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It is depressing how quickly writers, even very good ones, can be forgotten once the public eye moves off of them. I am now in my seventh decade, and I remember reading very good, very engaging books in my adolescence by authors who are seldom mentioned these days. Equally amazing to me are the authors who endure, and whose popularity continues. For example, I read JD Salinger’s Frannie And Zooey early in my high school days, but I thought the works of his near-contemporaries John Hershey (Too Far To Walk) and William Goldman (Boys And Girls Together) superior as studies of alienation. I haven’t met anyone under 55 who has even heard of those two writers.
Thomas Pynchon will be with us forever, as will Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. Other writers who seem to have legs are Kurt Vonnegut and John Updike, but Peter De Vries, Mary McCarthy, Louis Auchincloss, and even Ray Bradbury are disappearing from the catalogue. Gore Vidal preens himself and offers frequent fussy comment on the social scene, but who remembers Alfred Chester? It is though there is only one niche in the literary ecology for a particular kind of author, and Vidal grabbed it to Chester’s despite, as did Updike to De Vries, Vonnegut to Bradbury, and Walker Percy to Richard Yates.
Moving from canonical, mainstream literature to imaginative literature, no one can call Jack Vance a forgotten writer. For one thing, he is still alive, and for another, he is enjoying something of a boomlet in popularity due to his being lionized by popular genre authors like Neil Gaiman and Stephen King. I was fortunate to find his Lyonesse trilogy on audio book. Having already been introduced to Jack Vance in my extreme boyhood through The Languages of Pao and The Dragon Masters, the Arthurian-tinged trilogy, composed of Suldrun’s Garden, published in 1983, The Green Pearl, in 1987, and Madouc , in 1991, was a delight to stumble upon.
It won’t change your life, but as entertainment and as an exercise in that kind of fantasy set in our own world, it is highly recommended. The central conceit is somewhat similar to Robert E Howard’s, but set in late antiquity, about the time of the waning of the Western Empire and the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of Rome. Nevertheless, the martial technology is late Middle Ages, with trebuchets and plate armor. Vance follows in hallowed footsteps here. All the Arthurian writers followed the same convention, until recently when Mary Stewart and Stephen Lawhead created more chronistically appropriate Arthur stories.
The Arthurian connection is tenuous. Vance imagines a large Ireland-sized island in the middle of the Bay of Biscay, Hybras, with a cluster of smaller islands around it. The idea is that these islands have since disappeared, Atlantis-like, under the waves, leaving behind only a smattering of irreconcilable legends and a few place names; Hy-Brasil, Avallone, Lyonesse, and Ys. There are petty kings; beautiful, sad princesses; wizards benign and malicious; knights noble and dastardly. There is also a lot of Realpolitik and spycraft, which fortunately seldom gets in the way of the rollicking adventures.
The Lyonesse trilogy is kind of sad. As another reader/reviewer points out, all of the adventures and intrigues of the characters are pointless, since the Elder Isles are doomed to disappear eventually under the waves. For some reason, I thought it would add a touch of poignancy to the narrative, but it didn’t. For all of the playfulness and light-heartedness of Vance’s prose, something just didn’t quite click. The magic (and there are a number of wizards fair and fell in this series, not to mention fairies, ogres and boggarts), struck me as being very prosaic. Vance is, alas, a modernist in a postmodern world.
All in all all, it read like a copy of a greater original. It wasn’t at all like Tales Of The Dying Earth, by the same writer.
As I said, no one can accuse Jack Vance of being a forgotten writer, but just under the surface of his prose lurks one of the most unfairly forgotten writers of the 20th century. Working from a stray comment about the Lyonesse books on GoodReads, I was able to uncover the original of which they were the copy. The writer was James Branch Cabell, an American writer of fantastic literature from Richmond Virginia, who enjoyed a period of great popularity in the immediate postwar period. To my surprise, I was able to find a copy of his complete works at a nearby college library. They certainly appeared to be the works of a prominent and successful writer; gilt-spined and lavishly illustrated.
I took one book down and opened it, Jurgen; A Comedy Of Justice, reputed to be Cabell’s masterpiece. Three hours later I shut it, enthralled with where Cabell was able to transport me.
Cabell will never be one of my favorite writers. He is snarky, something I deeply dislike. Cabell shares this trait with other writers such as Douglas Adams, Kurt Vonnegut, and even Thomas Pynchon, all whom are good writers (Pynchon is great, like Sopohocles-great) but just not personally my cup of tea. Alan Dean Foster, who wrote The Last Starfighter and most of the original Star Wars trilogy as well, wrote a forgettable but very sexy little romance called Glory Lane, that gets snark just about right.
Cabell, in what I read of Jurgen, takes snark to realms of high art. The protagonist, a middle-aged pawnbroker, has his youth restored and, of course, sets out to do what any right-thinking man in his postion would do; seduce all the beautiful young women he can. On the way, he encounters a number of creatures magical, infernal, celestial, or any combination thereof. Since Jurgen, the protagonist, is irreverent and quite superficial, there is a lot of snark, but somehow, Cabell uses it to break your heart. It looks as though Jurgen is going be schooled by his second youth in the lasting virtues. I will have to finish this book, at least.
Reading what I have of Cabell’s writing career, I am surprised that he is almost completely unheard of by the legions of Tolkien, Rowling, and Gaiman fans. He continued writing in the same vein until his death in the 1950’s, in increasing obscurity. Serendipitously and coincidentally, the critical examination of Cabell’s work which I also found in the same section in the university library, was written by another once-popular writer; Hugh Walpole, who is also almost entirely forgotten today.
“It is submerged now, and as irrecoverable as Lyonesse” – Evelyn Waugh referring to Oxford in Brideshead Revisited