apparently alludes elsewhere in his writings. Cabell, it is said, sees three potential responses to the unmeaning hellscape that is life: chivalry (the determination to do good), gallantry (the determination to live well) and poetry (the determination to create something more lasting than oneself). Jurgen, in this scheme, is a gallant: his highest concern is his own pleasure. Manuel, however, is a knight: his efforts are directed as doing what is required of him. This distinction may not at first be obvious: Jurgen, after all, does care a considerable amount about what is thought of him, and about his obligations (the entire story is kicked off by his reluctant decision to “do the manly thing” and rescue his wife), while Manuel, with his succession of lovers, hardly seems to be above the pursuit of pleasure. Nor is poetry absent from either novel – indeed, the seductions and dangers of the artistic life are one of the most prominent themes in Manuel’s story (affording Cabell the chance to pre-emptively, barely-concealedly, savage his critics and rivals). I probably wouldn’t have realised the difference if it hadn’t been pointed out to me. But the distinction is very real, nonetheless. Jurgen’s story is the story of the pursuit of the good life (a pursuit sometimes interrupted by other forces); Manuel’s story is fundamentally the story of what it is like to follow one’s obligations, including the obligations put on one by oneself (a following that is sometimes sidetracked by other pressures and impulses). While this is only a difference in emphasis, it gives a book with a wholly different soul, in the final assessment.

But the biggest difference between the two novels is perhaps something much, much simpler. Jurgen is a novel about a mid-life crisis: a middle-aged, married man who realises he isn’t enjoying himself that much. The character does, of course, change and learn throughout the novel, but it is fundamentally a novel about a moment in time, a moment in a man’s life.

Figures of Earth is not. Figures of Earth is instead a novel about the whole of a man’s life.

To come at the point from another angle altogether: it is sometimes said that Cabell was a misogynist writer. It’s unfair, but not incomprehensible as a complaint. The women in his novels are largely symbols, largely idealised, largely present only to teach, reward, punish or otherwise motivate the male protagonist.

And yet to some degree, to see the gender relations of these books in that way is misguided; it is perfectly backward (which means, I suppose, that it is also largely accurate, as seeing things backward usually, if misleadingly, is). Because it is actually the women in the lives of the heroes who are rounded and complex, even if they are complex only as complex symbols, or symbols of something complex. Both Jurgen and Manuel move from one woman to another (Jurgen more than Manuel, to be fair), but as they are largely empty characters themselves, and as these complicated and sympathetic women largely represent entire ways of life, it is the grey and hollow men who take on the colours and substance of the women in their lives. These are novels about women; the men are little more than eyes for the benefit of the reader.

But where Jurgen flits from one woman to another, sampling ways of life like morsels, but never quite accepting any of them, Manuel’s progress is a progress over time. So, of course, is Jurgen’s, but Jurgen’s time is likewise a symbolic time: he moves from Guinevere to Anaïtis in a recapitulation of the life of a generically gallant young man, and there remains a part of Jurgen that is always the old pawnbroker, detached and reflective, an old man dreaming of being young. Whereas Manuel, for all that at any moment he retains more of himself secret and remote (from both his women and his audience), never committing with the enthusiasm of a Jurgen, nonetheless is embedded in time in a way that Jurgen quite overtly is not. Manuel’s movement from one woman to another is not a sampling of tastes, but a changing of his underlying character. We spend too long focused on the blank, reflecting mask of Manuel, and let the real world of his women slip by us. And just as the women form Manuel, so too the women form the book.

This, in the end, is why Figures of Earth is a mirror to, but not a replica of, Jurgen. If its earlier parts in particular appear callow, hollow and brash… I think that they are meant to. That is who Manuel at that point in his life. If it seems like Jurgen but worse… well, perhaps that is because it is a parody of the earlier novel. Not in a coarse, direct fashion, to be sure: but perhaps it is a parody of its soul. It is when Manuel is youngest that he is closest to the gallantry of Jurgen, as young men are prone to gallantry; and here the writing is most refulgent, the humour most obvious, the weight most thin and the import most trivial. Perhaps early readers were reassured at first, thinking this would be another Jurgen. “He may be trying too hard to repeat his success,” they may have thought, “but perhaps he’ll shake of the rust as he goes on.” That, at least, is what I thought.

What actually happens, however, is quite different. The fundamental style of the novel does not change: floriloquent, flippant, decadent and sharp. But as Manuel passes out of his youth, the chilliness occasioned by our impermeable, occluded hero deepens first into sombre, bitter cloud, and then further into the interstellar dark. We begin to realise that if we thought Manuel was a roguish antihero in the mold of Jurgen, we may have been mislead. Or maybe we weren’t? Maybe this is what Jurgens look like, when we don’t have the benefit of access to their rakish, self-justifying thoughts? And if we thought we were traipsing through frustration in the manner of Jurgen to find our way back to repose… we may again have been mislead. This is a novel that proclaims quite explicitly that in all lives, there is far more suffering than joy.

The critic Edmund Wilson, whose own views on Cabell changed considerably over his life, finally came to compliment the book by describing it as “a merciless chronicle in which all the values are negative.” “Merciless” is indeed the word. The flashes of humour only serve to help rip open any illusion of wholesomeness or of content; if at times they nag and drone, it is perhaps not inappropriate. If the language at times waxes far too porphyrous, seeming to seek vainly to distract from the sound of cheap tin by the brazen imitation of far thunder – well, that is not beside the point. Over time, it is not so much that the oratorical style of the early sections changes, as that the older man begins to have more weight to throw into his turns of phrase, more depth and resonance.

In the end, we are left with a protagonist both hidden and exposed: exposed, as every kernel of dignity and illusion is ripped and torn from him, no jot of light left untainted by corrosion; and yet hidden still, defiant in the face of the world and in the face of the reader who can never quite get beyond his mask. Oh, at times it may appear to us that we do. But this, after all, is a comedy of appearances.

In the end, we are left with a defence of anonymity, of emptiness, as its own form of heroism against in the bitter specificities of existence. Or so, at least, it may appear.

Is the result as good as Jurgen? Cabell thought it was; he also comments that it was particularly popular with women, though whether that reflects the intriguing and varied characters of its idealised women, or simply its relative propriety in comparison to Jurgen, I couldn’t say. I can understand why Cabell liked it more. While there’s more prose wasted than in Jurgen, there are also more quotable poetical highlights. And undoubtedly, by the end, it goes into much darker and more profound and confrontational territory than Jurgen. It’s hard to think of a novel more… merciless.

But… well, maybe I’m too young (critics have commented that this is not a book for the young). I like life! I do, occasionally, enjoy a little something more than dry and windy salt speckled with ironic razor blades. There are times when I don’t want to, say, read five paragraphs on why it’s terrible that babies are born because all life is unbearable and we’d all be better off not born at all. I’m not always in the mood for a book that at times seem to primarily be interested in picking a subject and then telling you why everything about it is shit because everything is shit and we’re all going to die and that’s shit. Jurgen had sharp moments, but it was also consistently funny; Figures of Earth is just sharp, and uses its frequent mild amusingness as just another way of stabbing its reader.

And frankly: I’m not entirely convinced. By my own argument, that is. Yes, I do think that some of the brassy quality of the first half or two thirds of the book is intentional. But I’m not sure that it all is. I think that Cabell was trying too hard at times to emulate his prior success. Yes, there are bits that are brilliantly expressed, but there are also lots of bits that could do with an editor. Great, you’re writing in classical hexameter – do you have to? Isn’t pointing out that you’re writing in hexameter kind of being obnoxious? Why yes I did notice that that paragraph there was actually a sonnet cunningly disguised as prose – but did it need to be?

In a book like Jurgen, which engenders good will, these things are an endearing icing. In a book like Figures of Earth, they’re more like an annoying distraction.

In the end, I’m left torn between two irreconcilable hypotheses: that Figures is worse-written than Jurgen, and that it’s better-written. Perhaps it’s best to say: the degree of difficulty he’s attempting here is higher, both in the prose and in the themes. That means he fails more often and it’s more obvious.

But it also means that when he gets everything right, it’s really, really good.

And yet I can’t help but think it could have been better.

Adrenaline: 2/5. The fact that the novel drifts dreamily along is part of its claustrophobic charm. But I might have enjoyed it more in the end (and particularly in the beginning!) if it had been a bit more gripping…

Emotion: 4/5. The detached style, and the unavailability of Manuel, prevent it from being a tearjerker. But if you write an entire novel about tragedy and despair, and write it with piercing, unforgiving psychological accuity and poetic flair, you’re going to end up being emotionally affecting in parts, no matter how blank-faced you keep your protagonist…

Thought: 4/5. An intellectual and sophisticated novel with weighty (so weighty!) themes, along with rampant symbolism (both serious and comedic) and an involuted style of prose that at times requires close attention… but there’s no real sustained conceptual explorations, except perhaps until the very end.

Beauty: 4/5. There are many moments of aching beauty. On the other hand, there’s actually a lot of fluff too, and intentional ugliness.

Craft: 4/5. I’m loathe to quite give him full credit, because I do think there are times when he’s too full of the sound of his own voice (and his own wife jokes). And, hey, next time some sort of pacing structure might be nice. On the other hand, it’s hard to deny the sophistication here, on a mechanical level – the way in which he is able to protray nuanced characters with minimal effort, the way in which he interweaves plot strands, his layers of symbolism and allusion (which I don’t pretend to have gotten to the bottom of), and the way in which he is almost able to pull off a prose style that in the hands of another writer might easily have been (unintentionally) risible. But then again (I’m arguing with myself in real time here) I think perhaps my original impression was more accurate: because I’m not sure it’s fair to completely forget how underwhelmed I was at first, simply because of its overwhelming conclusion. Yes, some of the sins of the early parts were probably intentional; but shouldn’t the author have been able to convey his point without making some parts almost a chore, and without giving the impression he had lost his touch?

Endearingness: 2/5. I admire the book, I enjoyed reading it, and there are bits that I actively like. But at the same time, I positively dislike the novel as a whole. It’s dour, and bitter, and vain, and isn’t something I’m likely to turn to for a comfort read. In fact, it’s almost the opposite of a comfort read.

Originality: 5/5. It could be objected that Cabell does employ, and play on, various tropes of mediaeval romances and early fantasies; but that would be churlish. In truth, this is an entirely sui generis piece of individual genius that, as Manuel would put it, “follows after its own thinking”.

Echo: ½.

OVERALL: 6/7. VERY GOOD. I can see some, like Cabell himself, placing this ahead of Jurgen, on account of its deeper and more sombre themes, its greater profusion of prose poetry, and its more subtle and affecting characterisation. It is, indeed, probably more accomplished than the earlier novel – but, as noted above, it applies that accomplishment in the service of a much more difficult endeavour. The result is something that just fails to hit the heights of its predecessor in almost every way, while also being a profoundly cold and spiky novel; the joy in Jurgen is turned to bitter ashes here, which makes it a rather less engaging literary work, for all that it may be a more philosophically interesting one.


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