Friday, September 21, 2018

RIP XIII #5: Jurgen

Why does this lady have this face?
Jurgen, by James Branch Cabell

I like weird Dover reprints of weird old books, so I picked this up somewhere a while back and it's been on the TBR pile.  It's one of those fantasy stories written before Tolkien came along and everybody kind of standardized into the modern genre -- the era of Lord Dunsany and E. R. Eddison.  So I thought it would be fun, and a good RIP title, but I was wrong.  It was completely meh.

Jurgen was first published in 1919, and somebody promptly tried to ban it, which made it enormously popular.*  This is the "revised and definitive" 1926 version. 

Set in a sort of early modern folktale setting, the story features Jurgen, a pawnbroker and poet, whose bitter, naggy wife Lisa disappears into a cave and is presumably taken by a...devil?  Maybe?  (It's rather unknown until the end.)  Jurgen ventures in and meets a cast of characters, most notably Mother Sereda (Time), and he is so flattering to her that she gives him a year of youth -- or possibly it's a punishment.  He spends it in meeting his first love and various other charming ladies -- I think he gets married three times, not to mention the innumerable girlfriends.

There is a good deal about the charm of first love, and a lot of innuendo, and some rather funny bits when Jurgen is not being tiresomely amorous.  I did enjoy the part where the ghost of his great-grandfather needs help haunting two places at once, and there was a great piece where Jurgen has gotten together with a girl who turns out to be mythological.  After a while she sadly tells him he has to leave:
For in becoming the consort of a nature myth connected with the Moon Jurgen had of course exposed himself to the danger of being converted into a solar legend by the Philologists, and in that event would be compelled to leave Cocaigne with the Equinox...
On the whole, though, this is a great big Don't Bother.  The back cover blurb says it's a "tightly structured symbolic journey of many levels" and I'm sure it knows better than I do, plus also it's supposed to be an influential classic of comic fantasy, but to me it mostly felt like a shapeless mass to slog through for little reward. 


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*Don't forget, next week is Banned Books Week, so don't forget to read something for that!  Not Jurgen though.  Try for something more interesting.  Harry Potter, maybe.

3 comments:

ed.pendragon said...

Your plot description of Jurgen didn't ring any bells even though I read this, oooh, in the 80s probably. I shall have to give it another go sometime, having hung onto it all this time, no doubt for just such an occasion... 😁

Jean said...

Well, no time like the present! You will undoubtedly see more of the layers of symbolism than I did. :)

ed.pendragon said...

Possibly towards in a few weeks, Jean, so much else on the go and also wanted to include a longish YA in translation for German Literature Month in November. But, yes, tempting!