Archives: James Branch Cabell

Happiness and Endings

We look for happy endings. But there are no endings. Except, y’know, death. The story may stop, but it doesn’t end, only the narration ceases at a particular moment, a transition to some other event the author doesn’t record.

Everyone is looking for a little slice of paradise. No one finds it. At best it’s transitory, that blissful stretch in Margaritaville where the beer is too cold and the daiquiri too fruitiful. And then the bar tab arrives and you come back to earth, or the hangover arrives, or you roll over in bed and see that you just might have made a huge mistake.

It’s all cyclical. Every paradise contains the seeds of its own hell. And we’re all capable of creating our own individual circles of the inferno. James Branch Cabell knew this. Read “Jurgen.” Our humble protagonist, the pawnbroker Jurgen, is given a second chance at youth, a chance to avoid all the errors of his life. But of course he simply makes a similar sequence of mistakes, complicit in his own miseries. It’s what we do.

No true story has a happy ending. J.R.R. Tolkien writes of the ‘eucatastrophe’ in which the tides abruptly shift, bringing a wave of happiness. But even “Lord of the Rings” ends on a bittersweet note. “The Princess Bride” (the book, not the film) get it exactly right, cycling from ‘the happy ending’ on to the immediate difficulties that follow.

Of course some seem to like the problems. E.R. Eddison’s “The Worm Ouroboros” for example deliberately eschews peace exchange for an immediate reset to turmoil. Less boring, you see. I do see, but I for one could put up with the occasional stretch of boredom for a corresponding length of peace.

But, that’s life. We know it from infancy. Watch a baby through the day transitioning endlessly from delighted wonder to wailing despair. “And they all lived happily ever after” is rightly confined to children’s fables. Stories, if they are honest, reflect the fragile and temporary nature of happiness.

I suppose that’s how it ought to be. Things are defined by opposition. How could we recognize happiness without a bit of misery? What would we have to look forward to, to strive for? In that respect, the emotional cycle is a boon, right?

How’s that for a happy ending?

Is it Ever Mother's Day in Secondary Worlds?

Happy Mother’s Day to all you mothers out there. This day got me to considering the relative paucity of mothers featured as characters in science fiction and fantasy. Get rather short shrift for page time, don’t they? This is simply an observation, I’m making no judgments, issuing no call to action for greater inclusion and representation of mothers. Screw that noise. Domesticity and child rearing are seldom prominent aspects of space opera or swords-and-sorcery. That’s just the nature of the beast. If writers found more entertainment value from motherhood they’d write in more scenes for our distaff progenitors.

But what examples do we have of dear old Ma in speculative fiction?

Romance

Romance and marriage are atypical subjects of speculative fiction, usually either consigned to the B-plot or give short-shrift if included at all.  That’s fine: not every book must contain every possible element.  Absence of a wooing, dalliance, or long-term relationship should not be grounds for legitimate criticism of a work.

Tolkien wrote a romance without a great deal of romance.  What romance did reach the page was chaste, the courtly romance of the troubadours.  This is perhaps better exemplified by Gimli’s love for Galadriel than the decades long trials and courtship of Aragorn and Arwen.  That is the story the Good Professor was writing and it worked.

James Branch Cabell: an Appreciation.

James Branch Cabell: an Appreciation.

Did America ever produce a more elegant writer than James Branch Cabell?  Every phrase, every simile, every line of dialog is smooth, cultured.  His work displayed urbane wit on par with Oscar Wilde.

Here is a paragraph from what many consider Cabell’s magnum opus, “Jurgen.”

So they fought.  Now Jurgen was a very acceptable swordsman, but from the start he found in Heitman Michael his master.  Jurgen had never reckoned upon that and he considered it annoying.  If Heitman Michael perforated Jurgen the future would be altered, certainly, but not quite as Jurgen had decided it ought to be remodeled.  This unlooked for complication seemed preposterous; and Jurgen began to be irritated by the suspicion that he was getting himself killed for nothing.

I love the droll, tongue-in-cheek understatement.  And the man filled volumes with this cultured verve.  Fritz Leiber often achieved similar heights, though he did not imbue his work with the same sense of aristocratic archness.  Clark Ashton Smith could weave words and worlds with the same facility as Cabell, but while both men wrote from a position of world weary cynicism, Smith seldom displayed the same degree of sustained humor and when he did it tended toward the grim rather than the philosophical.

And Cabell was doubtless a philosopher.  How should a man live in an uncaring universe, and does it matter?  Cabell addressed these issues.  And few since Shakespeare have delved as insightfully into love, lust, and marriage.

Cabell – at one point a household name – has sadly fallen into obscurity.  It is a shame that such a master – once banned in Boston, a sign of quality if there ever was one – should no longer be widely read.

What say we try to reverse that?