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From: "William H. Ansley" <wansley@warwick.net>
Subject: Re: (urth) Re: Untrustworthy Narrators?
Date: Sat, 23 Oct 1999 01:59:52 

"Tony Ellis" <tony.ellis@futurenet.co.uk> wrote:

>It's frustrating for us, because the narrative we want reliably
>narrated is Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun, but that's not
>quite the narrative Severian thinks he's telling. Perhaps he did
>later find out more about his mother, and/or Katherine: why should
>he tell us, now that he's finished his story of backing into the
>throne? Why record what went wrong between Valeria and himself in
>TUOTNS, when that's personal, happened before the new story he's
>telling, and in any case none of his readers are likely to have read
>his previous manuscript?
>People will argue that you can't glibly separate Sev's 'how I became
>Autarch in my spare time and so can you' narrative from the broader,
>GW narrative, and I agree. But I think from Sev's perspective, he's
>just fast-forwarding past irrelevant events in a history that
>already contains too many digressions, rather than going out of his
>way to confuse or deceive us.

Why should Severian tell us any of the things listed above? Because any
normal, reasonable person knows that those are the very things that the
reader of a tale wants to know!

It seems likely to me that Severian is not a reasonable nor a normal
person. He has not lead a reasonable, normal life, for one thing, so he has
plenty of excuses. But even allowing for that, he is one of the worst story
tellers I have ever come across in fiction! He leaves things out (so much
so that you wonder why he bothers to put anything in), he drops tantalizing
hints which he never follows up, he's inconsistent and he never explains
the things you really want to know. While I don't despise Severian as Roy
Lackey seems to, I don't much like him and I certainly find him irritating.
It is a measure of the spell Wolfe can cast as a writer that I come back to
his books again and again. I don't claim to understand how Wolfe does what
he does, but I understand even less the why.

The how, at least, seems to have a lot to do with leaving things out. All,
or most of us, who participate in this discussion group want to know all
the things that Severian (or Wolfe) doesn't [want to] tell us. We want to
know so badly that we sit here teasing out meaning from the hints scattered
throughout the text with tweezers made from the thousands of words that can
be seen in the archives of this mailing list. In some cases I think that
some of the hints have been teased to such an extent that they have long
since crumbled away to nothing, but there is no consensus on which hints
these are.

Part of the why seems to be a love of puzzles or at least of setting them
for others. Wolfe's books can be justly considered as works that have to be
solved as much as read. This invites you to analyze the text in a way that
more ordinary books don't, but it tends to lead to the conclusion that
every mystery Wolfe sets has a solution. And this is certainly not correct.
While it can be argued that this is true to life, where some mysteries are
solved while many others are not and some may have no solution, sometimes I
think Wolfe just isn't playing fair with the reader.

Since I persist in reading Wolfe despite this (occasional) belief, I
suppose its my problem, rather than his.

Whether Severian is a reliable narrator or not, he is certainly an
unsatisfactory one by any of the usual standards of story telling.

William Ansley

*More Wolfe info & archive of this list at http://www.urth.net/urth/

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