The Best of James Branch Cabell

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The Best of James Branch Cabell

Postby Estraa on Wednesday, 18 November 2009, 4:29 pm

Jurgen is of course the most popular, but I'm curious, which of his works do people here consider his best? Neil Gaiman has recommended The High Place first of all, and supposedly considers it better than Jurgen (it certainly isn't easier to enjoy). H.L. Mencken also considered The High Place one of Cabell's best. Edmund Wilson praised The High Place, Something about Eve, and The Nightmare Has Triplets above all others, and also put Figures of Earth and The Silver Stallion above Jurgen. My primary allegiance is to Figures of Earth and The Silver Stallion. I also recall liking The Witch-Woman (three novellas) unusually much, but have so far only read it once. Still, I'm again rereading Jurgen, and with once more added pleasure (so it seems to me). It may be pointless to draw too fine distinctions here. But, as I said, I'm curious.
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Re: The Best of James Branch Cabell

Postby owlcroft on Saturday, 21 November 2009, 10:29 pm

I have always felt that The "Nightmare" trilogy is Cabell's best work, though not by a large margin, since almost everything he wrote is delicious.

Desmond Tarrant, perhaps the leading Cabell scholar, thinks that these are Cabell's best (in pubdate order):
  • The Cream of the Jest
  • Jurgen
  • Beyond Life (essays)
  • Figures of Earth
  • The Silver Stallion
  • Straws and Prayer-Books (essays)
  • Something About Eve

I think my own favorite from the "Biography" is The Cream of the Jest. I also agree with Tarrant on Straws and Prayer-Books, a superb work. I do find Jurgen just a little less noteworthy than some of the others--perhaps by modern standards a bit over-obvious. The High Place, The Silver Stallion and Figures of Earth are excellent, too. But really, I don't think there is a clunker in the width of his entire oeuvre. (Oh, yes: The Way of Ecben is another favorite of mine; in many ways, it is the key to understanding Cabell and his work.)
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Re: The Best of James Branch Cabell

Postby DavidTate on Saturday, 21 November 2009, 11:03 pm

I find that my local library has a number of Cabell works, including several of the highly-recommended works discussed above.

All non-circulating, available only in the Virginia Room of the main library facility. Presumably because they are rare editions. Sigh.
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Re: The Best of James Branch Cabell

Postby Estraa on Sunday, 22 November 2009, 5:15 pm

I would say Cabell's books are well worth the money and hassle of ordering through the Internet, which is not much of a hassle once you get used to it. I just ordered Straws and Prayer-Books, having previously avoided it because of its non-fiction status (but, after all, I've read and enjoyed Beyond Life, and read and not disliked These Restless Heads and Quiet, Please).

On the other hand, I can't recommend a reader new to Cabell to read his theoretical writings, or even his prefaces (where he usually at least pretends to explain what the book is about), since at least I prefer to experience and interpret a novel or story through my own experiences and ideas and not let the experience be framed by anyone, even the author, outside the strict boundaries of the work itself (prefaces or afterwords rarely belong within those boundaries, one exception would be Lafferty's preface to his Devil is Dead). I have read Cabell's forewords, original and Storisende, it's true, but the way I do it is by not taking what he writes in them very seriously (the same way I don't take T. S. Eliot's deliberately misleading notes to his Waste Land at face value).

For this same reason, I enjoyed especially Edmund Wilson's essay, "The James Branch Cabell Case Reopened", which you can, if you are resourceful, read in full by taking advantage of Amazon's "look inside" feature:

http://www.amazon.com/Bit-Between-Teeth ... 374506248/

He clearly misinterprets Something about Eve, but he was a great literary critic whose criticisms are unusually, really exceptionally well written in purely aesthetic terms, and since he liked the novel so much, why should he care that Cabell perhaps "meant" something else by it? Everyone slavishly repeating the same theses about an author's work is not interesting literary criticism, especially when the theses were first formulated by the author himself, who had some reason to be provocative and not entirely serious and certainly not exhaustive in his treatment of his own motives and purposes (assuming they matter in the first place).
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Re: The Best of James Branch Cabell

Postby owlcroft on Sunday, 22 November 2009, 7:30 pm

Edmund Wilson? Of " Oo, those awful orcs!" fame? Or infamy? Why would anyone take seriously one word from the man one critic aptly describes ("Edmund Wilson, Incompetent Genre Snob") as "a bit of a douchebag"?

Yes, I know, one man's opinion. But even a rather laudatory piece in the New Yorker contains what I consider a sufficiency of information to regard Wilson as a man who could write out well and clearly opinions with which sane folk need have no truck. (The Brittanica article refers to "his crotchety character".)

By his middle age, when the Great American Literary Culture that he fancied himself as soldiering for turned out to--at least in his view--to have never existed, he turned rather bitter:
He had imagined himself a soldier in the struggle to create a literature that could stand on equal terms with the literatures of Europe . . . . Disaffection became Wilson’s customary response to contemporary life and literature.

In that same New Yorker article, there is a phrase that probably sums it nicely: "late-life peevishness".

I haven't read through his Cabell article yet (net-connect difficulties), but if it's positive, that's nice, but it only shows that even a stopped clock has the right time twice a day.

For the real Cabell aficionado, the gold standard is the Storisende edition of the Bibliography. I got mine a few years ago for $600, which sounds like a lot but is not so striking when one considers that it bought 18 well-made hardcover volumes (set #1162 of 1590 issued, hand-numbered in each volume and each signed); it is one of the great treasures of our household (along with the Vance Integral Edition).
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Re: The Best of James Branch Cabell

Postby Estraa on Sunday, 22 November 2009, 9:11 pm

I'm of two minds about Tolkien. Harold Bloom and M John Harrison would join Wilson in his lambasting of Tolkien. I can, kind of, see where they are coming from but, on the other hand, I don't think they are giving Tolkien enough credit for his originality, for being, after all, different. Tolkien's difference is perhaps even easier to see today than back in the fifties, now that we have many competent imitators to compare him with but, curiously, no first-rate imitators.

The Cabell essay is very positive, and I found its first half, on the Southern mindset and its relation to Cabell, enlightening. Since the purpose of the essay was to rehabilitate Cabell, in 1956 when his fame had quite disappeared and when fantasy was automatically considered second-rate literature, in the first half of the essay Wilson focuses on explaining why Southern writers need not be "realists" to be genuine writers and to be taken seriously. The latter half of the essay, I suppose, will be much more interesting for most modern readers.
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Re: The Best of James Branch Cabell

Postby DavidTate on Monday, 23 November 2009, 1:09 am

Estraa wrote:Tolkien's difference is perhaps even easier to see today than back in the fifties, now that we have many competent imitators to compare him with but, curiously, no first-rate imitators.

I'm trying to figure out who you could mean by "competent imitators [of Tolkien]", and I honestly can't. That's mostly because nobody else is even trying to do what Tolkien was doing, as best I can tell. (The incompetent imitators are incompetent partly because they entirely miss the point of what The Lord of the Rings is, and not merely because they are bad writers.)

I'm now off-topic for this thread, but I think it's a point worth pursuing, if not here then under the old JRR thread. There have been many competent fantasists since Tolkien, and even great fantasists, but no one that I can think of who was both competent (much less great) and imitating Tolkien in a way that Tolkien would have recognized as imitation of his work. Can you name some names?
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Re: The Best of James Branch Cabell

Postby Estraa on Monday, 23 November 2009, 1:33 am

Influence is, of course, an elusive concept, but I suppose I should have written "Tolkien-influenced". I meant fantasy writers of fat-volume trilogies who, it may be, aren't exactly trying to imitate Tolkien so much as they are trying to make money by writing something superficially similar, and who write competently. In effect, I suppose I agree with you. This would raise the question, how good was Tolkien after all? It seems to me the measure of goodness must in part be how difficult it was to produce, because such difficulty guarantees a certain amount of rarity. If it's easy to write, anyone can write it. Good being a relative concept, something can't be good if anyone can write it.
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Re: The Best of James Branch Cabell

Postby DavidTate on Monday, 23 November 2009, 10:23 pm

Fair enough. "Tolkien-influenced" certainly is a broad category, containing pretty much every fantasist since then in one way or another. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Bridge of Birds and Watership Down were Tolkien-influenced.

As for attempts to do what Tolkien was attempting... it's hard to think of any that we could compare. The closest I can come up with is Avram Davidson's "Vergil Magus" series, in which he explores a garbled mythology as if it were history, as a framework for tales of the nature of virtue. Davidson was awfully good; I have no idea to what extent he was Tolkien-influenced, or aware of attempting a similar thing.
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Re: The Best of James Branch Cabell

Postby Estraa on Tuesday, 24 November 2009, 2:41 am

DavidTate wrote:As for attempts to do what Tolkien was attempting...

You're now trying to divine motives, some deeper structure perhaps only known to the author himself (if even him), while I was referring to apparent similarities, of which there ought to be a few prominent ones between the LotR and various fat-volume trilogies that flooded the market it had created. These could include a relatively clear distinction between good and evil, and the "good guys" and the "bad guys" (there is a difference here, because sometimes a good guy does a bad thing, and a bad guy might do a good thing; morality is more a question of character than of single actions and their consequences). They could include very close similarities of character types and plot. Etc.
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Re: The Best of James Branch Cabell

Postby owlcroft on Tuesday, 24 November 2009, 6:49 am

Amazing as it may sound, I had not really considered before how nearly unique Tolkien really is. Looking at my full list of three-star-and-up authors, I see no one really at all like Tolkien. I am reminded of what I said about the 5-star list members:
One notable point about this list is that no two on it, arbitrarily paired, will be much alike in their works, and most such random pairings will show wild dissimilarities. Each of this dozen carved out a universe--or universes--of his own.

Another notable point: "heroic" fantasy is only lightly represented: Eddison and Tolkien, and--on one occasion only, with The King of Elfland's Daughter--Dunsany.

Even of the 4-star writers, most of that remains true. The diversity is just plain breath-taking.

Tolkien as a tale-teller can be distinguished in many ways, but I think the chiefest is his creation of a world governed by definite morality; that is certainly not in itself unique, but the richness and complexity of his morality (which for all his devoutness does not truly align with Catholic doctrine) is the difference, a difference of quantity so great as to be a difference of quality. Edmund Wilson notwithstanding, Tolkien's characters are not cardboard: they are entities who have each been presented with a difficult moral choice of some sort--difficult in kind, not merely in magnitude--and who have, in accordance with nothing but their inner natures, made choices that now plays themselves out in their lives and in the history of their time.

When I say "in kind", I mean that the choices are not simply of great magnitude, but are typically murky, complex, entangled. Those who make the right choice usually do so not because they have reasoned out right and wrong but because at some deeper level than reason they have been able to feel the rightness or wrongness. Indeed, at times they have made crucial choices without even recognizing them as such.

Tolkien's thrust is that there ain't no such thing as a free lunch. All choices have costs, and great choices have great costs. There are no characters who come away unscathed: most are deeply hurt. Their only solace is the prospect of what C. S. Lewis described as "eternal sorrows eternally consoled".[1]

Whether, even granted the world of Middle Earth, Tolkien's characters are "realistic" is immaterial. Arthur the King is still Arthur the King even if offstage he craps in a stone tower. Power and dignity do not depend on "realism" in the sense some of Tolkien's critics seem to want. (Was it not Wilson who bemoaned Aragorn's lack of a "taste for sin"?)


[1] Does anyone know if that's original with Lewis?
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Re: The Best of James Branch Cabell

Postby DavidTate on Tuesday, 24 November 2009, 3:53 pm

Estraa wrote:
DavidTate wrote:As for attempts to do what Tolkien was attempting...

You're now trying to divine motives, some deeper structure perhaps only known to the author himself (if even him),

I consider the author's own descriptions of what he was about to be a reasonable starting point here, especially when combined with the analysis of Tom Shippey in The Road to Middle-Earth. There is considerable material in the Letters, and indirect evidence from critical essays like "Beowulf: the Monster and the Critics" and "On Fairy Stories".
while I was referring to apparent similarities, of which there ought to be a few prominent ones between the LotR and various fat-volume trilogies that flooded the market it had created. These could include a relatively clear distinction between good and evil, and the "good guys" and the "bad guys" (there is a difference here, because sometimes a good guy does a bad thing, and a bad guy might do a good thing; morality is more a question of character than of single actions and their consequences). They could include very close similarities of character types and plot. Etc.

I would have said that "a relatively clear distinction between good and evil" is part of what distinguishes the imitators from Tolkien, rather than a point of similarity. I realize that it's a cliché among literary critics that LotR is all black and white, but I've always taken that as evidence that the critics hadn't actually read the book. Certainly there are characters that are very evil and characters that are very noble; that may be what confuses them. (There's also the problem that modern critics don't believe in anything that isn't low mimesis or satire, which is a related issue...)

I am aware of works like The Sword of Shannara that borrow the plot outline of LotR more or less intact, with a cast of characters that maps 1-to-1 to Tolkien's main characters. I'm just pointing out that I could do the same with Moby-Dick, and produce (say) a thriller that really has nothing in common (as literature) with Moby-Dick. Calling my novel an imitation of Melville would be true, in a way, but not in an interesting way -- or so it seems to me.
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Re: The Best of James Branch Cabell

Postby owlcroft on Tuesday, 24 November 2009, 10:04 pm

I realize that it's a cliché among literary critics that LotR is all black and white, but I've always taken that as evidence that the critics hadn't actually read the book.

I couldn't agree more. And when I encounter such "criticism", it (depending on my extant mood) angers or depresses me. As you rightly point out, some characters are noble and some evil, but if one pays mind to the back-story--which, in Tolkien, is always crucial--one sees that even they were, at some point in their development, not necessarily what their choices back then have led them to become. I suspect that the critics don't, in their own lives, meet any great number of basically quite decent people, which says something, but I don't care to probe much into what. They are scarce, to be sure, but hardly rare.
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Re: The Best of James Branch Cabell

Postby Estraa on Tuesday, 24 November 2009, 10:46 pm

I really ought to reread the LotR before continuing this line of discussion, and while I'm not necessarily disagreeing with the thrust of your comments, it seems to me that "a world governed by definite morality" is not, at any rate, gray, and Tolkien's world is not a rainbow world of relativism either, and so the most natural metaphor for it would be some manner of "black and white", notwithstanding the sometimes negative connotations of it.
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Re: The Best of James Branch Cabell

Postby DavidTate on Wednesday, 25 November 2009, 12:58 am

Estraa wrote:it seems to me that "a world governed by definite morality" is not, at any rate, gray, and Tolkien's world is not a rainbow world of relativism either, and so the most natural metaphor for it would be some manner of "black and white", notwithstanding the sometimes negative connotations of it.

If we were talking about music, and I said that a certain piece was neither monotone nor atonal, would you conclude that it therefore must use exactly two notes? That seems to be what you're saying here. "Black and white" generally implies "and nothing else".

I'm intrigued by the phrase "a rainbow world of relativism", though. Could you give me an example of a work you would characterize that way?
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Re: The Best of James Branch Cabell

Postby owlcroft on Thursday, 26 November 2009, 1:51 am

[I]t seems to me that "a world governed by definite morality" is not, at any rate, gray . . . .

A nation is governed by definite laws, but not every citizen lives rigorously by all, nor yet breaks all.

In Tolkien's sort of world, while the morality is definite, the people aren't: they can be any shade of moral grey you like.

Sort of like, um, the real world.
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Re: The Best of James Branch Cabell

Postby kreigfoster on Sunday, 30 January 2011, 12:07 pm

As you can probably deduce from my screen name, I’ve long been fascinated by the paladin character. On the whole you almost had to go into historical works to find good and straight treatment of the paladin. Galahad, Roland, these you can find. Lancelot the flawed and fallen paladin is the more frequent model used by modern writers. Interestingly Michael Moorecock makes a connection with these and others at least obliquely in his “Eternal Champion Cycle”. There is what looks like an attempt at an almost direct connection between Elric and Roland.
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Re: The Best of James Branch Cabell

Postby owlcroft on Monday, 31 January 2011, 9:26 pm

On the whole you almost had to go into historical works to find good and straight treatment of the paladin.

Attanasio, in his "Arthor" tetralogy, took an interesting (and unusual) stab at it. James Blaylock's recent Knights of the Cornerstone is another. James Branch Cabell's novel Domnei, while it has much of his trademark irony, is by no means an anti-heroic tale. Indeed, C. J. Cherryh's Morgaine, though (nominally) a science-fiction character, is a paladin out of fantasy if ever there were. An interesting blend of the heroic and the anti-heroic in one person is Glen Cook's Garrett; he takes his stumbles and tumbles, but at bottom he is the man who is not himself mean that those mean streets must be walked by. And Lord Dunsany's works--the pinnacle of fantastic literature--include niot a few paladin figures. And that is only a quick scan through the letter D of authors.

The basic problem with the paladin figure, I suspect, is that it is (as an old nightclub pianist once said to me of country music) a limited art form: there is only so much room for maneuver in both plot and characterization without the thing veering away from the paladin tale. The paladin is--as Michael Moorcock implicitly recognized--essentially a single figure, and all tales about him are largely the same tale about the same character. There is not a lot of temptation to wend one's auctorial way down so well-trodden a road.
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Re: The Best of James Branch Cabell

Postby charleshudgen on Sunday, 17 June 2012, 1:48 am

I would say Cabell's books are well worth the money. The Cabell essay is very positive and this is a good thoughts to others. Cabell's work is really worth it to buy and like everybody's here it is very recommended.


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Re: The Best of James Branch Cabell

Postby willymcgilly on Monday, 11 February 2013, 12:49 am

He's definitely not easy to read, but he's well worth the patience. I've always found 'Something About Eve,' while frustratingly convoluted at times, to be a quite entertaining book.
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