Two Gene Wolfe tributes

Brian Phillips has written a very fine obituary for Gene Wolfe, sorting through the non-contradiction between the life and art of the author. In my last post, I said that I thought it was weird that nobody mentioned the coincidence of Wolfe passing on Palm Sunday. Jon Michaud foregrounds this detail in his touching tribute to Wolfe. Here’s an excerpt:

“In the autumn of 1984, I sent Wolfe a fan letter. My family had moved from Northern Ireland back to the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where, after three years in Belfast, I had a hard time fitting in among the cliques of the public high school. I was miserable and contemplated suicide. Fortunately, there were a lot of Gene Wolfe books available at the local public library. […]

A week before Christmas, a padded envelope arrived in the mail for me. Inside, there was a book-shaped object in wrapping paper, with a label reading: DO NOT OPEN BEFORE CHRISTMAS OR YOU WILL BE CROTTLED BY GREEPS. FIAT! FIAT! FIAT! There could be only one person who would write such a label, but I obeyed the directive and didn’t open it until Christmas Day. Gene Wolfe had sent me a copy of Universe 7, an anthology featuring stories by Fritz Leiber, Brian W. Aldiss, and himself. On the title page of Wolfe’s story, “The Marvelous Brass Chessplaying Automaton,” he had written in blue ink, “For Jon Michaud” and signed his name. It was the greatest gift of my short life. […]

When an English teacher at my high school refused to let me write a term paper about Wolfe’s books because he wasn’t “well known” enough, Wolfe sent the man a letter, listing his awards and prizes. “But judging a novelist by his credentials is like judging a racehorse by its bloodlines; performance is what matters,” he wrote. He included paperback copies of The Shadow of the Torturer and Peace for the teacher to read. By that time, though, I’d graduated from high school and was on my way back to Northern Ireland. Wolfe’s books and letters, his kindness, had carried me through a very difficult time in my life.

The only thing of Wolfe’s that I’ve read is The Book of the New Sun, which I first read back in 2013. Here’s what I said then:

Without a doubt, I will return to this one. As sure as I am that I’m missing significant depths of meaning, I was unmistakably astonished by the richness and complexity plainly evident on the surface. I’ve no doubt that it will reward further contemplation.

Such is the opinion of a reader who clearly has no idea what he thinks or why. I think I can do better.

This summer, I intend to reread The Book of the New Sun, and I intend to read it slowly, paying attention as I go. So I bought copies of the four books (the better to annotate!). However impressive the series may be, and however little I understand it, even on a second read-through, I will treasure Michaud’s story of Wolfe’s generosity of spirit, and remember that this is the kind of man who wrote this story.☕︎


About tardishobbit

Reads. Writes. Watches movies. Occasionally stirs from chair. Holds an advanced degree in heuristic indolence. View all posts by tardishobbit

5 responses to “Two Gene Wolfe tributes

  • Alex Aznable

    Thanks for this, I’d had no idea that he died. Ironically he’s not well known enough for all the half-assed obituaries to pop out amongst the headlines. It’s sad because, well, he’s my favourite SF/Fantasy author and one of the greatest authors of all time imo (Far better than a hack like Tolkien ;). NB I love Tolkien…)

    If you found Book of the New Sun too dense on first reading, don’t feel you’re shortchanging Wolfe by going in with Fifth Head of Cerberus or Peace, both of which are equally rewarding as well as ambitious, dense, puzzle-like and fascinating. They just aren’t quite as dense or long. Every Wlfe book has a similar journey for me. I’m fascinated for 50 pages and then repulsed, sometimes a little bored and confused and then finally wowed by how all of the imagery, misdirection, false consciousness, themes (often religious, btw) just seem to come together in something both surprising and weirdly incomplete .. always, always, always suggesting a rereading will realise further pieces of the jigsaw. How he manages to both wrongfoot and fascinate me with every single outing is beyond me. Not that I’ve even read all of his most famous work but this may inspire me to crack on with the Books of the Long and Short Suns like I’ve always been meaning to.

    Yes, BotNS is a magnus opus, but one that’s the summation of his work and the most complete representation of it, not as ill-read reviewers would have, “that one that he’s known for”. He always had something to say and he always had a new approach to writing fantasy. I think BotNS will ultimately fascinate you, but expect to be repulsed and challenged and confused by it, also.

  • Alex Aznable

    I wrote parts of that as if you hadn’t read BotNS at all before … which of course, you have! Oh well, my general sentiments stand, his body of work is formidable :D

    • tardishobbit

      I understand! I don’t know that I’ll have the time or inclination to work through his entire body of work, but I always meant to give New Sun another go, and this is as good an occasion as any. Peace and Cerberus are also near the top of my list, if I decide to dig further into his stuff.

      The older I get, the more I am okay with the fact that I simply tend not to enjoy books that function aesthetically like puzzle boxes or one-man installations staged by polymathic pedants. (I’m looking at you, Finnegans Wake.) I’m not saying that this is what Wolfe’s books are! But I want to be rewarded when I read something, and I kind of need the reward to be emotional as much as it is intellectual, and I need to feel like I understand what’s happening on some fundamental level. I don’t need to understand everything; I don’t need the reading experience to forge a skeleton key. But I need to be able to discover something that I can get a handle on, and I need to feel like I’m not just projecting that onto the text. It’s one of those things where a text — book, film, podcast, what have you — might well be a masterpiece. But just because it’s a masterpiece doesn’t mean it’s worth my time. I’m at a point in my life where I’m kind of okay with not being a good enough — studious enough, dedicated enough, agile enough, etc. — reader to be able to read every book of consequence.

      I still measure my worthiness as a reader by the books I read, but I try to make my peace with not being worthy of every book at a given point in my life, if that makes sense. I don’t want to force myself through it if me not being worthy is going to taint my reading experience.

      I’m not sure I know what I’m saying, I guess. The point is that I feel like I’m ready to give Book of the New Sun another shot — or, rather, I feel like the Book of the New Sun should give ME another shot. I might be ready this time. Or readier.

  • confusedgender

    Sadly we’re forced in to lifestyles where time is a factor and energy even moreso. We can’t deal with work, families etc and spend our leisure time slaving over something we don’t fully understand, taking it on trust that we’re going to love it when we do. I’ve read and watched enough books/movies to know that even if something is difficult and I “get it” doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily going to resonate or interest me. I think part of my younger obsession with knowing everything about everything was so I’d have a good grasp of what’s out there and what works – for me.

    if that sort of puzzle box narrative doesn’t resonate with you as much as it does me … then fine! It’s definitely tiring work feeling lost for near 1,000 pages until everything wraps up in such a way that you both understand the narrative more and a bit less. It won’t change your life either way but an honest feeling that you just don’t want to put yourself through that seems fair. That said I still think it’s worth knowing that Wolfe always, ALWAYS writes stories that have greater weight and interest once you’ve finished them and that they always payoff in ways that most writers don’t come close to managing. For me that’s not only enough to make him an interesting writer it makes him one of my favourites – but I realise that I have niche tastes sometimes!

    • tardishobbit

      I don’t re-read as much as I probably should, and I’m looking forward to catching more of the details, now that I sort of know how the story goes!

      Looking at my schedule this summer, I don’t think I’ll be able to get through more than Shadow of the Torturer, but if I get through that and feel like I’m into the groove, then I’ll have a good start on the rest.

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