1919 – Jurgen, A Comedy of Justice

1919. Pachelbel’s Canon is published and Germany signs the Treaty of Versailles. The cost is hyperinflation and the loss of the trademark on Aspirin and Heroin. Fortunately for them, Japan invents crystal meth. In politics, Benito Mussolini founds the Fascist party, Adolph Hitler gives his first speech, and the League of Nations is founded. Europe is moving on.

Meanwhile in the United States things are far from being healthy. In Boston, a molasses tank explodes, killing 21; Congress awards women the right to vote, resulting in prohibition; Edith Wilson, the first unofficial female president in the history of the United States, takes power after her husband suffers a stroke; and James Cabell dares to publish a sexually implicit book, Jurgen, a comedy of justice, generating public outrage and a lawsuit.

James Branch Cabell (1879-1958), was an American author of fantasy fiction, the father of the comic fantasy genre, and possibly the greatest writer of his age. Mark Twain said that Cabell was his favorite writer, so did Robert Heinlein and later Neil Gaiman. His work inspired a whole generation of science fiction and fantasy writers who tried to emulate him and failed.

Cabell’s writing is characterized by beauty and wit. Reading his work is like drinking a cocktail of Oscar Wilde, P. G. Wodehouse, and Terry Pratchett with some Monty Python on top, only much more exciting. I recommend consuming them in short doses to better prolong the experience, and minimize the chance of a literary hangover the next day. Much of Cabell’s work is concentrated in the Biography of the Life of Manuel, a series of 25 works in a variety of genres, which traces the life, illusions and disillusions of Dom Manuel, a French count and his physical and spiritual descendants. The most famous of these books, and the book that transformed Cabell into a cultural icon is Jurgen, a Comedy of Justice, which when published managed to spark so much moral outrage that it was promptly banned.

1919 was the era of Prohibition and unapproved fun was frowned upon. Shortly after the book was published, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice filed charges of indecency against Cabell. Jurgen, a Comedy of Justice was banned, the printing plates were seized by the police, and Cabell was put on trial. After two years, a judge acquitted him, accepting the defense that the “indecencies” were double entendres that also had perfectly decent interpretations. Basically, a sword can be a sword even when brandished in the presence of a protesting lady who considers its appearance to be mildly inappropriate, regardless of how erect its owner is holding it, or how deeply it can penetrate. It wasn’t Cabell’s fault that there were disturbed souls who interpreted it differently.

The book tells the story of Jurgen, a middle-aged poet at soul and pawn-broker in practice who is married to Dame Lisa, his nagging wife. At the beginning of the story he encounters a monk cursing the devil. Jurgen defends the devil arguing that the Prince of Darkness was divinely appointed, and he works very hard at his job while also supplying the monk with a foe to combat and Jurgen with business. Therefore, the monk should be grateful. The monk isn’t, but a black gentleman is, and in gratitude he takes Dame Lisa away, giving Jurgen perceived peace. Jurgen is then persuaded by his wife’s relatives to go rescue her because “it’s the manly thing to do”, and this adventure leads him through many fantastic realms, which include a medieval Arthurian court, the island of Cocaigne, hell and then later heaven. In the process, Jurgen regains his twenty-year old body, which he tests out to the fullest, gets married three more times, becomes duke, king, emperor and pope, and never seems to find satisfaction because none of the women he encounters is ever capable of understanding him.

This book is a masterpiece. There is a reason Robert Heinlein patterned A Stranger in a Strange Land after it”. Everything in this book is implied, and each chapter has multiple layers of meaning along with profound messages, hidden behind numerous dark ironic moments and light-hearted humorous scenes, some more implicit than others.

There was only one frustration for me. Too many times, I knew there was a joke, which I was unable to catch. Kind of like reading a Terry Pratchett book, missing a third of the jokes – and knowing you are missing them. That’s how I frequently felt. For example, at the beginning of the story, Jurgen dons the shirt of Nessus the Centaur, a shirt that is frequently mentioned and admired throughout the book, and I had no idea why. Afterwards, I looked it up and discovered that it is a poisoned shirt, which helps explain why Jurgen could never be satisfied with anything. It didn’t help that I knew that Cabell deliberately inserted accurate quotes that appeared fraudulent in order to confuse critics. However, this shouldn’t deter you from reading the book because even if you miss some jokes, the majority you catch will have you laughing so hard, you won’t be able to go on Bookdepository and buy a copy for all your friends. Think of all the money you’ll save!

The Omer today is grandeur in splendor, two attributes that Cabell captures perfectly in the fantastic realms he describes and the amazing actions he implies. These attributes are not the same though. Grandeur is more impressive than splendor, and Cabell despite being worthy of the former only really achieved the latter. Why? Because the world changed, but Cabell and his writing did not. The glittering twenties did eventually fade, bringing the somber thirties, along with the Great Depression with the looming shadow of World War 2. Readers didn’t want elegance and refinement anymore. They wanted their stories, even their fantasies and sci fi, to be more grounded and less symbolic; full of grit, not allegory; and this doomed Cabell to fade from the public eye. Grandness in Cabell’s case was achieved indirectly, by inspiring the next generation of great science fiction and fantasy writers to provide us with a legacy that lasts until this very day to pass on to our children and grandchildren; a legacy greater than any grandeur Cabell could have ever possibly achieved on his own.

Jurgen, A Comedy of Justice

Author: James Branch Cabell

Publisher: Robert M. McBride

Published: 1919

Pages: 368

Format reviewed: Digital