The Sinner Finds Peace

The Sinner Finds Peace May 24, 2019

I have a literary discovery to report, and I think I can claim a first here. It involves a work by one of the great modern Christian novelists, and an older author who wrote a stunning work on one particular tradition of the faith.

The modern writer is Gene Wolfe, who died last month. He is often misleadingly called a science fiction or fantasy writer, but he was far more than that. He was a brilliant stylist and a dazzling manipulator of narratives. The Washington Post called him “the finest writer the science fiction world has yet produced.” New Republic described him very seriously as “the Proust of science fiction.” He was also a faithful Catholic, and that sensibility permeated every word he wrote.

One of his greatest, and most puzzling, books is Peace (1975). It apparently (note emphasis) tells the story of an old man named Alden Dennis Weer, who rattles around a decaying house, recalling stories of his childhood and youth. It is quaint, often funny, and seems to offer a sentimental memory of the small town Midwest in the first half of the last century. Like many other readers, I enjoyed it greatly. And like most readers, I did not begin to understand it on the first run through.

Do note the really unusual name of Alden Dennis Weer, I’ll come back to it. Also note that Wolfe was fond of playing with the names of his characters. In his head-spinning Fifth Head of Cerberus, he includes a clone character whose name is not given in the text, but a little digging suggests that he must be called, well, “Gene Wolf.” What else would you name a clone if not Gene?

*MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW*

But back to Peace. Over the past decade, critical readers returned to the book and made certain deductions, which Wolfe eventually confirmed in 2014. First, Weer is a ghost, recalling what went on in his town. And second, he is a monster, perhaps even a demon, who is a classic unreliable narrator. Dare I call him fiendish? Throughout the book, we hear allusions to sinister things happening off stage, including a number of deaths, for which Weer is clearly responsible. The whole work is a trick and a trap for dumb readers, like myself. Always, you should read Gene Wolfe to find out exactly what he is not telling you.

So why is the character called Weer? Well, an author like Wolfe might have enjoyed giving him a name linked to his, suitable for a werewolf, a changeling. A Weer-wolfe. But as I will suggest, another totally different explanation is more likely.

One of the book’s great advocates is Neil Gaiman, who also missed the twists on his first reading, but who now calls it “A tricky, evil, deep, and remarkable novel by one of America’s finest writers …. It is not merely one of my favorite books (although it is certainly that); it is one of a tiny handful of modern novels of which I am in awe.” Gaiman has also said that “Peace really was a gentle Midwestern memoir the first time I read it. It only became a horror novel on the second or the third reading.” Thank you so much, Neil, for making me feel less of an idiot.

So here is my discovery.

Reading Peace, I keep thinking back to a classic by the Scottish novelist James Hogg, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824). I wrote about this in the now tragically defunct Books and Culture. Resemblances to Peace are many and powerful.

Very briefly, Justified Sinner is a novel about what happens when devout Calvinist faith goes badly awry, and is adopted by a deeply warped personality who believes he can do no wrong: he is, after all, justified, and is above sin. The book is told through the autobiographical Confessions of the sinner, Robert Wringhim, who is a narrator as unreliable as you can find. As the book proceeds, you realize that anyone who gets in his way is vanishing or dying mysteriously. Or as I mentioned in another context, throughout the book, we hear allusions to sinister things happening off stage, including a number of deaths, for which Wringhim is clearly responsible. The crimes are committed as Wringhim slides into fugue states, and they are effectively the work of an alternate personality. (Yes, that is all in a book published in 1824). Wringhim eventually meets a true friend whom the reader recognizes instantly as the Devil, or a devil, but whom he believes to be a faithful Christian like himself. That character may or may not have an independent existence – which again takes us back to some of the theories about what is actually going on with Weer in Peace.

Through the advocacy of European writers like André Gide, the Anglo-American world rediscovered the book in the mid-twentieth century. As post-modernist approaches became popular, the novel awed critics by its playful attitude to historicity and chronology, its dreamlike surrealism, its pioneering use of multiple narrative perspectives, and by the use of the unreliable narrator. Today, the book’s classic status is ensured. Quite apart from its well-known virtues, the book’s exploration of the religious roots of violence and fanaticism gives it a strictly contemporary feel, and makes it ripe for yet another popular rediscovery.

You will see why I draw parallels between the two autobiographical serial murder books, those of Hogg and Wolfe. But is there anything more than a general resemblance of theme and narrative style? Indeed there is. And that is my real discovery.

Hogg got the idea for this monster of religious obsession and hypocrisy from a notorious Scottish case of the seventeenth century. In 1670, a distinguished soldier made an astonishing confession that suggested the depths of depravity that could be concealed under a cloak of holiness and respectability. For right now, let me just me call him the Major. Throughout his seventy years, the Major had been a paragon of Edinburgh’s rigorously orthodox and moral Calvinist society, and had earned glory in the Lord’s wars of the 1640s. Suddenly, though, this legendary saint spontaneously confessed to a litany of crimes that included devil-worship and witchcraft. He admitted to incest with his sister, herself an exemplary model of righteousness, and she confirmed the charge. Both were executed. The Major rejected pleas that he pray for forgiveness, declaring that “I have lived as a beast, and I must die as a beast.”

Historians can debate whether the Major truly was the sinful monster he claimed, or whether age and mental derangement had caused him to pour forth his darkest secret fantasies, so long suppressed. In either case, this unnerving scandal left long memories in Scottish culture. Not coincidentally, it was Edinburgh’s famous son Robert Louis Stevenson who in 1886 created one of literature’s most frightening dual personalities in the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And the story of the Major certainly fascinated and inspired James Hogg. The linkage is highlighted in any modern edition of Justified Sinner, and certainly in any that Gene Wolfe was likely to have read.

The Major’s actual name was Thomas Weir.

As you will recall, Gene Wolfe’s character – the old man recalling all his monstrous deeds – was Alden Dennis Weer.

The  allusion to Major Weir is obvious enough, but Wolfe was counting on his readers not knowing Scottish history. And I am not the first reader to observe that “Dennis” spelled backwards is Sinned. From Sinner to Sinned, then.

Peace is many things, but it has to be read as an hommage to the Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

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