James Branch Cabell

Discussion in 'Classic SF&F' started by j d worthington, Jun 16, 2008.

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    j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator Staff Member

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    And now we get into yet another of those neglected masters of fantasy I'm so prone to tout.....

    In this case, part of the problem may be that Cabell is in general less in favor than he once was. For one thing, he's difficult to classify save as a "humorist", which hardly does the man or his work justice. He certainly didn't write what most people seem to consider fantasy these days, though there's plenty of magic, wonder, and adventure (of sorts) to be found in his books... not to mention that several of them are set in a medieval realm of Cabell's devising, while others deal with the descendants of various characters from that realm. (And, in the final form he gave these, it's certainly a long enough series to satisfy even the most demanding fantasy fan where length of a series is concerned -- being either 18 or 25 volumes, depending on the edition.)

    The problem is that Cabell was writing general literature that was strongly tinted with both a love for and a critique of "romance" in the older sense of the term; he wrote about characters who are seldom shining examples, being stuffed full of "human nature"... yet who are nonetheless often given to noble sentiment and quixotic impulses very much in the tradition of the romantic heroes of old. They are often pitiful, sometimes bathetic, and frequently exasperating... yet there is a warm human sympathy to his work, nonetheless. And I can think of no writer save Cabell who would have had the audacity to begin his "Biography of the Life of Manuel" with such a book as Beyond Life, which is a book about books, about writing, about life and the "vital illusions" fostered to maintain (and improve?) life by the demiurge Romance, and which takes the form of (save for a brief bit at the beginning and the end) a monologue by one of the characters. It is truly a tour-de-force in that it both exasperates and illuminates, and says both everything and nothing about the series to which it is, in a very unusual and quite remarkable way the introduction.

    But even more than this, Cabell wrote with a wry intelligence and wit, and a quite formidable vocabulary, in a style which is one of the purest and most exquisite in twentieth-century American letters; and with very little concern for anyone's expectations or desires of where this multi-volume play of his went; for he includes pseudo-scholarly essays, verse, fantasy, historical novels (of a sort), contemporary pieces, genuine romances of both the old and modern school, and a staggering importation of figures from myth, legend, and literature of all times and nations; and all delivered with an ironic, comic, yet often heartfelt, tone which is bound to make the whole thoroughly unclassifiable.

    Most of the volumes of his "Biography" were published during the first portion of his career, in no particular order, as the works "came to him", so to speak. It was only when putting together his Collected Works that he ordered them and did revision here and there to give them something more of a unified whole -- or, rather, to make the inconsistencies a trifle less glaring, for the thematic (as well as other) connections were there from the beginning, it would seem. As compiled into this set, the volumes are:

    I. Beyond Life: Dizain des Démiurges
    II. Figures of Earth: A Comedy of Appearances
    III. The Silver Stallion: A Comedy of Redemption
    IV. Domnei (with The Music from Behind the Moon): Two Comedies of Woman-Worship
    V. Chivalry: Dizain des Reines
    VI. Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice
    VII. The Line of Love: Dizain des Mariages
    VIII. The High Place: A Comedy of Disenchantment
    IX. Gallantry: Dizain des Fêtes
    X. Something About Eve: A Comedy of Fig-Leaves
    XI. The Certain Hour: Dizain des Poètes
    XII. The Cords of Vanity: A Comedy of Shirking
    XIII. From the Hidden Way (with The Jewel Merchants): Dizain and Comedy of Echoes
    XIV. The Rivet in Grandfather's Neck: A Comdedy of Limitations
    XV. The Eagle's Shadow: A Comedy of Purse-Strings
    XVI. The Cream of the Jest (with The Lineage of Lichfield): Two Comedies of Evasion
    XVII. Straws and Prayer-Books: Dizain des Diversions
    XVIII. Townsend of Lichfield: Dizain des Adieux (which also contains The White Robe, The Way of Ecben, Taboo, and Sonnets from Antan, as well as "other odds and ends")

    Cabell was a fantasy-writer who will entertain, infuriate, and make one think (if only to come up with reasons to tell him why he's wrong about so many things). What he most certainly was not was a writer whose fantasy fits at all with the stereotyped limits placed on the field in recent decades. Instead, he is an exemplar of why, when one begins to explore the field, one finds it is something that can never truly be pinned down to any particular type of story, save perhaps the tale of the limits of the human heart and imagination.

    One final word: where possible, it is best to combine the final, revised text with the earlier editions' illustrations by Frank C. Papé, who was to Cabell what Sidney H. Sime was to Dunsany; the two were, to use a trite but very apt phrase (given Cabell's oft-mentioned subject) "made for each other"....
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    j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator Staff Member

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    GOLLUM

    GOLLUM Moderator Staff Member

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    Good one JD...

    I'm still to catch up properly with the Cabell I have, namely All About Eve, Jurgen, Figures Of Earth ad Silver Stallion.

    Sounds like something to look forward to anyway.

    Have you read most of his work? Which have you not read?
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    j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator Staff Member

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    I've read most (though not all) of the "Biography" -- though, as with so many things, it was a very long time ago (more than a quarter century now), so my memory of specifics is rather vague. I've recently begun a rereading of it both to refresh my memory and to pick up those I hadn't been able to find before, and, finally, to read the entire set in the order Cabell intended.

    Those I have read are:

    I. Beyond Life: Dizain des Démiurges
    II. Figures of Earth: A Comedy of Appearances
    III. The Silver Stallion: A Comedy of Redemption
    IV. Domnei (with The Music from Behind the Moon): Two Comedies of Woman-Worship
    VI. Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice
    VIII. The High Place: A Comedy of Disenchantment
    X. Something About Eve: A Comedy of Fig-Leaves
    XI. The Certain Hour: Dizain des Poètes
    XIII. From the Hidden Way (though not The Jewel Merchants)
    XIV. The Rivet in Grandfather's Neck: A Comedy of Limitations
    XVI. The Cream of the Jest (with The Lineage of Lichfield): Two Comedies of Evasion
    "The Way of Ecben"

    As for his other work... I've read selections here and there, but there's a great deal I have not yet read. And there are things there, I understand, which are related to this set, as well....

    I think, as long as you find an extremely urbane and witty use of prose, along with a thought-provoking argument of various issues, and a love of the myths and legends we have created/evolved over the years, enjoyable, then you'll likely find yourself quite taken with Cabell's work....
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    Connavar

    Connavar New Member

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    Wow all those books in the same saga ! Getting the same feeling i got with Moorcock eternal champion stuff :p

    Fantasticfiction has chrono order for that saga.

    Is there a problem with reading The Silver Stalion first ?

    Our library has only it and Jurgen.

    I remember you sending me a pm early on my stay here about this author, this thread reminded me that i havent tried him yet.
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    j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator Staff Member

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    Several of the novels, at least, stand on their own. I'd say that each of these books will stand on its own, as the overall pattern didn't become established until he'd written several, and those were certainly not in the order they are presented here.

    Reading them in any other order should work just fine; it's just that (as you point out, with Moorcock) the themes are developed more readily, and in some cases you can follow the characters from their early to later years, which gives a different impression than reading, say, a later episode in Manuel's life and then reading Figures of Earth, which begins when he is very young. But as Cabell is also dealing with several generations of people here, either way of reading them is open....
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    Anthony G Williams

    Anthony G Williams Greybeard

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    Interesting - I've had 'Figures of Earth', Jurgen' and 'The Silver Stallion' for decades (Tandem Fantasy, 1971) and read them twice, but I thought that was all there was!
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    j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator Staff Member

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    That happens a lot with Cabell, since few save older readers in the field seem to have even encountered the name. And even of those books which could strictly be considered "fantasy", there are more even within the Biography. Something About Eve, for instance, was recognized as a fantasy classic even back in REH's day -- he wrote an essay on that one, incidentally, which is rather an interesting piece in itself....
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    Anthony G Williams

    Anthony G Williams Greybeard

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    I should say that I have fond recollections of these books, which I aim to read again sometime, and Cabell's brand of fantasy is quite unlike any other. I think anyone seriously interested in fantasy should read at least one of them.
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    j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator Staff Member

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    Oh, they're definitely different, all right. At the same time, Cabell was also a considerable influence on writers as divergent as Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock (and, possibly, Harlan Ellison as well; certainly Ellison seems to be quite aware of his work)....
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    j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator Staff Member

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    While looking up some information on Cabell for a friend here, I ran across this, which says, much more eloquently than I have ever managed it, what it is I find so powerful and appealing about Cabell's work, particularly the "Biography":

    Great Science-Fiction & Fantasy Works: James Branch Cabell

    Portions of this are culled from Lin Carter's introductions to some of the Ballantine volumes (e.g., The High Place), but there's also a lot of other information there, as well as a rather acute critical assessment....
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    hitmouse

    hitmouse Member

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    The owner of that website used to post on here as Owlcroft. Haven't seen him around here for a long time. If you like Cabell then check out the Kai Lung stories by Ernest Bramah, also discussed in detail on the same website.
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    j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator Staff Member

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    Thanks for the suggestion. I'm aware of (and have read some of) the Kai Lung stories -- wonderful things indeed, and another set which are (sadly) largely forgotten these days.....
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    BAYLOR

    BAYLOR Member

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    I wonder if Terry Pratchett has ever read him? :confused:
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    j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator Staff Member

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    I've wondered that myself. I've not read that much of Pratchett's work (not generally that big on humorous sf or fantasy; Cabell is one of the rare exceptions for me, perhaps because he so often has an underlying tragic dimension to his work), but it wouldn't surprise me if he had....
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    BAYLOR

    BAYLOR Member

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    Cabell and Pratchett both different from each other in terms of their writing style and humor . Yet , they strike me as being kindred spirits. :)
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    j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator Staff Member

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    Extollager and I have frequently disagreed when it comes to Cabell, and I recall Cabell being mentioned in an article from early in the century as one of the major writers, only to be later largely forgotten. I think the following, from the essay I've linked to, germane here:

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    BAYLOR

    BAYLOR Member

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    He's wonderfully witty, this is a writer that should not be forgotten.

    I would love to see Jurgen adapted as film, Id want Neil Gaiman and Terry Gilliam to do the screenplay adaptation and I would like Gilliam to direct. He' s the perfect choice . I think if his books could make it to the big screen, It would be enough to revive interest in him. :)
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    Extollager

    Extollager Active Member

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    Just so folks understand -- what I've said, mostly, I think, is that I read Jurgen and "The Way of Ecben" forty years or so ago when I was trying new (to me) fantasy writers at every turn, and these didn't interest me much -- and that I'm not impressed by what I understand, from what I've seen said about him, to be Cabell's habitual irony, etc. But my actual reading of Cabell is from long ago indeed.
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    j d worthington

    j d worthington Moderator Staff Member

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    I agree that Cabell is very witty; but I think (as Extollager's comments on things he's seen about the man's work) that, to some degree, that's the problem: too many readers see the wit and urbanity and completely miss the underlying seriousness of his work and (as I've argued elsewhere) the commitment to a genuinely humane and compassionate view of life which runs throughout his work. Granted, many of his characters are, by ordinary, scapegraces; yet with rare exceptions even the worst of them rises above this at the test and exhibits a nobility which the best of us might envy. That they (if given a chance by surviving long enough to do so) tend to ironically deprecate their actions in this instance is very much a part of the point, for it is little more than their inability to see themselves as better than they ordinarily are; yet neither are they ashamed of their noble acts, but see it as a part of the comedy of life... yet there is always that impression that, underneath it all, it is only in such moments that they are truly happy with themselves, and that they wish, in their heart of hearts, that life were such that they could always be so.

    As Cabell repeatedly put it -- several times, in fact, in the course of Beyond Life -- the object of art (or the demiurge Romance) is to present men not as they are, but as they "ought to be"; and it is in these moments of crisis that his characters reveal the depth of their humanity. Even Manuel, who fails at the test when young, in the end succeeds (with, it is true, a somewhat ironical smile at his folly in doing so) in redeeming that failure by sacrificing himself for his beloved child.

    I am currently reading Gallantry, the ninth book in the Biography, and I think you might find some of the things there of interest, Dale. True, the tone is, overall, of that light, sophisticated ironic stance... but when the point comes, that tone is exchanged for one of intense seriousness and passion concerning the nobility of sacrifice -- for the life of another, their happiness or well-being, for an ideal, or for love. This, to me, has been a running theme throughout the set; sometimes handled in a lighter form, sometimes in a much more serious, even tragic, form (as in Domnei or some of the pieces in Chivalry), but almost always at the heart of the book. For all his being noted as an ironist or satirist, my continual impression of Cabell matches much of what is said in that essay: that one of the central themes in his work is death and how we meet it, the pursuit of Beauty (including the denial of possession of our ideal of Beauty to ourselves if, by that denial, we may serve to enhance it), and the willingness to see both our flaws and that, as Browning put it, we may have within us the ability to be "a god, though in the germ". In this, I think, Cabell comes very close to the highest of "High" fantasy; which is one of the reasons I so frequently recommend him.

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