Wearing the Poisoned Shirt

Be very careful what you wish for — you might get it!

This familiar bit of cautionary and cynical folk wisdom — with its unspoken but obvious corollary that when you get your wish it will prove distasteful — would surely have been known to the master American fantasist James Branch Cabell (1879-1958), especially in its contemporaneous incarnation as “The Monkey’s Paw,” a 1902 story by W. W. Jacobs. In fact, the monitory maxim could almost serve as a recurring motif and theme across all of Cabell’s books, in which unrealistic desires and expectations and dreams are often undermined and betrayed by their very fulfillment, proving that the deluded  human heart is never the best judge of what’s really healthy for it.

But as often as Cabell wryly preached this sermon, it is doubtful that he ever truly expected one of his own creations to provide a painful and vivid lesson to its creator along the selfsame lines. And yet that is precisely what happened with Jurgen (1919), his most famous novel.

This book embodied all that Cabell had been striving for, artistically and commercially, up to the point of its release — the fulfillment of his esthetic and marketplace visions for himself and his career. Yet the immediate aftermath of this “triumph” involved hardship, suffering, indignation, obloquy, and doubt, casting a warped and warping shadow — diminishing over time but never nonexistent — under which Cabell would labor for the rest of his life (a disturbing shadow rather like the one prophetically attached to the book’s hero).

But despite all the ancillary fuss, Cabell’s accomplishments were — and remain — real and magnificent. Jurgen remains today the quintessence of this remarkably talented author’s worldview, a milestone in the fantasy field, admirably, compellingly readable and entertaining and illuminating. Any reader who has not encountered this classic book before is in for an immense treat. And those who have chanced upon it in one of its many prior editions — I myself read it for the first time nearly forty years ago — will find it just as eternally fresh and stimulating as of yore.

The controversy surrounding Jurgen even at this late date can easily obscure its many virtues and excellences. So before discussing the text, it’s best to clarify the historical fog around it.

* * *

Nearing the age of forty, James Branch Cabell, Virginian gentleman with a rebel, nonconformist heart, recluse and socialite both, found himself longing for a breakthrough, both commercially and artistically. His prior magazine short stories and books had achieved some small successes, but had never really been bestsellers, as he felt they deserved. His utilitarian marriage six years prior to Priscilla Bradley Shepherd — a rich widow with children, a woman quite a bit older than himself — kept the fiscal wolf from the door, but also marked the end to any romantic bachelorhood or juvenile dreams of finding the Eternal Maiden.

But perhaps more piercingly, the manuscript of his volume of essays, Beyond Life (1919), had taken a recent drubbing from his beloved young editor Guy Holt at McBride. Holt wrote Cabell a sharp letter of critique in which he more or less accused Cabell of being false to life and to Cabell’s own truest beliefs. Holt claimed that Cabell’s work sought merely to falsely and trivially beguile readers rather than convey any eternal verities.

Goaded by these accusations and by his uncomfortable stature at home and in society and in the world of letters, Cabell set to work on a magnum opus, a book that would define his legacy, a quasi-autobiographical novel that would simultaneously partake of and depict the universal condition of mankind — and the male member of the species in particular. The book would tap the living, throbbing élan vital that powered life: somewhat promiscuous sexual conquests, allied with the romantic quest for an ideal mate. In the phrase of Edgar MacDonald, author of James Branch Cabell and Richmond-in-Virginia (University Press of Mississippi, 1993), the novel would be “an uninhibited expression of the male libido.”

The working title for this novel was The Pawnbroker’s Shirt. Cabell spent fourteen months on the manuscript, and finished it with elation. He made a few minor changes to tone down the sexual content somewhat, at Holt’s request. And then the book was released, with the new title reflecting the name of the protagonist.

It immediately received many good reviews — but also a few chastising it as obscene. Public controversy began to accumulate around the book. The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice brought charges against Jurgen. The legal affair dragged on for two years, a continuing headache for Cabell and his publisher, during which time sales of the book were suppressed, black-market copies flourished, and McBride and Cabell lost tons of money. Ultimately, the court case was decided in Cabell’s favor, and Jurgen would go on to receive many future editions, including one with beautiful illustrations by Frank Papé.

But as Cabell’s biographer MacDonald says, “Jurgen…would become an alter-ego, with a life of its own,” threatening to “overshadow” its creator.

Cabell would continue onward to write many more fine books, most fitting into the grand continuity of The Biography of Manuel, some fully as robust and sprightly and deftly assembled as Jurgen. But the crystallization of his style and concerns in this famous volume, and its inextricable links to a certain historical period and milieu as a seven-days wonder, ensured that as the decades passed, Cabell would be more and more seen as a fusty figure no longer relevant to contemporary literature. And in fact to counter this perception, Cabell would take a course familiar even nowadays:  changing his byline. In 1932, he became merely “Branch Cabell” on his books, seeking to put the faded forty-year-old author of Jurgen far off to the side.

The author’s chef-d’oeuvre had metaphorically become a poisoned shirt he was doomed to wear.

But like Jurgen, he wore it gaily, boldly, and with élan.

* * *

Our novel opens with our middle-aged hero, Jurgen, erstwhile poet and regret-laden practicing pawnbroker, misplacing his termagant wife Lisa in a rather inconvenient fashion. Jurgen happens to utter praise for the Devil, whereupon a mysterious figure arises to greet him in the road. Jurgen then mildly inveighs against his wife to the dark stranger, and when he returns home, Lisa is nowhere to be found. This condition impels Jurgen to set out on a quest for her. One of the first things that happens to him is a meeting with a centaur named Nessus, who lends Jurgen a glittering shirt. This garment is the famous poisoned tunic of Greek myth that killed Hercules.

But amazingly, Jurgen flourishes beneath the shirt’s lurid embrace, does not die. The magical vestment allures and impresses others he meets. His nature, in short, transforms what was fatal to a simple-minded warrior like Hercules. The malice and vengeance inherent in the Centaur’s curse is negated by a kind of invulnerable poetic cast of mind. One is reminded — and appropriately so, given Cabell’s vast erudition on display in this book — of a quote from the Buddhist Dhammapada: “He who has no wound on his hand may touch poison with his hand; poison does not affect one who has no wound; nor is there evil for one who does not commit evil.”

Recall that the subtitle of Jurgen is “A Comedy of Justice” and that Jurgen’s code phrase for indulging in sex is “to deal fairly” with his paramours. As greedy and self-serving as he might be, he does indeed commit no injustice.

Clad in this shirt, restored to his youth, his shadow endowed with a grotesque life of its own, eventually hefting King Arthur’s sword Caliburn, Jurgen embarks on the most fantabulous series of picaresque adventures, lasting a year and full of social satire, seduction and sardonicism.

He has a chance to woo once again the lost perfect girl of his young manhood, Dorothy.

He becomes famed Guenevere’s lover before Arthur and Lancelot.

He is established as co-regent of Cocaigne with the goddess Anaïtis.

He marries a hamadryad named Chloris and lives in her tree.

He is exiled to Hell and escapes to Heaven.

Finally, he meets the creator of the universe, Koshchei the Deathless, and bargains for his ultimate fate.

This small account barely begins to cover the startling amount of vivid incident in this generously overstuffed book. Cabell claimed to have put every narrative idea he had during the writing of Jurgen into the novel. (This strategy has often produced sui generis books. For instance, Damon Knight reports in In Search of Wonder [1956] that this was the same tactic adopted by Charles Harness for his baroque Flight into Yesterday [1953].)

But more than mere extravagant plotting is on display here. Cabell was extremely well versed in mythology and classical literature, and he crams his book in relatively unstrained fashion with allusions to hundreds of past figures and incidents. The partial glossing of these copious allusions was achieved by James P. Cover in his Notes on Jurgen (1928), a digital version of which, supplemented by David Rolfe, Mike Keith and Bernard Leak, is available online at http://home.earthlink.net/~davidrolfe/jurgen.htm.

Not content with trawling the world’s literature for relevant tidbits, Cabell also invented spurious authorities and books, a tendency also exhibited by Jurgen himself.

Finally, Cabell layered in allegorical subtexts and extensive symbolism. It is this methodology he relied on to baffle censors and prudes and the literal-minded. Jurgen’s famous wordplay regarding his various “swords,” “lances” and “sceptres” conceals much phallic meaning. However, the explicit sex that twenty-first-century readers are used to is nowhere to be found. Which is not to say that there are not scenes that still titillate or even shock here. Perhaps the most stunning occurs in Chapter 22, “As to a Veil They Broke,” in which Jurgen’s occult marriage to Anaïtis is consummated with the help of naked girl-children in a kind of Aleister Crowley-style Black Mass.

All of the ingredients in this rich stew are laved by the tasty golden broth of Cabell’s elegant prose, sentences both classical yet modern, and so well balanced and perfectly rounded that their construction appears airy, while really possessing the tensile strength of steel. Moreover, Cabell’s bag of narrative tricks is always replete with goodies. The way he will avert the narrator’s — and hence the reader’s — eyes from what is better left to the imagination; the repeated use of catchphrases that become mantras; the surprising developments that undo all predictability — Cabell could skillfully manipulate his readers like few other writers.

Unique as Jurgen is, we can adduce a few respected predecessors. James Stephens’s The Crock of Gold (1912) comes to mind, as does Aubrey Beardsley’s Under the Hill (1904). Anatole France’s Penguin Island (1908) and The Revolt of the Angels (1914). Perhaps the faux-medieval romances of William Morris. But certainly the great streak of otherworldly books by Lord Dunsany, beginning with The Gods of Pegāna (1905) had a part in the development of Cabell’s sensibilities. And finally, Cabell himself cites Poe, Whitman, and Twain as inspirations in the Foreword to Jurgen.

As for radiating his influence outward, Cabell’s work has permeated the field of fantastical literature, starting with contemporaries like Thorne Smith (the ribald unconventionality) and H. P. Lovecraft (the false authorities and imaginary books, the invented pantheon, the continuity among different books) and extending to modern masters such as Jack Vance and Robert Heinlein. Cabell may have been forgotten by the mainstream, but his legacy lives on strongly among genre writers.

* * *

To read Jurgen as a sympathetic teenager or young man, as I first did, is to be inveigled by the randy proceedings enjoyed by Jurgen during his artificial youth. Jurgen deems himself a “monstrous clever fellow,” and younger readers will delight in his priapic exploits and wiseass nose-thumbing at society. The frametale will be generally ignored.
But it’s the frametale that carries the sting, a sting that hits home hard with older readers. Jurgen feels superannuated at age forty, all his dreams uncompleted, stuck with a harridan wife. It’s the classic midlife crisis, the Dantean passage through the dark wood. And when Jurgen emerges out the far end of his exploits, there seems to be  nothing outwardly changed. He’s restored to his original condition in every detail. And yet he goes home to Lisa content. All the changes are internal, and they are significant.
Although Jurgen surrenders the shirt of Nessus to Koshchei at the end of the book, he’s really still metaphorically wearing it. He’s internalized the “poisons” of disillusionment and despair and defeat and transmuted them to wisdom and acceptance.
And thus do Jurgen and Cabell alike refute cruel fate, and earn their glory.

The Speculator

Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review.  He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.