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review 2016-02-29 00:00
Jurgen - James Branch Cabell,Bob Blaisde... Jurgen - James Branch Cabell,Bob Blaisdell 3,5 stars, the rounded-up half star because I spent half the time on Wikipedia to brood over the lacks in my classical education and it's no fault of the book. Witty, cynical, irreverent, full of double entendres, bittersweet and totally fun.

A tale of Faith, Desire and Visions (uh, and Cocaigne "(yes, that cocaine)"). I read the Dover edition and the introduction is quite apt.

Recommended to young people who are mature in their lives and to those above. Behold Jurgen, from elderly pawnbroker to a fabled Pope -and back again-, in his quest for understanding justice in things as they are.

Replied the ghost of King Smoit: “ I will explain. Just sixty-three years ago to-night I murdered my ninth wife in circumstances of peculiar brutality, as you with rather questionable taste have mentioned.”

Then Jurgen was somewhat abashed, and felt that it did not become him, who had so recently cut off the head of his own wife, to assume the airs of a precisian.

“Of course,” says Jurgen, more broad-mindedly, “ these little family differences are always apt to occur in married life.”

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review 2015-02-15 15:08
The Southern Literary Gentleman
James Branch Cabell and Richmond-In-Virg... James Branch Cabell and Richmond-In-Virginia - Edgar E. MacDonald

One of the attractions of the biography is to study someone else's life and see just how difficult it was for them to achieve their success (for there are few biographies about failure), which on the outside seems so simple and pre-ordained, but once you review the life as it was lived, you see the stumbles and gaffes along the way. For someone once famous, whose star has since dimmed, this analysis can be truly bittersweet. James Branch Cabell was either the last or the first of a type of Southern Literary writer, depending on how you view his place in the pantheon. His genteel manners, adroitly expressed in his books, tie him to the old Southern tradition, where things were said in a certain way and men were expected to have ideals about life, expressed by Cabell in his philosophy of three approaches: the Gallant, the Chivalrous, and the Poetic.  But Cabell was a sly one, too--the motto of his great work of fiction, the Biography of the Life of Manuel, was "Mundus Vult Decipit," which roughly translates as "the world wishes to be deceived," and Cabell was quite fond of deception. His mannered fantasies could be read in two ways--for the surface adventure and invention, or for the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle, as in the case of Jurgen) allusions and illusions in which Cabell commented on the mores of his Richmond, Virginia neighbors. Because, like his 1920s contemporary, Sinclair Lewis, Cabell was at heart a social commentator, struggling in his books to understand the changing world in a society that wanted to cling to outdated traditions and was being dragged, kicking and screaming, into a free new world of women's rights, the new free mobility due to the automobile, and a new streak of Puritanism that was Prohibition.


It's not unsurprising, then, that this biography of Cabell by Edgard MacDonald is titled James Branch Cabell and Richmond-in-Virginia, because Cabell was as much a product of Richmond as it was featured in his books (renamed as Lichfield). Born and raised in Richmond, the oldest of three sons of a druggist who married well, but was unable to please his wife, Cabell spent most of his first three decades as the constant companion of his mother, providing for her ego what his father could not. In addition to his mother, the other woman he fixated on was his first love while at college, Gabrielle Moncure. And because things always come in threes, the other woman in his life was his wife, Priscilla Bradley.  The three of these women show up in his books constantly, under new names but always the same faces and personalities--the woman you admire, the woman you yearn for, and the woman you settle for.


Cabell's life was far from charmed, though. He struggled for money up until his thirties, when the marriage to Priscilla, a wealthy widow five years older than he, provided the economic stability he needed to focus on his writing. In turn, he provided an entree for her into Richmond society both by virtue of her marrying into the Branch family, as well as genealogical research into her own lineage that established her family tree as worthy of Richmond. 


Of course it is Jurgen that is both the apex of Cabell's career and life, a storm of controversy for its lewdness and laviciousness that is quite tame in comparison to the steamy favorites of today such as Fifty Shades of Grey.  But for the 1920s, and the new Puritans, Cabell's lance that wasn't quite a lance and staff that wasn't quite a staff was the kind of thing that titallated and shocked the matrons of polite society and the overseers of smut known as the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.  No publicity is bad publicity, and although the injunction against Jurgen kept the book off the shelves for two years, it helped sell Cabell's previous novels and helped him make friends with his literary peers both in the U.S. and abroad. If he had moved ahead with new books, the story may have been different, but Cabell chose to instead re-work his previously published novels and stories, re-packaging of all of his work to date in a collected set, called the Storisende edition, that was basically a labor of vanity. Stating that all his works were connected, he re-wrote passages and provided introductions to make them so.


The downfall was not sudden, and was marked with some small joys along the way, but after the heady years of being the talk of the town (both Richmond and New York and Chicago), the reduced success of his remaining output made his latter decades more sour than sweet.  He leveraged his friendship with Ellen Glasgow, also of Richmond, to encourage her to do a similar repackaging of her work, telling her that what she had written was a social history of Virginia, enough so that she began to believe it herself.  He renamed himself to just Branch Cabell for most of his latter work, drawing a distinction between the author of The Biography of the Life of Manuel and his new creations, which likely didn't do him any good in the marketplace.  And the loss of his wife, leaving him their only son to take care of by himself, upset his balanced life until he found another source of home stability in a marriage to a long-time friend, ten years his junior.


Edgar MacDonald covers all of this fairly well and in detail, but he's not a prose stylist, which is probably just as well, because Cabell had enough style for two writers. MacDonald observes a fair amount of restraint, covering some of the rumors and innuendo of Cabell's college years (including an event that hinted of an improper relationship between a professor and several of his students) without engaging in sensationalism. Unfortunately for any biographer, Cabell's second wife destroyed some of the more salacious documentation of his life before access was granted for a book, although Cabell would likely have approved of her actions, protecting his reputation from the curiousity of the maddening crowd.

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review 2015-01-05 23:36
Humor and Derision
The Cabell Scene - Robert H Canary The Cabell Scene - Robert H Canary

The Cabell Scene by Robert H. Canary is an academic treatise from the late 70s on the major works of James Branch Cabell, a writer whom I have an inordinate fondness for and whom, in some form or another, will be infused into the book I am currently slaving away on.  Canary's theme is that Cabell had two methods by which he attacked his subject--the pursuit of love: either through humor, as in his earlier work, or through derision, which most of his later work took form.  The two are connected, and although Canary does a good job of making the distinction, the best part of this book is actually Canary's ability to illustrate some of the obscure issues in Cabell's work, and that is why I picked it up. Cabell was a master of obscurity with a purpose--he played games with the reader, using other languages, anagrams, metaphor, simile, etc. to sometimes hide his "true meaning."  So much so that, in his most famous work, Jurgen, he was called a pornographic writer and the book and publisher were brought to trial by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice.  (In Jurgen, a sword could be more than a sword, and a lance could be more than a lance, but by today's standards, this is mighty tame stuff, as the reader must make the connections and use their imagination--the only author I can think of who used the same technique in modern time was Robert Anton Wilson in one of the Schrodinger's Cat books to replace all references to sexual genitalia and actions with Supreme Court justices: to this day, I can't think of Potter Stewart without a certain image coming to mind.)


I'm more familiar with the volumes that make up the Biography of the Life of Manuel, so Canary's discussion of the 1930s trilogy, The Nightmare Has Triplets, and the 1940s trilogy, Heirs and Assigns, was extremely useful to gaining more of an understanding and appreciation of Cabell's post-Biography work. In many ways, he became disillusioned following the heady success, and problems, that the notoriety of Jurgen brought him. The 1920s, in the 1930s, was considered the Cabell decade by many literature critics; by the 1940s, he had almost been totally forgotten. Never to let reality pass by without incorporating it into his work, the later novels are both bitter and bittersweet, as he struggled with that loss of fame and following.  Thus, as Canary says, humor switches to derision, where Cabell had trouble laughing with life, but would rather laugh at it.  Cabell reserved his jibes for the "typically Meckenian targets as patriotism, Philistinism, Puritanism, Prohibition, and preachers"--targets as ripe for jousting as today.


Is this something you need to read?  No, not unless you are a scholar of the literature of the 1920s or a novelist intending to set his book in that time, with themes that touch on the "New South" and prohibition.  If so, this can provide an interesting glance into one particularly urbane commentator of that society's mores.

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review 2014-12-04 23:52
Hamlet Had an Uncle
Hamlet Had an Uncle - James Branch Cabell


Read here Warning: this is an incomplete version

'Hamlet Had an Uncle: A Comedy of Honor' is a Shakespearean satire.

Saxo, sketching by the Danish-Norwegian illustrator Louis Moe (1857-1945)

I came to this book via the backdoor whilst reasearching the siege of Aalborg from this news article:

500-year-old skeletons unearthed in Denmark: Archaeologists from the Historical Museum of Northern Jutland (Nordjyllands Historiske Museum) believe that 15 skeletons unearthed during the construction of new youth housing likely date back to the 1534-1536 civil war known as the Count’s Feud, or Grevens Fejde in Danish. Read more

Saxo's history was as wobbly in the accuracy stakes as say, Geoffrey of Monmouth, or Herodotus, however it was his history that gave Shakespeare his Hamlet, and by extension, Cabell's satire.

As this is incomplete version I shall rate it as a skim through and try to find a full copy later.
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review 2013-07-02 00:00
The Silver Stallion
The Silver Stallion - James Branch Cabel... The Silver Stallion - James Branch Cabell as my compulsive consumption of cabell continues (this has been in my purse a month now and this is my third re-read), i have been alerted to the fact that i am reading these books "out of order" though it hardly seems to matter. i will say that it seems the more you read cabell, the more intertextualities you recognize as you come upon them. i discovered the paternity of dame lisa, jurgen's wife in reading the silver stallion, which added a certain piquancy. my beloved jurgen also make appearances here: as a child, then a youth, then the jurgen that bewitched me but he is by no means a main character. this book is about heroes not poet/pawnbrokers. these include jurgen's father coth of the rocks, and the other eight heroes who made up the fellowship of the silver stallion under their tenth member and leader, the count dom manuel, redeemer of poictesme (cabell's fictionalized medieval french demesne) who saved it from the pagan north men.

the action of this pseudo-history novel occurs when, one fine day, dom manuel disappears and nobody knows where or how he left. the only two that claim to have seen him go are children, and each relate incredible stories of a supernatural departure. dom manuel's wife and her counselors (among them horvendile, the author's interlocutor) call the silver stallion together, only to disband the fellowship and set about fashioning a puritanical christian cult around the lost hero, to smooth out and reinvent his reputation, to make him now a spiritual redeemer that will return a la king arthur, in the hour of poictesme's need. cabell's interest in the autumn years rears its head again here, in choosing to tell the tales of the last adventures of these heroes' careers, these men who knew a different version of the man who disappeared, while he examines what makes a hero, and reminds us how easy it is to put pretty words around previously inappropriate deeds. everyone can be redeemed, in time. and so too, can they be forgotten with just a few more grains of sand.

the silver stallion is perhaps not quite as ribald as jurgen but there are romantical shenanigans aplenty. these heroes really know how to woo a dame. but seeing as there are so many of them and just one jurgen, the effect is rather less concentrated. the quotes i've selected to showcase here highlight cabell's interest in love. he embraces it while he denounces it and he seems to recognize it in all its incarnations. the first comes from the story ninzian, the most devoutly rigorous of all dom manuel's former allies after his wife founds out his terrible secret. and the other is one of the cantankerous coth of the rocks softer moments (i can think of only one other, actually, just after this) these are poignant moments but mostly cabell is fun and cabell is witty even if cabell is wise. i wish i could have taken a turn around the maypole with him. :)


"No, Ninzian, I simply cannot stand having a husband who walks like a bird and is liable to be detected the next time it rains. It would be on my mind day and night, and people would say all sorts of things. No, Ninzian, it is quite out of the question, and you must go back to hell. I will get your things together at once, and I leave it to your conscience if, after the way I have worked and slaved for you, you had the right to play this wrong and treachery upon me."

And Balthis said also: "For it is a great wrong and treachery which you have played upon me, Ninzian of Yair, getting from me such love as men will not find the equal of in any of the noble places of this world until the end of life and time. This is a deep wound that you have given me. Upon your lips were wisdom and pleasant talking; there was kindliness in the gray eyes of Ninzian of Yair; your hands were noble at sword-play. These things I delighted in, these things I regarded; I did not think of the low mire, I could not see what horrible markings your feet had left to this side and to that Bide. Let all women weep with me, for I now know that to every woman's loving is this end appointed. There is no woman that gives all to any man, but that woman is wasting her substance at bed and board with a greedy stranger, and there is no wife who escapes the bitter hour wherein that knowledge smites her. So now let us touch hands, and now let our lips, too, part friendlily, because our bodies have so long been friends, the while that we knew nothing of each other, Ninzian of Yair, on account of the great wrong and treachery which you have played upon me."

Thus speaking, Balthis kissed him. Then she went into the house that was no longer Ninzian's home.


And very often, too, Coth would look at his wife, Azra, and would remember the girl that she had been in the times when Coth had not yet given over loving anybody. He rather liked her now. It was a felt loss that she no longer had the spirit to quarrel with anything like the fervor of their happier days; not for two years or more had Azra flung a really rousing taunt or even a dinner plate in his direction: and Coth pitied the poor woman's folly in for an instant bothering about that young scoundrel of a Jurgen, who had set up as a poet, they said and--in the company, one heard, of a grand duchess,--was rampaging every-whither about Italy, with never a word for his parents. Coth, now, did not worry over such ingratitude at all: not less than twenty times a day he pointed out to his wife that he, for one, never wasted a thought upon the lecherous runagate.

His wife would smile at him, sadly: and after old Coth had been particularly abusive of Jurgen, she would, without speaking, stroke her husband's knotted, stubby, splotched hand, or his tense and just not withdrawing cheek, or she would tender one or another utterly uncalled-for caress, quite as though this illogical and broken-spirited creature thought Coth to be in some sort of trouble. The woman though, had never understood him...

Then Azra died. Coth was thus left alone. It seemed to him a strange thing that the Coth who had once been a fearless champion and a crowned emperor and a contender upon equal terms with the High Gods, should be locked up in this quiet room, weeping like a small, punished, frightened child.

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