Wolfe scholar Marc Aramini talks to Ultan’s Library co-editor Nigel Price about the progress of his massive critical review of all Wolfe’s published fiction, his approach to unlocking that author’s meanings, and the current state of Wolfe studies.
Nigel: Hello Marc. I hope you are keeping well. Thank you for agreeing to do an interview for Ultan’s Library. I know that you have been working on a major critical review of all Gene Wolfe’s novels and stories. Could I start by asking you how that is progressing and what the publication status is of the project?
Marc: Hi Nigel. This was supposed to be a two volume work which was finished way back in 2015, but it grew a bit out of hand in the process. Right now the total word count is over 1.2 million words, something about the size of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. It will eventually be released in probably four hardback editions of about 830 pages separated by year, and I keep hoping the publisher will put out Volume 2 and 3 on Kindle.
I have not completed The Land Across write-up, as I wanted to approach a definitive reading for each of the post Short Sun major works, and I might do a short appendix on Interlibrary Loan. I may yet surrender on Land Across … I prefer to end the book proper with the treatment of A Borrowed Man, a write-up I do not plan to edit as it was written while Wolfe was alive and makes reference to his status as a living author at the twilight of his career.
The volume titles will be Beyond Time and Memory, Behind Sword and Spirit, and, I think, Terminus Non Est. (I am going to contact my editor to see if I can pressure him into some news). My consolation prize for the delay is that my editor has promised me one of two leather bound editions of the work.
Nigel: Perhaps we could retrace our steps a little here! I have a Kindle copy of volume 1, but could you remind me of the title, who published it, and whether it is available in print or just for Kindle?
Marc: Of course! Between Light and Shadow: An Exploration of the Fiction of Gene Wolfe, 1951-1986, is still only available on Kindle or ebook from Castalia House. There might need to be some rearrangement of the groupings to ensure that the hardbacks are of relatively uniform length, so I think the actual print run of the entire work will be simultaneous.
Nigel: For those who have not seen the first volume, could you explain how you deal with each book and story? And are you literally commenting on every novel and story Wolfe published? Have some been hard to track down?
Marc: It originally began as an internet project on the Urth Mailing List, in which I intended to write up a summary and my observations on Wolfe’s earliest stories in chronological order, with input from the group. I had recently been able to track down the vast majority, and save for a few rather minor ones which appeared in, say, convention program booklets, it was not as difficult as I had feared. Yes, I have written on every story and novel. I soon found that engagement was sometimes very limited, so the brunt of interpretive work for the more obscure stories often rested on my shoulders.
Nigel: How many short stories, novelettes and novellas are there? The number must be huge. Wolfe was very prolific.
Marc: I am going to group the novelettes with the short stories if you don’t mind so I don’t lose my mind – there are about 220 short stories which were not excerpts from larger works and 15 novellas if you include the three which comprise The Fifth Head of Cerberus. That does not include the individual entries in Bibliomen, which I think should be treated as a whole.
Nigel: Reading through everything like that, what strikes you most about the way that Wolfe’s writing develops over time? Does his style change? What about his subject matter?
Marc: Yes, I think his style undergoes a remarkable transformation after the publication of The Book of the New Sun, when he abandons the baroque and long sentences and often strives for a more minimalistic surface text. However, in broad strokes, he moved slowly from science fiction to fantasy over the course of his career, especially in his short stories, though there was always a genre mix.
His subject matter began with a stronger investment in future social structures and politics, but eventually I think his work achieves a far more universal application when he starts to examine more essential questions of spirituality and human nature. There is a reason Operation Ares will never be considered one of his great works that is only somewhat related to the botched editing job by the publisher.
The other thing that I think is interesting is how utterly difficult getting to the bottom of his post Wizard Knight novels can be. The subtext tends to replace the text. I found The Book of the New Sun enjoyable reading it as a child, missing much of the subtext. I don’t know that the same could be said of Home Fires or The Land Across, though I appreciate as an analyst what Wolfe was doing in those late works.
He definitely exhibited different styles and themes, and would often vary his preoccupations from work to work. The Wolfe Archipelago stories, as they are commonly called, play with innocence and guilt, maturation and immaturity, isolation and socialization, and love or its lack in all kinds of interesting ways, and he has done the same thing with explorations of and variations on memory and identity. Towards the end of his career, he seemed obsessed with the mysterious house trope, for some reason.
Nigel: What about your own approach to writing about Wolfe? How have you structured your commentaries? You say that you give a summary of each work and your observations. Can you tell me more about the kind of things you cover and discuss?
Marc: It took me a while to get the format down in a uniform fashion, but, unless Tor or some other publisher does what needs to be done and releases all of Wolfe’s fiction in uniform volumes, like the short works of Zelazny or Sturgeon have been, then I think this is the easiest way for readers to get a fairly comprehensive glimpse of Wolfe’s thematic progression as a writer.
I provide a summary with “mostly” objective details, an analysis that focuses on deeper or symbolic connections, and then sections on pertinent historical, literary, or religious allusions as well as some unanswered or ambiguous questions that others might want to consider as well as connections to other published works. This is the structure I followed for the short stories.
For the longer works I usually chose a thesis that I felt got at the hidden structure or truth of the book, explaining much of what happened in it, and focused on that for the argument and the details I chose to present. Unlike Wolfe, I found that my earlier work was too brief for people to follow logically, so I opted for longer and longer explanations for his late works, which made the write-ups easier to follow and far more tedious to read in my opinion.
Nigel: How does your approach differ from that of other critics who have written about Wolfe?
Marc: One of the things which is most fascinating about the critical work surrounding Wolfe is how little different writers agree with each other. In general, I find Michael Andre-Driussi to have a good approach that avoids taking major risks, while Robert Borski takes too many leaps to follow logically.
One of my starting principles was that Wolfe writes with the precision of an engineer, and that he often has a structural backbone for many of his mysteries that points towards a definitive solution that will make sense of the vast majority of the text in an objective way.
This can lead to some odious disagreements, of course. Peter Wright takes a similar approach to The Book of the New Sun in Attending Daedalus, offering readings in terms of objective right and wrong … and, ironically, we disagree with each other significantly in terms of major themes and plot importance. He stops at a secular reading of The Book of the New Sun while I think it is a profoundly transcendent piece of theodicy in the spirit of Augustine or Milton, that God will make use of all things whether we choose good or turn away from it in the long run, and that there is no redemption without a fall, no immortality without death, and no transcendence without casting away the old. To borrow an image, Wright stops at the ugly and rotting masks of the Hierodules, while I think I get past that mask of rot, pain, fear, and death to see the transcendent and ethereal beauty beneath it. I will give you a few examples about the things that I emphasize in my write-ups:
I assume that Wolfe understands the motivations of his characters and that even if they are not entirely honest with themselves, something is true about almost every detail which is included in the text. He uses sophisticated techniques such as the mise en abyme, embeds tales which map allegorically to the larger story, grounds meaning through secular, theological, and literary allusions, and, perhaps most confusingly for some, creates symbols and metaphors to produce concrete plot conclusions.
So, for example, let’s take a fact from The Book of the Long Sun: the dogs running rampant in the tunnels are called gods. There are gods in the tunnels. From the perspective of my interpretation, many of the gods of the Whorl are actually stored in the tunnels, as repeating an unrelated fact in the text will objectively state.
That is a simple and straightforward example, but those instances abound. For a fecund union to occur in those texts, plant-named females must mate with animal-named males. A similar union is occurring throughout the Solar Cycle, ultimately producing the Vanished People and Hieros, and Wolfe already had that planned in New Sun, as can be seen in “The Tale of the Boy Called Frog” in which Spring Wind (Mars) is begotten on Early Summer (Juno) by a tree, in a riff on Ovid.
However, meaning does not always or even most of the time depend on allusion. Sometimes Wolfe employs two confusing or mysterious things in a text that will explain each other.
In Home Fires, a protagonist seems to be involved in a gunfight that is entirely removed from all context within the novel. The “leader” of his enemies is shot. There is another scene in the novel where an investigator working for him is killed off-screen. There seems to be no way to solve that death … until we realize that the two mysteries explain each other. Then we have to explain why such a thing might occur and find possible explanations for that seemingly inscrutable behavior in the text – and when we can, we know we are on the right track.
Logic, small details, the literalization of metaphors, and the juxtaposition of two seemingly unrelated things repeatedly in a text are all means through which Wolfe controls his narrative, and I like to focus on these things in my write-ups in order to present a larger picture that attempts to make sense of as much as it possibly can.
Nigel: In my mind, I have a hierarchy of certainty as to the events, significance and meaning of what happens in a Gene Wolfe story. By this I mean that there are some things of which I am absolutely certain, some things which I think are highly probable, and other things where I have a working theory which I think is possible, but I am not absolutely sure. In most stories, there are also usually several things about which I have not a clue!
Even in this approach, there is a lot of ambiguity, though, because some of the uncertainty is mine, while I think some is deliberately left by the author. Just as an artist will paint some foreground objects in great detail but leave some background objects more hazy, so I believe that Wolfe has a hierarchy in which some details are important to him, while others are just fun and provide colour and context, but are essentially less important, so that he’s happy to leave many of their details undefined.
Would you agree, or do you think that is a lazy or negligent reading? I ask because I sometimes feel that other people’s readings of Wolfe seem over-specific and over-defined, asserting things as certain when to me they seem merely probable, possible, or sometimes even unlikely.
Marc: Here I have to admit that I will come across as a bit of an arrogant ass. I think I have good instincts for what I don’t understand after I read a Wolfe story two or three times in a row. If I don’t understand it, then that is where I need to explore. I have been extremely happy with my solutions for the late novels of Wolfe’s work. To the point of certainty, because they explain larger details that in my opinion only have one solution.
For example, the dreams in Wizard Knight. (Potential spoilers in the rest of this answer.) In my mind there is only one way to explain how these dreams are unified. Here are three presented back to back, with the surface explanation that Parka’s bow string brings dreams and visions from America. (Recall Parka told Able to “plant a seed” and when he looked back at the cave it was filled with a chaotic scattering of white doves):
I was a woman in a dirty bed in a stuffy little room. An old woman sitting beside my bed kept telling me to push, and I pushed, although I was so tired I could not push hard, no matter how hard I tried. I knew my baby was trying to breathe, and could not breathe, and would soon die.
I had tried to save; now I was only trying to get away. He would not let go, climbing on me, pushing me underwater.
The moon shone through pouring rain as I made my way down the muddy track. At its end the ogre loomed black and huge. I was the boy who had gone into Disiri’s cave, not the man who had come out. My sword was Disira’s grave marker, the short stick tied to the long one with a thong. I pushed the point into the mud to mark my own grave, and went on. When the ogre threw me, it became such a sword as I wished for, with a golden pommel and a gleaming blade.
I floated off the ground and started back for it, but I could no longer breathe. (The Knight, 257-8)
At other times Able muses things like “How far to the dream my mother had?” or dreams that he is down in the hold with his mother and someone he cannot see while another person stalks him trying to kill him. (The land of Mythgarthr is made from the body of Ymar, whose name means twin).
There’s only one way to explain that first dream when you literalize it, and that has to include a mother whose child is going to die in utero. I won’t go further, but I am absolutely certain that Wolfe switched the dreams and the waking world in Wizard Knight, and the Jungian cyclic repetitions that involve metaphors for insemination, hunger, combat with allies, and assimilation are repeated over and over in the text with small changes and permutations.
Able was named for his ability to be born after a difficult pregnancy, according to the mother figure in the Room of Lost Loves, and on the last pages he declares with pathos, “I’m not Able!” as he returns what dropped off from Bold in the water so long ago. Any explanation of those dreams which does not include a mother losing her child, who can’t breathe, is an incomplete assessment of the work.
When Able meets the angel, the angel declares that his mother never knew him, and on the final pages we learn that the angel has found a way to deliver Able’s letter – through his mother’s dreams, so that she can know about the son she never knew. I view subtext as text when it is unified, and I find all of Wolfe’s late works to be puzzle box narratives with one solution.
So … I think there is one reading which explains everything in the vast majority of Wolfe, but that for the most part the great mass of readers can’t get there.
One of my starting principles is that everything has to be true somehow, literally or figuratively, so I do not read with suspicion. I have listened to commentaries where people have problems or doubt the veracity of certain things that I take at either literal or metaphorical value as true, so I don’t have to doubt, say, that “Eschatology and Genesis” is transcendentally true, or that the dream visions accurately reflect “the Truth” once we understand them. In that way, the task of interpretation is to make everything true SOMEHOW, and when I can do that and other things can be explained by it, then I know the reading is correct as Wolfe intended it.
Wolfe often works with substitution. There is a dream in The Book of the Long Sun in which Silk dreams that Mucor is mad at him after Marble is brought to the church by litter bearers, one of whom is blind. (Spoilers for Long and Short Sun follow until the end of this paragraph, of course). Marble was possessed by Echidna at one point, and one of Echidna’s children, Tartaros, is blind. If you count Mucor as a stand-in for Scylla, since she is in charge of the church, then the number of litter bearers and Mucor is equivalent to the number of Echidna’s children (or, quite literally, her litter), and we can see that Silk stands in for Pas/Typhon in that Scylla has been trying to delete him from Mainframe in the larger story.
It also resonates with the deadcoach dream in which the prostitute possessed by Mucor is being transported to her final rest, led by two horses, with Scylla’s tentacles eventually blossoming from the deadcoach in the dream’s repetition. Given the association of horses with Scylla, the fact that Scylla will eventually be put to rest on Urth, and the absence of Mucor at the end of Short Sun (as well as Marble’s muttered, “Oh, Scylla” when she thinks of Mucor), we begin to see a pattern: Mucor is a clone of Scylla, and both will be laid to rest by the end of the books (though of course on a larger meta-level the Whorl is also hurtling to the burial place of humanity whether we realize it or not). We understand then why Marble took care of Mucor, as a shadow of Echidna’s affection for her daughter.
Nigel: You hinted earlier that you’ve had problems finishing off your commentary on The Land Across. Why has that work proved especially difficult? Have there been other novels or stories that you’ve found especially tricky to interpret and write about?
Marc: Yes, his late work is his most difficult because he doesn’t provide as many metatextual repetitions and motifs pointing the way. Indeed, I feel he started to play less and less fair. All I had to do was literalize things in Wizard Knight, and the reading fell into place. There Are Doors was easy when I saw that three individuals were always together doing the same thing in key scenes, whether that be escaping from a mental institution or holding a gun in the climactic showdown. But Sorcerer’s House, Home Fires, Evil Guest, and A Borrowed Man required intuitive leaps to limit the realm of possible interpretations. Wolfe’s increasing minimalism and refusal to come out and say things makes those books far more frustrating to deal with, and in my opinion The Land Across is the most difficult of all.
While it was difficult to get to the bottom of, Sorcerer’s House is a perfectly structured work (and here are more spoilers). I could see where Wolfe was pointing, but the structure hinges on a very obscure allusion that explains small details like the stench of Lupine and Nick, why Nick is a “skinny torpedo,” why Nick is a blood drinker who existed at the time of John the Baptist and why there were records of him before Bax was born in the town newspapers, why the Corinthian coin has a male and female face, and even the implication of Ambrosius and the house and its servants – there is one allusion that explains all of that, and Bax’s fate, too.
But when I had all that information, at first I didn’t know it was related, and was trying to explain each of those things independently. Finally, I started looking up Greek blood drinkers and was astonished – I suddenly understood, between that and the kikimora spirit, the entire book (see the Lamia of Corinth and Apollonius). That flash of epiphany is something I have gotten with all of his late work, and while some might think it is confirmation bias, I know the difference. Otherwise I would be done with The Land Across.
Nigel: I know what you mean about Wolfe’s late works, but I still enjoy the surface narratives in their own right. Wolfe told me once that, having been told so often that he was considered “a difficult writer,” he strove in his later works to make his style simpler and more accessible.
In terms of his own reading at this time, I know that he did occasionally read contemporary works of SF, fantasy and weird fiction but, as far as I could gather, for pleasure he was mostly reading classic detective stories, and I think that they provided the stylistic model for his writing. He loved the Nero Wolfe mysteries and the Lord Peter Winsey stories of Dorothy L. Sayers, for example, and I find myself thinking that The Wizard Knight is Wolfe writing heroic fantasy as if he were channeling Rex Stout. I enjoy that blend.
Similarly, I regard The Land Across as Wolfe’s mingling of G. K. Chesterton with Dashiell Hammett, recreating The Man Who Was Thursday after the manner of The Maltese Falcon. Considered in those terms, I very much enjoy Wolfe’s stories in their own right as ingenious late entries into earlier literary genres. I suppose I should add that there’s quite a lot of Kafka in The Land Across, too, and I enjoyed that.
I’ll ask a fresh question in a moment, but first I ought to give you the opportunity to comment on my assertions. Does such a genre and stylistic approach throw any light on these works, or do you think that I too am guilty, as I have implicitly accused others, of superimposing my own unfounded imaginings onto these stories? It’s more than likely!
Marc: I think those models are likely and can shed light on some of the stylistic choices Wolfe made. I certainly agree Wolfe had a strong connection to his traditional models; indeed, it could be that his Kafkaesque stories are always the most difficult for me. I don’t think you are superimposing anything that isn’t there.
However, I still think that his late works are at their heart puzzles. I know if I can’t explain every dream sequence to my satisfaction then I simply haven’t figured out the work yet, and the dreams in Land Across are especially perplexing, especially when Grafton notes that the dream of his death and inability to ever leave the land across has the force of a prophecy.
Nigel: Marc, I was going to ask you finally about what you made of the current state of Wolfe criticism and discussion. The Urth List used to be the place where all the interesting debates took place, but recent years have seen the emergence of other forums, including social media and podcasts. Which do you think are the most significant?
Marc: It is an interesting time to be a Wolfe fan. It is nice to see attention being paid to Wolfe’s work beyond The Book of the New Sun, and podcasts like The Gene Wolfe Literary Podcast are providing a scholarly venue and genuine discourse that is not locked behind a paywall or hidden away in some inaccessible subscription library.
(Have you seen the resale prices on Wright’s Attending Daedalus or Shadows of the New Sun? Those prices were a factor in deciding that I wanted my work accessible to whomever is interested in it.)
For Urth List type discussion, the Rereading Wolfe podcast provides that. Reddit and Facebook and a few other forums have active Wolfe posts, but each has its own shortcomings. The Facebook Gene Wolfe Appreciation Society page has limited search functionality for old threads, so the Gene Wolfe subreddit, though it attracts a different demographic, has an advantage there.
The issue with frequenting the Urth List and these more contemporary discussion platforms is how often the same questions come up, and how often the same complaints or praises are produced.
There are three podcasts now, and all are very different, as well as my own much more sporadic and brief YouTube channel, where I focus on what I feel to be the most important features of Wolfe’s books and his literary sophistication.
Craig Brewer, one of the hosts of the Rereading Wolfe podcast, and I have been attempting to get a collection of essays on Wolfe from various contributors published, and I know that there is going to be at least one academic journal with a Gene Wolfe memorial theme forthcoming.
I would like to see more academic work on Wolfe and have him achieve the recognition of a Joyce, Melville, or Nabokov (there are professors who devote their careers to the study of authors such as those, and it would be amazing to be a resident Wolfe professor, though that is but an empty pipe dream). I think his popularity will continue to grow, and while obviously I do not wholeheartedly agree with the general utility of the dominant critical paradigms in approaching Wolfe, I hope that future readers will find the magic and wonder that I did, so that his beautiful voice will never fall silent.
I will close by saying I am always surprised by what observations and ideas survive in the popular consciousness. I think that I have made some important contributions to understanding or at least thinking about Wolfe, but there is one relatively minor discovery that seems to have percolated into collective knowledge far more thoroughly than my more important assertions. When I first read An Evil Guest, I found that the mountain with a washing woman for a wife resembled the set up for something in Cory Doctorow’s Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town. Every time An Evil Guest comes up I hear that bit of trivia regurgitated. As I said, I have written over 1.2 million words on Wolfe and argued some, to my mind at least, really neat things. Yet THAT minor detail and observation is what universally survives!
It is impossible to say what will stick, but I hope that people will continue to appreciate and love Wolfe and his work, whether it gains widespread critical respect in the academy or not.
Thank you for taking the time to ask these questions; I hope that Ultan’s Library will continue to be a platform for new and interesting takes on Wolfe and his work.
Nigel: Marc, thank you for that, and for taking the time to share your thoughts on Wolfe with us in this interview. Do make sure you let us know when the remaining three volumes of your study on Wolfe’s writing become available. I very much look forward to reading them.