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Shadow & Claw (The Book of the New Sun #1-2)
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2011 Reads > S&C: Wolfe's Writing Style - Yay or Nay?

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message 1: by Jlawrence, S&L Moderator (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jlawrence | 960 comments Mod
Book of the New Sun is known for its very dense prose.

For me it works because Wolfe balances abstract musings with strong (sometimes haunting) imagery and good dialogue, and I just find Severian's voice interesting. I don't feel you have to unravel difficult passages immediately, you can come back to them after you've absorbed more.

Do you like the writing style, or does it turn you off? Why?

Also curious to hear from those listening to the audio book version - do you like the reader? How does the writing style come across in audio book form?


Paul  Perry (pezski) | 490 comments JL, i more or less agree with what you say there. Wolfe's writing is wonderfully constructed, and you can probably read it in a way that carries you along without getting half of the deeper meanings and references, purely from the music and beauty of the writing (blinding flash of the obvious: i am a HUGE Gene Wolfe fan). the second time i read the series i definitely picked up on things i'd missed the first time, and i'm sure that will be the case again this time.

i haven't listened to The Book of the New Sun audio, but i did try to listen to the second part of The Wizard Knight and found that i was having trouble following everything, although i think The Wizard Knight is, in some ways, more densely written.


Larry (lomifeh) | 88 comments I've not listened to his stuff on audiobook but I suspect it would be hard to follow. His writing is definitely very much layered and can be complex. Anyway I really like his style.


message 4: by Noel (new)

Noel Baker | 364 comments Larry wrote: "I've not listened to his stuff on audiobook but I suspect it would be hard to follow. His writing is definitely very much layered and can be complex. Anyway I really like his style."

Generally, I like good reflective prose. I quite like writers that indulge in abstract musings as long as it is done clearly and elegantly. There is always the danger that some people will mistake dense, dull and opaque writing for profundity.


message 5: by Lepton (last edited Feb 12, 2011 04:26PM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Lepton | 176 comments The tone and content seem appropriate to a reminiscence, however, I find the pseudo-high-fantasy language to be a bit too abstract and frankly ridiculous.

There is nothing sensibly to suggest that a society that "returns" to an "earlier" or simpler technological state would somehow revert to some kind of "earlier" form of its language like an elevated, formal-ish English from an earlier age. Language continues to evolve. It doesn't really go backwards, but I get why it is used here.

Also, I am listening to an audiobook so the reader's tone may certainly be informing my perception of the tone and intent of the prose.

Also, what's with the Latin? These aren't the Middle Ages.


message 6: by Sean (new)

Sean O'Hara (seanohara) | 2365 comments Lepton wrote: "
There is nothing sensibly to suggest that a society that "returns" to an "earlier" or simpler technological state would somehow revert to some kind of "earlier" form of its language like an elevated, formal-ish English from an earlier age. Language continues to evolve. It doesn't really go backwards, but I get why it is used here.

Also, what's with the Latin? These aren't the Middle Ages. "


You're assuming they're speaking English and Wolfe isn't using a translation convention to depict a different, more formal language (and a stratified society ruled by an autarch is going to have a much more formal language than a modern Anglophone country).

Likewise, I've encountered nothing to indicate that the Latin is actually supposed to represent Latin. My theory is that it's actually English, but Wolfe is rendering it as Latin to convey the subjective experience of an ancient and dead language.


message 7: by Jared (new)

Jared (jared_king) | 51 comments I am experiencing Gene Wolfe for the first time with Shadow of the Torturer, and i am also listening to the audiobook version.

First, regarding Gene Wolfe's style in this book:

I like to think. I like abstract points of view. I enjoyed, as a high school literature student, forming abstract meanings from prose and using the interpretation of the language to validate my point of view. I'm going to ramble here...I'm not an accomplished author by any stretch, but when i write, one thing i love (when the chance presents itself) is weaving layered 'possible' meanings into the prose. It delights me to think that readers can skim over or delve deeper and possibly catch the actual meaning. I think this is a secret love of all writers - how clever can i be ;) I find myself marvelling at passages of Gene's, much like one would (cliche) marvel at a beautiful painting (and often smiling and thinking 'well played, sir' hehe). It's the language - and how Gene knows and uses the language. Where some excellent authors are master storytellers, Gene Wolfe is a master of the language, and IMHO this draws me into the story more so.

Regarding the audiobook:

I almost exclusively listen to audiobooks now (thanks to Leo Laporte and S&L - which code did i use? haha). The actor influences the ambience of the book. The actor playing Severian gives the book a bit of a sombre feel, and i often think: 'Is that the way i would have read that statement?' when the actor chooses a certain inflection. However, i think i assimilate easier to the world in the book when the story is read to me. Because i am lazy ;)

OK end ramble section:

I love the writing style. I read some Mary Stewart a long time ago, and her writing was beautiful; Gene Wolfe makes my brain work as well :P

Yes i like the reader. I would appreciate being able to go back and re-read certain passages, but i don't think I'm missing anything that i wouldn't miss in the hard copy. ie I'm missing all the deep stuff, but would anyway :)


message 8: by Paul (last edited Feb 13, 2011 07:30AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul  Perry (pezski) | 490 comments Lepton wrote: "The tone and content seem appropriate to a reminiscence, however, I find the pseudo-high-fantasy language to be a bit too abstract and frankly ridiculous.

There is nothing sensibly to suggest that a society that "returns" to an "earlier" or simpler technological state would somehow revert to some kind of "earlier" form of its language like an elevated, formal-ish English from an earlier age. Language continues to evolve. It doesn't really go backwards, but I get why it is used here."


i can't do better than to quote Wolfe's own A Note on the Translation in the back of Shadow of the Torturer (i assume it's also included in the Shadow and Claw editions):

"In rendering this book - originally composed in a tongue that has not yet achieved existence - into English, I might easily have saved myself a great deal of labor by having recourse to invented terms; in no case have I done so. Thus in many instances I have been forced to replace yet undiscovered concepts by their closest twentieth-century equivalents. Such words as peltast, androgyn, and exultant are substitutions of this kind, and are are intended to be suggestive rather than definite. Metal is usually, but not always, employed to designate a substance of the sort the word suggests to contemporary minds.
When the manuscript makes reference to animal species resulting from biogenetic manipulation or the importation of extrasolar breeding stock, the name of a similar extinct species has been substituted. (Indeed, Severian sometimes seems to assume that an extinct species has been restored). The nature of the riding and draft animals employed is frequently unclear in the original text. I have scrupled to call these creatures horses, since I am certain te word is not strictly correct. The "destriers" of The Book of the New Sun are unquestionably much swifter and more enduring animals than those we know, and the speed of those used for military purposes seems to permit the delivering of cavalry charges against enemies supported by high-energy armament.
Latin is once or twice employed to indicate that inscriptions and the like are in a language Severian appears to consider obsolete. What the actual language may have been, I cannot say."

i believe in one of the later books Wolfe addresses the use of terms for armaments - arquebuses, etc.

i would imagine he considered putting this note at the front of the book, but decided against it as it tells us something definite about the world - that it is in our future, that the 'magics' are technological (view spoiler)

i personally think Wolfe's use of language, of terms archaic and unfamiliar but in no instance made up, is one of the things that is most successful at giving the world a feeling of ancient society filled with obsolescence and superstition.


message 9: by Lepton (last edited Feb 13, 2011 08:54AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Lepton | 176 comments Sean wrote: Likewise, I've encountered nothing to indicate that the Latin is actually supposed to represent Latin. My theory is that it's actually English, but Wolfe is rendering it as Latin to convey the subjective experience of an ancient and dead language.

Not to state the exceedingly obvious but "Terminus est" (the name of the executioner's sword) which is what I assume the text says (again audiobook here) are two Latin words, a translation of which could be "It is the end". It is no accident I would assume.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terminus...

Latin is being directly referenced as one of the dead languages. That "dead language" is being used to name and describe things by organizations that are similar to and occupy much the same societal role as their Middle Ages counterparts and that language also just happens to be the same language that those Medieval organizations used.

I mean, come on, I am not being obtuse here. A society of torturers like an Inquisition. The author is clearly intending one to make these kind of connections. The references are clear. Therefore, when I hear Latin as the author intends me to hear Latin, I call bullcrap as it would seem that there is every indication that this story occurs in the distant, distant future. There is absolutely no sensible reason for a future world to resemble past incarnation of that same society especially with respect to language. I get why it is used. I understand the intent, but I find it silly and unimaginative.


Paul  Perry (pezski) | 490 comments Lepton wrote: "There is absolutely no sensible reason for a future world to resemble past incarnation of that same society especially with respect to language. I get why it is used. I understand the intent, but I find it silly and unimaginative. "

i suppose the other option is to make up words, which would give an entirely different feel. i personally think it works wonderfully.


message 11: by Sean (new)

Sean O'Hara (seanohara) | 2365 comments Lepton wrote: "Not to state the exceedingly obvious but "Terminus est" (the name of the executioner's sword) which is what I assume the text says (again audiobook here) are two Latin words, a translation of which could be "It is the end". It is no accident I would assume. "

Yes, I know what Latin is. What I'm saying is that the sword is not actually called Terminus Est. It's name is actually in English, which to Severian and the other characters is an ancient and defunct language. If Wolfe gave us the actual name of the sword, it would convey to us the meaning but not the sense. So Wolfe translates it to Latin.

I mean, come on, I am not being obtuse here. A society of torturers like an Inquisition. The author is clearly intending one to make these kind of connections. The references are clear. Therefore, when I hear Latin as the author intends me to hear Latin, I call bullcrap as it would seem that there is every indication that this story occurs in the distant, distant future.

Yes, Wolfe intends for you to hear Latin, but to assume that the Latin is a literal representation of what people are saying is a mistake. It's like watching Ben-Hur and wondering why everyone's speaking English.


message 12: by Lepton (last edited Feb 13, 2011 10:23AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Lepton | 176 comments That is some awfully abstract reasoning to prove a rather abstract point.

It's a book, not a translation of an actual text from a distant world that isn't in English. It's a book in English targeted at a fantasy/science fiction audience that will interpret the use of Latin in a very specific manner. The author intends that interpretation and intends the audience to identify it as Latin, therefore it is Latin.

Latin is Latin. You are intended to understand it as Latin. That is the name of the sword. The name of the sword is sensible in Latin. The book says that it is the name of the sword.

It is no mistake to read it as Latin if for no other reason than the author intends the reader to understand it as Latin with all the cultural and historical references that deploying Latin in this context brings forward.

It is sensible to think of it as Latin in the same manner that it is sensible to hear the use of Chinese words and phrases in Firefly as actual Chinese.

I am not going to get into semiotics as I do not have the background or knowledge, but it is clear that the use of Latin word is intended as actual Latin. If the gulf that you seem to suggest exists between the use of Latin and the "actual" (whatever that means) meaning in the world itself and if the gulf between the reference and its meaning were perceptible and meaningful to the reader, then it would not make sense to use Latin at all.

The use of Latin means something to the reader. There is no gap between the representations and their meaning in the mind of the reader. Further, the Latin words used are sensible Latin words, therefore for all intents and purposes it is Latin.

That said, the fact that Latin is used makes no sense. I understand the "art" of it, but it makes no sense to me in a far, far distant future.


message 13: by Paul (last edited Feb 13, 2011 10:48AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul  Perry (pezski) | 490 comments Lepton, you are either being deliberately obtuse or you have a very, very literal mind.

i am enjoying the argument, though


message 14: by Sean (last edited Feb 13, 2011 10:46AM) (new)

Sean O'Hara (seanohara) | 2365 comments Lepton wrote: "That is some awfully abstract reasoning to prove a rather abstract point.

It's a book, not a translation of an actual text from a distant world that isn't in English."


That is literally true, but nonetheless the characters in the story are speaking a language that doesn't exist yet, but Wolfe has to render it in a language that modern readers can understand.

Have you ever seen the episode of Coupling where Jeff hits on the Israeli chick? Half the show is him thinking he's making good progress with her despite speaking different languages, but then we switch to her point of view and we see the same scene with Jeff spewing gibberish while the Israeli woman replies in English which reveals that he completely misunderstand her. She's not literally speaking English, and Jeff isn't literally speaking gibberish (any more than normal), but because the audience speaks English the show has to use a convention to convey the meaning.

It is sensible to think of it as Latin in the same manner that it is sensible to hear the use of Chinese words and phrases in Firefly as actual Chinese.

It's sensible to treat different works by different authors in different media as though they have the same intention?

Besides which, the primary audience for Firefly speaks English, so the Chinese comes across as foreign. But in The Book of the New Sun there's no way to distinguish English as an ancient language that characters in the book use and English, the language the book is written in. Let's imagine that Severian's sword is actually called The Finisher, but to Severian "The Finisher" is a series of sounds in a dead language with cultural associations with a fallen civilization. For Wolfe to call the sword, The Finisher in the text would be to strip away that level of meaning, and readers would just see it as a word in English like all the words around it. Even if Wolfe explained that "The Finisher" is a word in a different language to Severian, it wouldn't have the impact upon the reader that it has upon Severian.


message 15: by Jlawrence, S&L Moderator (last edited Feb 13, 2011 11:23AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jlawrence | 960 comments Mod
Lepton wrote: "It's a book, not a translation of an actual text from a distant world that isn't in English. It's a book in English targeted at a fantasy/science fiction audience that will interpret the use of Latin in a very specific manner. The author intends that interpretation and intends the audience to identify it as Latin, therefore it is Latin."

This directly contradicts the actual quote from Wolfe about his intent as writer, that Paul gave above. You might want to read it again.

Wolfe clearly states:

"In rendering this book - originally composed in a tongue that has not yet achieved existence - into English, I might easily have saved myself a great deal of labor by having recourse to invented terms; in no case have I done so."

and:

"Latin is once or twice employed to indicate that inscriptions and the like are in a language Severian appears to consider obsolete. What the actual language may have been, I cannot say."

Now, you might find that intent far-fetched or silly. But it *is* his intent, not something Sean and Paul are making up.


message 16: by Lepton (last edited Feb 13, 2011 11:38AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Lepton | 176 comments Thanks for the clarification. I did not know that.

However, I think Wolfe is a bit up his own butt to think that people will not understand sensible Latin to be Latin. I assume he might also claim that a sword in this world really isn't a "sword". It's solipistic, marketing-speak.

In using Latin and sensible Latin he brings forth all that the use of Latin would mean to the reader. He might just as easily used created words. Tolkien certainly did. He didn't.

He intends Latin. He intends the reader to understand it as Latin. The reader understands it to be Latin and the reader gains additional meaning from its use as Latin in this context. It is also sensible Latin. It is Latin.


message 17: by Jlawrence, S&L Moderator (last edited Feb 13, 2011 12:36PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jlawrence | 960 comments Mod
Lepton wrote: "However, I think Wolfe is a bit up his own butt to think that people will not understand sensible Latin to be Latin. I assume he might also claim that a sword in this world really isn't a "sword". It's solipistic, marketing-speak.

In using Latin and sensible Latin he brings forth all that the use of Latin would mean to the reader.. "


It's not that he doesn't expect people to understand it as Latin. I'd say he even wants to strike that fantasy-staple chord of 'Ah, a Latin inscription!' in the reader. But as with many of the standard-fantasy-staple things that appear in these books, 'things are not always what they seem.' They work on one level -- the familiar fantasy-tale level -- immediately, and gain other meanings as the wider context of the world is revealed. This tactic of his may become clearer as you read more.


message 18: by Jared (new)

Jared (jared_king) | 51 comments In using Latin...he brings forth all that the use of Latin would mean to the reader..

Correct - Latin is kind of obsolete, yet it endures. So it suits Wolfe's intent. Simple.


message 19: by Kevin (new) - rated it 1 star

Kevin Ashby | 119 comments I've said it on here before, but I'll say it again - great writer, terrible story teller. I'd rather have red hot pokers jabbed into my eyes than ever read anything by Gene Wolfe again. Did I mention I hate it?


message 20: by Sean (new)

Sean O'Hara (seanohara) | 2365 comments Lepton wrote: "In using Latin and sensible Latin he brings forth all that the use of Latin would mean to the reader. He might just as easily used created words. Tolkien certainly did. He didn't. "

No, actually Tolkien used the same trick as Wolfe, though you may not have noticed since he did it with Anglo-Saxon instead of Latin. The story is told from the point of view of hobbits, so hobbit names are translated from Westron into plain English. Their land is not actually called, "the Shire," and their main town is not actually called "Hobbiton." Even "Samwise Gamgee" is a translation of his real name, Banazir Galbasi, and Frodo is altered from "Froda" because in English it sounds like a girl's name.

But when we get to Rohan, where the people speak an archaic form of Westron, Tolkien translates names as Old English -- Theoden, Edoras, Eomer -- and models their speech on Anglo-Saxon. There are even sections of The Ride of the Rohirrim and The Battle of Pelennor Fields where Tolkien deliberately takes on the meter and style of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Similarly the dwarves all have names based on Norse.

It is only with the brief snatches of Quenya, Sindarin and Westron that Tolkien uses completely made up words.


Lepton | 176 comments I was thinking more along the lines of Tolkien creating something like entirely new languages, Elvish and such. Created words indeed. If Wolfe wants an obsolete language, he might as easily created new words to avoid any confusion. To be frank, he does more to subvert the idea that it is an obsolete language in that the characters acknowledge that the Latin words have a sensible meaning to themselves.

And I say it again. The use of Latin is not some sort of transliteration as you seem to suppose. It is Latin in every sense possible.


Paul  Perry (pezski) | 490 comments Lepton wrote: "And I say it again. The use of Latin is not some sort of transliteration as you seem to suppose. It is Latin in every sense possible. "

So you're saying that a thing is only ever itself and cannot be representational? Does this go for everything, or only languages? Or only Latin?


message 23: by Sean (new)

Sean O'Hara (seanohara) | 2365 comments Lepton wrote: "I was thinking more along the lines of Tolkien creating something like entirely new languages, Elvish and such. Created words indeed. If Wolfe wants an obsolete language, he might as easily creat..."

If Wolfe had aliens show up who spoke Greek, you'd have a point. But a made-up language would not have the connotations of Latin, nor would it suggest that the dead language is one that exists in our world of the now.


message 24: by Kris (new)

Kris (kvolk) This thread is starting to resemble a Wolfe story...


Colin | 278 comments Just to toss in a comment/observation before it gets swept aside by the debate.

I am only at chapter 7, and yes, it is written well. By that I mean there are some seriously incomprehensible moments that I am hoping will be revealed/clarified sometime reasonably soon.

This is my first time reading this book, i know nothing about it other than what Tom has mentioned in the podcast. Having said that, my biggest problem is Severian's voice. He speaks and sounds like he is an Emperor or high noble. Maybe he is, I haven't got that far yet. However, from what i've observed about the Torturers, they are not the highest pinnacle of society, nor are their members schooled in grammar every waking moment of their lives. I also understand that Severian has his photographic memory curse, and is recounting this from his "flawless"/possibly insane memory.
So far, I've found his voice far too pretentious and even condescending.

His voice reminds me of Publius Varrus from Jack Whyte's Skystone series. Varrus was one of my favourite characters...when he wasn't speaking. Once he opens his mouth, which was quite often, he rambled and vomited prose until a much needed action break came to the fore and someone got decapitated.
I am hoping that this will not be the case with Shadow & Claw.


message 26: by Jlawrence, S&L Moderator (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jlawrence | 960 comments Mod
Colin wrote: "Having said that, my biggest problem is Severian's voice. He speaks and sounds like he is an Emperor or high noble. Maybe he is, I haven't got that far yet. However, from what i've observed about the Torturers, they are not the highest pinnacle of society, nor are their members schooled in grammar every waking moment of their lives."

Well, I'll just say that he has told us the social position he holds (at the time he's recounting this tale) at the end of Chapter 1:

"It was in this fashion that I began the long journey by which I have backed into the throne."


Colin | 278 comments Well, that settles that then. Now i can enjoy the book without getting infuriated. Thanks!


message 28: by Jared (new)

Jared (jared_king) | 51 comments Kevin wrote: "I've said it on here before, but I'll say it again - great writer, terrible story teller."

I can see your point. Like i wrote above, where some excellent authors are master storytellers, Gene Wolfe is a master of the language. I think fans of Wolfe might be deeply interested in the craft of writing, so can enjoy his style. When i first watched UFC, when the fight went to ground i thought 'yawn', but now that i know a bit about the level of skill and dedication of the fighters, and what is actually going on when they are wrestling, i enjoy the stand up fight and take downs equally. Hows that for a good analogy ;)

Just finished Shadow of the Torturer - check out Heathor's parts for some great writing, and if you are listening to the audiobook, you are in for a treat - the way Heathor is read is awesome.


message 29: by Lepton (last edited Apr 23, 2011 07:25PM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Lepton | 176 comments More proof that Latin is Latin.

Chapter 4: Triskele

In "The Atrium of Time", there are dials there, sun-dials of course. Valeria says:

"Don't you like the dead languages? They have mottoes. 'Lux dei vitae viam monstrat,' that's 'The beam of the New Sun lights the way of life.' (my addition, which is incorrect of course) Felicibus brevis, miseria hora longa,' 'Men wait long for happiness.' 'Aspice ut aspiciar.'"

These Latin mottoes are all known mottoes that appear of sun-dials as found here:

http://digital.library.upenn.edu/wome...
LUX DEI VITÆ VIAM MONSTRAT, SED UMBRA HORAM ATQUE FIDEM DOCET.
The light of God showeth the way of Life,
But the shadow telleth both the hour and teacheth the faith.

http://digital.library.upenn.edu/wome...
FELICIBUS BREVIS, MISERIS HORA LONGA.
The hour is short to the happy, long to the wretched.

http://digital.library.upenn.edu/wome...
ASPICE UT ASPICIAR.
Look on me that I may be looked on.

The Book of Sun-Dials Originally Compiled by the Late Mrs. Alfred Gatty; Now Enl. and Re-Edited by H. K. F. Eden and Eleanor Lloyd by Alfred Gatty
The Book of Sun-Dials: Originally Compiled by the Late Mrs. Alfred Gatty; Now Enl. and Re-Edited by H. K. F. Eden and Eleanor Lloyd

So here we have direct references to real objects from our own reality and our own past ENGRAVED with the symbols from our own alphabet that are sensible, meaningful, and known to exist Latin mottoes. This is exactly in the same manner that the sword "Terminus Est" is engraved with those same symbols forming the Latin words "Terminus Est".

Chapter 14: Terminus Est

"The words Terminus Est had been ENGRAVED (my emphasis) upon the blade in curious and beautiful letters, and I had learned enough of ancient languages since leaving the Atrium of Time to know that they meant This is the Line of Division."

So, the sword is engraved with the same language as the sun-dials that have known Latin mottoes engraved on them. Both set of objects have sensible and meaningful Latin phrases on them.

What else can be said?


message 30: by Jlawrence, S&L Moderator (last edited Feb 16, 2011 09:10PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jlawrence | 960 comments Mod
Lepton, we seem unable to convince you that something can have *more than one use* in a work of fiction -- a literal one, *and* a symbolic one -- so I will no longer try. But if you want to re-read my posts were I stressed that point (that it IS sensible and consistent Latin, but *also* something else), please do. ;)


message 31: by Sean (new)

Sean O'Hara (seanohara) | 2365 comments Lepton, you are far too literal minded for this book. There is so much more going on in the story than what you see on the surface, but you're missing it because you're accepting those surface details at face value.


Colin | 278 comments Jlawrence, I am surprised you forgot the transsubstantial meaning.

My two cents with a quote: It does not matter if he is too literal minded for the book.
"The first is its practical meaning, what the book calls, 'the thing the plowman sees.' The cow has taken a mouthful of grass, and it is real grass, and a real cow -- that meaning is as important and as true as either of the others. The second is the reflection of the world about it. Every object is in contact with all others, and thus the wise can learn of the others by observing the first. That might be called the soothsayers' meaning, because it is the one such people use when they prophesy a fortunate meeting from the tracks of serpents or confirm the outcome of a love affair by putting the elector of one suit atop the patroness of another."
"And the third meaning?" Dorcas asked.
"The third meaning is the transsubstantial meaning. Since all objects have their ultimate origin in the Pancreator, and all were set in motion by him, so all must express his will -- which is the higher reality."" (Shadow, p.190)

That was too nice a passage to be passed by.

PS: As an aside, my initial rant was quite cathartic. I have since devoured Shadow, and enjoyed it thoroughly. I plan on tucking in to Claw tomorrow. All my issues with Wolfe's writing style are resolved and I am able to enjoy it for what it has now become.


message 33: by Jlawrence, S&L Moderator (last edited Feb 17, 2011 10:32AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jlawrence | 960 comments Mod
Colin wrote: "Jlawrence, I am surprised you forgot the transsubstantial meaning.

My two cents with a quote: It does not matter if he is too literal minded for the book...."


Excellent quote! I hadn't reached it yet in my current re-read. Yes, multiple levels, multiple possible interpretations (like the varying interpretations of the parable of Ymar that Severian contemplates in chapter 17). But I agree that the literal level is *not* inferior to the other levels. That the literal level is so rich and compelling on its own is one of the things that makes the New Sun work so well.

Colin wrote: "PS: As an aside, my initial rant was quite cathartic. I have since devoured Shadow, and enjoyed it thoroughly. I plan on tucking in to Claw tomorrow. All my issues with Wolfe's writing style are resolved and I am able to enjoy it for what it has now become."

That's great! I'm glad you ended up getting into it.


message 34: by Ed (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ed (edwardjsabol) | 170 comments Aside from the layered meanings and literary puzzles, on a sentence-by-sentence level, I love Wolfe's writing style. He has a compactness to his prose that is both efficient and readable while clearly being masterful without being flowery. Note the spare usage of adverbs. Wolfe hates them and only resorts to them on rare occasions or if it's a character speaking. He's colored my appreciation of every other author I read.


message 35: by Vance (last edited Feb 17, 2011 12:52PM) (new)

Vance | 362 comments I am of two minds regarding the writing style. On the one hand I don't mind "dense" writing and a very literary style. I love Umberto Eco, for example. But I had a real problem with the pacing, and sometimes I felt like the concepts got in the way of the story, if that makes sense. It has been over a year since I read this book (and I haven't follow up with the others yet), but I recall my frustration with this, while also loving the imagery and beauty of the writing.

Edit to add: I remember someone on these forums describing Wolfe as the best writer and the worst storyteller, and I think that captures it very well. His use of language is amazing, but the story meanders, wallows, stalls, then takes off again!


message 36: by Ed (last edited Feb 17, 2011 01:14PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ed (edwardjsabol) | 170 comments That's an interesting criticism, Vance. It's worth noting that The Book of the New Sun 1-4 is from relatively early in Wolfe's career as a novelist (he wrote primarily short stories previously), and I think he hasn't quite perfected his storytelling for the novel format at this point in his career. Many of his later novels are more concise and better paced, IMHO.


message 37: by Vance (new)

Vance | 362 comments Yes, that makes sense, and I do plan on finishing the series at some point, so I will see how it evolves as it goes along. I know Pratchett evolved significantly has he went, with the earliest discworld novels not nearly on par with his later work.


Boots (rubberboots) | 499 comments I'm loving his writing style and I intend to read the rest of the series and beyond if the next books are as good as the first.

Having just finished reading the Tales of the Dying Earth series earlier this month I can definitely see the influence Jack Vance has had on Gene Wolfe's writing style; from the regular use of allegories, to the seemingly awkward use of grammar and even the world itself.

Now I'm not sure if it's because I so recently read that other series that it makes this seem like an easy read but I had the same thing happen to me with Jack Vance that other people seem to be having with Gene Wolfe. There's some difficulty getting used to the style but once you're used to it, it's amazing.


Lepton | 176 comments Another Latin addition:

Wolfe uses the word "quaesitor" for a judicial official, I believe.

It is of course a Latin word meaning:

an investigator, examining magistrate, examiner, inquisitor, prosecuting officer

http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/m...

Quaesitor is also a known term given to the questioner in the torture process in ancient Rome, whereas the "tortores" applied the instruments of torture.

http://books.google.com/books?id=bi8E...

Seems pretty clear to me Latin is being used as Latin, especially within the Torturer context.


message 40: by Matt (new) - rated it 5 stars

Matt | 3 comments There might be some spoilers in here. Beware.

OK, Lepton...I've been finding your posts frustrating, but I do want to acknowledge one of your points that perhaps hasn't been sufficiently picked up upon.

YES, Wolfe is absolutely trying to recapture an archaic/medieval feel, and his use of Latin and all kinds of extinct words, as well as Saint names (I recall reading somewhere that only one or two characters in the whole series are not named after Catholic saints) support this. The volume is science fantasy, with far-future elements, advanced technology and aliens, but also apparent magic.

Anyway, given your clear interest in the medieval aspects of the book, and Colin's very helpful direction to the quote about "transsubstantial meaning," I think that the following article might be useful to you: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hermeneu... (scroll down to Medieval). Recall that there are multiple levels of interpretation here and that Wolfe is a religious writer (although not so brazenly or as didactically as, say, C.S. Lewis in the Narnia books).

But above all else, please realize that the language was chosen to give us both a sense of the archaic/exotic and the strangely familiar (others have already pointed out Wolfe's afterword, which is as clear as this ever-inscrutable writer ever gets). If it still gets in the way of your enjoyment, well, that's just how it's gonna be.


Lepton | 176 comments My problem with the book as I stated in my first post in this thread is that Wolfe is invoking the sense of or directly recreating a medieval society where none should reasonably exist.

He creates organizations with names like "The Order of Seekers for Truth and Penitence" and societal structures that are very medieval in their portrayal. He uses the "dead language" of Latin to further invoke this medieval atmosphere.

Societies and languages don't evolve this way. They don't devolve in some sense and take on the nearly perfect recreation of a former age. His use of these ideas I find to be intellectual lazy and downright silly.

Perhaps a more reasoned interpretation of the use of these arcane social structures and languages would be exactly what you have suggested. Wolfe is a religious writer, a Catholic in fact. He is invoking some kind of dystopian/utopian Catholic eschaton where, it would seem to my mind anyway, the Second Sun is not a sun at all, but of course the second coming of Christ.

I don't find Wolfe inscrutable in the slightest. He is transparent. I find almost nothing of any value in his work thus far.


terpkristin | 4144 comments In the first chapter, I found his writing style pretty tough to deal with; I had to find my groove. Now that I'm a few chapters in, I'm finding it a lot more smoother-going. Then again, I like David Foster Wallace, and had the same experience with him, so maybe it's not much of a surprise.

One thing I do like is that so far, the chapters are short. This lets me feel like I'm making decent progress and is easier to say, "Oh, just one more chapter, it's only a few pages." When authors write looooooong chapters, I find it harder to stay engaged.

As an aside, I think I'd be enjoying this book more if I could read it on my Kindle. It would certainly help with the definitions and also the font size. I actually found that reading Infinite Jest on my Kindle helped me with that one, too.


Larry (lomifeh) | 88 comments Wolfe wrote these books while he was in the process of converting to Catholicism and it does heavily affect the books. But, Wolfe lays out the fact that the book is not to be taken purely at face value in what the narrator is saying pretty directly and you need to use that. Someone quoted it above regarding how all things have three meanings and sometimes the obvious "basic" one can be the hardest to grasp.

Look at how he describes the picture of a man on the moon -


"The picture he was cleaning showed an armored figure standing in a desolate landscape. It had no weapon, but held a staff bearing a strange, stiff banner. The visor of this figure's helmet was entirely of gold, without eye slits or ventilation; in it's polished surface the deathly desert could be seen in reflection, and nothing more."


He weaves a number of modern concepts into the book and pulls some stuff the reader would find archaic, like the use of latin to enforce the dichotomy of the setting. The use of Latin is meant to be jarring I've always but I think you are getting caught on that bit more than you should be Lepton.


message 44: by Kris (new)

Kris (kvolk) the sublime influence of metaphor and allegory...


message 45: by Matt (new) - rated it 5 stars

Matt | 3 comments OK Lepton...well thanks for making your position very clear. I totally disagree with it, but I fully recognize that Wolfe's stylistic choices are polarizing and that it's not a simple case of the smart readers vs. the dummies that just don't get it. I am surprised that you find yourself so bothered by the deliberate medieval archaism of the language and setting--personally it's one of the things I enjoy most about the series. Diff'rent strokes.

But again, Wolfe's central conceit (as pointed out by the afterword) is one of "translating," which goes far beyond the simple linguistic sense. Further, the series is in deliberate homage to Vance's "Dying Earth," which also mixed science fiction and fantasy with a number of medieval elements (IIRC...it's been a while). Further still, the question of social evolution is a very fraught topic to begin with, and the idea that Urth is a "near perfect recreation of a former age" doesn't hold any water with me. It has many medieval elements...but it also has a heck of a lot of other elements. I think that, as Larry pointed out above, you are indeed getting tripped up rather too seriously on this point.

And finally, I wish that I could say with such certainty that Wolfe is not inscrutable. I'm far from a genius reader, which may explain why his work leaves me with so many questions. I think it was Wolfe himself who once stated that "Good art is that which can be re-experienced with increasing pleasure." To me, The Book of the New Sun, and most of Wolfe's writings, emphatically fall into this category. Of course, YMMV.


message 46: by Ed (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ed (edwardjsabol) | 170 comments Nicely put, Ludwig.


message 47: by Sgtdetritus (new)

Sgtdetritus | 9 comments I have to say that I have stopped about 1/2 int Claw and really don't intend to go any further. I have been increasingly frustrated with tangential wanderings and jarring transitions from scene to scene. I frequently begin wondering if Mr. Wolfe might not have discovered some interesting mushrooms while writing these books.
I'm really bummed out because the books have some really interesting concepts, such as a torturer for a hero, the earth in its declining state, and the fall from high technology.
Instead I get and Anne Rice like narrative that seems to contain 150 pages of description for every 50 pages of plot. Severian seems to be fleshing out okay, but everyone else is as three dimensional as a cardboard cutout. Severian also seems to act fairly logically, and then he goes and does something that would be considered terminally stupid and then gets saved by some impossible coincidence.
I very rarely fail to finish a book, even if I thought it was bad. This is one of those rare times.


message 48: by Larry (last edited Feb 22, 2011 01:19PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Larry (lomifeh) | 88 comments Sgtdetritus wrote: "Severian seems to be fleshing out okay, but everyone else is as three dimensional as a cardboard cutout. Severian also seems to act fairly logically, and then he goes and does something that would be considered terminally stupid and then gets saved by some impossible coincidence.."

I think this reflects more on how Severian sees the world than anything. Remember this is a memoir. Nothing happens outside of what the narrator tells us happened, at least that we can see directly.


message 49: by Sgtdetritus (new)

Sgtdetritus | 9 comments Larry wrote: I think this reflects more on how Severian sees the world than anything. Remember this is a memoir. Nothing happens outside of what the narrator tells us happened, at least that we can see directly.

Granted. The Terminally stupid decisions are par for the course with young males, god knows I made enough of them. the Impossible coincidence's are also par for the course in many works of fantasy. However, Wolfes combination of Stupidity followed by Coincidence seems to work out in a way that grates across my nerves.
That, and that my mental imagery with this book kept throwing reminders the way of scenes in "Barbarella" and "Zardoz"
I must admit that there really isn't anything objective I can point to as a objectionable, just a combination of stuff I don't like combining together.


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