Tuesday, January 08, 2008

What Can Be Made of What Can Be Saved From the Wreckage??

I am a sucker for obscure books, particularly obscure books about other books; I greatly enjoy the nonfiction of Michael Swanwick; I am interested in the makings and unmakings of literary reputation. So when I learned (from Swanwick's blog, chiefly devoted to flogging his forthcoming novel (which I haven't yet read)) that Michael Swanwick was publishing an 18,500 word essay on a famous early twentieth-century fantasist -- James Branch Cabell -- that I had never read,* I was intrigued.

What sold me on it was the first page, which Swanwick posted to his blog. Here are the essentials (although if you want I encourage you to go read it in its entirety, with the supporting details I omitted):
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... Yet he died as good as forgotten....

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.
Sounded like a good story. I ordered it; it came yesterday, and I read it last night.

Since it was published only in a limited edition of 217 copies,** I feel a certain obligation to review it: there aren't that many copies out there to be reviewed, after all.

Sad to say, though, my review will be a mixed one.

First of all -- and, among the negatives, chiefly -- the format is totally ridiculous: a $20 (counting shipping) paperback*** of 38 pages, plus another ten pages of (often quite wonderful) footnotes: an 18,500 word essay dressed up as a book. I'd call it a rip-off if I (and everyone else who gets it) weren't quite so clear on what we were getting into. Still, when Swanwick refers (on page 9) to "small-press books created for the sole purpose of separating collectors from their money", I felt uncomfortably like I'd just been had. -- Except how much money can there be in a print run of 217 copies?

Why this essay wasn't released on the web -- perhaps as a pdf -- where it could have gotten a lot more readers, and quite frankly probably made Swanwick more money as an ad for his other books (or even this one) than it made in royalties, is beyond me. I would encourage him to release it on the web now -- although if he does I may sue him for my $20 back in small-claims court. (It is, I grant, a nice enough physical object, with a cool cover too.)

Finally, there is an irony (intentional?) in publishing a book in such a format, since Swanwick's chief argument is that it was Cabell's presentation of his works that doomed his reputation.

Okay, on to the content.

The book is not quite what I thought, namely, the story of how Campbell ruined his reputation; that is dealt with in the first eight (and last few) pages. Swanwick's argument is that, basically, by claiming that all his works made up a single large work -- The Life of Manuel -- Cabell made readers slog through his bad works as well as his good ones, leading most people to decide not to bother, and most of the remainder to be thoroughly turned off. Seems reasonable, although I don't know enough to dispute it****

The bulk of Swanwick's book, then, is a book-by-book evaluation of Cabell's oeuvre (as the title, I suppose, indicates clearly enough). This evaluation is often quiet witty and entertaining, as Swanwick-on-literature tends to be; I can only trust that his judgment is also up to his usual levels, but if it is then one is in good hands.§

But it could be clearer. Swanwick goes, roughly, from Cabell's worst to best works -- except that he starts with Cabell's very best book, and then does the nonfiction first. If you aren't quite familiar with Cabell's oeuvre, then it's quite confusing. (Swanwick doesn't even add that many guiding sentences, of the "Now I'm going to skip the 20's and pick up again with the books he wrote after his 18 volume collected work was published" sort. (That one in particular would have helped.))

Also, while Swanwick does say that the core of Cabell's Life of Manuel sequence is his best work -- and lists them (see below), he also adds that two books "are structurally necessary components" of the sequence without clarifying whether, say, one should start with the lesser but first-in-sequence books or with the best books -- an odd omission indeed for an essay whose chief argument is that Cabell's putting his book in a sequence, by its resultant bulk and hiding of his best work, "discouraged new readers... [and] hindered attempts to consider Cabell fairly". (p. 37). Do I need to begin at the beginning with The Cream of the Jest? Or is Jurgen independent enough to begin with, but then I need to read The Cream of the Jest? Or can I just read the ones Swanwick says are best and get to the " structurally necessary components" later? Swanwick isn't clear -- thus becoming, to a slight degree, an accessory after-the-fact in the self-sabotage that Swanwick so entertainingly argues that Cabell undertook.

And while Swanwick talks about the rewriting Cabell did for his collected edition, he isn't clear about whether one needs to get the rewritten texts (are the others still around? In libraries, probably, if nothing else) or if the additions are hindrances, or too minor to matter.

Finally, while Swanwick says that Cabell's best works are worthy of attention, he didn't make me feel it, quite. He describes the plots of the various books, but in a way that makes them sound sort of familiar and not worth seeking out; he says the books are witty, and he quotes a few examples to prove it -- but not enough to make me want to seek them out. A good essay of this sort, I'd say, should make you want to go read the good works of the writer; and this didn't, quite.

I suspect these last few complaints add up to the fact that this is not a good introduction to Cabell's work -- although it's title and declared purpose make it seem like it ought to be a good one. I suspect that, because of its format maybe, Swanwick only expected Cabell fans to read it -- and for them I'd certainly recommend it. But if you don't already have a sense of the general shape of Cabell's series, Swanwick's book will provide only a hazy one. And while I do now have a sense of what Cabell books Swanwick thinks I should read, I don't feel all that moved to go read them -- not more so, say, than if Swanwick had written them an enthusiastic blurb. Partly this is because Swanwick spends so much energy on Cabell's faults that that is a large impression remaining from the book -- moreso, really, than Cabell's virtues, which Swanwick claims but doesn't describe, at least not in enough depth for my taste.

But What Can Be Saved From the Wreckage? was a very entertaining read on its own -- interesting and at times (for me, anyway) laugh-out-loud funny; and perhaps that is enough. If not a great brief for Cabell's work, it is a good brief for Swanwick's criticism -- which someone should collect in some more-accessible form. Certainly, when Swanwick gets around to wrecking his own not-inconsiderable-if-perhaps-not-quite-up-to-Cabell-levels reputation by compiling a collected edition of his own works, I certainly hope he'll include this one.

Frankly, if he'd released it on the web, I'd just have linked and said that he could've been clearer about some things. Since he didn't... you have this review.

Still, since copies are limited, and non-Cabell readers might be interested in Swanwick's bottom line, and since the sentences are clearly within the limits quotable in a review for copyright purposes... Here is Swanwick's final verdict:
...the only serious claims [James Branch Cabell] makes upon posterity lie in his Poictesme books.... Further, these works, the Biography of the Life of Manuel if you wish, are not eighteen in number but six, of which the best are Jurgen, The Silver Stallion, and Figures of Earth. The Cream of the Jest and Something About Eve are structurally necessary components of the True Life and The High Place belongs somewhere in there as well. Not far below these are The Way of Eden and possibly a short story or three. (p. 37)
And there you have it. I have taken the liberty of adding links to those works in Swanwick's Cabell canon that are on-line, so that Cabell's better books, anyway, may reach a larger audience than 217 readers -- even, just possibly, through this very review.

Update: Michael Swanwick kindly answers three of my questions from this review in his post on his blog.

* Well, I read a chapter and a half of one of his books -- I don't even remember which one -- once; I was in somebody's office and it caught my eye. The chapter didn't encourage me to go find another copy, although it wasn't bad, and I don't even remember now which book it was -- based on Swanwick's description, though, I think it was The High Place.

** 200 copies in trade paperback, and 17 copies in a limited edition signed not only by the author, publisher and introducer of the study, but by its late subject as well, something accomplished by finding 17 of his signed books, cutting the signature out, and pasting them in the new publication.

I got the trade paperback.

*** Technically the book is only $15. But since it's being sold only by its publisher, for all practical purposes you have to pay $20 including the $5 shipping (assuming you live in the U.S.), unless you live close enough to the publisher's address in Upper Montclair, New Jersey to walk over and pick up your copy.

**** Although those who do have; Neil Gaiman (who I've seen praise Cabell elsewhere) said of Swanwick's book: "I love Michael's essay, although I'm not entirely convinced by it. (Michael feels that Cabell doomed himself to obscurity. I think it was more time, and fashion what dun it.)"

§ Okay, I admit I said that partly because Swanwick refers rather snarkily to Cabell's use, in a nonfiction work, of "...the first person plural, the second person singular, and the Mandarin "one"" (p. 14) Well, how else is one supposed to say that in English? And "Mandarin"? I swear, when I hit that sentence I thought for a full two seconds that Cabell somehow used yi a lot before I got what he actually meant.

No comments: