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.☕︎