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’ve been running this blog for – as of a few days ago – seven years now. Long time. Fair few books reviewed over that time (though nowhere near as many as I’d have liked). So, with the seven year mark gone by, and the weather being wet and cold and dreary, I thought it might be nice to draw up an updated countdown of the best books that I’ve reviewed over that time.
There is, however, a slight complication. In recent years, a lot of my reading has been two big re-read projects of the works of two of my favourite authors – Robin Hobb and Terry Pratchett. This means that any brief list would be overrun by their works – in particular, I’ve reviewed around 35 of Pratchett’s Discworld novels, and a lot of them are very, very good. A list of Discworld novels with a couple of other things thrown in just doesn’t seem that useful.
So, a compromise: this is a list of the ten best books I’ve read in the last 6-7 years, but with only one book per author. Just for fun, I’ve also thrown in the opening paragraph or two of each novel.
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…