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
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.