Saturday, 7 May 2011

Gene Wolfe's birthday, beginning The Knight, and first sentences

Today — 7 May, 2011 — is Gene Wolfe's 80th birthday. I was reminded of this a couple of days ago when a post on Hoof & Hide's blog pointed me to a new blog that had been set up so that people could wish Wolfe a happy birthday (in the comments field of the first post). The blog, Happy 80th Birthday, Gene!, already has some 114 comments, including one from Neil Gaiman, and a humorous little birthday poem from Michael Andre-Driussi, Urth scholar extraordinaire.

A couple of days ago I started reading Wolfe's The Knight, which has been on my to-read list for ages. I have just started a new full-time job at a different library (while still studying part-time), and have thus been too busy to do much reading (or writing). I've been restricting myself to short stories, and I've been loving The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson and Charles Yu's Third Class Superhero — both fantastic short story collections. Anyway, I finally picked up The Knight. The first thing that popped into my head was that the first sentence seemed uncharacteristically straightforward for one of Wolfe's: "You must have stopped wondering what happened to me a long time ago; I know it has been many years." It got me thinking about the opening sentences of each of the series in the Solar Cycle, which were amazing:

The Shadow of the Torturer, the first instalment of The Book of the New Sun, opens with: "It is possible I already had some presentiment of my future." It is, in many ways, quite an odd opening sentence - it seems to have little connection with the rest of the paragraph, which goes on to describe the aftermath of Severian's swim and near-death experience in the Gyoll - but it so brilliantly encapsulates the book's metaphysical and philosophical themes of time travel, free will and predestination, that I think it's absolutely perfect.

Nightside of the Long Sun, the first part of The Book of the Long Sun, opens with what is one of my most-loved lines of the book: "Enlightenment came to Patera Silk on the ball court; nothing could ever be the same after that." Again, this first sentence sums up so much of what the book is about, it's philosophical and theological core — Silk's enlightenment by the god he calls the Outsider and the absolute paradigm shift that occurs when his entire worldview is turned on its head. When you read it, as the first thing you read, it startles you, in much the same way as the sudden coming of this "enlightenment" must have startled Silk, and thus puts you in the perfect mindset for reading the puzzling and erratic sentences that describe the enlightenment itself.

Finally, On Blue's Waters opens with what initially seems to be a fairly straightforward sentence: "It is worthless, this old pen case I brought from Viron." It seems a simple statement, but I believe it is a metaphor for something more profound, as argued on the WolfeWiki. The narrator's description of the "old pen case" could (spoiler alert) serve as a metaphor for his own physical body, the body of Silk, the elderly man he was sent to retrieve from Viron. The three quills referred to in the following paragraph could thus represent three spirits inhabiting it. The worthlessness which the narrator ascribes to the pen case could reflect the unworthiness (and even self-loathing) that he seems to feel throughout the series, and which becomes central to his character.

I guess I just wanted to rant for a bit about how much I love those three opening sentences, and how each embodies so much of the series that will follow, tapping at the thematic cores of each. It may be that, like the opening to On Blue's Waters, the first sentence of The Knight has some deeper meaning which won't be apparent until much later on, or maybe it is just a more straightforward series than some of his earlier work (which is absolutely fine, and I know Wolfe has been tending towards "simpler" stories in his recent stand-alone novels, perhaps for increased accessibility). I'd better get back to reading to find out!