Sunday, August 19, 2007

What Can Be Saved From the Wreckage?

The single coolest and most collectable book to be published this coming November has got to be What Can Be Saved From the Wreckage? James Branch Cabell in the Twentieth Century. It won’t be the most popular or profitable volume or the book of widest interest. But it will definitely be the coolest. And I wrote it!

Here’s the story. I started reading Cabell as a teenager, decades ago, when several of his fantasies were published in Lin Carter’s Adult Fantasy series. Early on, I conceived the ambition to read Cabell’s entire oeuvre and began collecting his works (most of which could and still can be bought quite cheaply in used book stores) as I encountered them. A couple of years ago, I got serious about the project, and with the aid of the rare book room in the University of Pennsylvania Library, managed to complete reading everything the man had ever published, with the exception of his family genealogies. Which, however, I did glance at, to make sure there wasn’t anything clever going on there. I also read a lot of criticism and all I could find out about the man’s life. Then I wrote an 18,500-word essay (counting my extravagant footnotes) summarizing Cabell’s life and carefully weighing the value of his works.

It begins:

There are, alas, an infinite number of ways for a writer to destroy himself. James Branch Cabell chose one of the more interesting. Standing at the helm of the single most successful literary career of any fantasist of the twentieth century, he drove the great ship of his reputation straight and unerringly onto the rocks.

It is hard to imagine today the magnitude of James Branch Cabell’s fame in the early part of the last century. Cabell’s books were Mark Twain’s chief reading in the great humorist’s declining years. Theodore Roosevelt received him at the White House. The occultist Aleister Crowley harried him with fan letters. H. L. Mencken was his advocate. A symphonic tone poem based on Cabell’s Jurgen debuted at Carnegie Hall in 1925. Sinclair Lewis, accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930, mentioned him as one of a number of writers who might reasonably have won it.

Yet he died as good as forgotten. A 1958 memorial by Edmund Wilson, a late convert to his work, began, “I do not know how many people will feel a special sense of loss at the death of James Branch Cabell.” Today there is little left to remind people of what he once was. Jurgen is still read in the Dover paperback edition, and hard-core fantasy fans seek out the Ballantine reprints of his other fantasies in used bookstores. But that’s pretty much it. The other day I received in the mail a copy of
Jurgen, personally inscribed To Anita “Star of my Life” and signed “Jimmy” Cabell. It cost me twenty dollars, including postage. A comparable book by William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, or F. Scott Fitzgerald – to name two writers he could not abide and a third who once humbly begged a blurb from him for The Beautiful and the Damned – would have set me back a bundle.

This remarkable feat of self-obliteration was accomplished through diligence, hard work, and a perverse brilliance of timing on Cabell’s part. His chief tool was a uniform edition of his works.

I happen to think this is a good essay, but that’s not what makes its book publication extraordinary. The coolness factor derives directly from Henry Wessells, the publisher. Henry is a serious rare book man (he works for James Cummins, Bookseller in New York City, which is one of the very first places you’ll want to go shopping after winning big in the lottery), and his imprint, Temporary Culture, is issuing the book in two states. One is a trade paperback (6 x 9 inches, 64 pp.) edition of 200, very reasonably priced at fifteen dollars. It’s the limited edition hardcover that jacks up the cool quotient to eleven.

But before I should explain why, let me briefly mention the introduction and the man who wrote it. “Jurgen Down Under,” is a very graceful piece of writing by the estimable Barry Humphries, reflecting on his first encountering the then-scandalous Jurgen in the 1950s Australia of his youth. Barry Humphries is best known to the world as Dame Edna, but you don’t have to know anything of his comedic brilliance to appreciate the essay he wrote.

Now, as to the hardcover . . . It will be printed in an edition of 17 numbered copies, each one signed by me, Barry Humphries, and James Branch Cabell. This last is a bit of a trick, given that Cabell died almost fifty years ago, but Henry Wessells achieved it by sacrificing an incomplete set of the Storisende Edition of Cabell’s works (originally 18 volumes) and harvesting the signed leaves. Neat, huh? Most of those copies are already spoken for, so if you desperately need one, you’d better move fast. Serious collectors can inquire for a subscription price, which (the press release says), “includes shipping within the USA and a copy of the trade issue.” So you can read the essay and still keep the pages of the limited edition pristine and uncut, you see.

Order and inquiries should go not to me but to:

Henry Wessells
P.O. Box 43072, Upper Montclair, NJ 07043-0072 USA
Electronym : wessells(at)aol(dot)com


James said...

I got bitten by the Cabell bug years ago, when I read that his works were in the 'forgotten classics' category. I quickly read *The Silver Stallion* and *Figures of Earth*. I got half-way through *Jurgen* before I set it aside. Since then, I've made attempts at some of his other works (*Domnei* and *The High Place*), but I've never felt the urge to get beyond the opening chapters.

Cabell's wordplay can be very entertaining. I still enjoy the conversation between Satan and one of his errant minions (a demon who has gone native and is passing for a human on Earth) that appears in *The Silver Stallion*.

One of the biggest problems I have with Cabell is that I find his portrayal of women appalling: while they're young and single, they're beautiful and desirable. As soon as they marry, they invariably became controlling shrews. This could be a source of amusement if Cabell had done it once, but he kept repeating the joke, sometimes more than once in the same book. This was more than I could take, so I've probably read all of the Cabell I'm ever going to. For me, he will remain an influential, but unread, fantasy author.

I do look forward to reading your *What Can Be Saved From the Wreckage?* if I can get my hands on a copy, though.

Michael Swanwick said...

You're absolutely right -- there can't be very many Cabell fans who are female.

Here's what critic Leslie A. Fiedler had to say on this exact same subject:

“The pleasure, therefore, which despite myself I continue to find in his fiction, seems to me an understandable but rather ignoble response to what are essentially the wet dreams of an eternal fraternity boy, wish-fulfillment fantasies set in a realm between dawn and sunrise, in which time is unreal and crime without consequence. In this crepuscular Neverland, all males are incredibly urbane and phallic, all women fair and delightfully stupid up to the point of marriage. After that dread event, the former become genitally inadequate, and the latter shrewish and nagging, though dedicated, for reasons never made quite clear, to nurturing and protecting their doddering mates so that they can produce romances celebrating not those wives, of course, but certain phantom girls whom they have not married and who consequently remain forever desirable and eighteen.”

Which maps pretty closely to the facts of Cabell's life, is essentially answerable, and packs a decided sting. Particularly in the two words, "delightfully stupid," which are in themselves enough to make a man resolve to give up his sexist ways.

Michael Swanwick said...

Unanswerable. I meant to say unanswerable.


Fred Kiesche said...

Dang. My wallet hates you. Because I am going to buy this book.

Steven said...

Like you, I was introduced to Cabell through the Adult Fantasy series. I'm beginning to realize what a watershed those books represent for many people. I look forward to reading your Cabell book.

SpeakerToManagers said...

Cabell was such a good writer, and such a bad observer of people that I wonder at just how much his work can grab a (male) reader. I guess Fiedler had the right of it: that wet dream has an attraction, however secret and guilty, for many men.

I've wondered for a long time how Heinlein managed to juggle his obvious respect for Cabell (look at the subtitles of his last 3 or 4 books) and the respect he professed for women. Could this be a case of believing six contradictory things before breakfast?

Looking forward to reading your book (my eyes may be big enough for the collectors' edition, but my wallet certainly isn't).

shiva said...

Only 200 copies available of the trade paperback? Great googly moogly.

Stephen said...

So is the Catalogue of Unique Works in the Library
and Private Collections of Michael Swanwick
real or a joke? And if the former, what's it going to be?

Michael Swanwick said...

Wow. So many things to respond to.

I've come around to the opinion that we shouldn't be ashamed of our wet dreams, so long as we don't mistake them for real life, let them get in the way of actual sex-and-romance, or talk about them too insistently in public. Women have unworthy thoughts too. I remember how pissed a romance writer became when I told her the plot of her latest book, which she'd just summed up for me, was the most sexist thing I'd ever heard. Anti-female sexist, I mean, not a reverse sexism thing.

There's some kind of complex lesson to be learned from this, but I haven't worked it through yet.

The importance of the Adult Fantasy line cannot be overstated. Lin Carter was as important an editor as he was negligible as a writer.

There will only be 200 copies of the trade paperback because Temporary Culture is a one-man small press, and Henry Wessells is only willing to give up so much of his house to cardboard cartons full of books. He's not in this for the money, after all, but for the love of rare and interesting books.

And is the Catalogue of Unique Works in the Library and Private Collections of Michael Swanwick real or a joke? Yes, to both. It's a real bookman's joke, something that Henry plans to do at some unspecified point in the future. As it happens, I have a number of unique -- which is to say, one-of-a-kind -- works in existence. A story in the form of a mask. Another written on the surface of a crescent moon shaped lamp. Stories without any other copy, paper or electronic, sealed inside bottles and dated and signed with a diamond pen. And so on. As a writer of and afficionado of catalogs, this tickles Henry's fancy.

Theophylact said...

"Twentieth" or "Twenty-First" Century? Oughtn't the author to know?

Theophylact said...

I should add that I'm also a Cabell fan (I couldn't get through the Smirt/Smith/Smire books, though), and have a number of the editions with Frank C. Papé illustrations, and I'd love to have a copy of your essay.

Michael Swanwick said...

It's the Twentieth Century. Very little of any note touching upon James Branch Cabell has occurred in the Twenty-First Century. My essay may be just about it -- and it can't hold a candle to the literary madness that swirled about Cabell in his lifetime. Even the synthesizer recording of the 1925 symphonic tone poem inspired by Jurgen was first published in 1999.

Ahh, Frank C. Papé! What an inspired choice of illustrator. I particularly admire the fact thatthe stallion used as the logo for the Kalki edition was rampant in both senses of the word.

George said...

I’ve been an on and off Cabell fan for years and I was fascinated to hear about your “What Can Be Saved” essay but I must take issue with your claim that very little of Cabell is currently available. I can find, through Amazon’s UK branch at least, almost everything Cabell ever wrote. It has been reprinted by Wildside Press and / or Kessinger (admittedly the last named tends to deal in obscure stuff!).

I also have a curious 1967 book called “James Branch Cabell – The Dream and the Reality” by a Desmond Tarrant in which the author seems to see Cabell as a major literary force whose work has profound mythic significance for our disillusioned age etc etc. Of course none of this proves that Cabell IS a major literary force but it does mean that even at the late date of ’67 someone was making such a claim.