April 18, 2020

These photographs show you as others see you
and it’s unbearable.
I would have liked to see one of myself
but I don’t have one, which is a shame.
It would have been wonderful
to see myself through my own eyes
from inside my scars.

Concita De Gregorio

“Do you fall in love with boys or with girls?” I asked her.

“Sometimes boys,” she replied. “Mostly souls.”

Juansen Dizon
Confessions of a Wallflower

We scan (Robert) Frost’s face compulsively, having found the poems to be, by all reports, so much better than the man. This assumes our poems are fingerprints, which they are not. And the processes by which experienced is changed — heightened, distilled, made memorable — have nothing to do with sincerity. The truth, on the page, need not have been lived. It is, instead, all that can be envisioned”

Louise Glück
Against Sincerity
Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry

always skilfully written

April 18, 2020

Speak to the Silent City,
Saying that in her cause,
We begged no tyrant’s pity,
And fell obedient to her laws.
Simonides’ Epitaph to Thermopylae (as translated by Gene Wolfe)

For whom is the writing done?

This question is asked in the context of a characterisation of Wolfe’s style which captures people’s overall attitude toward him rather well. The characterisation goes something like this: Wolfe’s writing is too complex, too literary and too unclear for the “common” reader (it sometimes has the rider that despite this, he writes beautifully). James Gunn’s comment is representative of this attitude when he notes that Wolfe’s earlier short fiction “was usually difficult, often ambiguous, sometimes obscure, and always skilfully written” [James Gunn, “Science fiction: The Shadow of the Torturer,” in Book World – The Washington Post, May 25 1980] In Lane, Vernon, & Carson his writing is described as “highly literary, fascinating science fiction that repaid careful reading. It [is] complex but approachable, new but old, psychological but concrete.” [D. Lane, W. Vernon & D. Carson, The Sound of Wonder, interviews from “The Science Fiction Radio Show.” Oryx Press, 1985]. Even critics who are largely favourable towards Wolfe can take this stance. For example, John Clute has written in Strokes:

‘Perhaps what’s necessary with Wolfe’s work is to train ourselves in the kind of close critical reading of texts that serious critics of the Modernist and Post-Modernist novel assume to be absolutely mandatory just for starters, with understanding to come later, after some work has been done.’

This attitude implies that Wolfe can only appeal to and be understood by a minority of “expert” readers, who are willing to invest time and effort in analysing his texts: if we do not engage in a “close critical reading” we will not fully come to grips with the work. It could be argued, that Wolfe has “deserted” the common reader, and that the audience for whom he writes is more “literary” and elitist. This is exactly the point that Said is making in his essay. In a recent commentary in The New Republic Irving Howe observes that the common reader is in danger of being wiped out due to the current exclusionary attitude of critics:

‘[i]t sometimes seems almost as if that figure [the common reader] has been banished, at least in the academic literary world, as an irritant or intruder, the kind of obsolete person who still enjoys stories as stories and still supposes that characters bear some resemblance to human beings.’ [Irving Howe, “The Treason of the Critics,” New Republic, June 12 1989]

Could this lead, he wonders, to a less democratic culture, especially since that culture is already in “decline” due to the influence of television, anti-intellectualism and the loss of “firm convictions” within the educated classes? And does this in turn lead to the “decline in both the presence and idea of the common reader” (p.30)?

Wolfe’s relation to these conservative comments is complex. First, of course, would be his agreement that stories are to be enjoyed. He has said in interviews, and often has his characters repeat, that stories are a powerful and important tradition (Severian, for example, remarks that stories may be the only truly worthwhile human creation). And he would presumably agree, that academics have conspired to sever the public’s connection with literature through obfuscatory techniques, as in the introduction to his Storeys from the Old Hotel 1985 where he remarks that there are only a few academics in their fields because they actually love their subject, the implication being the rest are in it for the power and prestige.

But as I pointed out above, Wolfe himself is not immune to charges of being unsuitable for the “common reader.” Two responses to this come to mind, one made by Wolfe himself. These responses do not fully answer our reservations about Wolfe’s work, but they do offer a way of dealing with it. Both admit that Wolfe is a complex, ambiguous writer – a necessary admission in my view, though not an alienating one.

Not necessarily alienating because first, such complexity is not a disadvantage, but an opportunity for readers to engage with the novel at the level with which they are most comfortable. In other words, it’s a hierarchical description: there is a “surficial” level, such as the adventure of (say) the picaresque Severian in The Book of the New Sun. But there is also a “chthonic,” underground level, where deeper religious or metaphysical elements find their expression (here we might cite Severian’s political agenda in writing The Book of the New Sun). Readers are able to engage with the work at either level.

This is one reason why Wolfe, although dealing with some of the most traditionally “difficult” issues of literature such as love, death, goodness, evil and morality, chooses to frame them in landscapes and frameworks that are surficially exciting and unusual, such as the Commonwealth, or ancient Greece. Wolfe is sometimes asked why he chooses to write within the genre, and his plain man’s answer is usually that that’s what he would like to read himself, and that he doesn’t consciously write “to” genre (he once said he writes the “storyline,” not the “party line,” see the interview in Weird Tales, 1988). There is little doubt that Wolfe’s use of blatant stereotypes and clichés (such as giants, castles and duels), are resonantly attractive, presumably because they remind us of childhood fairy tales and stories. At the same time Wolfe pushes ever deeper into the complexities and ambiguities of real life. He uses the clichés of genre in order to transcend them and thus reinvest them with meaning.

A second response which can be made (and has been on occasion by Wolfe) is that the complexity and difficulty are there not for their own sake, but because complexity and ambiguity are aspects of life itself. In an interview in 1984 with the American Audio Prose Library Chris Merrick asked the question “Do you think you’re an ambiguous writer?” and was told,

I think I am often because I want to be. I think the writer should be clear when he wants to be clear, he should be ambiguous when he wishes to be ambiguous. But there’s a great deal of ambiguity in life, and if the idea of art is to hold up a mirror to life, then you’re going to get a great deal of ambiguity out of that art. [C. Merrick, (Interview with Gene Wolfe.) Columbia, MO: American Audio Prose Library, 1984].

Although these questions concerning an author and his reader are applicable to most of Wolfe’s work, they are most pointedly highlighted by his two novels set in ancient Greece. These books are where the separation between the surface level and the deeper structures is greatest, and where the need to be an “expert” reader is most apparent. When it came to The Book of the New Sun most readers were on the same starting line, and how far you delved into the book was largely an extent of your liking for the author and your own proclivities. With the Latro books, it is no longer so. Accusations, or at least warnings, have gone out (with justification), that if you want to go beyond the surface of these books, you have to know something about the Classical world.[ See Feeley’s review of Soldier of the Mist in Foundation, 37 (1986)]. Herodotus seems to be a minimum requirement, particularly for Soldier of the Mist (hereafter Mist). It can be supplemented by modern commentaries on the Persian wars, cults and religion, Pindar’s Odes, Robert Graves on myths and legends, and for Soldier of Arete (hereafter Arete) a selection of writing about the ancient games and arete, with the entire works of Mary Renault thrown in for good measure.

Faced with such a list of required reading (the optional list goes on a lot longer) the reader is justified in balking at the task and picking up something less demanding and more entertaining. Isn’t the purpose of fiction, after all, to entertain? Even if we pare the list down to just Herodotus as the single most important influence on Mist, we’re out of luck when it comes to Arete, for it opens with the closing scene of that great historian’s work The History.

There is, in the final analysis, no escaping this condition. Nevertheless, I believe the more rewarding attitude to be not “why are these books so full of obscure references” but “look how the glory and squalor of ancient Greece is made accessible!” In other words, let us not remain at the surficial level, not matter how attractive it seems, but move “onwards and inwards.”

Jeremy Crampton
Some Greek Themes in Gene Wolfe’s Latro novels

Making puppies…

April 18, 2020

Doggy style is a damned good position if you both want to watch TV.

Me gustan mucho tus ojitos