Mere Observation

by wjw on August 29, 2019

So I mentioned a couple weeks ago that I had a kind of Theory of Dunsany that I wanted to put forth when I had the time, and I seem to have time right now.  Because I’ve had a while to ponder the matter the theory has expanded from its origin point to a consideration not only of the sort of fiction people were writing a hundred years ago, but the sort of people who were writing it.

Two things stand out about Lord Dunsany.  The first is that he could write volumes and volumes of short, ironic fantasy tales (and plays.  and poetry.) and be taken seriously as a literary writer.

This isn’t entirely surprising, given the time and place.  He was born in a period where England’s Poet Laureate could write twelve whole volumes about King Arthur, and where Arthur Conan Doyle could retire Sherlock Holmes and finally get a chance to write serious fiction, by which he meant chivalric romance.  No one had yet laid down the rule that serious fiction could only be mimetic, or could only describe the troubled emotional lives of the upper middle classes.

Dunsany’s first volume, The Gods of Pegãna, didn’t consist even of proper stories— Gods of Pegãna can be thought of as the holy books of an imaginary land.  We learn nothing about the land itself, just the religious stories the inhabitants tell themselves.  It’s as if aliens visited a deserted earth and found only the Rigveda.  Yet the book was so successful it had a sequel.

Dunsany’s mostly wrote short stories, and his elaborate descriptive style works very well at that length.   You can consume a few of these ironic, polished bonbons and leave the table satisfied.  To read more might feel like gorging.

The other thing you notice is that while there are eleventy million metric tons of fantasy being published these days, none of it resembles Dunsany.  While Dunsany was writing his ironic tales and placing them in high-paying literary markets, a new Power was arising in the West, which is to say pulp fiction of the sort written by Robert E. Howard and HP Lovecraft.  Eventually the vigor, color, and otherworldly violence of the pulps overwhelmed Dunsany’s more delicate and sophisticated vision, during which time fantasy also lost its respectability.

(If you’re looking for an American equivalent to Dunsay, you need look no further than James Branch Cabell.  Nobody writes like him anymore, either.)

(Possibly because of his academic credentials, Tolkien managed to maintain a much higher level of respectability, for all that Edmund Wilson claimed that Tolkien had no skill at narrative.  People still read Tolkien; I doubt they read Wilson.)

By coincidence I was reading Dunsany at more or less the same time I was reading an anonymous book by HG Wells, the full title of which is Boon, The Mind of the Race, the Wild Asses of the Devil, and The Last Trump: Being a First Selection from the Literary Remains of George Boon, Appropriate to the Times, Prepared for Publication by Reginald Bliss.  (Wells eventually admitted authorship.)

It’s minor Wells and not at all the sort of thing he will be remembered for, but I read it quite happily.  It’s a satire on the literary scene in England circa 1910, with many disparaging things to say about Henry James, all put in the mouth of the fictional author Boon.

He sets himself to pick the straws out of the hair of Life before he paints her. But without the straws she is no longer the mad woman we love.  He talks of ‘selection,’ and of making all of a novel definitely about a theme.  He objects to a ‘saturation’ that isn’t oriented.  And he objects, if you go into it, for no clear reason at all.  Following up his conception of selection, see what in his own practice he omits.  In practice James’s selection becomes just omission and nothing more.  He omits everything that demands digressive treatment or collateral statements.  For example, he omits opinions.  In all his novel you will find no people with defined political opinions, no people with religious opinions, none with clear partisanships or with lusts or whims . . . 

These people learned for artistic treatment never make lusty love, never go to angry war, never shout at an election or perspire at poker, never in any way date . . . And upon the petty residuum of human interest left to them they focus minds of a Jamesian calibre . . . And the elaborate, copious emptiness of the whole Henry James exploit is only redeemed and made endurable by the elaborate, copious wit.  Upon the desert his selection has made Henry James erects palatial metaphors. . . 

Having first made sure that he has scarcely anything left to express, he then sets to work to express it, with an industry, a wealth of intellectual stuff that dwarfs Newton.  He spares no resource in the telling of his dead inventions.  He brings up every device of language to state and define.  Bare verbs he rarely tolerates.  He splits his infinitives and fills them up with adverbial stuffing . . . And all for tales of nothingness . . . 

Well now, that was jolly good fun, wasn’t it?  Wells and James were friends before Boon, not so much after.  There was an “exchange of letters!”

Wells also goes after Shaw, Nietzsche, and the racist theorist Houston Stewart Chamberlain.  (Going after Chamberlain is sort of like shooting fish in a barrel, but it feels so satisfying.)

Wells even parodies himself as the fictional author Boon, who spends a lot of his time working out an unprovable theory of race consciousness and then calling a literary congress to discuss it, with more or less predictable results.  (Wells himself devoted a lot of thought to race consciousness theory.  And by “race” he meant the human race, not the anglo-saxon race or the European race or whoever.)

(Henry James could play this game, too.  He parodied Edith Wharton as a vulgarian author of inexplicable popular novels who zoomed around England in a chauffeur-driven motorcar, then sent the book to Wharton lovingly inscribed.  After which Wharton parodied James as a lonely and desperate aesthete hopelessly in love with a parasitic younger man, a novel mailed to James with an adoring inscription.  I don’t know whether there followed an exchange of letters or not.)

Neither Wells nor James resembles Dunsany, except— and here I’m finally getting to my second point— that they and Dunsany were playing the same literary game on the same literary field.

I’m receiving the impression that English literature circa 1910 was an elaborate game played by a group of smart, witty, sophisticated, well-educated people for each other and for people largely like themselves.  They weren’t all necessarily from the upper classes— HG Wells certainly wasn’t— but they could do a good impersonation of an upper-class person when required.

You could write anything— fantasy, the literary realism championed by Wells when he wasn’t writing scientific romances, chivalric romance, “the elaborate, copious emptiness of the whole Henry James exploit”— as long as it was written to a certain standard and for a certain audience.

(How is that different from today? you ask.  The standard is a good deal more restrictive now, even if postmodernism’s playfulness has loosened the literary stays a little.  Plus postmodernism puts everything in quotes— authors of fiction in 1910 could directly address the audience, but if you did that now, you’d be “breaking the fourth wall.”

(I don’t envy the lives of anyone who lived around the turn of the previous century, but I envy them their freedom to write in so many different channels.)

Wells had been messing around with Boon since around 1901, but it was published in 1915 because, with his usual prescience, he realized that the rules had abruptly changed in August 1914.  In the novel, Boon loses faith in humanity’s collective consciousness and dies after reading the casualty reports from the front.

Many of the people for whom these works were written had blown out each other’s brains in the Great War, and those who survived were busy trying to make sense of it all.  Artists had no actual answers to the questions— well, the fascists and Marxists thought they did— but the rest busied themselves with other sorts of radicalism in the form of modernism.

Dunsany, it has to be said, remained popular and prolific, but his sort of thing was increasingly outside the main stream, and he had few successors.  Lovecraft had what is called his “Dunsany period.”  Ursula LeGuin warned that imitating Dunsany was the “First Terrible Fate that Awaiteth Unwary Beginners in Fantasy.”‘

So in conclusion . . . well, I don’t have one.  I offer mere observations.  Dunsany has become a curiosity, like the suits of armor in the foyer of his castle, but he’s a curiosity that offers rewards.  His fantasy worlds are just as polished and rich as ever they were.  He lived a life that was full of incident, adventure, and hard work; and he knew pretty much everybody, and was reckoned as important as anyone.

Edmund Wilson didn’t like him, either, and that’s as good a recommendation as you can get.

John Appel August 29, 2019 at 8:23 pm

This is all fascinating stuff. I’ve read some Wells, and a couple of Dunsany stories, but never really read any other literature of the period.

pecooper August 30, 2019 at 8:48 am

For what it is worth, it wasn’t just Lovecraft who had a Dunsany period. All the Weird Tales writers who were in his correspondence circle: Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Henry Kuttner, C.L. Moore, tried to imitate Lord Dunsay. C.L. Moore summed it up as “We all aspire to be Lord Dunsany. None of us are.”

The same could be said for James Branch Cabell. Yes, there was a change in literary tastes and conventions, but there is also nobody, today, who can speak with their voices.

John F. MacMichael September 1, 2019 at 4:11 pm

“… Ursula LeGuin warned that imitating Dunsany was the “First Terrible Fate that Awaiteth Unwary Beginners in Fantasy.”‘

True but the Second Terrible Fate is imitating Lovecraft.

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