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!


  1. Really interesting insights about those opening sentences, Zac! The On Blue's Waters opening is indeed more obscure but your argument looks very plausible indeed - something I hadn't thought of at all, but now it looks like it was always there staring me in the face.

    New Sun has wonderfully poetic closing sentences to each of the four volumes as well, all about gates and so on, relating back to that very first paragraph about being at the gate. The whole opening page to The Knight is, for some reason I'm not sure of, one of my favourite things Wolfe has ever written. It might even be the seeming straightforward simplicity of it - but you've got me wondering about that first sentence now. (Incidentally, the first few pages of Nightside is also one of my all-time fave passages in Wolfe's writing.)

    I'll be VERY interested to hear what you make of The Wizard-Knight overall when you're through. Cheers for this interesting little post.

  2. Hi Daniel! Thanks for your comment – I'm sorry it has taken me so long to respond. (Blogger was down for a while, due to server issues or something, and when it came back up, a lot of recent comments didn't reappear. I'm glad yours has finally resurfaced!)

    The possible hidden meaning or metaphor behind the first few lines of On Blue's Waters didn't occur to me either until reading an analysis on the Wolfe Wiki, but it certainly does seem to make some sense or an otherwise rather obscure passage. And I agree with you about the opening of Nightside - definitely one of my favourite parts of the series.

    I'll post some more thoughts on The Knight soon (I've finished study for the semester, so I have a little time free; although I've not yet started The Wizard). I really enjoyed The Knight, and it felt like a return to the style of The Book of the New Sun - following the journey of a fairly solitary individual with a varying cast of companions - although it uses more accessible language and writing styles.

  3. Oh, just saw this! Glad you found The Knight a return to BotNS style - I agree. I really enjoyed the rather freakish cast of companions. The writing style and language are simpler, yes, but I felt the world and the tale seemed deep and... hm, complex? Layered or textured, resonating on a number of levels? Something like that - perhaps it's to some degree his first foray into the properly mythopoeic (though I haven't read the Soldier series).