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What Can Be Saved from the Wreckage?: James…
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What Can Be Saved from the Wreckage?: James Branch Cabell in the…

by Michael Swanwick

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Swanwick offers an explanation for Cabell's current low standing in critical opinion: The author over-produced, and constructed a silly "complete works" edition (Storisende Edition) of his Biography of the Life of Manuel, a vast, gimcracked assemblage padded with books that didn't really belong and books insignificant compared to the best in the series. This forced his fans to read through second- and third-rate works for completism's sake, thus tarnishing the memory of Cabell's best.

Swanwick's list of Cabellian classics is slender compared to Cabell's output:

1. Figures of Earth
2. The Silver Stallion
3. Jurgen
4. The High Place
5. The Cream of the Jest
6. The Way of Ecben

with

7. Domnei
8. Something About Eve
9. a few stories, such as "The Wedding Jest"

thrown in for balance, though these latter are of second order.

I will podcast a review of this book. At risk of jumping the gun for that review, I will state, here, for the record, that Swanwick errs by not mentioning Cabell's best story, "The Music from Behind the Moon: An Epitome" (the subtitle by Cabell accurately indicating its value and its place in his canon), and by slighting "The Rivet in Grandfather's Neck," which, though surely not his best book, is the closest thing Cabell made to a standard novel, and is also a personal favorite (I have read it many times).

Further, Swanwick does not contemplate or give full regard for Cabell's self-professed auctorial philosophy: He wrote chiefly for his own pleasure. That any of the works concocted on this primary standard fit with a wide readership can only be described as fortuitous. Cabell didn't care.

I prefer to take the great ironist as not being ironic when it came to his frequent revelations of intent. By not considering this, Swanwick misses the nature of Cabellian irony and its place in his philosophy and literary method.

I also suspect that Swanwick grossly misinterprets and under-evaluates "Hamlet Had an Uncle", and unjustly relegates Cabell's last comedy, "The Devil's Own Dear Son," to Maya's field of contented but forgettable cattle. I remember reading "The Devil's Own Dear Son" with much pleasure.

Still, this was a fun book, and included much material I had not encountered before. The Barry Humphries introduction is precisely the delightful-if-pointless kind of prefatory remarks one has come to expect in any book by and about Cabell. (Now that I think of it, Dame Edna is a very Cabellian kind of woman — though not, of course, a witch woman, and not a Norn.)

It is essential reading for those few of us who still read James Branch Cabell. Though I disagree with some of Swanwick's judgments, I nevertheless greatly apprecitate his book. I recommend it to others. ( )
2 vote wirkman | Feb 8, 2009 |
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