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And the Bright Star Falls Behind: On Gene Wolfe

Sunday, June 2nd, 2019 | Posted by C.S.E. Cooney

WolfeCheers

Gene Wolfe at Top Shelf Books in Palatine, IL

When John asked me to write an article for Black Gate about Gene Wolfe, I agreed immediately. I had written a blog about his passing, and a poem, and then a remembrance for the latest issue of Locus — the print magazine, not the online zine, although they have a wonderful remembrance of him here.

I wanted to keep writing about him, as if writing were an act of resurrection. I wanted to write everything.

But instead of getting easier, it’s been getting harder. I’ve been wracking my brains about this blog. So many amazing articles have been coming out about Gene, beautiful interviews and retrospectives. What more can I say? My memory is panicky, faulty. I don’t know what to add.

I’m not an expert on Gene’s work. I’ve read a good deal of it, but not everything. I knew him more as a mentor and a person than as a writer. I was looking forward to having my whole life to read his work.

But I’ve gathered up here, for you, some of my favorite articles about Gene by people who are much more critically familiar with his writing than I am.

  • There’s that great one The New Yorker
  • And this one from The Guardian in 2011 written by Neil Gaiman
  • There’s a memorium at the Barnes and Noble website
  • And another memoriam from The Guardian
  • Then there’s this recent interview by Jason Pontin from MIT Technology Review, that moved me very deeply
  • As ever, we must look to our doughty Rich Horton, who compiled one of his birthday blogs for Gene — a roundup of his reviews from Locus — only a few weeks after his passing
  • And here’s another long and lovely interview

Gene Wolfe Memorial Cover-small

As for me, I’ve written about Gene Wolfe for Black Gate before, when I interviewed him in the article “And It Goes On From There.” I linked here to his 80th Birthday Blog, where many of his friends and fans across the world could tell him what he meant to them. I’ve written about him in Ultan’s Library, “An Homage to My Honorary Grandfather.”

And today, I wanted to share with you some early blog entries, some from my old LiveJournal account, some from my own current website, written directly after talking to Gene. Just excerpts of the living man, being wonderful and funny and wise and generous.

Sometimes it’s just snippets of dialogue, but you’ll be able to see — across the board — how interesting and exciting and funny he was. How very dear.

That’s all I can think of to give you.

Gene Wolfe 2

July 9th, 2009

TODAY, AT BREAKFAST, TALKED ABOUT:

Pat of Mullingar: Song: “It’s an IRA song and not PC to sing.”

You may talk and sing and boast about your fellers and your clans,
And how the boys from County Cork beat up the Black and Tan.
But I know a little codger who came out without a scar.
His name is Paddy Mulligan, the man from Mullingar.

Sythians and scalping

Amazons: “They keep saying they’ve found no evidence of Amazons, and then digging up the graves of heavily armed women.”

How the Spaniards named the Amazon river (the Incan armies, apparently, were led by women, but the cartographers, or whoever, misread, and though they were armies of women, and so named that river The Amazon).

How the Amazons occupied half of Athens before the other side drove them out again. How there are the graves of famous Amazonian (WOMEN) generals in Athens.

Henry Mayhew (the father of sociology, as Herodotus was the father of history) and his book LONDON LABOR AND THE LONDON POOR.

Gene has the 4-Volume Herodotus, the Victorian translation, illustrated.

Chinese Proverb: “Butchers talk of pigs, priests of God.”

DIALOGUE (in the middle of a conversation about alcohol):

GENE: …That’s what courtesy is for.
ME: Courtesy! The Other Social Lubricant.
GENE: Yeah — it’s the social lubricant the government doesn’t tax.

TRIVIA: The percentage of wilderness in North America is greater than the percentage of wilderness in Africa.

Africa has the highest overall elevation of all the continents.

RESEARCH: The Mountains of the Moon

Cataprax (sp? Can’t find it! SLOW — and expensive — hotel internet!): the first FULLY armored horsemen.

Greek Fire: secret weapon, like a Roman candle, used mostly naval warfare. Don’t know what the fire was composed of, but the best guess is resins of certain trees, alcohols from distillation, and bitumen.

Three early Musketeers of Weird Tales:

Lovecraft from Providence, RI
Robert E. Howard from Cross Plains, TX
Clark Ashton Smith, from Auburn, CA (reputedly a poet and a ladies’ man)

TOM QUICK, a man who murdered a cool TON of Native Americans (Gene says American Indians, Sherman Alexie says Indians, Aaron Golding, half-Seneca, says Indians, and smiled when I said Native Americans, and it’s just so damned hard to tell these days what’s the correct, right, proper LEAST HARMFUL, MOST TRUTHFUL thing to say, so for now I’ll stick with Native Americans), and had a monument erected in Milford, PA, which Gene calls “The most objectionable monument ever built,” and then, “Lord save us from heroes like that.”

Which I found very interesting.

Also, the word Frankenfurter? Means, “The sausages from the place where the ax-men crossed the river.”

So there.

CSE Cooney and Gene Wolfe Birthday-small

CSE Cooney and Gene Wolfe

October 13th, 2009

My friend Lydia Eickstaedt had been a fan of Gene’s long before I ever even heard of him — much less read him or met him. But she came and visited me, and I finally got to introduce her to him and Rosemary. Here is what she wrote about that encounter:

Dinner with Gene and Rosemary Wolfe.

“Yes. Yes! It was awesome! They are deeply in love and wonderful people! He told us about his newest story, which he said had had him by the throat until he finished the fourth draft.

He quoted Ogden Nash’s poem about eating women and marrying oysters, and Mary Ambree at us! He signed a copy of Innocents Abroad for Danny at my timid request, and we all had a merry dinner with much laughing and silliness. Oh! I want to be like him when I grow up, fascinated with science and excited to write and ordering author-themed dinners. He got the Hemingway Trout, which led to the following exchange:

Claire: How is your trout, sir?
Gene: Oh, I think Hemingway left some pencil chips in here, haha!
Claire: Well, if you feel the urge to hunt big game coming on, let us know. There are harpoons there on the wall behind you if you need one.
Me: Seems you missed your chance to ingest Hemmingway’s wisdom, Claire!
Claire: Oh no, another missed chance! But really, I’m just waiting for Gene to regurgitate!

We, um, all died laughing, and then of course Claire got red faced:

Claire: Oh! I don’t know why I said that! Ahh!
Rosemary: Oh, I say regurgitate all the time!

It was GREAT fun and they are the coolest people I’ve met — maybe ever! Also, the Wolfes have a white fluffy terrier named Bobby who was ridiculously fast. Mr. Wolfe said Bobby never really knows whether he’s coming or going, and it’s probably true but he was as wriggly and excited to see new people as any dog I’ve met, which I imagine is a good thing.

There were some wonderful things said:

Rosemary: Oh, I forgot to put on my nice shoes… don’t– don’t tell anybody.
Gene: Oh, I won’t, it’ll be our secret. But you shouldn’t have told me!
Rosemary: Oh, do you think anybody will notice?
Gene: As long as you don’t eat with your feet, I don’t think they will.

And he indulged me and told me stories about how he came up with Severian and why, and how Castle of the Otter came about, and of a story he wrote about a boy raised by ghouls, and how Book of the New Sun was originally three books, but he had to split the third into two and fleshed out the fourth with the storytelling contest.

And! How he was essentially ransomed into writing Urth of the New Sun by his publisher, who wanted proof that Severian succeeded — and thus has never really liked that one. It was so cool! I did get to ask about The Fifth Head of Cerberus:

Me: So — did Number Five really have a name?
Claire: A name that you knew?
Gene: Oh, yes, of course.
Me: …but you won’t tell us, will you.
Gene: Ha! No, I will not.
Claire: Gene! You are a big tease!

So. Yes. OH, and we made him a card, which I drew the front of at Claire’s urging (in ten minutes! The drawing game was preparing me for THIS! I drew Severian on a clawed and armored destrier with Terminus Est raised high. On the inside Claire admitted that she failed to keep a secret and I added that it was quite all right as long as THEY didn’t mind, anyway.)…”

GeneandRosemaryTalking

Gene Wolfe, David Munger, and Rosemary Wolfe at Top Shelf Books

September 19th, 2010

Last night, when my father asked if I’d be going to the Wolfes’ house today, I said, “Sure I could. We’re going to brunch. Easy enough to swing by.”

“Can you take this to them?” He handed me a weird plastic cylinder.

“What is this?”

“It’s a finch sock. Last time I saw them, Gene said he liked yellow finches, so I picked this up for him at the grocery store. It works. We have tons of ’em.”

Gene and Rosemary seemed delighted, so I hung the sock from the wrought iron trellis that arches over their front walkway. If the finches do come, they will be able to see them through their front window, which is the widest and tallest in the house, and which their living room couch faces.

We went to Port Edwards, and on the way Gene informed me that the name “Mortimer” was traditionally given to boy children whose fathers predecease their births.

“Mickey Mouse has a nephew named Morty,” he said.

At Port Edwards, we enjoyed the champagne, the banquet tables laden with every kind of brunch food imaginable, the desserts. Best of all, as usual, was the company and the conversation.

Gene quoted Kipling at me — his father’s favorite, “Danny Deever.”

“For they’re hangin’ Danny Deever, you can hear the Dead March play,
The regiment’s in ‘ollow square — they’re hangin’ him to-day;
They’ve taken of his buttons off an’ cut his stripes away,
An’ they’re hangin’ Danny Deever in the mornin’…”

He also quoted Jack Monroe, also called Jack-a-Roe, also called Jack the Sailor – and a whole bunch of other names. It’s which is one of the Women-Gone-For-Soldier-Songs I like so much. He does too.

‘She went into the tailor shop
And dressed in men’s array,
And went into a vessel
To convey herself away.

Before you step on board, sir,
Your name I’d like to know.
She smiled all over her countenance
“They call me Jack Monroe.”‘

He also told me about being under mortar fire once in Korea and diving into what he thought was a fox hole, but what ended up as some kind of garbage heap full of rusted tin cans.

“Knew some guys who jumped into a latrine once,” he reflected, laughing.

He also said that he will, in fact, do a blurb for my story The Big Bah-Ha.

“The trouble will be,” he said, “keeping it under 2000 words.”

“Are blurbs really 2000 words?”

“No,” he laughed, “although you generally want to make them longer, and then give the editor permission to use whichever bits they like.”

Whatever JoSelle ends up using, I hope I get to see the whole thing! SO EXCITING! EEEEEEEEEEEEEK!!!

The Wolfes’ usual waitress did not have our table today, but she came over to say hi, and taught Rosemary how to bump knuckles, as palm-slapping is passe. Then a woman named Sally came to talk to us. Apparently, she’d been the high school counseler of the Wolfe children at Barrington High.

She looked at me. “And who are… You’re not his daughter?”

“I’m a friend,” I said, and shook her hand.

“Honorary Granddaughter,” said Gene.

I can’t tell you how this moved me. I’ve known Gene and Rosemary for coming on 11 years now. Gene’s been my mentor, and both of them have been my friends and traveling companions.

Though all three of my grandmothers are still living, both of my grandfathers are dead, and I have to admit that in my secret soul, Gene lives in the house they absented. But I never told him this. I didn’t really think I had the right. Besides – isn’t it enough to be his “friend, fan and fellow writer,” as he wrote once in a letter? Sure is. And besides – he already has granddaughters. I was content to let them have him.

Still. He said it today. “Honorary Granddaughter.” And at every lull thereafter in the conversation, I would go into myself, remember that, and just GLOW.

CSE Cooney Kiss Gene Wolfe-small

Gene Wolfe and CSE Cooney

November 12, 2010

Open mic last night!

It took a turn for the bleak, but perhaps I set the tone by singing “Mr. Fox” to open us up.

The new guy, Michael, read us the lyrics from a Pink Floyd song (I forget which).

Gene Wolfe read his short story “The Giant” next (it will appear in the forthcoming Boondocks Anthology, an anthology about rural, rather than urban, fantasy), and it made me want to call everyone “Squire” and wear a red bandanna. Unfortunately, I only have a green one.

Gene was followed by Sally Tibbets, who read us infanticidal lullabies.

GeneReading

Gene Wolfe reading at Top Shelf Books

March 17, 2011

I had brunch with Gene and Rosemary Wolfe on Sunday. Port Edwards again — with the pirates and the koi and the cannon. Gene told me a bit about anti-tank and anti-personnel mines. They used to probe for the mines in the grass, go out a distance, and then shoot the mechanism to pieces. That was for the anti-tank ones.

For the anti-personnel ones, there’d either be trip-wire, or they’d be buried very shallowly. He said one way to do render them harmless was to drive a herd of pigs through the minefield (well, not harmless to the pigs.)

“I don’t think the United States ever did it, but some armies use civilians. The Germans used the Poles, for example.”

Well. War.

GeneRosemarySmiling

Gene and Rosemary at Top Shelf Books

November 25, 2011: 

“the other piece of architecture i find very interesting,” said gene, and when gene wolfe gets that glint, i lean in, “is an old nubian gateway. and on one side is a king, who is killing his enemy with a big mace. and the enemy, of course, is much smaller than he is. and on the other side… is the queen. and she’s killing her enemy, who is much smaller than she is, also with a mace. and i’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that gate. had the king granted her military power? were they co-rulers? you know something was going on.”

“you should put it in a story!”

“i think i will. i’ve been getting some pressure to write another latro book.”

“i have,” i confessed, “such a crush on latro. i mean, HE SEES GODS! i always did like a man a little touched in the head…” and then, after a hammy pause, pronounced, as grandly as i could, “even if he DOESN’T remember me in the morning.”

Screen Shot 2019-06-01 at 9.45.24 AM

November 22nd, 2011

…AND Gene Wolfe came and asked if I wanted to go out to lunch after. I hadn’t planned on it.

“I have to be in Palatine by two,” I said.

“I can drive you into Palatine,” he said.

So we went to lunch at Emmetts and had a lovely few hours together. He told me a little about Manly Wade Wellman (enough to make me want to read his books about Silver John, the Appalachian bard), but even more about his father, one of those larger-than-life people, Dr. Frederick Creighton Wellman. Listen to this:

In addition to being an author, Wellman was also a doctor of tropical medicine, scientist, administrator, artist, educator, spy, and engineer. Writing under the pen names Cyril Kay-Scott and Richard Irving Carson, Wellman composed plays, novels, short stories, and poems, all of which are represented in the collection. In addition, there is correspondence, exhibition catalogs, Wellman’s autobiography, and a watercolor by Wellman. Already on his second marriage and with four children, Wellman eloped with writer Elsie Dunn (1893-1963). They fled the country and changed their names to Cyril Kay-Scott and Evelyn Scott. After living in Brazil and later returning to the United States, Wellman had a career as an art teacher, a museum director, and upon retiring, wrote his autobiography. (From this website.)

I know we’ll keep writing letters and emails and maybe meet up again at conventions, but it won’t be like the last ten years, the brunches and the movie nights and the road trips. Now that he’s moving out of the area as well, I won’t even be able to pop into his house should I happen to come back for a visit. The little town where he’ll be living is where he and Rosemary were married. Had I stayed, he still would have moved. That’s just the nature of change.

Gene Memorial quote-small

Present Day

Things did change after that. Rosemary passed away. There is a strawberry on her gravestone, referencing a poem Gene wrote about her, calling her his “Strawberry Girl.” I still wrote emails, letters, and gave the very occasional phone call. He wrote back less and less as he got more tired. I should have called him more — it was the only way to really talk to him. But I was never very good at that.

Anyway, I am happy to share a little of the many encounters I had. I had forgotten much of it. I am so glad I wrote some of it down, at the time.

Thanks kindly,

C. S. E. Cooney

7 Comments »

  1. Thank You,

    Damn, what an interesting man.

    Comment by Charles_Martel - June 2, 2019 7:16 pm

  2. Thanks for sharing. We have a memorial Wolfe groupread/discussion in the Goodreads Sword & Sorcery group going on, posted the link to this.

    https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/19805030-may-june-a-gene-wolfe-memorial-groupread

    Comment by SELindberg - June 3, 2019 5:45 pm

  3. “Honorary Granddaughter”. And these lovely reminiscences show that you wear the title well, Ms. Cooney.

    Comment by Eugene R. - June 3, 2019 9:36 pm

  4. Thank you, Charles. He really was fascinating. Neil Gaiman called him “the best of us.”

    Comment by C.S.E. Cooney - June 5, 2019 1:52 pm

  5. Dear SELindberg:

    Thank you so much for the link.

    Comment by C.S.E. Cooney - June 5, 2019 1:52 pm

  6. Thank you so much, Eugene.

    Comment by C.S.E. Cooney - June 5, 2019 1:52 pm

  7. Awesome! I was at Top Shelf one Thursday when Gene Wolfe did a reading. It was around 2009, 2010 era. Don’t know how many times he was a guest, but I did have the honor and privilege of meeting him and listening to him read. Fantastic!

    Comment by Joe Bonadonna - June 10, 2019 6:47 pm


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