Once or Twice Upon a Time | Newberry

Once or Twice Upon a Time

My grandfather, packing up books for a move to smaller quarters, told me to take anything I wanted from the books he had opted not to keep. This meant some of his books would be staying in the family (and there was, after all, a chance that he could borrow them back once he’d moved.)

I found that he had a large collection of books by an author I liked, at least based on the two books I’d been able to buy in paperback reprint. I put these in my pile. When I passed the piles of books next, I found these particular books in the stack for the sale. I stacked them back in my Take Pile. Next time I passed, they were back in the Sale Pile. I gradually deduced that he did not WANT me to have these books, but as I was also the person boxing them up, I outlasted him and put them in my box when it was too late for him to make the shift.

It’s all in one’s point of view. I was seeing them as fantasy novels, and I was trying to read as much twentieth century fantasy fiction as I could find. (This was one of the last years it was still possible to even think of doing such a thing.) He saw them as dirty books, unsuitable for an impressionable young man (I had just finished grad school.) He and my grandmother had, early in their marriage, given each other books considered by some (including them) as off-color, but having literary merit. These included the Decameron, the Heptameron of Margaret of Navarre, Gargantua, Pantagruel, Daphnis and Chloe, and other such classics. I was not tempted by these volumes. I wanted to read James Branch Cabell.

Since that elegant and truculent Virginian featured in both of the other columns for this week, I thought I might just fill in for those of you who have not run out to buy his stuff. This is probably most of you since, in spite of attempts by several publishers over the years to bring him back in vogue, he is read largely by curiosity seekers. His most famous novel, Jurgen, was, after all, brought to court on charges of obscenity (the presiding judge eventually ruled that because of the way Cabell wrote the objectionable passes, they could be read as completely innocent and, anyway, not many people were going to read the stuff anyhow.). AND a certain school of literary critics—H.L. Mencken and Edmund Wilson and that crew—said that if you had to read fantasy (mere escapism and not fit to be called literature at all), you should at least read Cabell, as the least romantic of romantic writers. (Cabell rather liked both Mencken and Wilson, but I can’t help feeling their praise was more insulting than the judge’s verdict.)

But you can ignore all these folks and just read his books (available at reasonable prices in the Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror section). The books from the 1920s are your best bet. Jurgen is where most people start: if the way Jurgen gets into Heaven and finds out that God exists only because Jurgen’s grandmother whined so much about not finding him there does not amuse, Cabell is probably not for you. The Silver Stallion and Figures of Earth are also mentioned by most critics. (In Figures of Earth, the hero completes his quest and rescues his true love two-thirds of the way into the book. The rest covers what “living happily ever after” really entails.)

If you like him, he did write fifty-two books, including some historical works and a few genealogical tomes. There will be a lot to choose from for new fans, though SOME of these books are not worth your time, and his style is such that if you read too much of him in one serving, you will start to see the jokes coming two or three paragraphs away. Best to pace yourself. Slip Daphnis and Chloe in as a chaser, and after that pastoral romance, you’ll cheerfully slip back into the more acid fantasy of Cabell.

As for the naughty bits, you could, as the judge pointed out, read them as utterly innocent. You COULD.

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