Posts tagged ‘Marcel Proust’

 

 

 
If you’re on Facebook, you’ve doubtless seen the meme that asks you to list books that have resonated with you.

A few years ago, Suvudo asked Fred about his favorite books.

Fred mentioned several works that had stayed with him throughout his life, including Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, but then went on to write at length about L. Sprague de Camp’s alternate history Lest Darkness Fall and how it influenced him.

We recommend both Fred’s review and de Camp’s novel.
 

The blog team

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

 

When I was a child I read everything that came into the house. The majority of these chance-met books that made up my available literary finds were the boys’ (and sometimes the girls’) series works, specifically delivered as gifts for me. None of these made much of an impression on me, though. I read them at maximum page-turning velocity and never looked at them a second time — with two exceptions that I’ll come to later.

I think I now know why these were so dull for me, or at least one of the reasons. There was then, and still is with a few publishers, a truly fat-headed policy whose inflexible law was that children’s books should be “age-specific.” That is, purged of any words not in the officially approved vocabulary of children of the specific age they were intended for.

That was a really, really bad idea. The best way for children to enrich a vocabulary is to let them encounter unfamiliar new words and have to work out their meaning from context. That’s about the way all children learn their native languages, and that is a time-tested system that has worked well since, roughly, the Stone Age.

So when I was six I preferred to read books that were marked as intended for twelve-year-olds, and at twelve I had patience only for declared “adult” works. Which is perhaps why, out of the thousands of books I read before I was old enough to have an adult’s library card, only a handful were still given space in the bureau drawer that was my “bookcase”.

There were, in fact, exactly two books that I not only kept but read over and again, once a year or so, and as a matter of fact I have them still.. They are Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way (now in its proper place as one episode in what I still think of as Remembrance of Things Past.)

Why those two and not almost any others? I think it had something to do with the fact that both of them had, on first reading, exposed me to a stable and self-contained foreign environment I had never encountered before — and that was not at all like the Park Slope, Brooklyn, neighborhood I lived in from the age of ten to almost twenty. Most of all, they exposed me to words I didn’t know but sometimes could figure out from context.

Is there a better way to build a vocabulary? I think not — and think as well that there certainly is no other way as pleasurable.

 

Jack Vance, 1979.

Jack Vance, 1979.

One weekend last summer — to be exact, on the morning of 19 July, 2009 — a lot of New Yorkers got a surprise when they opened their Sunday Times Magazine. What they found was particularly pleasing to those among them who chanced to be science-fiction fans, for there in that prestigious journal was a critical — and very favorable — essay on a writer that it called “one of America’s most distinctive and underrated voices.” And the owner of that voice, it said, was none other than our own Jack Vance.

It was not only Carlo Rotella, the critic who wrote the Times piece, who thought so. He was able to quote Michael Chabon (“Vance is the most painful case of all the writers I love who I feel don’t get the credit they deserve. If The Last Castle or the Dragon Masters had the name Italo Calvino on it, or just a foreign name, it would be received as a profound meditation.”) and Dan Simmons, who said that discovering Vance “was a revelation for me, like coming to Proust or Henry James…. He gives you glimpses of entire worlds with just perfectly tuned language. If he’d been born south of the border he’d be up for a Nobel prize.”

As one of those Vance-loving sf fans myself, I read the Times piece with astonishment and pleasure, for science fiction has long had a bad press — slightly relieved in recent years by the impressive earnings of writers like Frank Herbert and Isaac Asimov — from most of the country’s respectable journals. But what this piece said was not only interesting, it was precisely true. Jack Vance not only imagines wonderful things to tell us about, he embodies his visions in a special individual kind of language that is all Vance’s own.
 

I came late to Vance. Most of his early stories appeared in magazines and other places that I didn’t normally read. Friends with my best interests at heart did try to persuade me to give this Vance person a try, but I never quite got around to following their sage advice. Then Horace L. Gold began to find the editing of Galaxy too much for him to handle. I helped him as needed for a while; then he retired and the publisher asked me to take over.

I not only had read little of Vance, I had never — unusually among the sf writers of the ’50s and ’60s — happened to meet him. We had many friends in common among the writers who lived, like Vance, in the Pacific Northwest, and they didn’t fail to keep me informed of his doings. With Poul Anderson and Frank Herbert, he had for a time owned a houseboat, and when one day it sank at its moorings, Vance was the one who worked out a way to refloat it.

With his late wife, Norma, whom he had met and married when they both were still college undergraduates, Vance was a world traveler, visiting unlikely spots all over the map, and writing whole books in improbable places. He had begun writing while in the Merchant Marine in the South Pacific in World War II, and kept it up in whatever part of the world he happened to be visiting at that specific moment. Whatever the locale, Jack wrote his stories in longhand, whereafter Norma typed them up to send out..

And then one day, after Horace had retired and I had inherited the batch of stories he had bought, I was going through them and I discovered one or two I had never seen. One was by Vance, and it was called “The Moon Moth.” It was the story of an Earthman posted as a diplomatic official on a planet whose people appear in public only when wearing ornate masks and communicate not by talking but by singing.

It caught my attention. Vance was what I thought of as an ornamental writer — mannered prose, complex sentences, formal dialogue. That was not necessarily a good thing. I’m as fond of Remembrance of Things Past (or whatever they’re calling Marcel Proust’s masterwork now) as the next man, but I don’t normally find that kind of linguistic mastery in the slush pile of a science-fiction magazine. Done beautifully, that sort of thing is beautiful. Done poorly, I send it back to the writer.

This was definitely in the beautiful territory.

One of Vance’s scholars has reported that Vance was impressed by the equally ornate style of James Branch Cabell. Both Vance’s and Cabell’s styles are similarly inflated, but I don’t think they are mannered in quite the same way. No matter. “The Moon Moth” was a fine story. I scheduled it for an early issue and sought more. It took a while, but ultimately my efforts did bear fruit as I received a new Vance manuscript called The Dragon Masters.

I read it at once and instantly loved it. It concerned a planet inhabited by humans, but from time to time visited by spaceships from another planet, this one inhabited by intelligent lizard-like aliens, called dragons, who kidnap humans for the purpose of breeding them into fighting troops. When they have achieved their purpose they have an army of mutated humans in several different types, including giant warriors. The dragons use these to capture more humans for their breeding experiments. However the humans of the raided planet have managed to capture one dragon spaceship with its crew, well before this story starts, and are breeding dragon warriors in the same way that the dragons breed (formerly) human ones.

It struck me as the perfect Jack Vance story, with a handsomely imagined setting, a carefully invented plot line, embellished by his unique use of language. I got busy.
 

I called Jack Gaughan, the most inventive of our stable of artists, and asked him to come in to discuss a particularly challenging set of illustrations. The wonderful thing about Gaughan was that he understood what I was asking for a good deal faster then most illustrators, and he did not disappoint. He came through with a bunch of his best work, including a cover and interior black and whites that involved thumbnail sketches of each of the purpose-bred races each side had created out of the captured samplings of the other.

I loved it.

I wasn’t the only one who did, either. When at last that issue was on the stands the reader mail was good, and when it came time for award voting The Dragon Masters had — of course — won a Hugo (though, curiously, it was described as a short story, I have never known why) and Gaughan had won an art Hugo of his own, specifically for The Dragon Masters work (and, I believe, the only time the award was given for a specified set of illustrations rather than for general high quality.)

Sometimes being an editor is fun.
 

For me the fun quotient was diminishing around that time. I have long believed as an article of faith that no one should hold the same editorial job for more than a decade or so, because (I believe) the best work is done when it is all fresh and new and after a while the editor is just going through the motions. A few years after The Dragon Masters, I proved that point by making a serious mistake with another Jack Vance story, The Last Castle. Jack had divided the story into a number of chapters and added a clutch of scholarly, but irrelevant, comments at the beginning of each chapter. Editors are put upon this Earth for the purpose of correcting an author’s errors in such matters, and I set myself to improving Jack’s chapter headers by cutting them fifty per cent or so.

The mistake wasn’t in making that decision — those chunks of prose were excessive and seriously distracting — it was in doing the cutting myself without first asking Jack to fix it. When he saw the published version he was unhappy. When I ran into him at a meeting of the Science Fiction Research Association in Lake Tahoe a little later his first words were, “Fred, you shouldn’t have done it,” And he never sent me another story.

Actually he didn’t have many opportunities to do that. Not long afterward, I took a week off to go to a film festival in Rio de Janeiro, and when I came back to the office I found that Bob Guinn had taken advantage of my absence to sell the magazines to another publisher.

Indeed, that was his right; he owned them. But I think he suspected that if I were around when he was making that deal I might have talked him out of it, and I certainly would have tried. It wasn’t a good idea. But by then it was a fait accompli.

I took it as a reminder of my convictions about the relevance of longevity to performance in an editorial job, and actually as an opportunity to try something else for a while. (The other publisher had no idea how to run the magazines, as I had expected. They hung on for a couple of years of dwindling quality and then were folded.)
 

For a time, I lost touch with Jack Vance, as I did with many of the Galaxy contributors after that. Then I heard that things were not going as well as he deserved for him. First came the word that he was losing his vision, and then that Norma had died. Before the blindness became total, he was still managing to get some writing done by scribbling a word or two, in giant letters, on each sheet of paper and then writing the next word or two on another sheet, und so weiter.

Since then we do keep in some sort of touch by the occasional phone call, and I was happy to learn that he now has a sensitive high-tech computer system to write with. He’s too good a writer, and too good a man, to be condemned to silence.