Figures of Earth by James Branch Cabell

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Figures of Earth by James Branch Cabell

It took me a while to get into the writing, which I found very stylised and reminiscent of the likes of Le Morte d’Arthur or Ivanhoe, but there the similarity ends. Cabell manages to be both serious and, at the sametime, poking fun at the genre. The humour is mostly very very dry, so much so that I wasn’t even sure it was intentional until coming across passages like this:

One day, toward autumn, as Manuel was sitting in this place, and looking into the deep stillwater, a stranger came, and he wore a fierce long sword that interfered deplorably with his walking.

Once I had settled into the writing style I thoroughly enjoyed this book; quirky and humorous but at the same time moralistic. Much of that moralism is in the style of the Emperor’s New Clothes; everyone believes Manuel to be more than he is simply because they want to. A goats feather makes a king believe he is a saint and, because his subjects also believe so, he becomes a saintly figure. Another feather makes another king believe he has achieved wisdom and, because his subjects believe it too, he does indeed become wise. Our hero Manuel, who only wants to “…follow after my own thinking and my own desire, without considering other people and their notions of success,” really wants to be left alone to do just that, but events always conspire against him. However this most selfish (though not necessarily bad) desire, which remains his driving force throughout, is rarely fulfilled though does inspire some truly reprehensible behaviour. As I say a moralistic story but somehow never judgemental.

Although I did enjoy it, I’m not sure I’m inspired to search out more from Cabell. It’s just not quite my thing.
 
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....coming across passages like this:

One day, toward autumn, as Manuel was sitting in this place, and looking into the deep stillwater, a stranger came, and he wore a fierce long sword that interfered deplorably with his walking..

Sophomoric "cleverness," sounds like to me.

I've never managed to finish anything by Cabell other than the short piece in Lin Carter's Young Magicians, which I assume I completed.
 
Sophomoric "cleverness," sounds like to me.

Hardly that; more a case of taking a very wry tone about a very common sort of incident in sagas, legends, and the like. Yet, at the same time, Cabell keeps an odd sort of tension between this tone and the very earnest sort of morality (ethics would, I think, be a better word) which lies at the heart of all his work. Throughout everything I've read by the man, he is an unusual blending of a genuine romantic and a modern cynic; fully aware of the overblown quality of so much of how we see ourselves (and/or others) and how utterly foolish such things are... and at the same time a firm believer that, as he put it in Beyond Life, we ever play the ape to our dreams. In other words, these very overblown, romantic, often silly-seeming ideals which are so often at odds with reality and the world around us, nonetheless act as goads or spurs to make our noblest aspirations the reality, often in spite of ourselves. As Browning put it, "a god though in the germ". He had a genuine warmth and affection for human beings without ever losing the ability to laugh at our clownishness, and all the time to encourage us to continue to pursue our noblest dreams and prove ourselves worthy of them... and throughout all his work, one gets the impression that he also firmly believed that we have it in us to do just that.

Manuel is, after all, the unlikeliest of heroes or "redeemers" -- a pig-farmer with a squint, an enormous self-conceit, and very little genuine regard for his fellow human beings save where such may make a difference in his well-being... yet constantly he finds himself improving and, to his own bemusement, more and more living up to the role, and even becoming instilled with an empathy for his fellows which is completely against his original nature. Hence, for instance, we see his (somewhat regretful, it is true, but nonetheless forthrightly undertaken) sacrifice of Niafer to save his own skin (and with her urging to do so, for the matter of that) in his early life, and when a similar situation arises, sacrificing himself for the sake of his pert, spoilt, child whom he also regards with a sort of bemusement, uncertain why this pampered little urchin should so move his heartstrings, yet willing to undergo the very thing he so long feared rather than see the smallest harm come to her.

All this is the sort of bathos, or pathos, depending on how it is handled. Cabell manages to do both, often at the same time. The characters can indeed be bathetic... yet there is always a strong thread running through them of warm human sympathy and "reality", where their buffooneries ultimately prove to be foibles of natures which, at base, are often truly noble in one way or another. They aren't always likeable people, but for all their faults, the majority of them are (or become) good people in the end, who learn to treasure others; even those who have frequently been their greatest burden and sorrow. And, to me at any rate, it is Cabell's ability to walk that fine line with his satirizing them which prevents the work itself from becoming bathetic, and gives it its poignancy and verisimilitude.

I've never managed to finish anything by Cabell other than the short piece in Lin Carter's Young Magicians, which I assume I completed.

Dale, as I've said before, I really think you should read his Beyond Life; I think you'd find a great deal there you could agree with; and even where you didn't, I think you could appreciate the earnestness behind his ironic comedies.
 
By the way... for those who find Cabell's ironic tone not to their taste, but who might nonetheless enjoy his erudition and a more "high" tone of fantasy or "romance" (in its earlier sense) from him, they might want to try something such as his collections Chivalry, The Line of Love, or such short novels as Domnei, etc. Though there is still a certain irony present, it is generally less broad, tends to be more through incident than "editorializing" authorial comment, and the stories themselves have a much more straightforward, even earnest, tone. The first story in The Line of Love, for instance, "The Wedding Jest", has an ironic situation, but also the earlier portion is a very effectively eerie, even terrific, piece; while the events which result from that, though ironic, nonetheless are handled with a warmth and generousness of heart which can be quite moving; while the second (not fantastic) tale, "Adhelmar at Puysange" handles its ironic view with a tone which, if anything, heightens the human tragedy involved.
 
Yes, JD, as ever I think you have managed to describe what I was trying to get at far better than me. :eek: Ethics and ethical behaviour does describe it better than morality.

I'm actually still undecided and may yet read some more from him. Might take a look at that Beyond Life; you seem to rate that one.
 
I'll admit that it is a personal favorite, not least because some sections of it challenge my own views quite seriously, and I find some of the positions he (or his characters) take quite frustrating... but they stimulate thought and re-examination.

I will also add that this one is not going to be for everyone. It is an odd book; largely a monologue by one of the two characters on the subject of Romance as demiurge, with examples and asides. It alternates between being quite witty and wry and suddenly earnest and passionate... and in the midst of even the most ironic (or even satirical, as Cabell uses that, too, here at times) passages, the deeply-held concerns which are at the core of Cabell's work often shine through so that the irony becomes startlingly poignant.

However, if you do choose to give it a go, I'd be very interested in your reaction... but I also think it might be well to let things percolate a bit once you've finished it, as it's a book which demands some thought both during and afterward....
 
Hardly that; more a case of taking a very wry tone about a very common sort of incident in sagas, legends, and the like.

I was commenting on "One day, toward autumn, as Manuel was sitting in this place, and looking into the deep stillwater, a stranger came, and he wore a fierce long sword that interfered deplorably with his walking.."

The joke seems to depend on the author pretending to see something silly about the mere fact of people wearing swords. The author, with a wink, invites the reader to be clever like himself ("fierce" and "deplorably"are so arch)and share the joke.

Truly, it seems paltry to me.

I'm sure I wrote spoof stuff like that myself when I was a -- freshman, junior, or senior, and was quite amused by my own paltry cleverness.

I prefer the genuine humor of, say, Mark Twain describing the uproar when a bunch of captive tarantulas get loose one dark night in a 14-man Nevada bunkhouse --

or the zesty garrulous-ness of the Wife of Bath or Falstaff. I read them, chuckle or laugh freely, and am not diminished though I may realize my kinship with them.

Of course I realize it would hardly be fair to judge Cabell by one sentence. The context was that the person who quoted that bit had found the whole book to be only moderately interesting.
 
I was responding to that criticism of that single sentence. In the context of the novel, it works quite well on a variety of levels, actually. However, taken out of context, I can see where one could get that impression; it is simply that there really is a great deal more going on there than Cabell simply trying to be clever....
 

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