The Magazine

A Clubbable Man

Lord Dunsany's fantastic tales of Joseph Jorkens, the club storyteller, come back into print.

Jul 19, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 42 • By MICHAEL DIRDA
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The Collected Jorkens

Volume 1

by Lord Dunsany

Nightshade, 343 pp., $35

YOUNG AUTHORS typically display a brittle, cheeky glibness--or aspire to ziggurats of erudition and stylistic panache. The last thing a writer wants to be called, at twenty-five, is charming. And yet readers, particularly as they grow older, always return most happily to charming books, especially the ones they knew during their schooldays and adolescence. What did that sophisticate Noel Coward read in his last years? The Edwardian children's novels of E. Nesbit. Ask any older man or woman to choose a favorite work of fiction and the titles that come tripping from the tongue are likely to be The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Alice in Wonderland, M.R. James's ghost stories and Agatha Christie's whodunits, the voyages extraordinaires of Jules Verne and the comedies of P.G. Wodehouse.

All these share a distinctive late-Victorian character, evoking a gas-lit 1895, even those set in the 1920s or later: country houses and hansom cabs, the Pax Britannica, the age-old routines of vicars and viceroys, a time of intrepid exploration by the sandy-haired into the far corners of the globe. You don't read such books so much as settle into them. Such cozy narratives may be derided as imperialist or antiquated, the stuff of sentimental fiction or of boys' adventures. But, at heart, many offer the purest form of storytelling: tales of wonder, tales of the unexpected. And few writers have been more brilliant at this game than Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, the eighteenth Baron Dunsany.

Born in 1878 and living until 1957, Lord Dunsany is to modern fantasy what H.P. Lovecraft is to horror fiction and Georgette Heyer to the Regency romance: a major author within a minor--and often-disdained--branch of literature. Typically such genre writers, even the greatest, find themselves the object of cults rather than the subject of dissertations; their readers call themselves fans, and none of their books is ever taught in Literature 101. Yet when people ask for Something Good to Read, these are the authors that friends recommend.

Dunsany's most famous novel, The King of Elfland's Daughter (1924), remains a touchstone of lyrical fantasy; in it Prince Alveric crosses into the timeless land of faery, "beyond the fields we know," to win the love of the beautiful Lirazel and bring her back to his home. Distraught, her father uses one of his last two magic runes to waft his beloved child back to Elfland. It is a wonderfully touching story of loss and yearning, and of the ultimate return of magic to our world.

Though he was to publish more than sixty books of fiction, poetry, memoirs, and plays, Lord Dunsany established his reputation with his early fantasy collections: The Gods of Pegana (1905), Time and the Gods (1906), The Sword of Welleran (1908). In them he boldly outlines a new mythology and its deities, depicting the pantheon and geography of a land called Pegana in decorated, ornate prose.

The style is utterly and deliberately artificial, and readers either take immediately to its musicality and languorous phrasings or find it all slightly absurd. I love this orotund Dunsany for a page or two, then tire of the twee, fin-de-siècle biblicality: "There arises a river in Pegana that is neither a river of water nor yet a river of fire, and it flows through the skies and the Worlds to the Rim of the Worlds--a river of silence. Through all the Worlds are sounds, the noises of moving, and the echoes of voices and song; but upon the River is no sound ever heard, for there all echoes die." Beautiful and atmospheric, yes; but a little goes a long way.

DUNSANY eventually turned away from descriptions of the gods' realm to chronicle "little adventures at the edge of the world," many of them tales of swords and sorcery or marvels out of The Arabian Nights. The tone of The Book of Wonder (1912), for instance, is drier and more ironic--as in "The Hoard of the Gibbelins," a story that opens: "The Gibbelins eat, as is well known, nothing less good than man."

Indeed, few writers can better tantalize a reader's imagination with an enigmatic lead sentence. Try: "When the nomads came to El Lola they had no more songs, and the question of stealing the golden box arose in all its magnitude." That's from "Probable Adventure of the Three Literary Men," and who wouldn't want to hear more? Like many others, this story is even further enhanced--at least in its original printing--by the unsettling artwork of the author's regular illustrator, S.H. Sime.

But Dunsany also composed another kind of fantastic tale, slightly more hard-edged, with twists worthy of O. Henry. Consider "Two Bottles of Relish," which explains the grotesque reason a man who has murdered a young woman should chop down all the trees in his yard. More often than not, these later works strongly suggest a storyteller entertaining a company of listeners. His classic chess story, "The Three Sailors' Gambit," starts this way: "Sitting some years ago in the ancient tavern at Over, one afternoon in spring, I was waiting as was my custom for something strange to happen." Another, "The Three Infernal Jokes," begins: "This is the story that the desolate man told me on the lonely Highland road one autumn evening with winter coming on and the stags roaring."

In such tales the voice of the narrator and the frame--a tavern, a sitting room before a hearth, a library--are surprisingly important, for they create, however factitiously, the sense that these are true memories, personal anecdotes, fragments that we might have heard ourselves, had we been there.

Dunsany worked in this form most unforgettably in the reminiscences of Mr. Joseph Jorkens. Related as he sits by the fire in the Billiards Club, Jorkens's anecdotes are tall tales: adventures with unicorns and mermaids and ancient curses, accounts of giant diamonds, Martian exploration, and trees that walk.

All of them are conveyed with a wistful air, in a perfectly serious tone. There's no way to prove them or disprove them. But when the night is chill and the fire burns low..."The talk had veered round to runes and curses and witches, one bleak December evening, where a few of us sat warm in easy chairs round the cheery fire of the Billiards Club. 'Do you believe in witches?' one of us said to Jorkens. 'It isn't what I believe in that matters so much,' said Jorkens; 'only what I have seen.'" And off we go.

Dunsany published five compilations of these addictive stories, starting with The Travel Tales of Mr. Joseph Jorkens (1931) and Jorkens Remembers Africa (1934). These two make up the first volume (of an intended three) of The Collected Jorkens, a new reprinting edited by our leading Dunsany scholar, S.T. Joshi. They should not be missed by anyone who cares for marvels and mysteries, for tales of strange seas and shores.

Indeed, this edition has been long awaited, as the original volumes are scarce, and some exchange hands for several hundred dollars in the used-book market, when they can be found at all. I own the first two collections, as well as the relatively common Fourth Book of Jorkens (1948), but in a lifetime of visiting used-book stores, I've never seen Jorkens Has a Large Whiskey (1940) and Jorkens Borrows Another Whiskey (1954), which will presumably make up the next installment from Nightshade Press (due out sometime this year). The third volume will include stories never published in Dunsany's lifetime, making a total beyond the 127 already known.

ACCORDING TO THEIR PRESENTER--ostensibly Dunsany himself--Jorkens's reminiscences have been given to the public "so that men and women to whom the Billiards Club means nothing may come by scraps of knowledge of far corners of Earth, or tittle tattle about odd customs of some of its queer folk, which would otherwise be lost with the anecdotes that were only told to help pass a dingy afternoon or to recompense a friend for the trifling favor of a large whiskey and soda."

Now aged, fat, and always in need of a fresh drink, Jorkens looks back on his early years with a nostalgia born from the knowledge that, in Wordsworth's phrase, "there hath passed away a glory from the earth." Once upon a time, the world was commensurate with our dreams. But no more. "Those were beautiful times," laments Jorkens, "and we've spoiled them; we've spoiled them with too much noise and too much hurry; we've let machinery loose on them. . . . Those were quiet and happy days; a little of them remains in the corners of old gardens, where they look as though they were hiding; but not much."

In the past, or at least in Jorkens's past, you could travel to Africa, or Russia, or any of the distant parts of the empire, and naturally expect to encounter the unusual. The world was a realm of marvels. Once, for instance, Jorkens found himself surrounded by African warriors who dressed--well, let him tell it: "'Eighty-five men with spears, of a tribe that I did not know, and every one of them in evening dress. . . . White ties, white waistcoats,' said Jorkens quietly. 'In fact just what you are wearing now, except that they had rather heavier watch-chains, and they all wore diamond solitaires.'"

After allowing this image to take hold for a moment, the storyteller quickly adds: "'And the first thing I thought was that I need hardly expect the worst, because however nasty the spears looked, anything like cannibalism was impossible in decent evening dress, such as they were all wearing. I was wrong there.'"

THAT LAST SENTENCE reveals the typical Dunsany touch. He begins with an absurd, impossible situation, builds it up, and then suddenly caps everything with another and greater absurdity, yet one that proves, somehow, almost logical. Try as you may, you never quite guess what the final twist will be.

In one story a man visits a witch; she offers him a charm against thirst and a charm against drowning, and he buys the first because he plans to travel in the desert. It works, sort of--yet after weeks without rain, amid the dry sand and under the burning African sun, the poor bloke actually ends up drowned. "Drowned," said Jorkens. "He could have had a charm against drowning, for the same price, but one never knows what is in store." Still, another time, a young man falls in love with a strangely haughty and seductive woman on a Greek island, and Jorkens leads us to believe that she must be Circe. But at the last moment, we learn that she was, in fact, "a Mrs. Harbett that had lived a pretty fast life in London." Jorkens innocently adds: "You see. . . . one never knows."

The question of truthfulness recurs at the opening of nearly every tale; it becomes a leitmotif, an extra barrier that the genial raconteur has to work around. When Dunsany is first introduced to the Billiards Club, he is cautioned never to believe anything Jorkens says. Later, Jorkens berates Dunsany, now his chronicler, by informing him that some people have begun likening his adventures to those of Baron Munchausen--just because a story or two is "distinctly out of the way." But so what? "I imagine you will not disbelieve it on that account. Otherwise everyone that ever told a story of any experience he'd had would have to select the dullest and most ordinary, so as to be believed: an account of a railway journey, we'll say, from Penge to Victoria station. We've not come to that, I trust."

In fact, the recurrent skepticism about Jorkens's veracity keeps alive the notion that just maybe his anecdotes could be true. When inherently impossible matters are treated as though they were only unlikely or questionable, this grants them a distant plausibility. Perhaps these tales don't really disrupt the order of things, but rather confirm our deepest dreams. And on this uncertainty Jorkens builds. He does so at the least provocation; just give him an opening. Saki ends a story, "The Open Window," by saying of a character that "romance at short notice was her specialty." So is it with Jorkens.

On the surface, Jorkens--like an Anglo-Saxon bard--recounts his past experiences in return for a glass of refreshment. Much is made of his taste for whiskey, and he even constructs one far-fetched tale about smuggling moonshine during Prohibition. It contains this priceless sentence: "The sun so late in the year was shining quite warmly through the glittering leaves, adding to the pangs of my thirst, and I was getting near the point when men drink water."

SUCH LOW-KEYED HUMOR pervades the Jorkens stories, as in "The Showman" or "One August in the Red Sea." But the very best tales blend humor and narrative legerdemain with something more: horror in "The Walk to Lingham," mystery in "Ozymandias," science in "Our Distant Cousins," and, most often of all, lost romance, especially in "A Mystery of the East" and "Mrs. Jorkens." In such stories, any adult can feel the allure of past enchantment--for all of us have experienced broken hearts and missed chances: "Then all the loneliness came back to me, all the bleak emptiness there in the world when mystery has left it, and all the aching of my heart for magic, or whatever it is that puts a wonder upon whatever it touches, and cannot itself be described."

Jorkens blames the modern era, modern science, above all modern machinery for leaching the wondrous from travel and life. In "Mrs. Jorkens" he recalls how he met, courted, and wed a mermaid who ultimately left him for the sea. He portrays himself as a down-to-earth, even unimaginative Englishman--he calls his fabulous beloved "Gladys"--who somehow just happens to discover poetry and magic amid the seemingly mundane. Yet when he recalls those encounters, the skeptical cross-examine with hard questions or mumble about prevarication. Still, do we truly prefer the drearily factual to the marvelous? "You see a woman may hold a fan for a moment in front of her face, and have a young man almost paralyzed with the mystery of what expression she is wearing behind it. She may awe them with the turn of an ankle, or the poise of her head." Ah, romance! But, as Jorkens sadly adds, "she can't do that to a man that has known a mermaid."

Perhaps not. But the world, to its loss, no longer believes in mermaids. "I was miles from guessing all that idly bought ticket [to see Gladys] would mean to me. It is like that with the past; it is all gone now; gone forever with all its vastness, all its tremendous import; but it is made out of little trifles like that one-rupee ticket bought in an hour to spare, ashore at Aden. All gone now. . . . Oh, the green of those seas, and oh those sunsets and the blaze of the afterglow. I'm sure they don't shine like that now. I never hear anyone talking of it, of the thousands that pass by Aden. I know they are all gone, all those colors and lights. And nothing remains but this dark, dripping evening."

Many of these wonder tales conclude on just this note, with the aging storyteller sitting quietly alone before his whiskey, staring silently into the fire, unable to shake off the wonder of the past and full of regret for what is so unaccountably gone. And so Dunsany's readers, who themselves remember the ache and allure of other days, slowly come to identify with Jorkens and to feel, if only for a moment, that same sorrow for how much Time takes away. Sunt lacrimae rerum.

But then we turn the page and are off yet again: "I said to Jorkens, as I had once said before, 'What is the strangest thing you have ever seen?' And, as it happened, Jorkens remembered that I had previously asked the same question. 'I've told you,' said Jorkens. 'Yes, yes,' I said, 'the daughter of Rameses. I suppose that was the strangest thing that anyone could have seen.'" 'Oh, I wouldn't say that,' answered Jorkens."

Michael Dirda, a longtime staff writer for the Washington Post Book World, is the author of the recent memoir An Open Book and the forthcoming collection Bound to Please: Essays on Great Writers and Their Books.