Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Jurgen, Dead Lagoon

I recently re-read two books, The Dead Lagoon by Michael Dibdin, and Jurgen: a Comedy of Justice by James Branch Cabell.

There's always a bit of trepidation in re-reading a book that I enjoyed.  Was the book actually as good as I remember?  Sometimes it's better just to keep the old memories...

In this case, though, both books were great, so no worries...  In Dead Lagoon, Aurelio Zen learns that you can't go home again.  He gets himself posted to Venice, his birthplace, to engage in a bit of private enterprise.  He gets involved with an old neighbor, tries to help a persecuted old lady, and ends up finding his father's whereabouts, and reconnects with old friends.  And every one of those things ends badly -- Aurelio ends up manipulated on all sides, and leaves Venice with nothing to show for the trip.  Overall, Dead Lagoon is the bleakest of all the Zen stories.

Jurgen, on the other hand, is a very light novel, although Cabell certainly puts in some thematic depth.  I first read Jurgen back in college; a number of a my favorite fantasy authors mentioned Cabell's prose as an influence, and Penn had a large collection of his works, including a number of rare first editions, so I decided to check him out for myself.  I still remember the feeling of reading those books; Cabell was witty, a top-notch stylist, and had an encyclopedic knowledge of ancient mythology.  But would the book still seem amazing twenty years later, with a lot more fantasy under my belt?

The short answer is yes.  In part, I think this is because Cabell, who was writing before there was a fantasy genre as such, is part of a road-not-travelled.  Modern fantasy, largely influenced by Tolkien, has focused on world-building.  Books succeed in part by how well they make you feel that the fantasy world is "real."  Cabell, though, isn't interested sucking the reader into a magical world.  Cabell is more interested in using fantasy to talk about love, romanticism, and the like.  So Jurgen travels to the Garden Between Dusk and Dawn, where all the made-up creatures live, and there he finds his first love -- because, of course, the first love we think we love isn't the actual person.  Jurgen travels around from one land to another, trying to recapture his lost youth, but finding that even with the body of a 20-year old, his 40-year old mind keeps him from seeing the world the way he did when he was 20.

In the end he chooses to stay with his very ordinary wife rather than the mythical beauties he could choose, like Nimue or Helen of Troy, essentially because she's put up with him for 20 years, and that's more than he can expect of most women.  A decidedly unromantic reason, and Cabell seems unsure whether that's a good resolution or not.  He loves the idea of romanticism, of heroic actions, but he's also realistic enough to realize that eventually we all come back down to earth.  Many of his other books deal with the conflict between the workaday world and the romantic ideals we might have.  He is suspicious of traveling too far down the path of romanticism, but at the same time, he thinks that we're inspired by our ideals only because we hide the nature of the world from ourselves.

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