Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Fritz Leiber -- Master of the Incomprehensible

Some memories by J. D. Crayne

One of the first professional writers that I met, as a nineteen-year-old science fiction fan, was Fritz Leiber, and he remains one of the few writers that  I have known who looked like a character out of his own books. Well over six feet tall, with broad shoulders, a rather gaunt face, and a shock of iron-gray hair, Fritz was the perfect model of an action hero, fitting for a man who is best known for his sword and sorcery novels.  

I met Fritz in 1961 at a party hosted by Forrest J Ackerman, who was then living in a pistachio-green stucco house on Sherbourne Drive in Los Angeles.  Forry frequently held parties for out-of-town writers and actors, and many of the local writers and some fans were also invited, to meet the guest of honor.

I don't remember who the guest of honor was on that occasion, but I still remember meeting Fritz Leiber.  I had recently read his science fiction novel, The Green Millenium, which impressed me greatly and, somewhat wide-eyed and flustered over actually meeting the author, I told him how much I enjoyed it.  He thanked me gravely and courteously, in a wonderfully deep, resonate voice that thrilled me to the tips of my neo-fan toes.  

He was always courteous, kind, and gently-spoken, and had a deep appreciation and regard for his readers.  He also had remarkable presence, perhaps an inheritance from his father, who was an actor on the stage and was noted for his Shakespearean portrayals, especial of King Lear.  Fritz owned a plaster bust from a sculpture of his father in that role, and I remember an artist of our acquaintance tinting the while plaster for him with judicious applications of paint and brown shoe polish. The same artist and her husband provided him with a quiet working space when his home life became a little too hectic. One of his best-loved fantasy novels was written at their dining room table.

Besides being tall and imposing, he was also remarkably strong in the wrist.  My father, an amateur metal worker, made an iron sword as a prop for a friend's Fafhrd costume. It was about three feet long, with a 4" ball pommel  and wire-wrapped grip. Seeing it at a local masquerade, Fritz remarked that it was a "hand and a half" sword, lifted it in one hand, and swung it around in arcs as easily as if it had been a light-weight fencing foil.

As a writer, he was remarkably versatile. Besides his fantasy stories about Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, for which he is probably best known , he also wrote science fiction and horror.  His Conjure Wife is a remarkably chilling tale of what happens when a college professor discovers that his wife is using magic to protect him – and forces her to abandon the practice – while The Green Millennium is a cheerfully eccentric tale centered on a green cat-like alien that makes people happy.  The Wanderer is more of a traditional science fiction story about a new planet in the solar system, similar in some ways to Ehrlich's The Big Eye and Wylie's and Balmer's When Worlds Collide.

 The attraction in his fantasy tales is that he created protagonists which real people can identify with.  Prior to his innovations, fantasy heroes were unbelievably brave, bold, and bloodthirsty.  Robert E. Howard's Conan and Bran Mak Morn are muscular hunks with little in their minds beyond knowing how to swing a sword.  (and Howard describes their sword play in scenes that go on for pages). Fritz's  Fafhrd, although a massive barbarian, has the angst of any average man up against situations and antagonists that he does not understand.  His partner, the Gray Mouser, is an undersized confidence trickster, not precisely amoral, but definitely looking for the main chance and the best benefit to himself.  These are people that the armchair adventurer can identify and sympathize with.  When the Mouser is shrunk to rat size in one novel and forced to walk on the balls of his feet to avoid leaving human footprints, we applaud his ingenuity.  Fafhrd hopes that his patron, the non-human sorcerer Ningauble, will come to his aid, and in his prayers we recognize the pleas of someone who has hope, but knows that the gods follow their own whims.  Although sword and sorcery novels were primarily written for men, Fritz Leiber created characters that won the sympathy and understanding of women as well. 

His genius was in knowing how much to say and how much to keep hidden from the reader. There is a sense of mystery in his stories that leaves us wondering what is real, in the story's context, and what is illusion.  In one of the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser  tales his two protagonists are taken to an undersea palace by two water nymphs, for amorous purposes.  But on their return to the surface, neither man is willing to reveal to the other exactly what his nymph was like.  Certainly not out of gentlemanly reticence; perhaps from experiences each would rather the other did not know about.  Ningauble and Sheelba of the Eyeless Face (the mysterious patrons of Fafhrd and the Mouser) are never fully described. It is up to the reader to imagine them.

One year I went to a science fiction convention on the east coast and wore a costume depicting Ningauble of the Seven Eyes to the masquerade.  I was rather free-wheeling with my interpretation, wearing a belly-dancer's skirt and a full head mask with six stalk-eyes made from latex over papier-mâché.  The seventh "eye" was a large imitation diamond glued in my navel.   Fritz was delighted.  He was accompanying a blind friend, and asked me to kneel down next to her chair so that she could run her fingers over the mask and "see" it.  "Wouldn't it be wonderful if that was the reality?" he murmured to me, a moment I shall always treasure.
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