Terminus Est: Gene Wolfe, 1931-2019

I may, eventually, get a tattoo marking the importance of another author’s work on my body. I may find another set of chronicles that I can’t stop myself reading annually, regardless of the outrageous commitment of time they demand. I may discover another written universe comparable in its inexplicability and allure. But for now, Gene Wolfe’s death having been announced last week, it doesn’t feel like those things will come to pass. 

The Book of the New Sun is my favourite book, straightforwardly. Its labyrinthine turns and confounding leaps beguiled me from the start. I have devoured it repeatedly, returning like a homecoming to the sections I remember most clearly, and stumbling like a stranger among the curios I have set aside. 

Severian’s journey from apprenticeship to mastery reveals him to be a monstrous, likeable, risible narrator, one whose personal faults never fail to disappoint me. His language is instantly recognisable, his insecurities laid bare on every page. I feel for him, and laud him as one of the great narrators of any fiction. Wolfe, by extension, is the titanic artisan behind the fuligin cloak and mask, a towering figure. 

Severian’s sword, and my tattoo.

His playful, erudite use of dead and foreign languages to aptly yet strangely evoke a land foreign but familiar. His willingness to name the sins of his characters, and expose their flaws. His brutality in the face of a reader desperate to just understand. These are among his myriad weapons, used to full effect in the BotNS

After my fourth or fifth re-read, my universe expanded upon the discovery of more. First, the challenge of The Book of the Long Sun, and the benevolent enigma that is its hero, Silk. Then, possibly the most confusing of all, that saga’s direct sequel, The Book of the Short Sun. Then, even, the astounding and expansive optional coda to the BotNS, Urth of the New Sun, so comprehensive in its explanations yet so utterly complex as to almost baffle me further. And finally, the explanatory works of Michael Andre-Driussi, whose dictionaries and glossaries propose, but elegantly refuse to dictate, likely truths in the novels.

You owe it to yourself to try it.

These books have become part of the fabric of my life. Non-negotiable millstones to transport heavily to each new bookshelf-less flat, for one, but also reference points. I remember the first time reading of the great glasshouse of Nessus, its fetid time-warping magnetism, because I feel the same every time I read of it. So, too, the destructive horror of Severian’s stay with a small family in the mountains, before his conference with the dread Typhon. 

Yet, at other times, my axis shifts and new truths reveal themselves, like a painting that becomes a room when I merely will myself to step into it. The nature of the long-dead Apu-Punchau, or the secret of Catherine’s pregnancy. It’s functionally impossible to unearth these details on a first read. Such obscurity is often a veil, tricking observers that confusion must mean profundity. But, here, clear thematics and stunningly written moments make them simply an optional extra, of exquisite depth. 

Wolfe’s death means that I will never write him the adulatory letter that I often thought would be nice to send. Nor, even more optimistically imagined, will an interview or signed book ever fall into my lap. His writing, though, will be ready for my inevitable return, and will remain etched onto my skin. In Severian’s world, “Terminus Est” is translated variously, but in this case the monarch Typhon’s feels most appropriate: “This is the place of parting.”

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