Monday, December 11, 2017

James Branch Cabell and E.R. Eddison

When Ballantine reprinted James Branch Cabell’s Domnei in the Adult Fantasy series in March 1972, the rear cover sported a new blurb by E.R. Eddison, who had died in 1945. Where did the blurb come from?  It turns out that it came from a letter Eddison wrote to Cabell in 1926, and it related not to Domnei but to Jurgen.

When Albert & Charles Boni published the first American edition of The Worm Ouroboros in May 1926, they included in the front matter of the book a facsimile letter dated 21 November 1925 from James Branch Cabell to the publishers.  It reads, as follows:


In reply to your letter of the twelfth, it has now for three years stayed a puzzle to me that The Worm Ouroboros is not better known. The book, to be sure, is not for everyone. So many persons, indeed, to whose attention I have introduced it, have gotten from the volume only boredom that I have at last, through a series of depressing failures to communicate my enthusiasm, been reduced to concluding that a reader finds perforce in this book exceeding joy or else nothing at all,—in either case, quite unpredictably.

To me, in any event, The Worm Ouroboros remains a rather majestic example of romance,—of really pure romance, untitivated, in our modern way, with satire or allegory, or even with humor,—of the romance, in fine, which purchases, through its own unadulterate magic, and for no utilitarian ends whatsoever, the momentary “suspension of disbelief” in many very beautiful impossibilities.

Yours faithfully,

James Branch Cabell

Eddison wrote to Cabell on 19 June 1926:

Dear Sir

I have just received copies of the American edition of my Worm Ouroboros, and read for the first time your generous comments on my book. I must write this line to thank you. Also to thank you for the pleasure I have had from Jurgen; and most of all, from Queen Anaïtis, with whom I have hopes that someday, in Elysium, I too may voyage to that island in Cocaigne. In that passage (end of Ch. XX and CH. XXI) you have, in my humble judgment, touched perfection. It has that quality of really great writing, to be better always at the last time of reading than at the time before; and its delightful humour is without all topical or extraneous adulteration which, growing out of fashion, could rob it of its freshness with the lapse of time.

I am proud to have your name on my books, and to know that you like it.

Yours faithfully,

E.R. Eddison

These letters were published in a 1968 issue of Kalki, the journal of the James Branch Cabell Society, where Lin Carter saw them and later applied Eddison's comments to Domnei. (Carter even recommends reading Kalki and joining the Cabell Society in his introduction to Domnei.)

After Eddison’s novel Mistress of Mistresses (1935) was published, Cabell reviewed it favorably in the January 1936 issue of The American Mercury. Some of Cabell’s review was reworked into the discussion of literature in the twenty-fourth chapter of Cabell’s novel Smire (1937).

Sunday, November 19, 2017

A New Citation of C.S. Lewis on David Lindsay!

Joy Davidman (1915-1960) moved from America to England in November 1953.  She was already friends with C.S. Lewis (whom she would marry in 1956) and his brother W.H. Lewis via correspondence and a previous visit to England from August 1952 to January 1953. Davidman settled in London, and quickly became attached to the group of science fiction writers and fans who met at the Globe tavern in Hatton Garden.  The group had previously met at the White Horse, from 1947 through the end of 1952. But at the very beginning of 1953, after the White Horse came under new management, the popular bartender Lew Mordecai left to work at the Globe, and the science fiction group followed him there, where he served them for the next twelve years.
Frank Arnold (1914-1987) was one of the regular attendees at both pubs for many years, and Rob Hansen has recently selected and transcribed some memoirs from Arnold’s papers. Of especial interest here is the fact that Joy Davidman brought as guests to one meeting C.S. Lewis and his brother Warnie, probably sometime early the early months of 1954. Here is what Arnold recorded of the occasion:

"The first distinguished author to call on us at the Globe was no less a man than C. S. Lewis (Out of the Silent Planet, The Screwtape Letters, etc.). One of the great scholars of his time, Professor Lewis was forthright in upholding his own views on all questions of history, literature and theology. If they happened to coincide with fashionable opinion, well and good, but if they did not – well, it was rough luck on fashionable opinion! When he came to the Globe, Lewis did not really know who we were, nor did he need to – enough that here was The Master enjoying an evening off among admiring pupils. What a feast of conversation we had that evening! Lewis hated and loved SF in almost equal measure, and I shall never forget how his eyes lit up when I chanced to mention Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus. ‘An evil book,’ he called it, with relish, for he was as strongly devoted to it as I am. So far from sharing A. M. Low’s belief in the blessings of science, Lewis believed that science was the especial gift of Satan – a view which has since been propagated by many much less exalted thinkers and agitators"

A lovely description of Lewis’s reaction to a conversational mention of David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, one of the important inspirations for Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra.   

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

A VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS: A Review "to make the gorge rise"

David Lindsay had an ill-starred publishing career from its very outset with the publication of his first novel, A Voyage to Arcturus, in September 1920.  One of the first reviews of the book appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, on 30 September 1920.  It reads in full:

However much one may resent such a book as 'A Voyage to Arcturus', one must pay tribute to the cleverness which enables Mr. David Lindsay to capture the elusive quality of the worst kind of nightmare. He does not content himself with giving us a vivid description of life as it conceivably might be on another planet; we are transported to remote regions of space in order that the riddle of human existence may be studied in the true perspective; and the solution thence afforded is very much what one might expect a temporarily unbalanced mind to arrive at if an anaesthetic were potent for just one critical instant longer—which, mercifully, it never is. Mr. Lindsay's imagination is prolific rather than powerful, and he has not controlled it towards any coherent result. For instance, the hero of the adventure, Maskull, encounters on his journey in Arcturus, a number of entities— human, superhuman, and diabolic—whose relation to him and to each other never becomes clear; nor can we find any connecting link between the startling and often gruesome episodes which mark his progress. There may be an intention of allegory in what appears to be simply the riot of morbid fancy; but we doubt whether many readers will be inclined to pursue the possible hidden meaning over a quagmire and through a noisome fog. For the book is, at any rate, consistent in respect of its uniform unwholesomeness; the keynote being struck in the opening chapter, which recalls Baudelaire or Poe in his most grisly vein. It is, no doubt, a legitimate aim of the writer of fiction to make the flesh creep; scarcely, we think, to make the gorge rise. 

Poor Lindsay! To be so completely misunderstood and so thoroughly mis-categorized on the publication of his very first book. Who wrote these idiotic statements?  What kind of reviewer was this?  Of course the TLS reviews were anonymous for many years, so one might think that the identity of this reviewer would never be known, but in the last decade, the historical database of The Times Literary Supplement has revealed the identities of  the bulk of the people who reviewed specific titles anonymously.  And the author of the above review of A Voyage to Arcturus was one A.M. Champneys. Which leads on to further questions: who was A.M. Champneys, and why did this person have such a unflinchingly erroneous view of Lindsay's book?

It turns out that A.M. Champneys was in fact Adelaide Mary Champneys (1888-1966), the fourth and final child of the famous architect (of many buildings in Oxford, Cambridge and London) and author Basil Champneys (1842-1935) and his wife, Mary Theresa Ella née Drummond (1858-1941), who were married in 1876.  Basil's father and one of his brothers were clergyman (his father was very late in life made the Dean of Lichfield). Basil had been one of eight children of a hard-working old county family with only a modest income; at his death he left an estate valued at nearly fifty-thousand pounds. Of his two sons, Amian Lister Champneys (1879-1951) followed his father's footsteps and became an architect, while Michael Weldon Champneys (1884-1957) became a clergyman.  His other daughter, besides Adelaide, was Cicely Marion Champneys (1881-1968).

Adelaide's first book was a booklet of Verses (1902), printed by the Chiswick Press. It was signed with her initials, A.M.C., with a poem "Father's Good Wishes" signed B.C. Her next three books were signed as by A.M. Champneys, and they include Love's Empire and Other Poems (1909) and two novels, Bride Elect (1913) and The Recoiling Force (1914).  Between 1919 and 1924, Adelaide reviewed some seventy books in the TLS. Contrasting her review of A Voyage to Arcturus, Adelaide found favor in books like Queen Lucia by E.F. Benson ("an altogether satisfying entertainment," 5 August 1920), and Margaret Irwin's Still She Wished for Company ("there is scarcely a flaw in the working out of this ingenious fantasy," 13 March 1924). As she ceased reviewing, she turned back to the writing of novels, publishing them anonymously, beginning with The House Made with Hands (1924) and Miss Tiverton Goes Out (1925).  While the former was apparently moderately successful in England, the latter was a hit in the United States, and while her next two novels appeared in England as "by the author of The House Made with Hands,"  the American publisher Bobbs-Merrill quickly brought out The House Made with Hands, and subsequent books, marketing them as "by the author of Miss Tiverton Goes Out." These include This Day's Madness (1926) and November Night (1928). Her British publisher dropped her, but Bobbs-Merrill kept going with her new work, including a Memorial to George, by Himself (1929), which is the diary of a squirrel, his memoirs being edited "by the author of Miss Tiverton Goes Out." Next came The Longer Day (1930) and I Can Wait (1933), followed by Fool's Melody (1937). The latter is "by the author of Miss Tiverton Goes Out and Michael Cape-Meadows,"  Cape-Meadows being the pseudonym of her clergyman brother Michael. Her final book came out ten years later, Red Sun and Harvest Moon  (1947), as by Adelaide Champneys. Evidently this book finally revealed Champneys as the author of Miss Tiverton Goes Out.

Critically, Champneys got a fairly welcome reception after a rocky start. With regard to Bride Elect, the TLS noted "the author is not quite sufficiently equipped to fill so large a canvas" (27 February 1913), while it found The Recoiling Force to have "a large number of minor characters of whom unsympathetic would be a mild description"  (12 November 1914).  Of her later anonymous books, many reviewers detected that the author was a woman.  Here I will focus on only two of the books, Miss Tiverton Goes Out, her greatest success, and her final book, Red Sun and Harvest Moon.

A few reviews of Miss Tiverton Goes Out reveal the flavor of that book*:

The book describes the growth of a sensitive, rebellious child in an uncongenial and vulgar family. Juliet's reaction to her parents, her sisters and her brother is given with great truth. The Cinderella or ugly duckling theme, handled with sincerity, yields up treasuresin this case the awkward child's instinctive  awareness of a scheme of values outside outside her prison, her loyalty to the instinct through all failure and despiteful usage, and at last her acceptance of her course kindred as weak human beings with a claim upon her. . . . The symbolism conveying the sense of the other world ('time immemorial' is Juliet's phrase for it) is elaborated in the person of an old woman next door who is never seen and whose house and land Juliet's father (he is a speculative builder) tries and fails to buy. The effect [is] of a bustling, garish scene dominated, no one can say how or why, and in the end quite confounded, by an invisible presence of whom all that is known is that she is feeble, old and of no account. Miss Tiverton only appears at the end, and then in her coffin.  The New Statesman, 7 February 1925
Phantasy and philosophy are earnestly blent in this book. Perhaps the author's anonymity casts a glamour upon it. One suspects that a woman has written it; otherwise there are no clews. Whoever she may be, she understands the art of writing and has a mind so sensitive that she has conceived without flaw a subtle and delicate story. The New York Herald Tribune, April 1926  
And of her final novel:

Character story of a meek, down-trodden English woman, whose whole life is one of renunciation. The Book Review Digest, 1947
Miss Champneys (whose previous fiction, published anonymously, includes 'Miss Tiverton Goes Out') has written a novel which, presumably, will provide comfort and reassurance for those whose lives have followed such dreary paths of abnegation as Mildred's. Acceptance of one's lot in life is hard come by and is usually prefaced by some storm or questioning. The distraught Mildred is conditioned by heritage and environment to quick surrender of her individuality. Her story, while affecting, is not particularly exciting. And the interest of the general reader may well be dampened by the flow of her easy tears. The New York Times, 16 March 1947  
Do any of these details about Champneys's life and her works help to explain her hostility to A Voyage to Arcturus?  I don't know. Perhaps Lindsay's solution to the riddle of life on Tormance (the planet which circles around the double-star Arcturus) can only be seen as diabolic by someone like Champneys raised in a conventional family of clergyman?  Thus she found his philosophical explication to be "a nightmare" from a "temporarily unbalanced mind" with no "coherent result" beyond a "riot of morbid fancy" in a "quagmire and through a noisome fog" which is of "uniform unwholesomeness" and likely "to make the gorge rise." Again, I don't know, but will be glad to entertain other possibilities.

* See also the lengthy online review of this book at Furrowed Middlebrow which calls it "a kind of masterpiece of oddness." 

Monday, June 12, 2017

E.H. Visiak: "THE TIMES ridiculed my novel MEDUSA"

Almost anything to do with E.H. Visiak (1878-1972) has complications. Take, for instance, Visiak’s so-called autobiography, Life’s Morning Hour (1968).  The book is actually a novel (originally titled David Treffry) Visiak tried to market in the very early 1930s, with eight-pages added at the very end in a section entitled “Résumé.” Thus the narrative is brought up-to-date from Visiak’s childhood, where the book had originally ended. In the “Résumé” Visiak notes succinctly that “The Times ridiculed my novel Medusa, and caused the return by booksellers of hundreds of copies” (p. 219). 

The Times Literary Supplement did indeed review Medusa on 19 December 1929, but it says good things about the novel as well as bad things. 

Mr. E.H. Visiak’s “Story of Mystery, and Ecstacy, and Strange Horror” called Medusa (Gollancz, 7s 6d net) is indeed a curious production; but the publisher’s flamboyant praises on the dust-cover are quite beyond any critical echoing. To begin with, the book is only a pastiche, though quite a good one, of a typical sea-traveller’s diary in the days of sailing ships. Secondly, a great deal of it recounts occurrences which have no particular interest.  The narrator, Will Harvell, writing in his old age, purports to describe the extraordinary voyage upon which, as a boy, he accompanied a certain Mr. Huxtable. The general details of the ship and her oddly assorted company and of visits to Santa Cruz and Pernambuco take up too much space with desultory detail, which could only have interest if the record were real. Thirdly, the element of mystery and horror, regarded in the cold light of the twentieth century, is spoiled by the element of incredibility which is unwisely mixed with it.

To create an atmosphere of suspense and uneasiness from the beginning is legitimate; and Mr. Visiak would have succeeded very well had he confined himself to suggestion, for he has a pretty fancy in the Gothic. But it is difficult to refrain from smiling when the queer conduct of the seaman Obadiah and the horrible face which the boy Harvell had seen before embarking is explained by the appearance on board of a semi-human sea-monster, whom Obadiah was stowing away as a pet. Thereafter we are taken into the realm of the purely fabulous. The pirate ship is found deserted, except for Mr. Vertembrex, the naturalist, who is seated in the cabin happy and dumb. The mystery of her desertion is soon solved; for a strange light shines, sea-monsters with high-peaked heads and glistening globular eyes board the ship and carry off the crew in their finny arms to a rocky pillar, into a hole in which they drop them, like letters. They fall on to a ledge round a circular abyss, at the bottom of which is a gigantic octopus. Strange ecstasies and dreams of Helen keep all but the boy spellbound when they might escape by the rope let down by the now vocal Mr. Vertembrex. We need not continue. The allegory seemed to be partly one of sexual temptation and self-control, but its beauty escaped us. One page of “Moby Dick” placed beside it will display its artificiality, and Victor Hugo, after all, squeezed all the horrors out of a giant octopus, leaving no further possibilities to posterity.
The review was anonymous, though the Times Historical Database now tells us that the review was written by Orlo Williams (1883-1967), a literary critic and biographer—not an especially sympathetic choice as reviewer for the book. But Williams’s praise of the style of the book was echoed forty-three years later in the Times obituary of Visiak, which calls Medusa “a tour-de-force in the prose style of the seventeenth century” (1 September 1972). 

The reference to Victor Hugo refers to his novel Les Travailleurs de la mer (1866, translated as Workers of the Sea or Toilers of the Sea), which contains a fight between a fisherman and a giant octopus.  The publisher’s “flamboyant praises on the dust-cover" can be seen in the following scan:

Medusa is a difficult book to describe, and it’s hard to recommend it without several qualifications. Karl Edward Wagner once described it as “the probably outcome of Herman Melville having written Treasure Island while tripping on LSD,” adding that “John Milton may have popped round on his way home from a week in an opium den to help him revise the final draft.”  This is of course an exaggeration in multiple ways. 

Less sensationally, the novelist David Lindsay read Medusa soon after publication, and he found it difficult to comment upon it to its author, writing on 7 October 1929: 

“Now about ‘Medusa’! I have read the book through once, and am going over it again before venturing a judgment. Only, this I can say at once—it is one of the most beautiful and surprising works it has ever been my pleasure to read—and it will live ! ! Two features of it I must single out for admiration—the high excellence of the dialogue between the Captain and Mr. Huxtable. The antique fineness of outward courtesy is faultless, and I think very seldom to be found in modern books treating the period. I fancy your poetic tact must be almost your strongest quality! It is of the nature of instinct, is it not? Extraordinarily weird and lovely description of the sea and sky in Chap. 18, which transcends poetry and seems to enter the realm of metaphysics, as all surpassing poetry does. I mean the mystic day, which preserved its brightness while taking on the character of night. Here you have indeed struck the authentic note of genius.

I won’t say more about the book till I have read it again, as I confess the abrupt end, with its dozen cut threads, left me gasping, and I must try and gather something of your meaning by a new study of the whole. Don’t tell me yet, as that would be to spoil my satisfaction.”

Perhaps the most compelling brief description I have ever encountered of Medusa is Arthur Machen’s comment:  Medusa is a nightmare; almost recollected.”

Let me conclude with a more straightforward description by J.B. Pick, from a review in the TLS in 1963:

Medusa is a slow-treading adventure tale written in a firm, deliberate, archaic style, and depends for its effect upon the creation of disquieting atmosphere during a long sea voyage. Its climax is a vision of the descent of men’s souls through fleshly enchantment to the loathsome embrace of monsters in a black, rocky Atlantis, and of the saving by light of those who can be saved.