Archive for Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe (1931-2019)

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , on May 19, 2019 by xi'an

Just found out that the writer Gene Wolfe, author of the unique New Sun series (and many other masterpieces) had passed away two weeks ago. (The Guardian has a detailed obituary covering his life and oeuvres. Where I learned that he developed the Pringle’s machine for Procter and Gamble, something he can be pardoned for his other achievements!) The style of the New Sun series is indeed unique, complex, carefully designed, crafted in a very refined and beautiful language (missing the translation of the more appropriate langue), and requires commitment from the reader as the story never completely unfolds and sets all details straight, with characters rarely if ever to be taken at face value, making me feel the urge to re-read the book once I was finishing its last page. Which I never did, actually, and should consider, indeed!

summer reads (#1)

Posted in Books, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 18, 2012 by xi'an

I only packed four books in my suitcase when I left Paris in early July, for lack of space for more. They were Gene Wolfe’s An Evil Guest, Camilla Lackberg’s Hidden Child, Richard Ford’s A Piece of my Heart, and Niccolò Ammaniti’s La fête du siècle. I then bought Graham Greene’s A Gun for Sale in a nice bookshop near Bondi Junction in Sydney.

An Evil Guest is the second recent book by Gene Wolf I read in the past months, following Home Fires that I did not finish… They are both of a similar style, relying on 50’s witty hard-boiled dialogues à la Hammett and set in a vaguely futuristic setting. Just completely orthogonal to the involved and almost oniric former books by Gene Wolfe that I discovered a few years ago thanks to a colleague in Paris-Dauphine. Although I finished An Evil Guest, I see little appeal in it, except for the publisher’s bank account. As mentioned above, the style is rather poor, consisting almost uniquely in dialogues, and the plot is minimalist: a second-rate actress becomes suddenly irresistible and falls in love with an initialy-suspicious-but-eventually-redeemed rich guy, then looses it all at the end (this is not a spoiler, is it?!). Characters are shallow and either antipathic or idiotic. Not even a pleasant vacation read, end of the story. If I did not have to return it to my colleague, I would certainly have left An Evil Guest in the first book collection I met during my trip! (Home Fires was exactly of the same type and I am amazed at the highly positive reviews for those books…)

I bought The Hidden Child in Oxford, mostly because it was on sale and also because I was curious to see if this highly publicised Swedish author was worth the read. (A bit for the same reason I started reading Steig Larsson’s trilogy!) The Hidden Child is certainly a nice summer book and a wee more. Lackberg exploits the ambivalent history of Sweden during the Second World War: while some persons took part in a resistance movement, other engaged into an active collaboration with the Nazis. (Offering similarities with to what happened in France in this respect.) Although the protagonists of the novel were teenagers at the time, their whole life (and their children’s) was impacted by their attitude during the war. This is certainly the most appealing aspect of the book! In addition to this historical layer, the detective part unravels in a rather classical way: the resolution of the crime is very predictable and there are highly unrealistic aspects, from the way almost all characters are interconnected in one way or another, to the attitude of the young policeman’s family all over the book (him taking his baby daughter to a crime scene and her conducting her own enquiry on the side). A good book for a long plane ride but not much more, not really explaining its apparent popularity then… (I did purposely leave The Hidden Child in one of the places I rented during my Australian Tour!)

Among all Greene’s novels, I had managed to miss A Gun for Sale, which is one of his classic pre-war detective stories!!! The plot is both simple and complex, with a perfect depth in the psychological motivations of the characters that only Greene can attain. The central role in the novel is held by the young woman, who helps the criminal pursued by her fiancé out of pity, quite in line with Greene’s catholicism. While it is difficult to grasp the motivation for her acting so out-of-line, so despicable is the murderer and so witty a free spirit she is, the story unravelling around this apparent treason makes complete sense and raises the book to the level of a classical tragedy. The shortcomings of all the characters come out in a very bright light, none remains unscathed. There is for instance a bully student in the medical school that runs a gas mask exercise with desperate ruthlessness, until a mere look from the murderer reduces him to nothing for the rest of his life. The ordinators of the murder, pursued by the murderer for framing him with stolen money, are as weak and prone to fail as the other characters and end up pitifully. The only part that does not convince me is the “happy ending” of A Gun for Sale, which is not that common with Greene’s novels: take for instance the superbly cruel last page of Brighton Rock. Here, the return to “normality” and wedding prospects has a bitter-sweet quality that may be (maybe!) interpreted as a warning that nothing will be “normal” in the impending war…. (Or I am reading too much in the ending, given this reflection by the author on his work.)

The Book of the New Sun

Posted in Books with tags , , , on August 4, 2009 by xi'an

During the flight to Washington D.C. on Saturday, I finished Shadow & Claw, by Gene Wolfe, that I had started on my previous trip to the US and which is the first part of The Book of the New Sun (or alternatively is made of the two first volumes, The Shadow of the Torturer and The Claw of the Conciliator, of this quadrilogy). I started reading these books upon the suggestion of a fellow mathematician in Paris Dauphine, who considers them as an higher (the highest!) kind of fantasy. After reading thru the first half, I cannot but agree with this assessment: The literary style of Gene Wolfe is much more involved and deeper than the usual fantasy syntax and his plot construction is much more intricate, to the point of being almost obscure. There are links with the standards of this literature, including the author being a former military (similar to Robert Jordan and many others), the young apprentice being left to his own device who starts a discovery journey and the chance encounters during this journey that bring him luck or woe, as well as side information about the dangers that threaten him. But I find at least as many links with a much older fantasy literature, namely the Arthurian novels of Chrestien de Troyes and others, i.e.~the medieval version of the genre, with the same kind of perpetual wonder at the marvels and dangers of the world, with characters always unexpectedly bumping into quests and challenges, in a rather linear and unavoidable fashion that relates to the 2D paintings of the time, as well as an archaic and somehow naïve way of behaving towards others and especially towards women. (This antiquated style, although the book was written in the early 80’s, may confuse modern readers who will find the roles played by female characters rather limited, since they are either nuns or prostitutes!, but besides the hero, whose actions and point of view are the only ones provided to the reader, all other essential characters are women.)

The convolved and slowly unraveling plot of Shadow & Claw also reflects this unusual approach to the fantasy literature: the dangers that usually beset the young hero (or more rarely the young heroin) are not so obvious there. Nor is the quest that almost inevitably sets the backbone of a modern fantasy novel. In the case of The Shadow of the Torturer, besides chance encounters of the hero (Severian) with dangerous situations, there is only a vague global threat represented by a rebel leader Severian meets and idealises from the first pages of the novel, but the motivations for the rebellion are never clearly defined, even when Severian meets again with this leader. Even the structure of the society is explained indirectly and progressively through Severian’s eyes and opinions. Similarly, almost from the beginning, the hero fails in his duties (as a Torturer) for the love of a highborn prisoner and he is driven by his guild upon a penance trip to a faraway place, but he does not seem particularly eager or in a hurry to reach it over the first part of the novel. At last, while there are magical powers and magical beings, like witches, giants, or undines, present in the world of Shadow & Claw, Wolfe’s descriptions remain, once again, so vague as to leave a good part to imagination. In connection with this feature, dreams and riddles also play a good part in the development of the plot. There is for instance a complete theatre play, called Eschatology and Genesis (!), that serves as a political satire of the current autocratic (or autharcic?!) regime.

The closest (and only) book I can relate to this one is the equally unique and daunting Gormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake, with which it shares a strong and sombre Gothic atmosphere, an elusive description of the outer world(s), with completely alien behaviours from the characters (a lacking feature of most of the current fantasy literature is that characters behave much too closely to our 21st Century ways, even when handling a sword or launching a spell!) and incomprehensible codes in the current society) , and an almost deterministic destiny weighting upon the characters. Like this (other) masterpiece, The Book of the New Sun stands on its own as part of the world literature, rather than as a good representant of the fantasy genre. I am definitely looking forward reading the second half Shadow & Citadel while here in the U.S. and finishing the cycle!

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