|The SF cover does not match Wolfe's brilliance.|
This summer I set out to reread Gene Wolfe's critically-acclaimed science fantasy quartet, The Book of the New Sun (1,125 pages). It was a rewarding experience, though, near the end, it became a bit of a struggle. In June and July I was mesmerized by The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, and The Sword of the Lictor, but only recently finished the fourth, The Citadel of the Autarch: I got bogged down in a never-ending tale-telling contest - never my favorite literary device.
Critics often compare The Book of the New Sun to James Joyce's Ulysses. Wolfe, like Joyce, was a polymath and had a colossal vocabulary, but the literary comparison seems superficial. Wolfe's psychedelic prose owes more to New Wave SF writers like Samuel R. Delany (I thought of Dhalgren). And in terms of the fantasy genre, I see the influence of George MacDonald's surreal Phantastes and J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.
The lyricism of The Book of the New Sun makes for hypnotic reading. Set in a quasi-medieval future on the planet Urth with its red light and dying sun, this meandering epic is narrated by Severian as he looks back on his life. He remembers everything and never forgets a detail, as he often reminds us - but that does not mean he remembers in terms of plot. Instead, he paints one dream-like scene after another.
Raised and trained from childhood by the Guild of Torturers to master techniques of torture, Severian understands the psychology of prisoners, most of whom are confident they are there by mistake and will soon be freed. In the first volume, The Shadow of the Torturer, the Guild bans Severian for saving a prisoner, the beautiful Chatelaine Thecla. He slips her a knife with which to commit suicide, rather than suffer the endless tortures prescribed by the Autarch.
And so Severian sets out into the world alone, wearing his blacker-than-black fulgin cloak and carrying his sword, Terminus Est. His adventures unfold in a series of surreal scenes. At the Botanic Garden, he unwittingly saves Dorcas, a dead woman in a lake, while he is plucking a deadly enormous flower with which he must fight a duel. Somehow or other, he has brought her back to life (they form a theory about it later). This is the reverse of his saving Thecla by death, and Dorcas is a wiser, kinder friend/lover than Thecla - though Thecla becomes literally a part of Severian when he is forced to partake in the imbibing of a drug made from Thecla's brain, which passes on all her memories to the partakers.
I am awed by Wolfe's imagination and the beauty of his prose. Of the books I read over the summer, this is the one I will remember best and yet forget the most of. It is a paradox - but it is why I will reread it again someday.
"He remembers everything and never forgets a detail, as he often reminds us "ReplyDelete
Wolfe also wrote a set of novels narrated by a man with the opposite problem - an ancient Greek warrior whose memory has been destroyed by a blow.
What a clever, if horrifying, premise! I am in a thoroughly Wolfe-ian mood and will look for these.Delete
I don't know if Wolfe read them, but the Russian psychologist Alexander Luria wrote studies of two men with identical problems to Wolfe's characters - The Mind of a Mnemonist and The Man with a Shattered World.Delete
He could well have read them. He has a dark imagination, and there are many literary allusions, but he was a retired engineer, so presumably interested in science, too.Delete
we read the "Sword" quartet in uni and, altho i hated the torture part, i knew at the time that it was a work of genius. the two he wrote about the knight were good also, but much less multiple-messaged. the trilogy about the Grecian with no memory was excellent i thought... very inventive and entertaining... i think i've read all his single plot efforts...BUT... i haven't read the "New Sun" books!; i must do that before i croak (not imminent, i hope). v neat post: ties things up tidily...ReplyDelete
Is The Book of the New Sun the same as the Sword quartet? The four books are nwo published in two volumes, and the second volume is called "Sword and Citadel." So much attention is given to this marathon of a quartet that I have neglected to read his other books. One day, though. Perhaps soon!Delete
oh.. no, the Sword of the Torturer is four books and in some respect the Book of the New Sun is intended to be a sort of follow-up... at least that's my understanding...Delete
As you mentioned this is a series you will never forget or regret having read. It also can never be completely recalled. At least by me!ReplyDelete
It's picaresque and psychedelic, too. I need a map. We get them in Tolkien; why not Wolfe?Delete