One of the attractions of the biography is to study someone else's life and see just how difficult it was for them to achieve their success (for there are few biographies about failure), which on the outside seems so simple and pre-ordained, but once you review the life as it was lived, you see the stumbles and gaffes along the way. For someone once famous, whose star has since dimmed, this analysis can be truly bittersweet. James Branch Cabell was either the last or the first of a type of Southern Literary writer, depending on how you view his place in the pantheon. His genteel manners, adroitly expressed in his books, tie him to the old Southern tradition, where things were said in a certain way and men were expected to have ideals about life, expressed by Cabell in his philosophy of three approaches: the Gallant, the Chivalrous, and the Poetic. But Cabell was a sly one, too--the motto of his great work of fiction, the Biography of the Life of Manuel, was "Mundus Vult Decipit," which roughly translates as "the world wishes to be deceived," and Cabell was quite fond of deception. His mannered fantasies could be read in two ways--for the surface adventure and invention, or for the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle, as in the case of Jurgen) allusions and illusions in which Cabell commented on the mores of his Richmond, Virginia neighbors. Because, like his 1920s contemporary, Sinclair Lewis, Cabell was at heart a social commentator, struggling in his books to understand the changing world in a society that wanted to cling to outdated traditions and was being dragged, kicking and screaming, into a free new world of women's rights, the new free mobility due to the automobile, and a new streak of Puritanism that was Prohibition.
It's not unsurprising, then, that this biography of Cabell by Edgard MacDonald is titled James Branch Cabell and Richmond-in-Virginia, because Cabell was as much a product of Richmond as it was featured in his books (renamed as Lichfield). Born and raised in Richmond, the oldest of three sons of a druggist who married well, but was unable to please his wife, Cabell spent most of his first three decades as the constant companion of his mother, providing for her ego what his father could not. In addition to his mother, the other woman he fixated on was his first love while at college, Gabrielle Moncure. And because things always come in threes, the other woman in his life was his wife, Priscilla Bradley. The three of these women show up in his books constantly, under new names but always the same faces and personalities--the woman you admire, the woman you yearn for, and the woman you settle for.
Cabell's life was far from charmed, though. He struggled for money up until his thirties, when the marriage to Priscilla, a wealthy widow five years older than he, provided the economic stability he needed to focus on his writing. In turn, he provided an entree for her into Richmond society both by virtue of her marrying into the Branch family, as well as genealogical research into her own lineage that established her family tree as worthy of Richmond.
Of course it is Jurgen that is both the apex of Cabell's career and life, a storm of controversy for its lewdness and laviciousness that is quite tame in comparison to the steamy favorites of today such as Fifty Shades of Grey. But for the 1920s, and the new Puritans, Cabell's lance that wasn't quite a lance and staff that wasn't quite a staff was the kind of thing that titallated and shocked the matrons of polite society and the overseers of smut known as the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. No publicity is bad publicity, and although the injunction against Jurgen kept the book off the shelves for two years, it helped sell Cabell's previous novels and helped him make friends with his literary peers both in the U.S. and abroad. If he had moved ahead with new books, the story may have been different, but Cabell chose to instead re-work his previously published novels and stories, re-packaging of all of his work to date in a collected set, called the Storisende edition, that was basically a labor of vanity. Stating that all his works were connected, he re-wrote passages and provided introductions to make them so.
The downfall was not sudden, and was marked with some small joys along the way, but after the heady years of being the talk of the town (both Richmond and New York and Chicago), the reduced success of his remaining output made his latter decades more sour than sweet. He leveraged his friendship with Ellen Glasgow, also of Richmond, to encourage her to do a similar repackaging of her work, telling her that what she had written was a social history of Virginia, enough so that she began to believe it herself. He renamed himself to just Branch Cabell for most of his latter work, drawing a distinction between the author of The Biography of the Life of Manuel and his new creations, which likely didn't do him any good in the marketplace. And the loss of his wife, leaving him their only son to take care of by himself, upset his balanced life until he found another source of home stability in a marriage to a long-time friend, ten years his junior.
Edgar MacDonald covers all of this fairly well and in detail, but he's not a prose stylist, which is probably just as well, because Cabell had enough style for two writers. MacDonald observes a fair amount of restraint, covering some of the rumors and innuendo of Cabell's college years (including an event that hinted of an improper relationship between a professor and several of his students) without engaging in sensationalism. Unfortunately for any biographer, Cabell's second wife destroyed some of the more salacious documentation of his life before access was granted for a book, although Cabell would likely have approved of her actions, protecting his reputation from the curiousity of the maddening crowd.
The Cabell Scene by Robert H. Canary is an academic treatise from the late 70s on the major works of James Branch Cabell, a writer whom I have an inordinate fondness for and whom, in some form or another, will be infused into the book I am currently slaving away on. Canary's theme is that Cabell had two methods by which he attacked his subject--the pursuit of love: either through humor, as in his earlier work, or through derision, which most of his later work took form. The two are connected, and although Canary does a good job of making the distinction, the best part of this book is actually Canary's ability to illustrate some of the obscure issues in Cabell's work, and that is why I picked it up. Cabell was a master of obscurity with a purpose--he played games with the reader, using other languages, anagrams, metaphor, simile, etc. to sometimes hide his "true meaning." So much so that, in his most famous work, Jurgen, he was called a pornographic writer and the book and publisher were brought to trial by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. (In Jurgen, a sword could be more than a sword, and a lance could be more than a lance, but by today's standards, this is mighty tame stuff, as the reader must make the connections and use their imagination--the only author I can think of who used the same technique in modern time was Robert Anton Wilson in one of the Schrodinger's Cat books to replace all references to sexual genitalia and actions with Supreme Court justices: to this day, I can't think of Potter Stewart without a certain image coming to mind.)
I'm more familiar with the volumes that make up the Biography of the Life of Manuel, so Canary's discussion of the 1930s trilogy, The Nightmare Has Triplets, and the 1940s trilogy, Heirs and Assigns, was extremely useful to gaining more of an understanding and appreciation of Cabell's post-Biography work. In many ways, he became disillusioned following the heady success, and problems, that the notoriety of Jurgen brought him. The 1920s, in the 1930s, was considered the Cabell decade by many literature critics; by the 1940s, he had almost been totally forgotten. Never to let reality pass by without incorporating it into his work, the later novels are both bitter and bittersweet, as he struggled with that loss of fame and following. Thus, as Canary says, humor switches to derision, where Cabell had trouble laughing with life, but would rather laugh at it. Cabell reserved his jibes for the "typically Meckenian targets as patriotism, Philistinism, Puritanism, Prohibition, and preachers"--targets as ripe for jousting as today.
Is this something you need to read? No, not unless you are a scholar of the literature of the 1920s or a novelist intending to set his book in that time, with themes that touch on the "New South" and prohibition. If so, this can provide an interesting glance into one particularly urbane commentator of that society's mores.
Although I had read Craig Thompson's Blankets, and thought it quite fine, it did not prepare me for the amazing achievement that is Habibi. There is an incredible amount of care in each page, a thematic cohesion across the entire book, that this is finally a graphic novel that deserves the latter term. So many graphic novels come across as slight--often because they are simply collections of monthly serials that strive to create an overall story arc, but are often simply the stuff of melodrama. Thompson has truly created something that stands apart, and is worthwhile of your time.
Yet, I still only gave it 3.5 stars. Why? There's the rub. While I was impressed by Thompson's craft, and admired his themes, the underlying story itself failed to really connect with me. Having just completed living in Saudi Arabia for two-and-a-half years, I'm no stranger to the Arabic culture that provides the underlying cultural viewpoint, and I had done my own self study of the Arabic alphabet and could enjoy the intricate script work that Thompson achieved. But the biggest failing for this book for me is it's post-apocalyptic setting. I'm just not a big fan of what happens after the world fails to address climate change and things fall apart. While one can read and enjoy Habibi without focusing on its post-apocalyptic setting--you could try and read this as some kind of alternate world--there's just too much of it for me.
The story, without giving too much away, is about a young woman and an even younger boy who undergo change and transformation as they find each other, lose each other and themselves, and then refind themselves and the other. It's a very unusual love story, and it's about as much, if not more, about love in the abstract as it is about love in reality.
There are some harsh images here, both presented visually on the page and implied off the panel, as the plot contains some graphic description of sex--both good and bad--, childbirth, body mutilation, and poverty. But if you have a strong stomach, and want to read something like nothing else, this is recommended.