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
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.'"