'How could the Outsider have chosen such a bungler? ...When had he ever offered a single sacrifice, however small, to the Outsider? Never! Not one in his entire life. Yet the Outsider had extended infinite credit to him... Certainly he would never be able to repay the Outsider for the knowledge and the honor, no matter how hard or how long he tried.' (Gene Wolfe, Nightside The Long Sun)

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Beginning at the Beginning Again - Rediscovering The Shadow of the Torturer

I've started reading The Shadow of the Torturer again.  This begins only my third time through, the first time being a decade ago, the second about five years ago.  So it's fairly evenly spaced.  And not only is the work inherently textured enough for each reading to be a different experience, it also happens to be the case for me personally that I am at a significantly different stage of my own life on each of these reads.  Thus, as I take up this third reading, I can 'testify' that this series, The Book of the New Sun, travels very well with one's own unfolding autobiography.  (Can I get an Amen?)

A mere six chapters in, I wanted to record some ruminations.  The first being about this desire to discuss BotNS:  I find Wolfe's artistry presses on me with its richness, presses me to speak aloud of it, to say something publicly about it.  It is the kind of fiction one wants to talk about.  Indeed, it seems almost necessary to digesting the book that one start scatting out theories on its meaning - heck, it feels like there's a need for verbalising about just what on Urth is happening at all in the story, never mind the 'meaning'!  Wolfe, though he has many devoted fans from many backgrounds, is often considered a 'writer's writer'.  I can say, as a writer myself, that he is certainly one of the authors I read that makes me want to write - that is, not that he just inspires me by his own masterful craftsmanship (he does), but that whilst reading him the primal urge to write, write, write rises within me until I simply have to 'take up the pen' (keyboard) and resume plying the craft.  Only some authors create this urge in me.  Wolfe is one of the prime ones.

As to the book at hand:  I've done a lot of reading of other authors in between my last reading of Wolfe, 'English Literature canonical' works as well as 'genre' fiction and so on.  I admit I was a little worried that I'd built Wolfe's writing skill up in my mind to an exaggerated point.  I had a sneaking suspicion (and felt dirty and disloyal for the blasphemy) that I would be embarrassed and disappointed on this return to his masterwork because I would find it just didn't measure up to my own memory of it, never mind the work of other masters.

Turns out I stand condemned of unwarranted disloyalty and needless fear.  There are certainly many other specimens of writing that are this good.  There are not many that exceed it.  The prose, the language, the style, the sureness of voice and pace and wording and syntax are all exquisite - frankly, a literary feat (no, I didn't inadvertently miss out an 's' there, though it's that too).  Do you need an example of masterfully written fiction?  Look here.

One thing I'm experiencing in this reading so far is that each chapter is its own gem.  They thread together very effectively as one ongoing narrative unfolding the wider, longer story of this series.  But each chapter is also its own little episode with its own featured 'adventure' or encounter, with its own characters and qualities, wonders and enigmas and entities and spaces.  I hadn't consciously noticed this in my previous readings.  I'm relishing it this time.

The chapters flash into my mind in the following ways:

Chapter One, 'Resurrection and Death', centres on the mysterious nocturnal fight in the necropolis, in which young Severian momentously sides with the graverobbing nobility.  (Something about that whole scene felt so Chestertonian to me somehow - partly the way the big man suddenly disappears and then his head reappears at Vodalus's feet, and then Severian realises the man had jumped down into the interred grave - but other qualities as well.)  From this first chapter the 'science fantasy' quality of the series is established for me.  The whole setting, with its pikes and axes and lanterns and cloaks and foot-traffic and herb-gathering and so on, feels like a medieval heroic fantasy setting.  But this is very quietly offset by the barely hinted implication of a gigantic urban sprawl (in decay), a bright electric shot fired from what I assume is some sort of 'laser pistol', and the presence of a 'flier' screaming away over their heads, some supersonic aircraft I presume.  It also already reveals later plot developments as Severian 'remembers forward' to his later occupation as an executioner with the sword Terminus Est, and even mentions offhandedly that he eventually 'backed into the throne.'  And, of course, this opening chapter gives us what is probably one of Wolfe's most quoted philosophical musings in the mouth of Severian:

'We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, defining edges. When soldiers take their oath they are given a coin, an asimi stamped with the profile of the Autarch. Their acceptance of that coin is their acceptance of the special duties and burdens of military life—they are soldiers from that moment, though they may know nothing of the management of arms. I did not know that then, but it is a profound mistake to believe that we must know of such things to be influenced by them, and in fact to believe so is to believe in the most debased and superstitious kind of magic. The would-be sorcerer alone has faith in the efficacy of pure knowledge; rational people know that things act of themselves or not at all.'

Chapter Two, 'Severian', backs up a little and gives us a more traditional opening to a long bildungsroman-type novel, with its background and setting of Severian's orphaned rearing.  Its main events strike me as being the description of Severian's boyhood haunt, his 'secret place' in the noble tomb, and his observations of nature from that invisible vantage.  That and the near-drowning scene in which he spectacularly sees a giant green woman's face deep under the river's water, whose giant coffin-sized (as he describes them) hands thrust him back to the surface, thus saving his life.  The lonely childhood scenes show something of Severian's naturally gentle and contemplative nature underneath the harshness of his profession (a nature that partly facilitates some of his calm cruelty, I suspect).  The half-visionary encounter with the underwater giantess introduces a certain 'magical' element to the epic that will reappear regularly, infusing this science fiction epic with a 'sword and sorcery' feel in my opinion.

Chapter Three, 'The Autarch's Face', gives us our first taste of the recurring horror elements in the series.  In this case, it is a repulsively matter-of-fact description of torture as a teacher instructs his pupils in their guild's 'art'.  It is not long or gratuitous, but it is unflinching.  It is perhaps the clinical succinctness that makes it so terrifying and stomach-churning.  Indeed, swift and effective description of extreme violence is, disturbingly, one of the things Gene Wolfe does best.  The rest of the chapter seems given over to more bildungsroman-building and it is perhaps the least gem-like of the episodes.  But the chapter does end with the self-professedly all-remembering narrator's important admission that he feels himself both partially insane and a sometimes liar.  This kind of tension between reality and unreality, and perhaps especially the human report of the two, is built in to all of Wolfe's works across the board.  I don't think he does it just to 'keep you guessing' or some such plotting ploy - I think he's very philosophically engaged with humanity's inherent epistemic brokenness.

Chapter Four, 'Triskele', centres, of course, on the massive maimed and cast-off canine that Severian names Triskele.  It looks to me like we're supposed to very strongly wonder whether it was Severian's touch on the dog's head that brought it back from, not an apparent, but real, death to life.  Mystery, miracle, magic - very slyly inserted.  Possibly.  The three-legged dog's huge and ferocious head now incapable of harm in its weakness is a pitiful sight and the whole chapter adds to the pitiful character of Severian's adolescence.  This is the sad and grotesque approximation of a Boy and his Dog phase in the life of our 'hero'.  Before this chapter we had heard brief and tantalising mention of the Bear Tower and here we learn more of the beast-trainer's guild and their repugnantly strange ways (eventually wedding a lioness or she-bear and thenceforward shunning human women).  Indeed, by this time in the story a deep sense of not only decay and deprivation pervades the setting, but also of depravity and dehumanisation.   It is a far, far future that is long, long forgotten by its architects and it only continues to cohere through perversions of pageantry and ritual that now appear unhinged from their origins and purposes.  It's a dark tale.  On that note, this chapter also introduces us to the vast labyrinthine network of underground tunnels that honeycomb the underside of the megapolis (this subterranean subtext materialising in many of Wolfe's works).  Severian barely escapes his blind run through them, chasing his lost dog.

Chapter Five, 'The Picture-Cleaner and Others', is one of my favourites and centres on the wonderful encounter Severian has with a picture-cleaner who is restoring a delightfully obfuscated portrait of a 20th century astronaut on the moon:  Severian perceives him as a golden-visored warrior planting his standard in a blighted wildnerness.  (This is possibly the most iconic moment in all of Wolfe's oeuvre.)  The description of the one-off minor character of this chapter shows Wolfe's skill in populating his tales with grippingly sketched eccentrics and earthy lower classes, physically and psychologically described with acute aplomb.  The old man is up on a ladder cleaning the aforementioned picture and speaks to Severian from there:

'Like one of those half-spiritual friends who in dreams address us from the clouds, the old man said, "So you're a torturer, are you?  Do you know, I've never been to your place."  He had a weak glance, reminding me of the turtles we sometimes frightened on the banks of Gyoll, and a nose and chin that nearly met... he scrambled down from the ladder like an aged monkey, seeming all arms and legs and wrinkled neck; his hands were as long as my feet, the crooked fingers laced with blue veins.'

These wonderful physical descriptions were prefaced by a metaphysical aside, totally unfamiliar to us but a fully accepted given to the narrator and his 'original' audience.  That little detail displays the way Wolfe puts you right into the head of an inhabitant of the world he has created, without further explanation or explication.  This is one of the key reasons why his very strange and unsettling style of world-building is so effective at the same time as being so elusive.  It has the technical quality of poetry - the immediate and concrete, a full imaginative immersion achieved by the massive assumption that you already share the poet's vision and she need merely remind you of it with fewer and more efficacious words than are called for in other discourse.  It literally feels like magic - in both senses:  sleight of hand trickery and  out and out sorcery.  The sustained impact of this kind of world-building can be very disorienting, but also highly seductive.

The background s.f. quality of the story is reinforced here not only with the astronaut picture but also by brief discussion of why the moon shines green:  the 'Forests of Lune' were engineered to grow on that barren world in ancient technological ages.

Finally, for now, Chapter Six, 'The Master of the Curators', is another powerful episode in its own right.  We are back underground, in darkness, surrounded by innumerable books in an inconceivably vast library, and in the presence of a very powerfully rendered character, Master Ultan, the august and elderly librarian.  Ultan's own story, and how it connects poignantly with Severian's, is truly 'touching'.  Ultan's resulting refusal to pass judgement on this sensitive and intelligent young messenger, who happens by no fault of his own to be of the guild of torturers, brings in Wolfe's recurring theme of our ability to show mercy and grace toward many outcasts and pariahs if only we could see who they really are and how they got to be where they are.

The s.f. setting is again remarked upon at a space-faring inter-galactic (and inter-multiverse) level when we hear of 'books cased in perfumed woods shipped across the inconceivable gulf between creations'.  And it is possibly here first that this mega-cosmic vision is explicitly set within the recurring theological motif of the whole Solar Cycle.  Blind Master Ultan avers:  'He who had given all books into my keeping made me blind so that I should know in whose keeping the keepers stand.'

The impression we got of Severian as a contemplative boy is affirmed by Master Ultan's assessment of him as young man:  'It's a pity you are a torturer... You might have been a philosopher.'  Their ensuing philosophical dialogue on the theme 'How big is a man's life?', couched in Severian's inquiry about a ritual of necromantic cannibalism, is enthralling and oblique.

The wonder is that I have impressionistically notated here not one tenth of all that is contained and revealed in these opening chapters.  This work is truly that dense with rich texture and tincture.  There is so much more I would like to say about what I'm encountering so far.  Yet, in marvellous conjunction with this layered literary density, the book is eminently, quintessentially readable.  The pages always flick crisply by in quiet pleasure.  And, I am so very glad to report, it is better than ever on this third reading.


Editor B said...

Having read the Book of the New Sun myself some umpteen times — I've lost count, but it approaches twenty — I wholeheartedly agree with everything you say here. Further, these first chapters of the first book are among the best stuff I've ever read. I tell people to read at least up until he meets Thecla. If you're not hooked by then, it's probably not the book for you.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Thanks for the comment and glad you agree! I've heard some readers say they find the beginning slow - and so it is, but, for me, enthralling nonetheless.

Other than just the sheer quality of the prose (which is something that's going to hook me when achieved in any book), the ways Wolfe seduces the reader are largely unexpected and 'unexpectable' - he practically meets none of the normal narrative expectations in or out of the genre. I often wonder why I'm reading on, what's gently but firmly pushing me down his literary stream, and it's very hard to put a finger on! It just works.

I just today read a scathing review of the first two books of BotNS that ripped them to shreds on so many levels and I just thought - you know, so much of this is an essentially accurate critique... but I still love it! The reviewer was obviously just missing some fundamental thing that works for me and so many other readers (indeed, he just couldn't compute how Gaiman and Swanwick and so many others thought so highly of Wolfe and BotNS).

Antonin Scriabin said...

I was personally roped into The Book of the New Sun from the first page. The first paragraph is actually up on my wall at work, and I never grow tired of poring over it. You can feel the sheer enormity of what is to come, oozing out of those opening lines. The prose for the entire work is impeccable, yet distinctly otherworldly at the same time.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

There are so many Solar Cycle paragraphs worthy of being posted up on one's wall!

You know, it actually took this third time for me to really see the power in that very first paragraph of Shadow. The first time ten years ago, it totally put me off - I kept opening the book and not getting past that. I think a lot of people find it to not be what they expected after all the hype. The magic comes as you read though - not in some fireworks display on the surface (such things tend to fade all too quickly and not invite re-reads as Wolfe's works do).

Prose that is 'impeccable' yet 'otherworldly' - yep.

Duglas said...

I apologize for jumping into this conversation both late and with a question of tangential interest. I am currently re-reading "The Book of the New Sun" myself, with "Castle of the Otter" and "Lexicon Urthus" at hand for reference. As I make my way through the story I am reminded numerous times of various short-stories that Wolfe has written set in the Solar Cycle world. I thought I might easily do a web search for a list of those short-stories, but am finding such a list to be more elusive than first thought. I do have these already compiled:

Empires of Foliage and Flower
The Boy Who Hooked the Sun
The Cat
The Map
The Old Woman Whose Rolling Pin Is the Sun

I am curious if you might have some insight into others that may be out there. (I am really trying to be a completist in my re-read of the series.)

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

So glad you stopped by, Duglas. I love it when people rekindle old threads.

You know, I've read all of those stories you mention, but I don't remember them at all! I've just really not properly tapped the short story web Wolfe created to supplement this universe.

Another story that springs immediately to mind is 'The Night Chough', which is set in the third 'Book' of the Solar Cycle - The Book of the Short Sun trilogy. That story I do have a strong impression of because I read it shortly after reading the Short Sun trilogy and the setting of the short story felt *exactly* like the world of Short Sun, though it had no overlapping characters from the novels (except for the bird of the title). It really blew my mind that Wolfe had made such permanent worlds that he could very successfully return to. I've seen him do this with other Solar 'Books' and with non-Solar material. The settings he creates stay put!

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Duglas said...

Ah, yes... I remember "The Night Chough" now. My feelings about that story were similar to what you have written as well.

As far as I can tell "Empires of Foliage and Flower" is one of the books that Severian gave Thecla in her cell. "The Boy Who Hooked the Sun" and "The Old Woman Whose Rolling Pin Is the Sun" are both stories from the Brown Book... which Severian also gave Thecla, and then later kept for himself.

"The Map", I believe, is a separate story involving the adventures of Eata when he is older.

Unfortunately, I cannot recall the details of "The Cat".

I agree with what you say about Wolfe's world-detailing abilities. Re-reading this series has felt like returning home in a sense.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

'like returning home' - nice.