Review by KEN KORCZAK
Over the past 30 years I have read just about everything Jack Vance has written – many dozens of books – and, yes, I have re-read most of them multiple times. I know there are five or six of his titles I have read 15 or 20 times each – I’m not kidding – and each read and re-read is always pure unadulterated joy.
Vance is a writer of strange power; he is a unique phenomenon in literature. There was never another writer like him before, and there will never be another like him again. The science fiction writer Robert Silverberg said other writers have occasionally tried to imitate Vance “only to embarrass themselves or find it impossible.”
And yet, while it can’t be said that Vance is an obscure writer, in his long career he never approached the fame and recognition of his fellow genre artists, such as Bradbury, Clarke, Heinlein and Asimov. He won every major award in science fiction, including the Hugo and Nebula multiple times – as he also did in another genre, detective novels and murder mysteries. But true fame eluded him – and that was probably okay with him.
Writer Michael Chabon said of Vance: “Jack Vance is the most painful case of all the writers I love who I feel don’t get the credit they deserve. If The Last Castle or The Dragon Masters had the name Italo Calvino on it, or just a foreign name, it would be received as a profound meditation, but because he’s Jack Vance and published in Amazing Whatever, there’s this insurmountable barrier.”
Of Vance’s place in American literary tradition, Chabon said: “It’s not Twain-Hemingway; it’s more Poe’s tradition, a blend of European refinement with brawling, two-fisted frontier spirit.”
The immensely popular Neil Gaiman read his first Vance tale at age 13. He said: “I fell in love with the prose style. It was elegant, intelligent; each word felt like it knew what it was doing. It’s funny but never, ever once nudges you in the ribs.” Gaiman credits Vance with his own desire to become a writer.
One of the reasons Vance never became as revered as a Mark Twain or as popular as a Ray Bradbury is that his style can be (or seem) challenging. Over the years, I’ve heard dozens of my friends say, “I really tried to get into Vance, but I always found myself dropping out of his books after two or three chapters.” On the other hand, Vance certainly has legions of fans, and may be more popular in Europe than the United States.
Vance published this biography, THIS IS ME, JACK VANCE! at about age 95. As of this writing, he is 97. He has been blind for more than 20 years, and the loss of his eyesight eventually forced him to stop writing – even though he completed some of his best works after his eyes failed, including the marvelous Lyoness series and “Night Lamp,” the latter of which is a near masterpiece.
Because of his blindness, Vance was obligated to write his biography by dictation, a process with which he was not familiar or comfortable, and he says so at the beginning.
|Norma and Jack Vance|
What interesting is that this is a biography of a great writer which contains almost nothing about writing at all. He provides about three pages of commentary about writing near the end of the book, and then he only did so at the insistence of his agent and editors.
The majority of the book is devoted to his passions for life: traveling around the world on a shoestring budget; restaurants serving great food wines, liquors and whiskeys; the world’s oceans and sailing; carpentering his home in Oakland from the ground up. Last but not least, and his most ardent passion of all – jazz.
Vance says that his wife, Norma, was an indispensable part of everything he wrote. Their method was to cloister together in a room. Using a fountain pen and notepad, Jack would churn out 2,000 to 3,000 words per day. Norma would type and edit his drafts. Jack would then pore over the first typed version and make changes. Norma would then retype the manuscript – and they sent it off to publishers – all of whom were eager to print whatever they could get with the name “Jack Vance” on the byline.
Ah – but what rooms they worked in! A cabin in rural Ireland, a cottage in Tahiti, a balcony room by the sea in an Italian hotel, a houseboat parked on Nageen Lake in Kashmir, a campsite tent in Zimbabwe, an Oceanside apartment in Australia, a rented house in Mexico – the travels of Jack and Norma (and later with their young son, John), left me astounded!
So this is a biography quite unlike any other – iconoclastic, completely unconcerned with commercial appeal or popularity, unpretentious, humble, filled with terrific, entertaining anecdotes – the last remarkable work of one of the most remarkable writers of all time.
Ken Korczak is the author of: MINNESOTA PARANORMALA