'The elm tree planted by Eleanor Bold, the judge's daughter, fell last night', I am quoting from memory, tenderly, from the opening of Gene Wolfe's Peace. The other night, when I suddenly awoke, I thought again of Alden Dennis Weer, whose ghost was uprooted when the elm tree fell, and remembered how he says that everyone is dead, and I tried to calculate the age of such a tree and wondered whether it took a hundred years or two hundred for it to reach maturity.
Either way, the ghost Alden is alone, and wandering in a house similar to the one he had built when, in life, he became rich. Each room holds a memory. Each door he pushes open opens into another part of his life. But I have written before of the opening of doors, and that time remembering the tetralogy called The Book of the New Sun, which I have ordered again, half in fear, wondering whether it will be for me as it was then, when, 15 years ago, I finished it for a second time.
I ordered the other series too - the Long Sun and also the Short, although I admit the former bored me, and I only want to read it to find Severian again, who, I'm told lives and breathes in the books of the latter (but with Wolfe, it is never simple, and one might be there who is not there: who will Severian be, when I find him again? And who will I be that finds him?).
Let me return to those lines again, at the beginning of Peace, which I still remember. The Buntings axe, 'this planet of America turning', the golden faces that bend down like angels to look through his windows (how many times have I stolen that image?), and the rorschach Dr Black shows him, and from which the story begins to open.
It is Severian I want to meet again, and the ghost in the orange juice factory, and the impostor who steals the body of V.R.T. - yes, those might be the pleasures of reading (but will I like the books? will I still like them?), but there is also the joy of remembering again those characters, those ghosts and clones and severed twins as I know them now, from 15 years distance, and as through a veil. As I know them and I think they know me, looking towards me for their life and death.
Is it peace they want? death? Is it that I should close the door on the room through which they walk? But then I ask them, too, for peace, and to close the door they opened in me. I think we live each others deaths and die each others lives, as Heraclitus said of the mortals and the gods. Only they are not gods, and nor am I; and I think we see each other only as forms through bevelled glass, as I thought the other day I saw an intruder in the hallway. I know they see themselves in my sight, and that they ask for something with their seeing. I know I see, too with theirs, and that their fictional world is also mine.
The other night, very late or very early, I seemed to approach myself in the mirrored door of my bathroom cabinet, that was open to reflect me as I came along the hall. I thought: this is like reading. I thought, it is like watching Mirror again, when the young mother rubs the cloudy glass and sees a face much older than hers. I saw my face, my body coming towards itself as I came closer. But whose face was this? whose body? And if I reached out, how could I be sure my fingers would not reach through into another world?
Why wander again in the rooms opened by reading, by seeing? Why come again to what I can bring close to me again by reading again? The book reads itself in me, its pages turning in my heart. Tired, too tired, and isn't there a hope that this weariness is propitious, and will let me travel by way of the unfolding of sentences to that threshold where I will remember more than I know? Ah, those sentences, these written sentences - how difficult I used to find that their rhythm must be filled with words! How difficult to find what there was to say so that saying, telling could also speak!
Neglect - is that the word? A kind of sovereign carelessness, where you turn away from what you might want to say. Something akin, perhaps, to automatic writing - to that automatism that lets you speak of what cannot be said. And by a neglectful wandering where the golden faced god wanders with you, there where speaking can begin only with tiredness, and weariness opens a way.
Does he accompany you, or you, him? Are you, too, a ghost, a god? Peace - I think that's what is wanted by Alden Dennis Weer seeks. Does he find it in the room that opens into the orange juice factory, and he hears his voice come through the intercom? 'Den, darling, are you awake in there?' But his aunt, who looked after him as a child, when his parents went away, is long dead and he - the ghost - is already old.
But perhaps they are always old, ghosts. Perhaps they are born from a kind of regret, and distance. Rereading, I read again what I found first at 20, at 21, and the gap of 15 years is also part of reading, as another gap was, no doubt, when I started to read. Or perhaps it is that to read is always to know your past trails behind you like a comet's tail. To know by what is told that it is also your past that tells itself as you read, and that reading is also a voyage back as well as out, away, from what you know. Or is it that it gives you the past as strangeness, as the eternally strange that returns to turn aside the present?
'Who am I?', you ask into reading, and reading answers only, 'who?' And then as you read you are always too old to coincide with yourself. Isn't this what gives itself again in rereading, in coming again to the books you read then, when you were young? You are too old now; I think you always were. You read, and it is the strangeness of your life that rears up, all of it, and each time anew. 'Den darling, are you awake in there?' and as I read, I murmur: yes, I am awake.
A god reads with you, a ghost with a golden face. What is it that seeks to return to itself as you turn the pages? 'Itself' - but that return is the whole of your life, a mazing to death, as Freud says. Is it peace you want - death? Is that what the ghost wants, or the god? You are always too old to read, I want to say that. And you are never young enough to read for the first time. Reading, rereading, life looks to maze to death through you. Life, awoken, looks for death. But death's curse is that it has to pass through life to die. It needs your living, your reading, and your sight to touch the pages. 'I am dead' - say that. 'I am alive' - say that.