It is a tale which they narrate in Poictesme, saying: In the 'old days lived a pawnbroker named Jurgen; but what his wife called him was very often much worse than that. She was a high-spirited woman, with no especial gift for silence. Her name, they say, was Adelais, but people by ordinary called her Dame Lisa.
They tell, also, that in the old days, after putting up the shop-windows for the night, Jurgen was passing the Cistercian Abbey, on his way home: and one of the monks had tripped over a stone in the roadway. He was cursing the devil who had placed it there.
"Fie, brother!" says Jurgen, "and have not the devils enough to bear as it is?"
"I never held with Origen," replied the monk; "and besides, it hurt my great-toe confoundedly." ... Read more
Customer Reviews (23)
For a brief, gin soaked, moment in the 1920s the literati fell in love with Cabell. But although he's remained popular with readers (Jurgen's never been out of print for long, if at all) academics and intellectuals have never embraced or rejected Cabell with the enthusiasm of the 20s. Sober progressive thinkers are put off by his exquisite and affected, albeit pitch perfect, diction. Cabell's eroticism, so elegantly phrased, yet so fatuous and conventional, like a well read Benny Hill, also fails to lend itself to the academic project of boiling down sex into a wholesome social critique, sanitized and neatly packaged for use in transgressive pedagogical strategies. On the other hand, the bow tie wearing cultural right senses an affinity for the conservative Cabell, steeped in high culture, but Cabell's regrettable susceptibility to crass phallic double entendre disqualifies him from a place in the canon.
Cabell has his faults of course. He suffers from the tendency of a consciously high brow author to make his writing a display of sensibility rather than a vehicle for the development of character or thought. All of his characters, improbably, from the meanest rustic to a king, employ the same elegant, oblique diction.
Still, Cabell's tepid reception is puzzling. It is not clear why Cabell rates lower than say, Bronte, whom some plausibly view as another overripe, proto "genre fiction" writer. Admittedly, his distinctive voice will not appeal to every taste, but his erudition and allusiveness should endear him to academia; while his self conscious literary elitism ought to appeal to the never-in-short-supply self conscious literary elitist. Cabell is also a novelist of ideas. Big, elemental ideas, not ham fisted, but still the kind you can sink your teeth into; the kind you expect teachers and students would love to discuss. Yet Cabell appears on no lists of required reading.
But it seems Cabell knew from the beginning this was to be his fate. "Too urbane to advocate delusion, too hale for the bitterness of irony". So Cabell described himself in a spurious, self-penned blurb that appears on Jurgen's dedication page. Pitched at neither the right nor the left, the high or low, Cabell recognizes that he is too accommodating of both sentimentality and cynicism, and too frivolous toward both conventional piety and its earnest, angry critics to win over either hearts or minds, the philistine or the aesthete. But Cabell does not agonize over his divided sensibility, nor does he invite our sympathy. He asks only that we not take it, or him, too seriously; a request guaranteed to ensure the marginal and precarious acceptance Cabell now enjoys among the intelligentsia, but one better suited to win the affections of readers who come to love Cabell's elegance, wit, and humble humanity.
Best edition available
The Waking Lion Press (Editorium) edition of Jurgen can well be considered the definitive edition of "Jurgen" available today. In addition to the full text of the novel itself it incorporates the rare "Notes on Jurgen" by James P. Cover, only 850 of which were printed in 1928, compiled and extended by David Rolfe; an introduction by the same; the introduction to the British Edition, by Hugh Walpole; the "Note on the Notes" by James P. Cover; the map of Poictesme, as published in the 1928 edition of "The Silver Stallion"; a photograph of the author; all the wonderful plates by Frank C. Papé; and a short afterword taken from an old Times Literary Supplement. The only things that seem to be missing are Papé's "Dorothy" frontispiece and the small illustrations from within the text. Also, the print of the illustrations seems a bit inferior to the original illustrated edition, which of course stays a valued collector's piece.
Still, you won't get all of this that easy and to such a reasonable price anywhere else. Especially recommended for those brave souls dedicated to taking Cabell back into the seminar rooms. Thanks to everybody involved for making this happen.
Tell the Rabble...
It wasn't all that long ago that James Branch Cabell attracted a huge audience for this kind of satire.He's not much read these days, and I can sort of understand why - much of what he pokes fun at here is not taught in the schools anymore, and it's too bad.On the other hand, anyone who enjoys the Harry Potter movies, or "Clash of the Titans" and such, shouldn't have too much trouble with "Jurgen".I can therefore recommend it without hesitation.
Well, with a tiny bit of hesitation, mostly on account of the language.Cabell adopted a courtly tone and some rather archaic vocabulary for this piece - quite suitable to the tale, but not very familiar these days.Not impossible, but it takes a certain amount of concentration.And let's face it, for light reading, most of us prefer not to work that hard.Let me encourage you to give it a try anyway.The rewards are considerable.
Categorizing this novel is pretty nearly impossible.It reads at first like an ancient folktale, with a certain sort of chivalrous adventuring in the pursuit of damsels in distress, battles with fabulous monsters and whatnot, but you can't really take that approach very seriously when the narrative makes it quite clear that our hero Jurgen is a middle-aged pawnbroker of temporarily youthful appearance, and a liar to boot.He bluffs his way into increasingly exalted rank, with increasingly exciting wives and mistresses to match, in increasingly mythic realms, until finally he replaces God for a couple of minutes.That's about all he can tolerate, and he realizes that if being God doesn't satisfy him, nothing will.
I won't go into detail about just how Jurgen gets his youth back - suffice to say that he does, with the help of an ancient god disguised as an old washerwoman, and proceeds to those increasingly wide-ranging adventures.I think you will not be surprised to learn that once the thrill of romance has passed, Jurgen gets a little bored.He's a pretty decent husband to each of his wives, actually, but not exactly faithful.
He's not really faithful to much else, either, except to his own opinion of himself as a "mighty clever fellow".Which he certainly is.He manages to outsmart pretty nearly everyone - women who profess their reluctance to let him anywhere near them, the men he competes with, his parents, nature myths, demons, gods, Satan and God.Lest this makes him seem unpleasant, I should point out that he's unfailingly polite and invariably careful to abide by the customs of whatever country he finds himself in.He makes friends easily and opens himself up to new knowledge on a regular basis.He's actually a pretty likeable guy, just untrustworthy.His motto, in fact, is along these lines: "You may very well be right, and in fact I would never go so far as to say you're wrong, but still, on the other hand...!"In other words, students of folklore will recognize Jurgen as part of the ancient tradition of the Trickster, along with Coyote and Til Eulenspiegel and Anansi the Spider-Man and creatures like that.
Anyway, the story builds and builds through Jurgen's titles and locations until there's nothing left to do but deflate the whole business.You've read books like that before, of course, and most authors who write themselves into that sort of corner give you the impression that all they want to do is put the darned thing down and forget it.Failing that, they stick some kind of exhausted conclusion on and leave us feeling entirely dissatisfied.Not Cabell.He's got something to say, even in a carnival ride like this.It's a trifle conventional, but it works.Let's just say that I have seldom read a fantasy that returns to Earth with this much class.
This may have something to do with Cabell's approach to mythic tales, which strikes me as distinctly American.H.L. Mencken once said of Cabell that his knights tend to slay dragons with the attitude of an accountant adding up a column of figures, and that's just about right; Jurgen does all these mighty deeds mostly because that's what people in his position do, and his reaction to his own prowess is something like "Yeah, whatever."On the other hand, he's also a poet, and at various times (especially at the tale's conclusion) he can express himself with great beauty - which gives the impression that he's less concerned with what he's doing and more concerned with how it makes him feel.Given that, it makes a certain kind of sense that he wouldn't find a knight's life, or a king's or a god's, any more or less useful than a pawnbroker's, and certainly doesn't take one more seriously than the other.
So, you may ask, if "Jurgen" is all about how silly stories like "Jurgen" are, what's the point?Oh, come on, you know the answer to that - it's for fun, as was a good bit of everything Cabell did.Even his response to the fact that people tended to mispronounce his name was for fun - it's up there in the title of this review, in fact.He said "Tell the rabble my name is Cabell".Which may strike us as kind of insulting until you read his work - in things like "Jurgen" it's perfectly clear that if he thought of us as rabble, he also thought of the rabble as the really important people of the Earth.
Benshlomo says, You've got better things to do with your time than slay dragons.
A rewarding return trip
Like many others who have written reviews, I read Jurgen long ago and was totally captivated.This hardly meant that I even came close to "totally understaning" it. In my 20's I was able to teach it and other works by Cabell.I am now in my 70's and am able to re-read the great and not so great books of my youth.My advice to new reders is just to read it and don't be intimidated by the blend of history and faantasy, the archaic and fake-archaic spellings, and the constant anagrams.Eventually some things will be clear.They are not "secret meanings," just additional layers.Enjoy, then (if it strikes you) dig more.
Jurgen is not cheap victorian porn as at least one reviewer has suggested. It is a vicious and brutal attack on the prudish and hypocrtical criticism that are as much a reality today as they were in Cabell's day.The brutal kingdom of Philistia destroys as much "evil" today as it did in Jurgen's novel.
A clue to entering Cabell's world here is his return to the garden between dawn and sunrise, where Jrgen starts his second journey through life.This dream of returning to reclaim the beauties and adventures of youth and to get a second chance may be common to all men or just to the lucky few. It was a time when the objects of our desire were not quite as beautiful as they seemed and when even our greatest adventures were not quite as great or as adventurous as they seemed then.Going back allows us to view them from the perspective of age and time, and if we have become wise, to sort them out.
Cabell ended another book (The Devil's Only Son) with one charater observing that "dreams are the disease of youth; growing up is being cured of them."Enjoy reading Jurgen. Enjoy returning to the dreams of youth.Join Cabell in the sadness that comes not from the fact that we are no longer young, but from the realization that these were just dreams. . .
Always Loved this Book
I own copies of it in four different editions. One is a really beautiful leather-bound book from Golden Cockerel Press.
It helps if you read it before you hit 15 years old, I think. Like Rabalais and Tristram Shandy. Ooooh, did I just recommend those to 14-year-olds too? I'm in trouble now!
To the fellow who called this "A Victorian Curiosity," I would say... No, I can't say that. But it's Edwardian.
... Read more