“It is my foible, one among a great many, to be a devotee of the niceties, of the overtones, and of the precision of very often rewritten and suitably colored prose.” (All JBC quotes are in italics)
This is not a scholarly essay, but rather a reader’s and in a small way fellow writer’s homage to a unique American literary figure who deserves better than to lie almost completely forgotten, at least by the general public, in a Richmond grave. Perhaps with the exception of his home state, since VCU has a James Branch Cabell Library. In the 1920’s he was one of the most popular authors in America. The decadence and desperate frivolity of that era suited him; however his star quickly faded in the pregnant gloom of the 1930’s. In the words of Alfred Kazim: “Cabell and Hitler did not inhabit the same universe.” I have been unable to find the source or the exact quote, but someone wrote that he painted exquisite miniature portraits in an age of industrial murals. Twain and Mencken were fans, and Heinlein consciously patterned Stranger in a Strange Land after Jurgen, himself calling it “Cabellesque.” Mencken disputed the common belief that Cabell was a romantic, claiming that Cabell was the ultimate anti-romantic: “Cabell’s hereos hunt dragons … as stockbrokers chase golf balls.”
“Tell the rabble my name is Cabell.” The first Cabell settled in Virginia in 1664, and the family remained prominent throughout the history of Virginia. James was born in 1879 and died in 1958. For an American his blood was the bluest of blue, a true southern aristocrat. At the age of fifteen he matriculated at William and Mary, and later still as an undergraduate he taught Greek and Latin there, until he was suspended for having a “too intimate” relationship with a professor. He was later readmitted and subsequently graduated in 1898. In 1901, the year in which his stories were first published, he was suspected of murdering a prominent Richmond man, John Scott, who was rumored to be romantically involved with Cabell’s mother. Whatever his other proclivities, and as vividly indicated by his writings, it is evident that he enjoyed women. In addition to rumored escapades, he married and when his first wife died in 1949, remarried within a year. Between 1905 and 1955 he published some fifty books. He is often described as an author of satirical fantasy fiction and belles lettres. I confess that I’ve only read six or seven of his books, the reason being that, although well written, for a modern reader the novelty of his once shocking sexual innuendo wears a bit thin after awhile and his themes become repetitive. And I’ve only reread two of his early novels, the ones that I and most people consider his best and most important works, Jurgen, A Comedy of Justice and Figures of Earth, A Comedy of Manners. Also noteworthy are The Silver Stallion, a sort of sequel to Figures of Earth, and The Cream of the Jest: A Comedy of Evasions, both of which I intend to reread un de ces beaux jours.
“If we assiduously cultivate our power of exaggeration, perhaps we too shall obtain the Paradise of Liars. And there Raphael shall paint for us scores and scores of his manifestly impossible pictures … and Shakespeare will lie to us of fabulous islands far past ‘ the still vex’d Bemooths,’ and bring us fresh tales from the coast of Bohemia. For no one shall speak the truth there, and we shall be perfectly happy.”
A genetically inclined iconoclast, Cabell described WWI as having been fought “to make the world safe for hypocrisy.” The setting for most of his novels is the Province of Poictesme, inexactly located in the south of a France that never was in a world that never was. His protagonists tended to be solipsistic, morally ambiguous men who, having made largely implied Faustian bargains, set out on fantastic quests, some of cosmic scope, to renew their youth or gain fame and fortune, goals which they usually obtained in one form or another. However, they also sought the eternal love of the perfect woman, which being unobtainable, of course they never obtained. “The transfiguring touch was to come, it seemed from a girl’s lips; but it had not; he kissed, and life remained uncharmed.”
“Some few there must be in every age and land of whom life claims nothing very insistently save that they write perfectly of beautiful happenings.” And after the subdued receptions for his first few books, that seemed to be his preordained fate. However he also wrote: “Time changes all things and cultivates even in herself an appreciation of irony.” Time’s sense of irony was evidently at play when Cabell published Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice in 1919, and the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice moved quickly to block publication, seizing the printing plates in January 1920, which resulted in one of the first famous court cases concerning free speech and the definition of obscenity. The Society was a private institution which became charted by the state, and whose members in almost Taliban-like fashion were granted broad powers of search, seizure and arrest, also receiving 50% of any subsequent fines levied by the state. They are most famous for the many books they had banned, including Ulysses. Members patrolled the streets making sure the newsstands didn’t sell girly magazines. They devoted particular attention to the suppression of anything concerning homosexuality or birth control. They were fond of raids on bath houses, which was a bit ironic too, since The Society’s founding members were prominent in the YMCA movement. The case went on for two years, eventually being decided in Cabell’s favor. Interestingly the prosecutor seemed more incensed by the book’s mocking of papal infallibility, several popes were guests of the Devil, than he was about the book’s alleged obscenity. In his ruling Judge Charles Cooper Nott, Jr. said: “It is doubtful that the book could be read or understood at all by more than a very limited number of readers.” Of course in that he was wrong. The publicity surrounding the case made it a favorite in ladies’ drawing rooms. It was the Fifty Shades of Grey of its day. When Cabell published a revised edition in 1926, he exacted the perfect author’s revenge. He added a chapter in which Jurgen is put on trial by the Philistines and the prosecutor is a giant dung beetle. Later in a book he thanked The Society for the publicity.
Another thing that made Cabell’s novels popular, especially with the ladies, at least once they wet their beaks with Jurgen, is that his novels are filled with sexual innuendo, double entendres, wordplay, anagrams, puzzles and codes, all of which made for fun group discussion. Many of the strange names he gives people and places are anagrams. The castle Storisende in Poictesme is a simple anagram for “stories end.” The decipherable Sigil of Scoteia is a prime example of one of his codes.
“The optimist believes this is the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true.” I was not a literature major, so I am uncertain as to where the border between satire and allegory lies. To me Jurgen is decidedly Swiftian, and I believe that it is as allegory that it has true literary merit. In it Cabell assails the cultural, religious, and political beliefs of his time. Jurgen, who considers himself “a monstrous clever fellow,” regains his youth via a not clearly described Faustian bargain and sets out on grand adventures to find, not for altruistic purposes of course, the true creator and ruler of the universe, seducing women all along the way. He first stumbles through a twisted version of the Arthurian Legends, while greatly entertaining The Lady of The Lake and Queen Guinevere. Throughout the book there is a lot of him unsheathing his long gleaming sword for various ladies to admire. He visits Heaven and Hell. Heaven turns out to be an exact replica of an elderly church lady relative’s vision of what Heaven should be — a place of strict rules and no freedom governed by a despotic patron God. When she died, she never stopped complaining that the afterlife was simply not up to snuff, so the Powers That Be created Heaven just to shut her up. By contrast Hell is a democracy with the Devil as President. However Hell is engaged in an eternal war with Heaven to make the world safe for democracy, and during the duration of the war, namely all eternity, democratic privileges are suspended. And of course Jurgen seduces the Devil’s wife. Eventually Jurgen discovers the true ruler of the universe, Koshchei The Deathless — a disheveled, overworked and underappreciated bureaucrat in a small, document strewn, windowless office, whom Jurgen is quick to flatter.
“Good and evil keep very exact accounts … and the face of every man is their ledger.”
When I was fresh out of college and very pleased with myself for “discovering,” with the assistance of Ballantine Books, several great fantasy authors, including Cabell, I wrote in simple rhyming verse a synopsis of Figures of Earth that cherrypicks a couple of the plot lines. It has no literary merit, and I had no intention of including it here, but I chuckled a couple of times while rereading it, and that is good enough to conclude with. Please note that Manuel the pig tender later became Dom Manuel, also known as Manuel The Redeemer.
Young Manuel in his sty, he seemed so free of care, and the odd squint in his eye gave him an impish air. But his dear mother was firm before she passed away, charging him to make for her a fine figure one day. Manuel pondered her geas, just how best to take it, then he went down on his knees to sculpt a statuette. A fine self-image he formed, from the clay around him, with but a single small flaw, a shortness in one limb. Now there were those who counseled that he had missed her gist, but he would squint and tell them she'd meant precisely this. Now some thought the boy insane, while others thought him sly, because how could someone so inane sport such a squinty eye. For in day a warm sun shone on him, and at night the stars above, and although his life was easy, the boy still longed for love. Then a stranger came to visit with aim to titillate, asking him to quit his pigs and chance a greater fate. Manuel just shook his head, displaying soiled attire, claiming one from his estate should not aspire higher. Then the black clad man stared deeply into his soul; then smiled a secretive smile, a glimpse of something droll. "Once a cradled babe squalling, now a boy drowsing in the sun. Soon you'll be a young hero; there's a fair maid to be won. Miramon, The Lord of Madness And The Nine Kinds Of Sleep, abides in a mountain mansion and emprisons her in his keep. I'd undertake this quest myself, but the prize, you see, is her hand, and I already have a wife who would not understand." For in day a warm sun shone on him, and at night the stars above, and although his life was easy, the boy still longed for love. "Fair Gisele pines for justice, pacing those dream misted halls. My magic sword will suffice. Take it boy! Destiny calls!" So Manuel took the magic blade and climbed up daunting tracks, where he braved perilous falls and mythic beasts' attacks. When he reached the castle high and faced his foe with steel, it looked to be the same guy who'd set up the whole deal. The wizard seemed delighted, as he wore a toothy grin. Then he bowed with regal grace and invited Manuel in. "No one can best that blade. By now that must be plain. So then, I concede. You win! A fight would be in vain. A point I failed to mention, fair Gisele is my wife, and it is my intention to try the single life." They lead shadow-haunted lives, these fashioners of dreams. Once you dip your hands in fantasy, then nothing is what it seems. Then Manuel understood the motives of the man, but wondered why he'd formed so intricate a plan. "Lord, you're a famous wizard, Yet before Gisele you balk, helpless before this mere woman whose only barb is talk." Miramon stroked his forehead, as on his magnificent throne he sat. Then gazing downward at Manuel: "Yes unmarried men do wonder about that." Miramon sat deep in thought, then spoke most plaintively. "For all the husbands that were and for all there ever will be, where is the girl I married, bright of smile, flowing hair, and who is this woman beside me, meddling in my affairs? Love of a sort I have still, but not that magic state that transformed her might to will, once touched that dissipates." Young Manuel in his sty, he seemed so free of care, and the odd squint in his eye gave him an impish air.