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Branch Cabell’s Dream

ISSUE:  Spring 1934

Smirt~An Urbane Nightmare. By Branch Cabell. New York: Robert M. McBride and Company. $2.50.

Of branch cabell’s books, “Smirt,” to me, is the most satisfactory. It may also help the people whom Mr. Cabell calls dullards to a closer sympathy with the works of James Branch Cabell. He has done, according to his own preface, what no one except Lewis Carroll has done—related a dream in the terms of a dream, completely within the limits of a dream. Smirt, his literary protagonist, is omnipotent “only within limits.” Mr. Cabell explains that Lewis Carroll made one mistake—in dreams one neither tastes nor smells. Lewis Carroll permitted his Alice these indulgences. Mr. Cabell is careful, meticulous as always, in avoiding them. And Mr. Cabell is the only author within my reading acquaintance who has bothered to remember that in dreams one neither tastes nor smells. Dreams, apparently, are intended by All-Highest and Company, whom Mr. Cabell faithfully describes, to be only dreams. The dreamers are intended to awaken, and they do, That is probably why Persephone in Hell was denied either food or drink, because it would prolong her stay there. And Hell, like Heaven, was plainly never intended to endure, like the drab world which exists between the two, but to partake only of “the glory and the freshness of a dream.”

Smirt, the name one-third smutty, one-third impertinent, and one-third absurd, which Mr. Cabell has bestowed upon the perpetually wandering hero, the “Peripatetic Episcopalian,” who belongs to Branch Cabell and James Branch Cabell alike, has a dream. In this dream he reacts, as all of us, successful authors or bourgeois citizens, alike react. He finds himself in a number of places, endowed with a spurious courage, in animated argument with a number of people, who have no possible connection one with another and are unable to present any plausible reason for Smirt being wherever he is. This is the authentic dream quality of the story, and this is its single resemblance to “Alice in Wonderland.” Since Smirt is a great author of the moment, and Alice is an ignorant child, the responses of their dream friends are utterly different. Alice’s acquaintances, from the Red Queen to the White Rabbit, are insolent, and Smirt’s accept him at his own evaluation. Even the Shining Ones, the Stewards of Heaven, who attend to the details of this world, under the general supervision of All-Highest and Company, and are responsible for the headlines in the daily papers concerning murder, kidnapping, zero weather, feuds, society and politics, forsake their realism, and conform to Smirt’s romanticism, until, having transformed the world that the All-Highest made into the world of Smirt’s invention, there is nothing left for Smirt to write about, no room for urbane wit and irony.

However, All-Highest and Company, which includes God and the Devil, are the highest Powers, and eventually remove both Smirt and the Shining Ones from the, guardianship of the City of Amit. The All-Highest, to Smirt’s appalled dismay, is discovered to have a plan for his Universe, which baffles Smirt’s artistic design in its logic and precision, which leaves no opportunity for urbane irony. For Smirt had conceded Him no plan whatever. The plan of the All-Highest is never revealed here, but when Smirt questions Him closely He admits that He has a plan which has been always followed and will always be followed. The All-Highest presents to Smirt the lucky piece which makes him omnipotent within limits; but Smirt, like the author of his being, Mr. Cabell, uses it only when he wants a fresh pack of cigarettes—always bad cigarettes, never good ones—and matches. In this respect, the hero of Branch Cabell closely resembles the heroes of James Branch Cabell, in that he is adventurous only in dreams, asks for no more than can be obtained at the corner drug store, and disbelieves in the glamour that lives outside of dreams. Branch Cabell does not resemble James Branch Cabell in that he has forsaken his blonde princess for a dark Spider Woman, Arachne, whose “head is set well on her neck” and who asks only for a hundred or so children and sufficient nourishment for them. Branch Cabell resembles James Branch Cabell in his flexible, athletically trained, brilliantly coloured, and, in his own words, jeweled prose. No one excels this prose. No one, now or ever, has believed more firmly or more innocently in the stupidity of women and in the overweening wifely and maternal instincts of women; qualities which, despite the other and subtler elements of his writing, make and keep Mr. Cabell a genuinely and wholesomely masculine writer. For one element of true masculinity is true naivete.

There are, however, other elements, composing true sophistication, which Mr. Cabell also possesses. He knows one man and one woman thoroughly. There are many other men and many other women, but after all, they are unessential to the production of literature. Given one man and one woman, an exact and miraculous memory of all the lovely places and all the hideous places he has ever seen, and the Midas touch which transmutes them into what he needs for his special story, combined with his sure and perfect use of the immortal English language, Mr. Cabell is secure.


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