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From: "Daniel Fusch" <dfusch@hotmail.com>
Subject: Re: (urth) modernism
Date: Tue, 26 Oct 1999 13:59:39 PDT


"I suspect, though, that the most important literary influences on Wolfe are 
not modernist--I don't particularly see Joyce, Faulkner, Eliot, or Woolf as 
key to understanding Wolfe.  He's mentioned both Woolf and Faulkner in 
essays or interviews, and I'm sure he's familliar with them, but I think 
that their _stylistic_ experimentations have had very little impact on his 
work--the modernist view of art/literature (if you can pin it down) more so, 
but still not that strong."

Yes, I meant to say that there are many influences. It is the narration and 
the narrative structure that is modernist.

You can, by the way, be both a science fiction writer and a modernist 
writer. Modernism is technique and philosophy; science fiction is a term 
used to categorize the story and the plot. There are science fiction writers 
who are realist (I think Kim Stanley Robinson might be a good example). 
There are science fiction writers who are romanticist (Madeleine L'Engle). 
There are science fiction writers who are modernist (Walter M. Miller--in 
part. Also Wolfe and LeGuin--although you could argue that LeGuin is 
"post-modernist," if you could ever manage to define that literary tradition 
precisely enough to use it as a label).

Specifically, a modernist narration is one that examines the nature of our 
perception of reality. The story told in The Book of the New Sun is NOT a 
modernist story, but the narration of the story IS modernist. Severian is a 
modernist narrator for the following reasons:

A) Severian has an "abnormal" memory, which causes him to perceive reality 
in subtly different ways than the rest of us do; he cannot forget. Several 
times Severian lapses into the past, in a dream-like state, allowing us to 
examine a different means of perceiving time.

Memory is often the subject of modernist work. For example, Benjy in "The 
Sound and the Fury" also has an abnormal memory; he experiences the past and 
the present simultaneously, and cannot distinguish between them.

I have not read Borges, but he sounds modernist.

B) Severian is two people, and later more. Thecla-in-Severian surfaces 
several times during the narration; this allows Wolfe to show us different 
ways of perceiving reality, while still using a first-person narrator.

C) Severian does give us all the information that one would expect from a 
linear narrative. He leaves out some events, which we learn about later (I 
am thinking of his healing of the man-ape's arm, and also his physical 
intimacy with Thecla).

You mentioned that The Book of the New Sun doesn't make much use of 
stream-of-consciousness. Yet stream-of-consciousness is not the only form of 
modernist narration; Joyce used it frequently, Woolf didn't use it much, 
Faulkner used it sometimes but not always. An example of a modernist work 
that comes closer to Severian's narrative would be Faulkner's "Light in 
August." Most of the narration in "Light in August" is Third Person 
Omniscient, which some lapses into stream-of-consciousness and some periods 
of Third Person Limited. Yet the narration remains very concerned with 
examining the characters' perceptions of reality.

The Book of the New Sun is also metafiction--by challenging our 
expectations, Wolfe draws attention to the technique by which the story is 
told. The reader is not allowed to look ONLY at the story; Wolfe forces the 
reader to remain aware of both the plot and the technique. In modernist 
literature, just as in poetry, the way in which you tell a story is as 
important as the story itself.

Certainly we can say that Wolfe draws upon science fiction, mythopoeia and 
heroic romance (or heroic fantasy) for his subject matter, and he is clearly 
influenced by Victorian fiction. But this does not prevent us from also 
analyzing The Book of the New Sun as a modernist work. It is the narration, 
the form, and the technique, and the use of metafiction that is modernist.

In the end, you can examine the book on any number of levels.


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