Join Date: May 2006
James Branch Cabell
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"....