Friday, February 28, 2020

February Reads Part Two

In Green's Jungles by Gene Wolfe
Return to the Whorl by Gene Wolfe
Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor
Pointed Roofs by Dorothy Richardson
The Medieval Monastery by Roger Rosewell

After finishing the Solar Cycle this month, I immediately purchased the two reference guides compiled by Michael Andre-Driussi because I was energized by my Return to the Wolfe (excuse the pun). The second guide, covering the final two thirds of the Cycle, includes a timeline which was particularly helpful because The Book of the Short Sun was far trickier in terms of its syuzhet than previous Books. Which isn't to say the fabula isn't as tricky if not trickier! Don't mistake me here, The Book of the Short Sun is far more complicated and abstruse than anything in the original quartet or the follow-up. I won't write out a long synopsis here as I think the ones written on Wikipedia and in Goodreads reviews will suffice.

In retrospect, On Blue's Waters was disappointing to me in the same way Shadow of the Torturer was: I didn't see the bigger picture and therefore thought the initial sally was weak. I still think OBW is a bit of a slog (all that long stuff with Seawrack or the days Horn spends in the hole! oy!) but it's all necessary setup for the second and third parts, which I liked much more, enough that I read them back-to-back.

In Green's Jungles upends a lot of the things I assumed about the world (whorl) Wolfe has invented. With The Book of the New Sun, part of the pleasure is the warmth of recognition: understanding that something fantastical is actually long gone technology. I even wrote about my sincere enjoyment of realizing the Moon was terraformed at some point in the future hence its description as "green Lune" in the original quartet. The pleasure is predicated on my familiarity with science fictional tropes. Without them, the metatextual vector goes nowhere. You'd just be reading about weird dudes who lie to everybody they meet all the time. With The Book of the Short Sun, elements of fantasy are introduced that have seemingly no corresponding science fictional trope. For example, the Narrator (not naming him is necessary) finds he can astroproject (not the books' term for it) himself and his companions (those in close proximity) to other planets, including the distant Urth, where the Narrator gets to meet a young torturer's apprentice. I can't for the life of me come up with a rational explanation for this, especially since this warping (as Andre-Driussi calls it) requires the inclusion of what the text calls an inhumu, the vampire species living on Blue and Green that, again, have no corresponding scientific explanation. The existence of aliens in the Solar Cycle is nothing new: they're introduced at the end of The Book of the New Sun and feature prominently in Urth of the New Sun, the epilogue. Although I should caution myself here. The aliens (Hierodules) in the fifth book have the power to transport an entire star without (it appears) any negative effects on the galaxy (I'm no physicist but it feels like moving something that massive that fast would upset something gravitationally-speaking). This power threatens suspension of disbelief in the rationality of this universe.

Still, In Green's Jungles, with its astroprojection, astral items, vampires and ancient aliens, feels more detached from the relatively grounded world of Urth. The themes Wolfe introduces are similarly more abstract. Gone is the conniving but ultimately good Severian, replaced with the Narrator who suffers a crisis of identity and a crisis of purpose. He is good... perhaps even Good with a capital G and the problems he faces are far more complicated than those Severian deals with. The world of Blue is corrupt and without the force of religion, even the false religion of the Whorl (the name for the generation ship from whence all these colonist came), humanity has devolved into warring polities and cities. The Narrator, in his journey(s), helps bring order and Goodness to these towns, sometimes at great personal cost. Things feel more allegorical here but also more focused than the original quartet's one damn thing after another. Using the structure of a trilogy to complicate the timeline is an especially genius idea as knowing the events at the beginning of the story/fabula would greatly alter one's perception of the events in the middle and end. Something happens to the Narrator at the near-beginning of the journey, something that essentially sparks the resulting syuzhet. This reminds me of the timeline twisting in Kill Bill Vol 1: it makes the most sense, narratively speaking, for Beatrix to visit the villains in the order she does so that the film builds to a crescendo.

Return to the Whorl revisits and refines some of the themes in the second volume: war is dehumanizing but necessary sometimes, revolution is often required, and identity is extremely slippery. It's a quicker read, I think, than the other two, because the two timelines look to converge, letting some explanations bubble to the surface (such as the confusion about who the narrator is) while others are left opaque, to be puzzled out by readers. I thought I wouldn't love this whole trilogy as much as the other two, but I do... just for different reasons. Where The Book of the Long Sun reads like a necessary political document and The Book of the New Sun feels like a love letter to science fiction, The Book of the Short Sun is an exploration of loss, identity, and fate. Deeply in love with this series!

Elizabeth Taylor's Wreath of Roses was good, I guess. This is my second or third Taylor and I'm just not seeing what everybody else is seeing here. The prose is beautiful, the character well drawn, but I can get this from countless other writers. I couldn't quite manage to line up all the happenings in this plot with themes or ideas I thought the novel was trying to express. I loved a lot of the observations and the sense of place and time, but maybe the scaffolding of the structure is just too subtle for me? Perhaps.

As others have expressed on Goodreads, I too wonder how I will review/track Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage. Individual chapters? One volume at a time? The entire thing in one go? Even though I'm reading this in the Virago 4-volume edition, I've selected the Broadview edition of the first novel for at least the first review.

It's astonishing to read this in 2020, 105 years after its publication. The content feels over a hundred years old but the style...? It feels completely fresh, as if published today or at least in the last 20 years. The fluid oscillation from third person subjective to free indirect speech is carried off with such skill and flair, as if "stream of consciousness" had already existed for eons. In one slim "chapter" (her preferred term for the individually published novels), Richardson mastered a technique still used to this day.

I've tried reading this before and slid off it, the cast being too large, the plot being non-existent, but this time, I devoured it in a couple days. I realized the intricacies of the cast aren't of primary importance; that the plot is merely an excuse for the exploration of thoughts and feelings and impressions and opinions and fears and doubts and desires. This is a novel of expression, both external—all of Miriam's painterly observations of colour, shape, scent, texture—and internal. Not much happens here, plot-wise: she heads off to a German private school where she's tasked with reading English to the German students (young ladies of middle class backgrounds who need to be "educated" to be considered marriageable material); she encounters domestic and quotidian moments of life such as having her hair washed, going for a picnic, encountering gossipy cliques, receiving blouses from home that are outmoded and gauche. It's all very ordinary, but there's necessity and poetry in the ordinary. I was reminded a lot of Alcott's Little Women and CĂ©line Sciamma's recent film Portrait of a Lady on Fire: depicting that which is not generally depicted is in of itself a radical act. While the latter is more dramatic and modern (abortion! lesbian desire! a miniature social revolution!), Little Women and Pointed Roofs do much of the same ideological work in portraying a world of the feminine previously (still?) considered unworthy of artistic depiction. In other words, the banality is the point.

Can't wait to continue with this.

I read a short introduction to medieval monasteries for a project I'm contemplating. I won't say much about it yet.

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