A Thesis by Jérôme Dutel

I was born in Roanne (Loire, France) in 1976. I am a teacher of Modern Literature, a post-graduate (Doctorat de Lettres) from the L y o n III-Jean Moulin University, and a member of the Marge Centre of R ese arch. I like: Surrealism (Gisèle Prassinos, Benjamin Péret, André Pieyre de Mandiargues), Fantasy (Jorge Luis Borges, Clark Ashton Smith, Edwin Abbot); the poet-painters (Henri Michaux, Victor Hugo, Alfred Kubin); thinkers such as Jean Paulhan or Roger Caillois, and authors like Malcolm de Chazal, Paul Auster, Vladimir Nabokov or yet again, Jerome Salinger; Conceptual Art and artists like James Turrell, Gloria Friedmann, Ghada Amer, Jenny Holzer or Jean Olivier Hucleux; swimming, water-polo and kayak; animation films from the Ghibli studio, or movie directors like Takeshi Kitano or Hou Hsiao Hsien; music produced by labels such as Warp, Matador, Kitty- Yo or City Slang.
I don’t like: Tomatoes.

In what I consider to be one of the most fascinating novels written by Jack Vance, Wyst: Alastor 1716, the entire initial section of the narrative relies on what the main character, Jantiff Ravensroke, reads in an “old treatise on the depiction of landscapes”:

For certain craftsmen, the depiction of landscapes becomes a lifelong occupation. Many interesting examples of the craft exist. Remember: the depiction reflects not only the scene itself but the craftsman’s private point of view!
Another aspect to the craft must at least be mentioned: sunlight. The basic adjunct to the visual process varies from world to world, from a murky red glow to a crackling purple-white glare. Each of these lights makes ne c essar y a differ ent adjustment of the subjective- objective tension. Travel, especially trans-planetary travel, is a most valuable training for the depictive craftsman. He learns to look with a dispassionate eye; he clears away films of illusion and sees objects as they are.

In addition to the fact that the reader, who can glance here over another reader’ s shoulder, is offered a glimpse of one of the rare personal statements made by Jack Vance—this ‘open’* writer—here is also, for any re- searcher, a concept to meditate upon.
On the threshold of my thesis, looking back to my graduate and post-graduate work devoted to the powers of language in René Daumal (1908-1944)—a master player in ‘Le Grand Jeu’†, who for a while violently competed with Surrealism before withdrawing into the mystical asceticism of the Gurdjieff Circles, and wrote some of the truest poems of the mid-20th century—I was gripped by the same feeling of closeness and suffocation as the immobile painter: by looking too much at things through the words of another, you end up not seeing reality as it is.
Just then, I had the opportunity to read one of the very few Vance books that I had never opened before: The Languages of Pao. To find in this book a reflection on the powers of language both close to, and distinct from, Daumal’s own reflection, convinced me of the necessity to connect those two works in which linguistics feed upon fiction, and fiction upon linguistics. The fact that this would associate academic endeavour—the interest of research—with literary pleasure—the thrill of im- mersion in one of my favourite authors—persuaded me that here, indeed, was something to enhance and capitalize upon my later experiences with this mysterious object called ‘language’ (academic dissertations as a student, didactic report on poetic initiation through the concept of repetition as a teacher, and modern French teaching to foreign students—in transition classes and in Africa). At the same time, it would be an opportunity to try and draw more attention to the importance of Vance in the artistic panorama of the past century. Indeed, as indicated by the name of the Research Group I belong to, Marge*, my project is to show that what is usually set on the fringes of official culture (such as science fiction, or authors euphemistically called ‘minor’) can in fact hold a central position in understanding and exploring the literary space.
And thinking of those stories, characteristic of the 20th century haunting concerns, where imagination seems to become an anticipation of linguistic ex- periments, it became obvious that three books offered such specific patterns as to make it worthwhile to compare them in depth: René Daumal’s La Grande Beuverie†, Jack Vance’s The Languages of Pao, and George Orwell’s 1984.
In each of these books, linguistics—partly assimilated by erudition, partly elaborated upon by imagination—do indeed hold a fundamental place: Daumal must have read Saussure, but he prefigures Austin’s performatives; Orwell is acquainted with Ogden’s ‘Panoptic English’, but he extends its im- plications; Vance knows the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but intuitively guesses some elements of Labov’s socio- linguistics.
Seen from another angle, those three books also highlight the evolution of a genre: from Daumal’s ‘récit fantastique’ to Vance’s space opera, through Orwell’s anticipation novel, one sees the shifting that is part of the great tree, stemming from all the imaginary circumnavigations with a Utopian and critical goal (The Third and The Fourth Book of Rabelais, Gulliver’s Travels by Swift or More’ s Utopia) and presenting in succession— inflating them and threading them—heroic saga, fabulous tale, ‘récit fantastique’, anticipation novel and finally, science fiction.
This first global overview was soon to be corroborated by some primary research: you can thus observe a unity of action (linguistic fiction), then a unity of place (the Western world in its historical evolution since the 17th century: France, United Kingdom, United States of America) to which is added, as in a classical play, a unity of time to make the whole complete. La Grande Beuverie was published in 1938, 1984 in 1949 (but the title itself is much more indicative when you permute the last two digits) and The Languages of Pao in 1958 (for its final version, slightly cleaned from the original magazine version published in December 1957): in 1938, France can still consider itself as a major power; in 1947, England emerges from the war with an increased stature, but in 1958, there is no denying that the United States holds the first rank among the nations of the world. In one generation, a new vision of the world is revealed, involving economic, geographic and political changes, as well as literary or linguistic ones.
In fact, when you observe that in 1966 Benveniste published the significant Saussure après un demi-siècle, you realize all the better the import of linguistics in this period, and the impact of those books which—under the guise of classical fiction, thereby transmuting their reading into a defence of literature—raise one of the most essential theoretical questions of the 20th century: What are the powers of language? How do you move from the biblical Lux Fiat to performatives? How do words interact with the elements of this world, ideas, human beings? Is a perfect language possible?
Here then is a rough sketch of the set of questions addressed by this thesis where are gathered—through three different but not dissimilar books—three very close seekers after truth: mystical truth for Daumal, mythical truth for Vance or political truth for Orwell; no matter which, since each is, fundamentally, about Truth. Jack Vance definitely belongs to this group of truth seekers, he who is so similar, as well as his characters, to this landscape painter* who has never stopped travelling to bring objects under various lightings, thereby finding in them their intrinsic truth. Besides, the same train of thought, duplicated in a mythological, then mythic form, is to be found in Emphyrio, with Ghyl Tarvoke’s travels: from Halma (where the sunlight is “wan”, “pale as lymph”, to show at sunset “a somber display of dark yellow, watery browns”) to Maastricht (where the sun is “surrounded by a zone of white glimmer: something like the light over an ocean”), from Earth (where it is “warm and yellow-white”) to Damar (where against the “ash- brown sky”, the twilight fades “to a luminous umber”), everything becomes at last, as expressed by the character, “literal truth”. In a similar fashion, it is clear that Efraim, the amnesiac prince in Marune: Alastor 933, must ‘re-live’ through all the modes of his planet—i.e. the distinct conditions of sunlight, varying according to the dominant sun or suns in the sky, and dedicated to different occupations and behaviours as explained by Jack in a very detailed schedule—so that he can fully recover his rank as Kaiark of Scharrode, as well as his true identity and personality.
Inversely, we sometimes find that it’s the object itself that travels, shedding light upon truth and its surrounding reality: for instance the tribulations of the green pearl in the first chapter of the eponymous novel, presenting a comprehensive physical and psychological vista. From the magical vat to the sea, from the sea to the flounder, the flounder to the fisherman, the fisherman to the pirate, the pirate to the gentleman, the gentleman to the footpad-barber, the footpad-barber to the executioner and, finally, from the executioner to the earth, all the components—supernatural, geographical, social and spiritual—of the Lyonesse world are swi ftly fitted together under the eyes of the reader, so as to form a complete picture, both familiar and exotic.
In Les Singulières Arcadies de John Holbrook Vance, Jean- François Jamoul dwells upon the explanations for this power of evocation:
In Vance, the reality of a world is not only built upon words […]; it results from a certain arrangement of components: each detail taken separately could belong to our own world, all those details put together as a whole indisputably determine an elsewhere that is different from the terrestrial world*. They constitute a focus of representation, a free deployment of the author's imagination.
But the strength and specificity of Vance— characteristics that he shares with most of the great authors—lie in the fact that he himself is never present other than in imagination: Vance is an author who self- effaces behind his creations, as if to make his offering to others better still. This self-effacement explains the relative contempt he is subjected to: like Alexandre Dumas† in his days, the name of Vance seems to be associated with a poor quality of writing, either too prolix or too hasty (the pulps of the 40’s being similar to the 19th century serial novels), belonging to a despised sub-genre (science fiction stories being paralleled with the historical novel, in a sort of temporal leap forward) and aimed at a commercial popular consumption (those three terms being obviously, and unfortunately, highly negative and derogatory in the eye of the literary critic). But if Vance wants to disappear behind his creations, it is because he knows it is more important to offer them to others than to exhibit himself complacently through them. Indeed, the root of Vance’s work is the Other. How could we explain this in clearer terms than those used by one of Vance’s characters, even if this is “not immediately accessible to the casual amateur”:
The basic doctrine tells us that each individual, willy-nilly, generates his own universe, of which he, or she, is the Supreme Being. We do not, as you will notice, use the word ‘God’, since the individual’s power is neither transducive nor pervasive, and each person will have a different concept as to the nature of his divine program. Perhaps he will merely manipulate the tenor, or—let us say—the disposition of a standard universe.*
This is a doctrine to which all Demon Princes openly subscribe, as well as Vance’s ‘bad guys’, but which is also at the secret root of each of his heroes. Vance is a past- master in the art of objective subjectivity; with him, the ‘deus ex machina’ of the early days has vanished, giving way to the simple unfolding of lives, as in his latest work, Ports of Call, where the multiple threads find no conclusion—or at least, temporarily, but everything is contained in this ‘temporary’, the best adjective to apply to the word ‘life’.
Still, Vance is not simply a great spiritual heir of the 19th century either: his scope goes well beyond the education or initiation novel (in the same way as his more recent novels leap out from the constraining limits of adventure or science fiction novels) even if each of those novels comes out as a culmination of the genre—Ports of Call, with Myron, Night Lamp with Jaro, or, from a feminine point of view, Suldrun, Glyneth and Madouc in each of the Lyonesse volumes. He is rather on the side of formation novels, or rather, ‘deformation novels’. Vance distorts reality through his worlds, the better to highlight what often seems to constitute, in his eyes, the world: Man. Along those lines, his latest novel, Ports of Call, is symbolic of this research: here is a novel in which no intrigue is left, where the narrative threads are immediately cut, then linked together so as to form a tapestry that transforms his previous figurative drafts into a unique and gigantic abstraction.
Many of Vance’s novels leave the reader frustrated because the worlds that the characters carry with them (with Vance, the reader will always see through somebody else’ s eyes) are unlimited promises of life and vitality: how can you bear to leave the Blue World when it has barely begun to emerge?
Still you must, since Vance is not the photograph- painter of strange and alien worlds, as one might assume from his inventive and brisk descriptions, but as Paul Rhoads asserts, one of the great humanists of his time: in his oeuvre, the central figure of Humanity is revealed under all its aspects in a magnificent setting (one finds here Wingo’s project and his Pageant of the Gaean Race made from “mood impressions”) which will remain alien only as long as Man will not have made it his own (as Wratch does when he takes over the Phalid’s body—an alien body par excellence—thereby ensuring the human victory). Truth and humanity are therefore the two key words of Vancean aesthetics, if you agree that they can offer a diversity that one individual alone cannot encompass: all the genius of Vance is in this presentation and affirmation of the multiplicity of individual universes, and their irreducible—although constantly divisible— veracity, which constitutes, if you think of it carefully, the essence of our world, of our worlds.
To conclude, do we have to point out that it comes as no surprise that the various levels of reading the great Vancean works are now being multiplied? In his postface to Maske: Thaery, Jacques Goimard shows that this science fiction tale—whose title combines baroque the atr e with fa e r y fantasy—while being a work of fiction, also hides behind its masks—Maske—a work of reflection which makes you “travel across a double imaginary geography: that of the Earth, and that of America”. Jacques Chambon, in his introduction to The Moon Moth, goes even further when he wonders whether such stories as The Dying Earth or The Eyes of the Overworld may not, perhaps, “represent tales of new human civilizations for which Earth has become a legend.” We might as well stop here, with this excellent question, to agree that there are many ways to read—in time and space, as in Rumfuddle—this major author named Jack Vance; but what really matters is that each of these readings leads to the grand design of giving life and truth to what are simply ‘writings’.

Jerome Fenn Dutel - 2002
first publied in Cosmopolis n°31 October 2002
Translation from French by Patrick Dusoulier

*This expression was used by Jean-François Jamoul in La S-F et les grands mythes de l’humanité: “Jack Vance is […] the very type of the open novelist: the limits of the horizon are indefinitely pushed back.”
†Le Grand Jeu: a literary movement and magazine, founded by René Daumal. He defined its essence as “the impersonal instant of eternity in emptiness.” (Translator’s Note)
*Marge: the word means ‘margin’, but also ‘fringe’, as in ‘to be on the fringes of’. (Translator’s Note) †La Grande Beuverie: this book has been translated to English under the title A Night of Serious Drinking. (Translator’s Note)
*About this connection between Vance and painting, see Les Vases communicants by Jean-François Jamoul: If Vance “evokes Tiepolo, he’s not very far either from an orientalist painter such as Gabriel Decamps […]; which in no way prevents Vance from using, in other instances, the classic composition of Dutch and Flemish paintings […]. Yet again elsewhere, he will use the transparent delicacy of English water-colour painters, or the simplicity of Japanese prints.
*To compare with what Deleuze says in Mille Plateaux: “The more you take the world where it is, the more chances you have of changing it.”?
†In an interview for Science-Fiction Magazine (issue #1 Jan-Feb 1999, interview conducted by Henri Loevenbruch and Alain Névant), Jack confided that “my mother owned a complete edition of Dumas in 20 volumes. So I’ve read The Three Musketeers, Twenty Years After, the Vicomte  de Bragelonn e , The Count of Monte Cristo…Those were superb adventures, with a breathtaking pace. I admired, and still do admire, his narrative sense of reality: this may well have marked me unconsciously. In my opinion, this is what makes for a good novel.” In passing, let us note that an alternative title for New Bodies for Old is Chateau d’If.
*This is Kershaw speaking, in Ports of Call. (Translator’s Note)

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