An Essay on “Cugel the Clever”
Alan Robson, May 2016
I’ve always thought that Cugel the Clever (aka The Eyes of the Overworld) is the perfect Jack Vance novel. All of his strengths as a writer are on display here, and they all mesh together beautifully.
It’s a picaresque novel made up of shorter pieces that were originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, so by nature, the story is episodic. Nevertheless, it tells a complete and very satisfying tale. The eponymous Cugel falls foul of Iucounu, the Laughing Magician, who transports him far away to search out and retrieve the Eyes of the Overworld – violet lenses that let the wearer see a superior version of reality. Squalor and ugliness are perceived as exquisite beauty. The Eyes are the archetypal rose-coloured glasses!
Cugel succeeds in his quest quite early in the story and is then required to take a long rambling journey through many adventures as he makes his way back to the manse of the Laughing Magician with his trophy. Well, if that structure was good enough for Homer…
The prose is mannered and lush but it repays careful reading for it is delightfully witty and often laugh out loud funny. Vance’s characters converse with scrupulous politeness, yet they still manage to warn, threaten and insult each other. Cugel has been selling talismans at the Azenomei fair, but business is bad. Cugel cannot help but notice that the man in the next booth is doing much better business than he is, and so begins to consider a plan to rob the man:
On the third day of the fair Cugel had disposed of only four periapts, at prices barely above the cost of the lead itself, while Fianosther was hard put to serve all his customers. Hoarse from bawling futile inducements, Cugel closed down his booth and approached Fianosther’s place of trade, in order to inspect the mode of construction and the fastenings at the door.
Fianosther, observing, beckoned him to approach. “Enter, my friend, enter. How goes your trade?”
“In all candor, not too well,” said Cugel. “I am both perplexed and disappointed, for my talismans are not obviously useless.”
“I can resolve your perplexity,” said Fianosther. “Your booth occupies the site of the old gibbet, and has absorbed unlucky essences. But I thought to notice you examining the manner in which the timbers of my booth are joined. You will obtain a better view from within, but first I must shorten the chain of the captive erb which roams the premises during the night.”
“No need,” said Cugel. “My interest was cursory.”
Cugel likes to think of himself as a subtle and sophisticated person, hence his cognomen. He makes a somewhat precarious living as a charlatan. However, his schemes fail more often than they succeed, and as the story progresses, the reader comes to realise that Cugel is actually rather naïve and that he has few, if any, redeeming qualities. He often acts on impulse rather than depending on careful planning, and he does not hesitate to take advantage of others if it will serve his own interests. (To be fair, other people never hesitate to take advantage of him either – he lives in a cynical age). Actually, Cugel is very far from being the loveable rogue that he considers himself to be. In fact, he is a sociopath who does not trouble his conscience with thoughts of those he may have harmed in his efforts to better himself. Vance takes a huge delight in this dichotomy and plays with it to great comedic effect. Time and again we see Cugel, in pursuit of advancement, causing chaos and confusion. Sometimes this gets him into a lot of trouble. For example:
Cugel, starving to death, comes upon a band of workmen who are engaged in carving intricate designs in the local rocks. He learns that they are implementing a complex ritual designed by the sorcerer Pharesm to summon TOTALITY, a creature that embodies all of space, viewed from the inverse. The ritual has required two centuries of research followed by three hundred years of delicate rock carving. Soon it will reach completion. Cugel is unable to persuade the workmen to feed him and so wanders off and encounters:
… a most peculiar creature: essentially a gelatinous globe swimming with luminous particles from which a number of transparent tubes or tentacles dwindled away to nothing. Cugel bent to examine the creature, which pulsed with a slow internal rhythm. He prodded it with his finger, and bright little flickers rippled away from the point of contact. Interesting: a creature of unique capabilities!
Removing a pin from his garments, he prodded a tentacle, which emitted a peevish pulse of light, while the golden flecks in its substance surged back and forth. More intrigued than ever, Cugel hitched himself close, and gave himself to experimentation, probing here and there, watching the angry flickers and sparkles with great amusement.
A new thought occurred to Cugel. The creature displayed qualities reminiscent of both coelenterate and echinoderm. A terrene nudibranch? A mollusc deprived of its shell? More importantly, was the creature edible?
It isn’t tasty, and its texture is somewhat rubbery, but it fills a gap. Cugel has, of course, eaten TOTALITY thus, at a stroke, nullifying Pharesm’s five centuries of effort. The sorcerer is not pleased. Furthermore, Cugel begins to worry that, having eaten the universe, he might now be responsible for all manner of catastrophes. Will the components of space and time retain their integrity after passing through his digestive tract?
A complex divination reveals that TOTALITY, miffed at being eaten, has removed itself from Cugel’s stomach and has fled a million years into the past, presumably to sulk. Pharesm requires Cugel to travel after it and return it to the present. Just what Cugel needs, yet another quest.
This episode never fails to make me laugh out loud in delight. I have more than once embarrassed myself on the bus while reading this passage. I know of no other writer who would even think of using such an outrageous conceit in a story, let alone one who could manage to make it work as magnificently as Jack Vance makes it work. Yet he does this kind of thing again and again in book after book and he makes it all seem so effortless.
Jack Vance is also renowned for his ability to create quirky social, political and theological institutions replete with elaborately nonsensical rituals. Here, for example we meet the Funambulous Evangels, who refuse to place their feet upon the ground because:
… for every square ell of soil two and one quarter million men have died and lain down their dust, thus creating a dank and ubiquitous mantle of lich-mould, upon which it is sacrilege to walk…
Therefore, they go about their daily tasks walking on tight-ropes high above the ground. The satire lying behind such bizarre creations is often quite pointed. It cleverly makes the reader wonder just how ridiculous much of our own pomp and circumstance might appear to an outsider who is seeing it for the very first time. (Why do Freemasons roll up one trouser leg?)
Cugel falls in with a company of pilgrims each of whom professes a seemingly arbitrary and elaborate theology, the ideas of which (of course) are all mutually contradictory. Eventually Cugel is asked to state his own position.
“And you, Cugel the Clever, for once you are reticent. What is your belief?”
“It is somewhat inchoate,” Cugel admitted. “I have assimilated a variety of viewpoints, each authoritative in its own right: from the priests at the Temple of Teleologues; from a bewitched bird who plucked messages from a box; from a fasting anchorite who drank a bottle of pink elixir which I offered him in jest. The resulting visions were contradictory but of great profundity. My world-scheme, hence, is syncretic.”
I consider this statement to be both witty and profound, a conclusion I find myself coming to again and again as I read Jack Vance’s work.
No Jack Vance novel would be complete without the characters consuming much food and drink. Vance puts a lot of effort into the preparation of the dishes his characters imbibe on their adventures. Cugel, apart from snacking on the occasional universe, also partakes of more substantial fare.
“Now, as to my supper: I require a fowl, suitably stuffed, trussed, roasted and garnished, accompanied by whatever side-dishes your kitchen affords.”
“My kitchen is overtaxed and you must eat lentils with the pilgrims,” said the landlord.
On another occasion:
Cugel’s supper arrived: a dish of boiled leeks and a bowl of porridge.
Jack Vance seems to have a thing about leeks. They have a small but important role to play in one of the sub-plots of this book and in many other of his novels characters dine on leeks prepared in a variety of not always appetising ways. Personally I find them to be an insipid vegetable. Clearly neither Jack Vance nor Cugel agree with me. Well that’s all right, each to their own.
Sometimes everything comes together and Cugel eats very well indeed:
The landlord presently brought forth supper: a stew of lentils and land-crabs garnished with wild ramp and bilberries.
If I was marooned on a deserted planet and could save only one book from the spaceship wreck, this novel would keep me reading quite happily until rescue arrived.
Alan Robson - 2016