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Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice by James Branch Cabell

A strange thing happened to the American fantasy author James Branch Cabell in 1920. Cabell was a writer of novels, short stories and poetry who’d been published regularly for about twenty years to great critical acclaim (fans included Mark Twain, Sinclair Lewis and H.L. Mencken) but no commercial success whatsoever. The previous year, his latest mediaeval fantasy novel, Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice, had been published to the usual glowing reviews and public indifference, and appeared destined for the same obscurity as the rest of his work.

Then the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, under John S. Sumner, brought an action against the novel for obscenity. The case went to court, amid considerable publicity – one side dedicated to protecting outraged public morals, the other championing the author as a martyr to the philistines – and dragged on for two years, at the end of which Cabell and his publishers were fully vindicated.

The result was inevitable: Jurgen became a huge bestseller, and for several years everything Cabell wrote was a commercial success. It didn’t last, but in the meantime a bemused Cabell, who referred to Sumner as “my friend and benefactor”, records that he enjoyed “to read about this Cabell’s romantic irony, his cosmic japes, his bestial obscenities, his well-nigh perfect prose, his soaring imagination, his corroding pessimism… with prideful thoughts that I was more or less identified with such a remarkable person.”

James Branch Cabell was born in 1879 in Richmond, Virginia, into a prominent Virginia family – his great-grandfather had been state governor – and died in the same city in 1958. Although he went through various jobs in early manhood, ranging from teacher to coal-miner, most of the intervening period was devoted to writing.

Cabell’s earlier fiction was divided between historical romance and contemporary tales of Virginia society set in a city called Lichfield, transparently based on Richmond. In 1913, however, he published (and, he claims, “sold precisely 493 copies” of) Domnei, a historical fantasy romance that wandered off the edge of the map into a mediaeval province of France called Poictesme, and then wandered even further into other realms with an even more approximate connection with actual history or geography.

In 1917, Cabell united Lichfield and Poictesme in The Cream of the Jest, and he revisited Poictesme, at several stages of its history, in a string of post-Jurgen books, notably Figures of Earth, The Silver Stallion, The High Place and Something About Eve. He gradually conceived the idea that all his characters were related or connected in one way or another to Count Manuel, the hero of Figures of Earth, and represented the play of humanity across the centuries in an über-work he called the Biography of Manuel, even writing a formal work of genealogy to illustrate the connections.

Any of the books listed in the previous paragraph might be considered contenders for Cabell’s greatest, but Jurgen remains his best known by some degree, so I’ve chosen to concentrate on this.

Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice (all Cabell’s novels have the subtitle “A Comedy of…”) opens in Poictesme, a generation or so after Figures of Earth, with a meeting between a pawnbroker by the name of Jurgen and a monk cursing the Devil for making him stub his toe on a stone in the dark. Jurgen, who considers himself “a monstrous clever fellow”, points out that the Devil is merely doing his job, without which they’d both be out of a job (the monk fighting sin, the pawnbroker lending money as its consequence). Jurgen subsequently meets “a black gentleman” who thanks him for his kind words and offers to do him a favour. Unfortunately, he gets the impression that Jurgen wants to be rid of his nagging wife; and the wife, Dame Lisa, promptly vanishes.

Persuaded that it’s the “manly thing” to do, Jurgen sets off to get justice from Koshchei the Deathless, “who made all things as they are.” Nevertheless, the road to Koshchei must always be indirect, and it takes Jurgen by way of “the garden between dawn and sunrise” (a place that appears in several of Cabell’s books, and represents the romance of young love), the Britain of Arthur, Cocaigne (home of nature myths), Hell, Heaven and many other realms, before coming at last before Koshchei and finding that things are not at all as he believed.

The mundane Jurgen, who is comfortably married to Dame Lisa, is a middle-aged pawnbroker (although we subsequently discover that his grandfather was a king, and Jurgen had many adventures in his youth); but, in the course of his quest, his lost youth is restored. This younger Jurgen, clad in a magical, glittering shirt and followed by a shadow not his own, is a poet and lover. The book is packed with vivid characters, but most of all with the women Jurgen loves – or, more to the point, the women who love him. Even in Hell, he finds a pretty vampire to be his paramour.

Cabell’s approach is a unique mixture of extreme romanticism and extreme cynicism, by turns achingly poetic and wildly funny, but ultimately the cynicism tends to win out. Successive chapters in Jurgen are titled “Of Compromises in…” various places, and compromises form the heart of the novel. Despite having the love of stunning beauties – Dorothy la Désirée, Guenevere, Anaïtis the Lady of the Lake and Chloris the hamadryad, and even having the opportunity to love Helen of Troy – it’s his comfortable home and his nagging wife that he wants back. Just not too quickly.

Cabell’s humour is complex and many layered, ranging from erudite jokes to evasion to broad satire to double entendres (“Why, I travel with a staff, my dear, as you perceive; and it suffices me.” “Certainly it is large enough, in all conscience.”). He has great fun, both in Jurgen and in Figures of Earth, published while the trial was still ongoing, with a people called the Philistines – not the real, highly cultured people who figure in the Bible, but representatives of those who persecuted him. In a scene added later to Jurgen, the Philistines put him on trial, just as the book was put on trial, with a dung-beetle as the prosecutor.

In Figures of Earth, on the other hand, Manuel and his wife have taken refuge in Philistia and, wishing to start a family, must summon the stork, as Philistine custom and taste demand, rather than contemplating any lewd alternative:

Then Manuel took from his breast-pocket five curious objects something like small black stars and a piece of blue chalk. With the chalk he drew upon the floor two parallel straight lines. Manuel walked on one of these chalk lines very carefully, then beckoned Niafer to him. Standing there, he put his arms about her and kissed her. Then he placed the five black stars in a row, —

* * * * *

and went over to the next line.

The stork having thus been properly summoned…

Mostly, though, Cabell’s fun is on a highly erudite level. The huge cast of mythological figures is derived from many cultures, some familiar and some far more obscure. Both Koshchei the Deathless and Sereda, the goddess of mediocrity and Wednesdays, for instance, derive from ancient Russian myths, while many of the fantastic countries and their denizens can be found in obscure footnotes of mediaeval literature.

Jurgen, who lives very much by his wits, has a habit of quoting classical authors and their works to support his arguments, and most of the people he meets are too overawed to argue. Indeed, many agree that they’ve read the books in question, and of course he’s right. This is nothing more than the Emperor’s New Clothes, since he only quotes authors known to have existed, but whose works have been completely lost.

His bluff is called, however, by the priests of the Philistines, who not only claim to have read every one of the authors he quotes, but to have found them utterly abhorrent – “—And that, in short, I have read every book you can imagine”.

Cabell’s portrayal of Hell and Heaven (which Jurgen visits in that order) is perhaps the cleverest part of the book, and caused him considerable trouble – his attitude to religion offended Sumner and co. as much as his oblique portrayals of sex. Both are, essentially, fakes, created by Koshchei at the insistence of Jurgen’s own forebears and using the Bible as his model. However, “whatever Koshchei wills, not only happens, but has already happened beyond the ancientest memory of man and his mother. How otherwise could he be Koshchei?” So, despite being fakes, the Heaven and Hell of the Bible are also true, and always have been.

The two things, we are told, that are impossible for Koshchei are love and pride, and his fascination with these two realms is that they are based on these two emotions: Heaven on the love that creates ideal versions of what is very far from ideal, Hell on the pride that demands petty sins and crimes as worthy of being recognised and punished. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novels, which include a few Cabellian references, adopt this image of Hell, while being silent on the nature of Heaven.

Cabell’s erudite playfulness extends outside his stories proper, to various forewords and afterwords in which he discusses these tales as traditional legends of Poictesme, citing a host (but a consistent host) of experts on the subject, each of whom has his own interests, interpretations and obsessions: Verville, Bülg, Codman, Lewistam, Vanderhofen and many others. Quoting these contradictory “sources” (much as Jurgen himself does) allows Cabell to tease the reader with possible meanings.

In one interpretation, for example, Jurgen is “really” a sun god, whereas Manuel, in Figures of Earth, is a storm god. This is reflected in the narrative. When Jurgen is living with the nature myths in Cocaigne, he’s finally outwitted by the Master Philologist who “decided, in spite of all that I could do, to derive Jurgen from jargon, indicating a confused chattering such as birds give forth at sunrise: thus ruthlessly does the Master Philologist convert me into a solar legend.” Consequently, Jurgen is “compelled to leave Cocaigne with the Equinox, to enter into autumnal exploits elsewhere.”

In another prologue, on the other hand, Cabell contrast these two, his archetypal characters, in more psychological terms:

“Manuel…I planned to be the type which finds its sole, if incomplete, expression in action: I have, in consequence, been at some trouble to refrain from ascribing to Dom Manuel any thoughts whatsoever. And Jurgen was designed to illustrate Dom Manuel’s utmost contrary, in that Jurgen derives his real, his deepest, his one unfailing pleasure, from the exercise…of his intelligence.”

This is certainly reflected in the way these characters are presented. In Figures of Earth, which is subtitled “A Comedy of Appearances”, Manuel is portrayed as constantly moulding human figures out of mud (some of which are later animated as one line of his “descendants”) because his mother begged him, on her deathbed, “to make a figure in the world”. Manuel’s estimation of the figure that represents himself, in both the opening and closing chapters of the book, is that “It is the figure of a man, which I have modelled and remodelled, sir, but cannot seem to get exactly to my liking.”

Jurgen, on the other hand, we have seen to be a poet who delights in outwitting all around him, and considers himself “a monstrous clever fellow.” He can be seen as the archetype of the lovable anti-hero in twentieth-century fantasy, appearing in such guises as Jack Vance’s Cugel the Clever and Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Even when faced with Koshchei the Deathless himself, Jurgen remains unimpressed by the intelligence of the universe’s ruler: “Jurgen drew the inference and shrugged; decidedly, cleverness was not at the top.

Cabell brought many new elements into the modern fantasy tradition, from his romantic poeticism to his ironic comedy; but perhaps the most impressive is the way his stories interact with one another. Each book stands quite comfortably alone, but the more Cabell you read, the more you understand.

For example, Jurgen is at one point given back a lost day of his youth, which he can remodel more to his liking than the original outcome. Jurgen notes how “the notorious outlaw, Perion de la Forêt…was talking very earnestly with Dame Melicent: and Jurgen knew all that was in store for this pair of lovers.” If you then read Domnei, you’ll not only discover all that story, but you’ll also discover precisely what Perion and Melicent are saying to one another at this moment.

Later in the novel, Jurgen has a curious conversation with a young man named Horvendile, who speculates that maybe he himself is the author of all that is happening. Horvendile’s appearance here is only fleeting, but he recurs in a great many of Cabell’s books, unchanged whatever the period, and does seem to exert a great deal of control over events. In The Cream of the Jest, however, we discover that Horvendile is actually the dream-self of the twentieth-century author, Felix Kennaston of Lichfield, who writes tales of mediaeval Poictesme and who wanders time as Horvendile, controlling all the characters he’s created.

So all these stories are really the creations of Kennaston – a figure not entirely unlike Cabell himself? Not quite. In the genealogical work that links all the characters together, Cabell makes it quite clear that Felix Kennaston is actually a descendant of both Jurgen and Manuel – whom he consequently couldn’t possibly have invented.

All Cabell’s writings work like this, almost as if he were creating an intricate Chinese puzzle, and the wealth of connections between the books somewhat foreshadow later authors, such as Michael Moorcock, who also weave many separate books into a grand design.

I have to say here that not all aspects of Cabell may be to a modern reader’s tastes. He was of his time and place – the American South, about a century ago – and some of his attitudes on race and gender are uncomfortable now. I would say that, for his background (his parents would almost certainly have grown up in slave-owning families) he doesn’t come over as particularly racist; nevertheless, some of his stereotypes (such as the “black gentleman” who appears in Jurgen) wouldn’t be acceptable today.

A more serious flaw, perhaps, is his attitude to women. The female characters in Cabell’s books are, almost without exception, either romantic beauties or nags – if not both at the same time – and they have no real substance in the stories beyond how they relate to the male characters. This can certainly be off-putting; but, if the reader can read the books as a product of their time and ignore these short-comings, there’s plenty of reward. With that caveat, I heartily recommend Jurgen, along with the other books mentioned here.

Oh, and what of those obscenities that caused John S. Sumner a near apoplexy? Well, I don’t doubt you can find them, if you dig deep and approach Jurgen with plenty of humour and imagination, as well as being willing to look up various of Cabell’s obscure references. Just don’t expect Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

If you’re interested in reading Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice then it’s worth noting that you can download it free in eBook format by visiting ProjectGutenberg.org.

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Rating: 9.9/10 (8 votes cast)
Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice by James Branch Cabell, 9.9 out of 10 based on 8 ratings
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One Comment

  1. Jared says:

    Brilliant review.

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