Archives for category: Books/Reviews

To Sail the Century Sea (Time Stream, #2)To Sail the Century Sea by G.C. Edmondson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book serves as a sequel to The Ship That Sailed the Time Stream, but is, alas, nowhere near as good. Both books move about in history — in the “time stream” — but the first one seems less scattershot. This second novel needed another draft. The action got confusing in Byzantium. The goings-on there — with the Council of Nicea, of all things —were not described well. There is cleverness towards the very end, but it seemed rushed, ill thought-out. Some elements were not properly prepared.

I cannot recommend the book. The first one, however, made a satisfying back-to-the-past pairing with Poul Anderson’s The Dancer from Atlantis, which I read just a few weeks before.

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The Night FaceThe Night Face by Poul Anderson

This is the third Poul Anderson novella that I have read. The author is learned and clever, and the story is not bad. A good ending, if a bit too abrupt. My caveats are two:

1. It would have worked better had it been fleshed out as a full novel, with more attention to character and the passage of moments, of scenes. As it is, it seemed a bit rushed at the end. The longer story, Dancer from Atlantis that I read a month or so ago, was better in this regard, though it seemed a bit rushed, too, towards the end.

2. I have in hand (as I finished the work under discussion) a paperback of The Worlds of Jack Vance, and, dipping in to a slightly shorter story than this Poul Anderson effort, the novelette “The Brains of Earth” — which can only be judged third-tier Vance — I immediately note the contrast: Vance is the far better writer. His style is so much more individual, and so much more sure, more masterly. Unfair comparison, really, but the plot of The Night Face is something that Vance could have thought of. But would have made better.

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On page 78 Poul Anderson uses the word “geas” but in the plural: “geases.” When I come across the word I immediately assume the author has read and is a fan of James Branch Cabell and The Figures of Earth, which in a few days will go into the public domain. Can there be another explanation?


Ranson's FollyRanson’s Folly by Richard Harding Davis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Of the stories in this volume, the last one is the best. It is called “In the Fog,” and it was first published in 1901 in a handsome single volume illustrated by two artists, both quite good, though rather dissimilar. I just finished reading this story. It is a mystery told in three tales in a gentlemen’s club, and in that frame story itself. It looks like it served as the inspiration for a 1911 silent film (under a different title) by the Edison Company. How it could possibly be told without spoken dialogue I do not know. I need to see it. But, be that as it may, I highly recommend this story as a prose work, suggesting, in addition, that you may wish to buy a copy of the first edition, which is a fine specimen of the book printer’s art.

“In the Fog” is a novella, really, a little under 100 pages. The first story in this collection, “Ranson’s Folly,” is also a mystery, but set in the Old West. It was filmed twice as a silent film. It is a few pages longer than “In the Fog.”

The somewhat shorter story “The Bar Sinister,” is a tale narrated by a dog. It is fun, if not great. It was filmed in 1955 as “It’s a Dog’s Life.” Again, I have not seen it.

There are two other stories in the book, both shorter. I skipped over “A Derelict,” but may some day go back to it. And the final story, about a love letter, is excellent. Really quite good.

Richard Harding Davis was not a great writer, but he was an able storyteller. This old book is worth checking out, if for no other reason than wholesome entertainment along with a dose of the culture of a century ago. It was a very different time.

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Review of Townsend of Lichfield on LibraryThing:

The final volume of the Storisende edition of James Branch Cabell’s The Biography of the Life of Manuel is as peculiar and as brilliant a conclusion as one could hope for, or fear. This “Dizain des Adieux,” as the subtitle puts it, is sort of a glorious catch-all for the author’s literary obsessions up till the late 1920s. It contains

* ruminations upon his career (the 30-odd pages of “Townsend of Lichfield”) and his books and stories (the last several sections);
* poetry (“Sonnets from Antan”);
* two book-length fantasy novellas, ([The Way of Ecben] and [The White Robe]); and
* an excellent short story (“Concerning David Jogram”).

For my part, as I thumb on my iPad to contribute this short bookchat review, I confess to having read the stories and rumination in this book out of order, tackling the second item, the werewolf story, The White Robe, last.

This final reading was a long time coming. I own the first printing of the story, and have owned it, also, in its last incarnation to hit printing press during the author’s life, in The Witch-Woman: A Trilogy About Her. It is a droll story, and perhaps provides deep insight into Cabell’s own gallantry. And yes, it is about gallantry, just as [The Way of Ecben] and [The Music From Behind the Moon: An Epitome], were about the chivalric and poetic attitudes towards life, respectively.

Which is not to say that Cabell did not himself sport chivalry as well as poetry — of course he would, for this trinity attitudes is what binds his 18-volume Biography together, and he undoubtedly gave his creature Manuel (see Figures of Earth) all three traits, just as he found them in himself.

So, can I recommend this book over The Witch-Woman?

No.

Sure, my judgment of Townsend of Lichfield is positive; I greatly enjoyed the book. Indeed, I go further: it is excellent; but I cannot recommend it.

Why the seeming contradiction?

The book reeks of Cabell’s trademark self-indulgence. So, only those immune to this alleged defect, or enchanted by it against counsel of both criticism and common sense, need bother reading it. While for those of us who catch the whiff of the charm here, the enchantment, and might even hazard that it does not get much better, not one of us admirers of Cabell’s art is so besotted that we cannot see the narrow confines of its appeal and of our ranks.

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Voltaire’s Zadig ou la Destinée (1747), is usually just referred to solely by the name of the protagonist, Zadig. It is the first of the great French writer’s “romances” in my big volume of Voltaire stories, and the first I have read in 40 years. It is, all in all, an excellent tale, echoing the manner of the Arabian Nights, filled with amusing episodes and light philosophical insights:

A warm dispute arose on one of Zoroaster’s laws, which forbids the eating of a griffin.

“Why,” said some of them, “prohibit the eating of a griffin if there is no such animal in nature?”

“There must necessarily be such an animal,” said the others, “since Zoroaster forbids us to eat it.”

Zadig would fain have reconciled them by saying:

“If there are no griffins, we cannot possibly eat them; and thus either way we shall honor Zoroaster.”

No griffins were harmed in my reading of Zadig, for none appear. And neither does the Basilisk, which enters the story later on, but only as hearsay. This is not a work of high fantasy . . . or low.

C6D18A31-189B-4E43-975F-36EDC13D34C9I admit, I may be ambivalent about the story’s moral, but the character of the eponymous protagonist is heroic in his quests and honest in his struggle to meet his outrageous challenges in a world filled with pain and frustration, not least being the betrayals and stupidities of our fellow men . . . all the while trying to puzzle out the nature of Fate. Its inspiration never flags.

It is worth mentioning the full title as given in the edition I read: Zadig, or Fate. Destiny is the main theme, and Voltaire’s deism shows in a revelation towards the end, with an angel offering the great secret . . . pertaining to why a world with so much suffering exists. This explanation is very interesting. Today’s bewitched youngsters might be amused to learn that Diversity Is a Sign not of Our Strength . . . but of the Creator’s.

Note: This is not a novel. Voltaire tells his story in the manner of ancient tall tales, not in the modern novelistic style with its characteristic attention to moment, aiming to induce the reader into the soul of the protagonist, whether hero, victim or anti-hero. There is no “interiority” here. Do not read it expecting anything like a modern thriller, and most especially not like a classic novel such as Silas Marner and Fathers and Sons. This is a droll tale in the olden style, but with Voltaire’s wit woven in to leaven the lump.

I highly recommend Zadig. Every literate person should be familiar with this form of fiction. And what is that form, exactly? I believe it would properly be called an “anatomy,” to use the terminology of Northrop Frye, taken from Robert Burton. The ancient term is Menippean satire. Some of my favorite writers engage in this genre: Lucian, Denis Diderot, Aldous Huxley, and James Branch Cabell. But I have of course read a lot more of the standard novel form than of this genre. Still, it is the case that, as I grow old, and soak up our civilization’s scattered stores of wisdom — wringing them out, periodically, in the course of my many follies and foibles — I find my taste for reveling in the arts of feeling, of streams of consciousness and flows of tropisms, wane.

What waxes, instead, are the dazzling philosophical perspectives of Lucian and Cabell. And Voltaire.

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I have just begun reading Kenneth Minogue’s The Liberal Mind (1963). It is excellent so far. But I notice something odd. He is talking about the nature of liberalism, from John Locke to the present day, but he seems to be downplaying the major transformation of liberalism in the 19th century, from a limited government perspective to a government-everywhere perspective. He deals with J.S. Mill as a transitional figure, briefly, and moves on.

But the Introduction is itself brief, and he can hardly be expected to be exhaustive or even convincing withing its confines. But it is apparent that Minogue is one of those people who see a strong commonality from individualist liberalism to collectivist liberalism — my preferred terms, not his.

Indeed, I do not think it even helpful to pretend that what we [used to] call modern liberalism is, today, very liberal at all. I see three relevant ideologies, here, and they have an interesting relationship:

Liberalism + Socialism = Progressivism

Progressivism – Liberalism = Socialism

The truth is, socialists saw liberalism as anathema, a horrid compromise with tradition and nature. Progressivism is inherently compromised, and cannot make much sense. But a social system always has countervailing powers, so a contradictory ruling philosophy might be seen as a feature, not a bug.

The essence of that early liberal “compromise” with nature and tradition was also a feature, not a bug. Minogue makes an interesting distinction between ideologies developed from goals and those developed from technique. The transformation of liberalism, he suggests, might best be seen in this distinction. The technique of representative governance seems better suited to a goal quite different from the early liberal goal of liberty as a limit to coercion, and generally securing a free society. That different goal? An interest-group version of socialism, where the point is to repeatedly save distinct “classes” from suffering.

I expect Minogue to go on and elaborate on the messianic nature of modern liberalism — that is, progressivism — and the tension between the socialist conception of class and the practical, real-world perceptions of multiple groups’ quite varied interest.

But I took a start, when Minogue used “John Smith” as a literary conceit to designate the citizen in the liberal society.

Where is “Jane Smith,” and the children?

I am not a feminist, but that does not mean that I think we can ignore the role of women and the necessity for dealing with children in political theory. Minogue seems to have accepted the classical liberal stance, theorizing without talking about women and children and family life. Sort of subsuming all that under the category of The Individual.

Indeed, I checked the index and found neither “women” nor “family” nor “children” nor “sexual selection” within.

It is tempting to consider the original liberalism as an ideology promoted by the masculine instincts and reasonings, socialism as an ideology promoted by the feminie instincts and reasonings, and progressivism as some weird compromise between the two. Something like this is what George Lakoff argues in several of his [rather silly] books.

The problem with this is that the classical liberalism I know best — the one that is individualistic; the one that grew into modern libertarianism — spits out the hook and lure of this way of thinking. Most especially, the individualistic view of the world does not see politics primarily in masculine and feminine ways. Lakoff’s paternalism and maternalism dichotomy is not between liberalism and progressivism, but between conservatism and progressivism. Individualist liberals see the State as, at most, an umpire. Anything more, and it is oppressive, corrosive of a free society.

The problem with this non-sexualized view of the State is that it is not how people form their ideological commitments. Masculine and feminine habits of mind swamp the attention. (Probably the reason liberalism turned into progressivism.)

Dr. Jordan Peterson is fond of making the point that there must be a compromise between masculine and feminine world views in our politics — between Mill’s dichotomy, “production” and “distribution.” But is progressivism that compromise? Not now anyway, with modern progressivism jettisoning its liberal elements, putting it well on the way back to a socialist program.

As I have written about elsewhere, Mill’s distinction between production and distribution is gimcracked and incoherent. But the mindset sticks with us because, perhaps, of our family model view of the world: the husband goes out and “produces” while the wife stays at home and “distributes.”

This family model does not, I repeat, fit with the umpire model of the state or ideology. And it is worth noting that individualist liberal economists such as H. Dunning Macleod and Joseph Hiam Levy leveled strong criticism at the production/distribution model as understood by Mill and as fits the modern family model. The world is more complicated, and these concepts can derail a realistic view of the world.

Also missing from Minogue’s index is “messianism.” This is troubling, for what socialism adds to liberalism is the messianic notion of “saving” people. (He does deal with this in what I have read so far.) When women got the right to vote, in America, they were on a crusade against alcohol and the Saloon Power. But they also demanded further programs that saved the suffering. They wanted to distribute the goods collected in taxes and help people. It is a very womanly thing to want. And men, well, men are programmed by evolution to give women what they want. Hence the welfare state, and the male role in it — as leaders giving women what they want.

But feminism has morphed and transformed society yet again, aiming to insert women into high-status occupations traditionally reserved for men, because, well, “equality.” This is not about equality, though, since feminists never desire to see women fill the occupations of low-status men or of those middle-status men who take high-risk jobs. Feminism is quite a fly in the ointment of ideology, muddying up the family model by destroying the family. It makes liberalism, socialism, progressivism more complicated.

I left my copy of The Liberal Mind downstairs. I will sign off, here, to see if Minogue lists feminism in his index. Whether he does or not, I will continue reading. It is a fascinating book, regardless of its apparent sexless nature. After all, most of the political theory I read is sexless, and barely incorporates reproduction into its theoretics.

twv

Philip K. Dick’s 1952 short story “Human Is” is clever. Not great. Just clever. (You can find it in the collection We Can Remember It for You Wholesale.) It is not unlike, say, a Fredric Brown story, but not as well written.* It does not present an elegiac mood, or aim for anything like the sublime. It is a rather cynical sf tale about marital discord and unhappiness. And betrayal.

But it was taken as the inspiration for Amazon Prime’s new series Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, appearing as the third episode. And was it changed! Only the ending of the short story remained untampered with, quoting (adopting) about two lines verbatim.

Yes, friends, there are spoiler ahead. . . .

The short story’s basic premise — of a mean, cold bastard of a husband (Lester) going off to an alien planet, Rexor IV, and coming back changed, turned into a nice, easy-to-live with loving man — that is the same. But instead of a literalist, a scientific researcher, the show features a callous warrior (renamed Silas, played by Bryan Cranston), bent on exploiting and killing an alien race for the good of “Terra.”

The short story’s subplot about the wife’s brother and nephew, that is gone. And all the dreck of everyday life? Gone too. The change of scenery and alteration of tone from the original make the show different. Very. Instead of reading about an unloved wife whose uncharitable husband will not help an inlaw out, we see an unfulfilled and tyrannized wife — emotionally abused and domestically oppressed despite her elevation to a major official role in the futuristic sealed-off society.

Yes, in the TV show she has been turned into a professional — a government official, even. And instead of suffering neglect from the man who won’t serve as foster father, we see our heroine suffer from coldness, indifference, and even envy from her husband. Actually, he is much worse, because minatory. Yes, he threatens violence.

The show’s penultimate scene takes place in a court room, in a trial that spells the issues out very clearly, cleverly. The written story is nowhere nearly so thematically tight.

But the big change? The whole story has become politicized. The husband in the show is portrayed almost exactly as leftists see “right wingers” — eager to kill and exploit foreigners (aliens), and as being emotionally withdrawn and cruel. And since the woman is now a career woman, a leader, this makes her a feminist heroine rather than the pathetic character that Dick imagined. With the child gone, it is just the microsocial antagonism of a childless couple, not a family drama — and the show carefully evades any issue of parental feeling from her husband to his brother-in-law’s son. This excision allows our feminist heroine to be portrayed as romantically and sexually unfulfilled. The very model of a modern Ms. obsession.

Indeed, in the show, because of her husband’s lack of interest in intimacy, early on she seeks out some sad satisfaction in a far-flung-future orgy in the sterile city’s underground (yes, the teleplay writers made sure to hit every possible mythic beat). When her husband comes back transformed, changed into a cheerful, sympathetic, and very sensual sexual partner (we “get” to see Cranston’s full-rear view nude form in a lovemaking session), she defends him — chooses him — even though it has been proved that he is not her husband.

Who is he? Well, her husband’s body, possessed by an alien metamorph. Invasion of the body snatcher!

The alien is from Rexor IV — as in the original PKD story. But where in the original the husband had been a careless innocent, his soul stolen by surprise while on a solo vacation, in the show there is war, and he was the aggressor and he became a casualty. At the beginning of the show, our heroine had politically opposed her husband’s plan to kill Rexorians and steal their atmosphere (or something like that). At the end of the show, she lets the enemy, the Rexorian, not only into her society but also into her bed, ostensibly because her human husband had not been nice enough to her. Not appreciative enough.

And was a bad guy anyway.

All this is standard left-right archetypes and stock figures and bigotries. Let me spell it out:

  • The husband? The very cliché of a left winger’s idea of a conservative.
  • The wife? The leftist self-image of a feminist heroine, ill-treated by her conservative partner.
  • The Rexorian? An exploited alien (foreigner) just “fighting for its life” and perhaps justifiably attacking our military and Silas, the Cranston character.

It would be hard to imagine a clearer allegory to today’s conflict with the Muslim world. The feminist women betray conservative men because those evil conservatives are bent on defending their nation by exploiting and killing foreigners (Muslims/Rexorians); further, those feminists replace the murderous conservatives with the foreigners, going so far to bedding them . . . because the frustrated, unfulfilled feminist women will be more sexually fulfilled by the foreigners/aliens than by their fellow nationalists/Terrans.

Also present is the “right wing” fear that the enemy will infiltrate and pretend to be “one of us” but then betray us completely, taking our place — this “paranoid” fear is exactly mirrored in the television story. And, going another step even further, the right wing suspicion that the leftists will betray us, preferring the other to their own, and making cuckolds of the West’s men . . . that is very close, too — for the woman does betray Terra, and just because the alien treats her better as wife and lover.

So, the fantasies and fears of both rightists and leftists are played to. Both sides could view the story with a kind of . . . indecent? . . . pleasure. And, because the Amazon version is so artfully done, it turns out to be a beautiful, sublime story, too. Much more powerful than the original.

It is now a philosophical horror story, not just a clever little domestic drama with a cynical sci-fi surprise ending.

The wonder of it is how brazen it is, how timely. The perpetrators — I mean, writers and actors and producers — of the new drama surely know what they are up to. But why? Why do it this way? I assume that these are all left-leaning Hollywood types. The story, though with all the biases of your standard-brand Hollywood Left Coast cosmopolitan written deep into the story’s premise, and played out as the drama unfolds, in the end gives away much of the game to the right wingers. What could be worse than the Left shown as the betrayer and the enemy shown as capable of using elaborate deception? And all because the leftist woman demands love she is not getting at home.

First world problems leading to the conquest of that world by the Third.

She even goes as far as cuckolding the Right in the end. In a sort of Gertrude-and-Claudius way.

A cautionary tale — an apocalypse! — indeed.

Ah, the culture wars. All-too-human, is.

twv

* Dick’s science fiction short stories, at least the early ones, are not very artful on the sentence level — his realistic novels were far more carefully crafted. The short stories are also rather tawdry, as are many of the science fiction novels, filled with the dreck of everyday domestic conflict.

N.B. I wrote the above before reading anyone else’s criticism. And now, as I clean this up, I flit around the net and find appraisals that do not go very far. And not a few just show the insipid shallowness of modern feminism.

FLUENCY CONFLUENCE BOOK ONE

Is not the “No Style” style, in which most fiction is written, these days, what has been left us after the “keep it simple” demands of editors, publishers, and the influence of writers such as Hemingway, Orwell, and Camus?

And does that not leave us with works of fiction that read like film treatments more than literary endeavors?

Maybe the answer to the second question is a No, but sometimes I wonder whether it be better answered with a Yes. Hence my query.

Before 1950, the No Style style (hereinafter “NSs”) was not prevalent, even with popular fiction. F. Marion Crawford, for instance, had a “literary style” that attempted some subtlety in the prose, on a sentence by sentence basis (first novel, 1882; last, 1910). Jack Woodford, the “sex novelist” whose modus was never to mention a body part of an, um, intimate nature, sported sentences and paragraphs that can run circles around most of today’s bestselling authors (heyday, ’30s and ’40s). Even the initial run of the Hardy Boys (1927-1947) could boast more individuality in the literary presentation than nine tenths of what we get today.

Still, the NSs makes for easy and fun reading. As in the science fiction novel I opened up today (see cover, above).

Indeed, you can see the contrast in sf, where even today you are more likely to come across interesting writing qua writing than in most other genres.

Philip K. Dick wrote in the NSs, but Jack Vance certainly did not. Robert Heinlein wrote in the NSs, except in the prose failure (but story success) of The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Alfred Bester was definitely not an NSs practitioner; A.E. van Vogt should have wished he had been. Terry Bisson writes beautifully, but close to NSs; Gene Wolfe is as close to a great literary artist the genre has produced, and writes far from the all-too-standard NSs pop fiction prejudice — and is not very popular because of it. I’ve read a lot of NSs authors. But my favorites tend to be those who did not and do not write quite that simply:

  • Ray Bradbury
  • Thomas M. Disch
  • Michael Moorcock
  • Harlan Ellison
  • Brian Aldiss
  • George Alec Effinger
  • Lucius Shepherd
  • J. G. Ballard

Any thoughts?

twv

I believe in only one thing: liberty; but I do not believe in liberty enough to want to force it upon anyone.

The problem, in re H. L. Mencken’s admission, above, is that to obtain freedom for yourself you must bar others from abridging it not only from self, but from some or even all others. Liberty cannot be advanced except by taking license away from others.

And forswearing it for self, as well.

This is a corollary to William Allen White’s great maxim:

Liberty is the only thing you cannot have unless you are willing to give it to others.

Or, to summarize, the words of J. H. Morse:

Liberty is no respecter of persons. Freedom with an exception clause is spelled L.I.C.E.N.S.E.


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Jurgen by Cabell

Chapter 34, in which our hero learns
the true nature of torture in hell:

Now the tale tells how the devils of Hell were in one of their churches celebrating Christmas in such manner as the devils observe that day; and how Jurgen came through the trapdoor in the vestry-room; and how he saw and wondered over the creatures which inhabited this place. For to him after the Christmas services came all such devils as his fathers had foretold, and in not a hair or scale or talon did they differ from the worst that anybody had been able to imagine.

“Anatomy is hereabouts even more inconsequent than in Cocaigne,” was Jurgen’s first reflection. But the first thing the devils did was to search Jurgen very carefully, in order to make sure he was not bringing any water into Hell.

“Now, who may you be, that come to us alive, in a fine shirt of which we never saw the like before?” asked Dithican. He had the head of a tiger, but otherwise the appearance of a large bird, with shining feathers and four feet: his neck was yellow, his body green, and his feet black.

“It would not be treating honestly with you to deny that I am the Emperor of Noumaria,” said Jurgen, somewhat advancing his estate.

Now spoke Amaimon, in the form of a thick suet-colored worm going upright upon his tail, which shone like the tail of a glowworm. He had no feet, but under his chops were two short hands, and upon his back were bristles such as grow upon hedgehogs.

“But we are rather overrun with emperors,” said Amaimon, doubtfully, “and their crimes are a great trouble to us. Were you a very wicked ruler?”

“Never since I became an emperor,” replied Jurgen, “has any of my subjects uttered one word of complaint against me. So it stands to reason I have nothing very serious with which to reproach myself.”

“Your conscience, then, does not demand that you be punished?”

“My conscience, gentlemen, is too well-bred to insist on anything.”

“You do not even wish to be tortured?”

“Well, I admit I had expected something of the sort. But none the less, I will not make a point of it,” said Jurgen, handsomely. “No, I shall be quite satisfied even though you do not torture me at all.”

And then the mob of devils made a great to-do over Jurgen.

“For it is exceedingly good to have at least one unpretentious and undictatorial human being in Hell. Nobody as a rule drops in on us save inordinately proud and conscientious ghosts, whose self-conceit is intolerable, and whose demands are outrageous.”

“How can that be?”

“Why, we have to punish them. Of course they are not properly punished until they are convinced that what is happening to them is just and adequate. And you have no notion what elaborate tortures they insist their exceeding wickedness has merited, as though that which they did or left undone could possibly matter to anybody. And to contrive these torments quite tires us out.”

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The artwork featured here are details from that produced by Virgil Burnett for the Limited Editions Club edition of Jurgen, 1976. The female figure is of the vampire Florimel, who was created from the mind of Jurgen’s father, Coth, as fit punishment for his own sins. She is featured in the chapters on hell as one of Jurgen’s two romantic dalliances, the other being the wife of Grandfather Satan.

Chapter 39, in which our hero laments the
affection shown to him by his demon lover:

“It is my title she loves, not me,” reflected Jurgen, sadly, “and her affection is less for that which is really integral to me than for imperial orbs and sceptres and such-like external trappings.”

And Jurgen would come out of Florimel’s cleft considerably dejected, and would sit alone by the Sea of Blood, and would meditate how inequitable it was that the mere title of emperor should thus shut him off from sincerity and candor.

“We who are called kings and emperors are men like other men: we are as rightly entitled as other persons to the solace of true love and affection: instead, we live in a continuous isolation, and women offer us all things save their hearts, and we are a lonely folk. No, I cannot believe that Florimel loves me for myself alone: it is my title which dazzles her. And I would that I had never made myself the emperor of Noumaria: for this emperor goes about everywhere in a fabulous splendor, and is, very naturally, resistless in his semi-mythical magnificence. Ah, but these imperial gewgaws distract the thoughts of Florimel from the real Jurgen; so that the real Jurgen is a person whom she does not understand at all. And it is not fair.”

Then, too, he had a sort of prejudice against the way in which Florimel spent her time in seducing and murdering young men. It was not possible, of course, actually to blame the girl, since she was the victim of circumstances, and had no choice about becoming a vampire, once the cat had jumped over her coffin. . . .

Chapter 39, in which our hero continues his
search for justice (and his missing wife):

“It is a comfort, at any rate,” said Jurgen, “to discover who originated the theory of democratic government. I have long wondered who started the notion that the way to get a wise decision on any conceivable question was to submit it to a popular vote. Now I know. Well, and the devils may be right in their doctrines; certainly I cannot go so far as to say they are wrong: but still, at the same time—!”

For instance, this interminable effort to make the universe safe for democracy, this continual warring against Heaven because Heaven clung to a tyrannical form of autocratic government, sounded both logical and magnanimous, and was, of course, the only method of insuring any general triumph for democracy: yet it seemed rather futile to Jurgen, since, as he knew now, there was certainly something in the Celestial system which made for military efficiency, so that Heaven usually won. Moreover, Jurgen could not get over the fact that Hell was just a notion of his ancestors with which Koshchei had happened to fall in: for Jurgen had never much patience with antiquated ideas, particularly when anyone put them into practice, as Koshchei had done.

“Why, this place appears to me a glaring anachronism,” said Jurgen, brooding over the fires of Chorasma: “and its methods of tormenting conscientious people I cannot but consider very crude indeed. The devils are simple-minded and they mean well, as nobody would dream of denying, but that is just it: for hereabouts is needed some more pertinacious and efficiently disagreeable person—”
And that, of course, reminded him of Dame Lisa: and so it was the thoughts of Jurgen turned again to doing the manly thing. And he sighed, and went among the devils tentatively looking and inquiring for that intrepid fiend who in the form of a black gentleman had carried off Dame Lisa. But a queer happening befell, and it was that nowhere could Jurgen find the black gentleman, nor did any of the devils know anything about him.

“From what you tell us, Emperor Jurgen,” said they all, “your wife was an acidulous shrew, and the sort of woman who believes that whatever she does is right.”

“It was not a belief,“ says Jurgen: “it was a mania with the poor dear.”

“By that fact, then, she is forever debarred from entering Hell.”

“You tell me news,” says Jurgen, “which if generally known would lead many husbands into vicious living.”

“But it is notorious that people are saved by faith. And there is no faith stronger than that of a bad-tempered woman in her own infallibility. Plainly, this wife of yours is the sort of person who cannot be tolerated by anybody short of the angels. We deduce that your Empress must be in Heaven.”

“Well, that sounds reasonable. And so to Heaven I will go, and it may be that there I shall find justice.”

“We would have you know,” the fiends cried, bristling, “that in Hell we have all kinds of justice, since our government is an enlightened democracy.”

“Just so,” says Jurgen: “in an enlightened democracy one has all kinds of justice, and I would not dream of denying it. But you have not, you conceive, that lesser plague, my wife; and it is she whom I must continue to look for.”

“Oh, as you like,” said they, “so long as you do not criticize the exigencies of war-time. But certainly we are sorry to see you going into a country where the benighted people put up with an autocrat Who was not duly elected to His position. And why need you continue seeking your wife’s society when it is so much pleasanter living in Hell?”

And Jurgen shrugged. “One has to do the manly thing sometimes.”

from Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice, James Branch Cabell

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This year, 2017, marks the centenary of The Great American Novel almost no one has even heard of.

Let me take that back. A bit. It is not as if the book were unknown. Critics have written about it. The story has a following, if small.

But it has, as far I can tell, never once been suggested as a contender for that dubious title, The Great American Novel. Indeed, most of the author’s cabal of readers put it third or fourth on their contentious “Best of” lists.

Still, I buck all trends. I assert that this particular hundred-year-old work is its author’s best in long form; that it qualifies for the status of meta-novel, thus giving it a cachet necessary for serious consideration by literary critics; and that it has enough contact with mainstream Americana (just enough) to qualify for the Great American status.

The book? No more evasions . . .

James Branch Cabell’s The Cream of the Jest: A Comedy of Evasions.

A thousand copies were printed in September, 1917. Two and one half years later, a second printing came out; six months after that, a third; the next year, a fourth. In 1922, a slightly revised Fifth Edition was published, with the previous editions’ Preface turned into Chapter One, and prefixed, now, with an introduction by Harold Ward. This edition became the template for the British printings. With the 1926 eighth edition, the text was established for several later Modern Library reprints, as well as Cabell’s own final revision for what he called the “Storisende” edition of 1930.

I own, at present, the Second Edition, a later Modern Library edition, and two paperback editions: the Ballantine Adult Fantasy (“unicorn head”) reprint of the Storisende, and an elaborate scholarly treatment edited by Joseph M. Flora.

After the first edition, and the spectacular notoriety of 1919’s Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice, Cabell devised a 20+ volume cycle that he dubbed, with sly pleonasm, The Biography of the Life of Manuel. In this cycle, ordered by the fictional events, not date of authorship, The Cream of the Jest appears as the final book-length comedy, followed by Straws and Prayerbooks — an indirect sequel to 1919’s Beyond Life and, like the earlier better-known work, a droll explication of Cabell’s literary philosophy — and a strange hodge-podge called Townsend of Lichfield, about which, well, one may learn more of (and understand less) from Cabell himself in Preface to the Past (1927), pp. 281 – 309.

My advice to the literary reader is to forget The Biography — all the other books the author fused into one well-ordered chaos — and begin with a later edition of The Cream of the Jest without reading any prefatory matter. Start with Chapter One and proceed. If you happen to find yourself with an earlier edition, read the preface assigned to the fictional “Richard Fentnor Harrowby,” and continue on to the first chapter.

The author’s bizarre framing of his Biography’s tales have much the same resonance of Jorge Luis Borges’s meta-fictions. They confused me when I first read them. Trying to sort fact from fiction is not easy when the forewords written by the author, which give off all sorts of cues to non-fiction status, turn out to be, instead, mixtures of fantasy, scholarly earnestness entwined with scholarly irony, and a propensity to dispense not wholly reliable autobiography.

This fictional/non-fictional framing is carried to extreme in Beyond Life and Straws and Prayerbooks, which, as I state above, are literary manifestos disguised as fiction. Both books make for strange reading, but are necessary for anyone interested in what makes books like The Cream of the Jest “work.”

Which brings me back to this one volume, itself. It is not quite a novel. And yet it is. Perhaps it is an example of modernism smuggled in from the literary attic, wherein the Guardians of Literature had placed most of the dusty old tomes of belles lettres along with medieval romance and Gothic fancy. Or perhaps it is a work of post-modernism, a clever wedding of highbrow fantasy to popular romance.

One could also argue that it is the last gasp of the Genteel Tradition in American literature, except Cabell, though suave and well-mannered, was never genteel in Santayana’s sense. He daringly broke too many taboos for that.

The Cream is really what its subtitle proclaims: a comedy. As such, it indirectly but thoroughly confronts the inevitable failures of romance as a way of life, while reëstablishing its necessity in the same breath.

Cabell, being a comedian, has it both ways. He is both a romancer and an ironist. As a fantasy novelist (The Cream is half-fantasy dream study), he attempts to “write beautifully about beautiful happenings.” But as a philosopher, he hammers a kind of realism that in the hands of naturalist novelists turns into a now all-too-familiar sanctimonious nihilism. But caution: his hammering is on the order of Nietzsche’s “philosophizing with a hammer” — what is meant is not brute force debunking but, instead, a gentle tapping as if at tuning forks and small bells. The idols of the age (and all ages) are being sounded out.

In this, Cabell places himself in a tradition he was not entirely comfortable within: of George Meredith and Thackeray, as well as the philosophical comedians of a later generation, such as Iris Murdoch. Egoism he carefully calls up for apt ridicule, as he does the deadening hand of normality, of mediocrity.

Cabell more readily hails from late-19th century aestheticism, especially the work of Anatole France. Echoes of Balzac’s Droll Tales can be easily detected. The popular romancers of Cabell’s day, such as Maurice Hewlett, might exert a background influence. But Cabell’s own favorites among his contemporaries included British literary fantasists, including Lord Dunsany, author of The King of Elfland’s Daughter, and Arthur Machen, author of The Three Imposters.

This puts Cabell utterly at odds with the mainstream of 20th century highbrow literature. And one might think it would have put him at odds with H. L. Mencken, America’s most enthusiastic promoter of the sociological novel. And yet, Mencken was an admirer. Perhaps what the Sage of Baltimore most liked was Cabell’s philosophy, that unmistakable thread of irony. Mencken called Cabell “the most acidulous of anti-romantics.”

So much for romance.

But Mencken also praised Cabell’s prose style. In fact, Mencken was capable of writing close to Cabell’s mode. In praise of Cabell he characterized the Southern gentleman as “a scarlet dragonfly embedded in amber.” Exactly.

Which might now indicate Cabell’s enduring interest for a few of us. His heart was in romance, his head was in irony, and his philosophical stance was . . . fancy footwork. Nimbly he stepped in and through several genres. The Cream of the Jest was one of the last of his fictions to be rooted in the mundane world of his time. With this work he firmly carved out a niche in high fantasy. It is half a comedy of manners and ideas, and half a fantasy, in brilliant union. The bulk of his work to follow proved more thoroughly fantastic, often set in the mythic province of medieval France, Poictesme. After wrapping up the Biography of the Life of Manuel, he jettisoned his first name, and produced several trilogies of quite distinct fantasy, including a successful dream trilogy, under the moniker Branch Cabell. At some point he brought back his first name, and, in the end, essayed a final foray back to the roots he planted in Cream, with his last (and  brilliant) comic fantasy, The Devil’s Own Dear Son.

The Cream of the Jest immediately follows three earlier comedies set in the Virginia of his youth: The Eagle’s Shadow, The Cords of Vanity, and The Rivet in Grandfather’s Neck. Of these, the first is a fairly standard romantic comedy, the second is a dark comedy of egoism and betrayal, and the last is a masterwork focusing on the waning culture of Southern honor anchored in a sad “comedy of limitations” (to quote the subtitle). Only The Rivet holds up as a complete literary success. There were also several volumes of short stories, and a non-fantastic medieval romance, The Soul of Melicent (later retitled Domnei.)

But The Cream of the Jest transcends all that preceded it. With this work, the author finally “finds his voice.” Truth is, he always had his voice. What he had not developed until The Cream was a way to unite his philosophical interests with his love of literary japery and a wholly successful and absorbing tale.

Of course, opinions vary. Many readers complain that nothing of substance happens in The Cream of the Jest. And this is true if “of substance” means sword fights and lawsuits and such: the “action” is mostly dream, and, even when set in the humdrum of automobiles, face cream factories, and politicians, almost all interior.

One of the great turning points in the story is in Chapter 27 (Book Fourth: V in the early editions), “Evolution of a Vestryman.” Here Felix Kennaston, our hero, becomes a Christian, and a leader in his local Episcopalian church. It reads like a comedy. Indeed, it reads like a parody of C. S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy. But it came first, and one wonders whether Lewis might not have read the tale in disgust, and later, by cryptomnesia, took the half-remembered Cabellian argument to heart and became a Christian himself. Lewis was 25 when the book hit British libraries and bookstores.

I do know that Lewis hated Cabell. Cabell was so modernist compared to Lewis. Cabell the ironist could hardly please Lewis’s dogmatic earnestness. And yet Cabell himself had entered the fold of his Richmond, Virginia, Episcopalian Church, and become a member in good standing. He was more than half-earnest, himself, in this crucial chapter. Later, in other works, he defended Maundy Thursday and its Anglican rites, as being based on legends that might “possibly be true.” (Lewis became a member of the Anglican Church, churning to the top the cream of the jest: Lewis and Cabell were co-communicants.)

The ambiguities here as elsewhere set Cabell against the tide of rabid secularism. And yet his own comedies do more than merely suggest a caustic irony. What is going on here?

Cabell understood the hollowness, in fact, of the ancient traditions. But he also asserted that they were beautiful. Whether true or not, he had no intention of throwing the old ways completely aside. He was a post-modernist traditionalist conservative who was also a liberal doubter. But let us retain our bearings. What he doubted most was the advisability of a full embrace of modernity’s ongoing nihilism project.

Cabell lived his life as if tradition were worthwhile enough to preserve, if not embrace without a wink. And he wrote his fictions as if in full dialogue with the past. Indeed, that is what The Cream of the Jest really is: a philosophical dialogue with the past and its charms, while seriously acknowledging their tendency to disappear when attempted to be grasped. Just as his hero Kennaston wakes up from his dream whenever he attempts to touch his dream woman, Ettarre.

In The Cream of the Jest, we witness not the revelation of a special American Dream, but the reality of Dreams Universal. Which is American enough for me.

The year 1917 sports a few more prominent literary centenaries, the most important being the publication of T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock, and Other Observations. (Eliot was also a co-communicant of Lewis and Cabell.) It is also the year that popular fiction made an important step into the future, with Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars. J. R. R. Tolkien began work on what eventually became The Silmarillon; Christopher Morley produced Parnassus on Wheels; and Norman Douglass published South Wind.

A century earlier, establishing bicentennial possibilities, Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Northanger Abbey saw posthumous success; Walter Scott’s Rob Roy hit presses on both sides of the Atlantic; and Thomas Love Peacock’s delightful Melincourt debuted.

But these are very different stories.

My story? This year I celebrate

  • my Finnish heritage, with the centenary of the birth of independent Finland;
  • my family history, with what would have been my father’s hundredth birthday, had he not died four years ago; and, perhaps most of all,
  • the centenary of the publication of The Cream of the Jest, which I read at age 17 . . .

the one novel that seriously treats personal love and cultural literacy as a romance that, while inevitably comic, even the most cynical dismiss at their peril.

twv

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Mike Ashley, in his book Science Fiction Rebels: The Story of Science-Fiction Magazines from 1981 to 1990, did not get everything right, alas. imageIn describing the stories in the Mid-December 1983 issue of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, he badly characterizes one of my favorite stories from that period, “Reasonable Doubt.”

This clever effort,

the debut story by Fred Singer, considers the violent attitude of certain humans towards aliens who are trying to foster relationships with Earth.

Now, I do not want give away the story, here, but it deals with what we might call the is/ought problem inherent in some popular forms of Social Darwinism. The premise of the tale is that humanity differs from the successful galactic species by being competitive and individualistic — and violent. This passage explains the story’s main thrust:

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It is not primarily about violent humans thinking dark thoughts about the newly-arrived aliens, not really. That would be the knee-jerk mod-lib misinterpretation. It is about aliens judging humans for humamity’s reactionary tendencies.

The aliens, are old-fashioned Progressive/new-fashioned alt-righters. They worry about what to do about the “problem” of a quick-adapting species that could disrupt the galaxy’s civilized order, spreading the poison of violence.

The aliens’ eventual plan, stated in the story’s opening, is to destroy the human species — or perhaps transform it in some twisted way so that it would become more like every other galactic species. That is, conformist and collectivist.

This being a human-centered story, the aliens’ intention is not considered a good thing: the predicament drives the plot, which ends in police over-reaction. The story, then, could be interpreted as a repudiation of modern, progressive prejudices — and conservative ones as well.

The two things that trouble the aliens the most? Humanity’s universal incest taboo and common belief in some form of a deity.

The former idea, merely mentioned in conversations within the story, helped give rise to complaints about the editorial direction Isaac Asimov’s was heading, towards increasing sex and violence, as Mike Ashley explains in his book. I tend to dismiss such complaints as prudery. Nothing sexual in this story, anyway, can be considered gratuitous. It is classic stefnal story-telling. And the reason for the one element of sexuality? Because sex is a huge part of almost all animal life, and if a species is to be judged. . . .

Which is what the story is, a Day of Judgment tale.

Yes, humans are violent. But Homo sapiens is the only pre-space civilizing species, the story’s alien relates, that, while being based on individuality and competition — and conflict, too — has conceived of “non-aggression” as well as concocted gods to nudge the species somewhat forward out of its violent past.

The narrator is a well-to-do lawyer, and he it takes upon himself to come to his kind’s defense.

I know nothing about the author, this Fred Singer. (I am pretty sure that the Fred Singer I have met isn’t he.) I have not seen any more of his work.

But I like this story, which I think should be dragged out of the memory hole and read by today’s sf readers. Maybe it should be anthologized. Perhaps the Sad Puppies might find something of interest here.

twv

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The general picture I received from reading Currency Wars, by James Rickards, looks like this:


The world’s trade policies are run by leaders who stand in a circle, each holding a firearm. All of the major players then point their guns at their own heads, screaming, “Stop or I’ll shoot!”

Politicians and media people applaud wildly.

It’s the world leaders who point at others and shoot that we call bad players.

But they all seem nuts to me.