i've got a new crush, and it's on jurgen. i read it four times in a row. i took a break after the fourth and read a few different things while staying with friends, but now i'm back to longing for jurgen. i'm having trouble thinking of anything or anyone else. the book works on so many levels: there's crude yet witty comedy, satirical allegory, romantical fiction, philosophical musings and kernels of wisdom that make up the.. archaic? anachronistic? fantasy laced with intertextuality unfolding in an amazing cosmology. what a package! how could a book nerd of my particular stripe even resist?
this is the story of jurgen, a poet turned pawnbroker, forty-and-something. he is possessed of a superior wisdom; he is willing to taste any drink once; and women never understand him. he tells us all this, repeatedly -- but oh so winningly. the author, james branch cabell was a gentleman of leisure, inclined toward research and genealogy and it shows in his layered style, entwining his own mythos with many other traditions: greek, roman, norse, but also medieval romances, russian folklore, persian and welsh, and too many others to name, all remarkably synthesized. (there are no annotations in my copy. but this is really the kind of book that demands endnotes, and i did find a wonderful site that covers the references in jurgen in depth i very much recommend, here: http://home.earthlink.net/~davidrolfe/jurgen.htm --i've had it open in my browser for three weeks! :)
jurgen is on a journey. he is seeking for someone he has lost because, to put it simply, he showed sympathy for the devil. his pursuit immediately becomes circuitous -- he ends up returned to his youth, or perhaps in an alternate reality, in another version of what could have been. he wanders from adventure to adventure, now at the peak of his prowess but with all the knowledge of his years, finding other people he had lost in sometimes poignant and sometimes hilarious circumstances. sometimes there is a little of both but always, always he is followed by the shadow of the aged leshy/goddess of wednesday who gave him the gift.
jurgen uses that gifts to score with the ladies, and he is blatant, and impulsive (he'll taste any drink once, remember?) as he seduces practically every pretty face that crosses his path. what charms! and what ladies! to wit:Then the door closed, the bolt fell, and Jurgen went away, still in considerable excitement.
"This Dame Anaïs is an interesting personality," he reflected, "and it would be a pleasure, now, to demonstrate to her my grievance against the cock, did occasion serve. Well, things less likely than that have happened. Then, too, she came upon me when my sword was out, and in consequence knows I wield a respectable weapon. She may feel the need of a good swordsman some day, this handsome Lady of the Lake who has no husband."
he ends up shacking up with her in cocaigne for two months before he moves on. jurgen was published in 1919 and by modern reckoning, the double entendres and their symbolism are hardly risqué, they're casual conversation. but back in 1919, the novel came under fire for being lewd and obscene by a censorious group called the american society for the suppression of vice, and they took jurgen and cabell to court. cabell won, as did literature in this skirmish, with the support of many of the more famous names of his day, running a gamut that included mencken and walpole, scott fitzgerald and one of cabell's most admired writers, mark twain. jurgen is the most famous of fifty books by cabell. i have now in my possession the silver stallion. i hope that jurgen is not the only book i enjoy, and that its infamous trial only insured that i find cabell eventually ... even though he has once again faded into obscurity, after a brief resurgence in the sixties and seventies, a writer's writer for certain writers (later writers influenced by cabell include charles g. finney -- my researches on finney i thank for sending me in cabell's direction) and neil gaiman (though his approach is markedly different). i never thought i'd be thankful for a bunch of crazy old prudes but i am. for jurgen continues to give me something new every time i read it, this magical book in the elaborate world it belongs to, the land of poictesme, and its neighbouring provinces. it is the place of cabell's conjuring, and to me, jurgen is nothing less than a irrepressible spell in the shape of a scamp chased by a shadow, the soul of antic, all the while so self-aware and sometimes sad:"Hah, madame," he replied, "but it amuses me to weep for a dead man with eyes that once were his. For he was a dear lad, before he went rampaging through the world, in the pride of his youth and in the armour of his hurt. And songs he made for the pleasure of kings, and sword-play he made for the pleasure of men, and a whispering he made for the pleasure of women, in places where renown was, and where he trod boldly, giving pleasure to everybody in those fine days. But for all his laughter, he could not understand his fellows..."
oh jurgen, i think you really understand me.