From: "Nigel Price"
Subject: (urth) Shadowy reflections on an amazing article Date: Wed, 17 Apr 2002 13:27:46 +0100 (Well, I've finally read through all those Urth lists that you posted while I was away. I didn't know what "geritol" was, but was surprised to read of Marc's apparent surprise that someone only in their mid-forties could already be pontificating, patronising and dull. Read on, Marc, read on! And then there was Nick Gever's splendid article on Wolfe in the Washington Post. Let me pick things up there, if I may...) I really enjoyed your excellent article in the Washington Post, Dr Nick. Thank you for that. Can I pose a few comments and queries? Was the section of the article entitled "Running the Maze" meant as an implicit reference to the story "A Solar Labyrinth"? In that part of your essay, you explicitly compare Wolfe's literary technique to that of the maze builder: "The first challenge: Wolfe makes demands of the reader that are at some points exorbitant. He has the instincts of a mystery writer: He erects mazes of practical and symbolic clues, including plentiful red herrings, that require acute detective faculties to decode, and he rarely explains himself at the end." Let me put my question another way: do you think that "A Solar Labyrinth" is in some way an allegory or metaphor for Wolfe's methods as a writer? I think that that would be my current interpretation. Although, on reading the story, the initial temptation is to make the obvious connection between the story's narrator and its author, I think that the maze builder in the story is also in some sense Wolfe, who uses materials drawn from diverse sources to construct his labyrinthine tales. There remains the possibility, however, that the maze builder stands also in some sort of symbolic relationship with God, the cunning author of the created world. In "A Solar Labyrinth", the maze is created not by the cunning arrangement of the various objects placed in the garden, but rather, by the shadows these cunningly arranged objects cast. As the sun moves, so these shadows move, and the maze itself changes, thereby making it very much harder to solve. Now, there seems to be a playfully Platonic element to all this, what with the maze solvers thwarted by shadows rather than even the things themselves, which is highly characteristic of Wolfe's writing, where hierarchies abound and resonant patterns of resemblances simultaneously hide and evoke the hidden purposes of God. After all, the first volume of The Book of the New Sun is titled, not for the torturer himself, but for his shadow, and in chapter XXIV of that volume, we read the assertion: "The Increate maintains all things in order surely; and the theologicans say light is his shadow." Of course, the Increate's order can only be seen dimly, glimpsed occasionally and apprehended partially as events throw distorted shadows of a higher reality. Even those things which seem to depict the Increate's purposes most clearly are but pale imitations of the ideals they suggest. Conversely, however, the sun may shine even on a torturer, and even his shadow may show something greater than himself. (Where is it in TBotNS that Severian is caught by the light of the rising sun and casts a gigantic shadow? I think that it must be somewhere in TSotL, some time during his crossing of the mountains after his sojourn in Thrax.) But I have gone too far down this track. Let me return to the author as maze builder. Ignoring for the moment that other great maze in Wolfe's writing, namely the labyrinth encountered by the Student ("Theseus" because of his "thesis"!) in his search for the navicaput, as told in an inset tale in TBotNS, what should we make of the movement of the shadows in "A Solar Labyrinth"? (Come to think of it, don't the channels in the maritime maze threaded by the Student also move and change about? They do! They do!) It has often seemed to me that while Wolfe does on occasion invest certain characters and events with quite specific symbolism, the identification is usually fleeting and evanescent. Severian in some sense takes on the role of Christ when he resists Typhon's three-fold temptations, but as the author has insisted elsewhere, Severian is not Jesus, for all that he may be a pilgrim making a long and difficult journey towards God. (And yes, I reject Wright's suggestion that Severian's mission is wholly sham and solely a front for the entirely Machiavellian manipulations of hideous Hierodules.) To take another example: at the end of TBotLS, it seemed to me for a moment that Blue and Green stood in polar opposition as possible destinations for the colonists. The Whorl was a false world from which life must ultimately pass, but the next world could be either heaven (Blue) or hell (Green). Such a stark contrast is considerably moderated by TBotSS, where Blue is revealed to be much less heavenly, although it is debatable as to whether Green is actually less hellish. (Life and love are at least possible there, albeit under appalling conditions.) But the overall pattern in TBotSS is tripartite, not binary, and the simple heaven-hell dichotomy of the destinations in TBotLS is no longer applicable. It does seem to me that meanings shift in Wolfe's stories, just as the shadows shift in his fictional solar labyrinth. My second query about the Washington Post article is of a somewhat different nature. In the article, words following colons have their initial letters in upper case. Is this common practice in the States, or is it a typographical ideosyncrasy of the Washington Post? Normally, at least in the UK, unless the next item is a proper noun, colons are followed by all lower case, unless, for example, a colon is used to introduce a quotation or tabular list in which the first element is a sentence in its own right. But this use is essentially for a table or a set of bullet points, not for a conventional, continuous sentence. Sorry if this is "off topic", but it is of professional interest to some of us. Any thoughts, any one? (But wait a moment! Now I look more closely, the convention seems to be inconsistently applied. Here is an example of an upper case letter following a colon: "And he has told many: Twenty-two novels and several hundred short stories bear his name, all wondrous and enrichingly strange." But look at the first sentence of the quotation given below. The word after the colon, in this instance "length", starts with a lower case letter, as I would normally expect. Strange.) A final query, and this time a request for clarification. Nick, you wrote: "A second challenge: length. Wolfe's great novels aggregate into a most formidable labyrinth of words, a meta-novel 4,000 pages and 13 volumes long; to ingest the whole takes time, which the 21st century does not afford in abundance. But there are subseries that can be read singly. And the whole, its four main sections resonating together, is a grand masterpiece to be set alongside the best of Crowley, Pynchon and Updike: the entirety of human spiritual, political and colonial experience is its theme, addressed with astonishingly versatile acuity." When you say that Wolfe's great meta-novel has 13 volumes, are you including "The Fifth Head of Cerberus" as part of the Briah Cycle? I have to agree with those who have said that while 5HC is a good thematic introduction of Wolfe, it surely isn't meant to be part of the New Sun-Long Sun-Short Sun series. So, when you write about the "four main sections" of the meta-novel, do you mean 5HC-New Sun-Long Sun-Short Sun, or do you mean New Sun-Urth-Long Sun-Short Sun? I was puzzled - but only about these details. I still think that it's a great article and a fine introduction to Wolfe. Nigel "Planet Urth is Blue And there's nothing that I can do..." (David Bowie comes out in support of Marc) --