Interpreting ‘Suzanne Delage’

The many interpretations of a Wolfe story which remains a mystery.
fiction, criticism, Gene-Wolfe, bibliography
2009-02-232014-06-22 finished certainty: possible importance: 1


“Suzanne De­lage” is a short story by the SF au­thor , who is fa­mous for his nov­els but is con­sid­ered by many crit­ics to be great­est in his short sto­ries. His nov­els are fa­mous for their many mys­ter­ies, but his short sto­ries can be just as opaque. “Suzanne De­lage” is a par­tic­u­larly good ex­am­ple be­cause noth­ing about it seems es­pe­cially com­plex yet we are left com­pletely flum­moxed and un­cer­tain if there is even a mys­tery to be solved at all.

The story

This is the story as it ap­pears in the En­dan­gered Species an­thol­o­gy, which reprints it from Edges1; ital­ics are pre­served from the orig­i­nal:

As I was read­ing last night—read­ing a book, I should ex­plain, which was oth­er­wise merely com­mon­place; one of those some­what po­lit­i­cal, some­what philo­soph­i­cal, some­what his­tor­i­cal books which can now be bought by the pound each mon­th—I was struck by a cer­tain re­mark of the au­thor’s. It seemed to me at the time an in­ter­est­ing, if al­most self­-ev­i­dent, idea; and after­ward, when I had turned the page, and many other pages, and was half through a new chap­ter bear­ing very lit­tle re­la­tion to what had gone be­fore, this idea found its way back into my con­scious­ness and there acted as a sort of fil­ter be­tween my mind and the book un­til I put it down and, still think­ing, went up to bed. The idea which had so forcibly struck me was sim­ply this: that every man has had in the course of his life some ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­pe­ri­ence, some dis­lo­ca­tion of all we ex­pect from na­ture and prob­a­bil­i­ty, of such mag­ni­tude that he might in his own per­son serve as a liv­ing proof of Ham­let’s hack­neyed pre­cept2-but that he has, nearly al­ways, been so con­di­tioned to con­sider him­self the most mun­dane of crea­tures, that, find­ing no re­la­tion­ship to the re­main­der of his life in this ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­pe­ri­ence, he has for­got­ten it.3

It seemed to me (con­sid­er­ing the im­mense ex­tent of the uni­verse of the senses and the minute size of that area of it we think of as “every­day”) that this must cer­tainly be cor­rect. Yet if it were true of every man it ought also to be true of me-and try as I might I could re­mem­ber no such ex­tra­or­di­nary cir­cum­stance.

When I had switched off the light I lay re­call­ing, very pleas­antly on the whole, my life. It has been a pleas­ant life, though I fear a dull, and per­haps a lone­ly, one. I live now not five miles from the hos­pi­tal in which I was born, and have lived nowhere else. Here I grew up, learned a pro­fes­sion, prac­ticed, and, much sooner than most men, re­tired. I have twice been mar­ried, but both mar­riages were brief, and both ended in friendly sep­a­ra­tions; the truth is that my wives (both of them) bored me-and I am very much afraid I bored them as well.

As I lay in bed, then, think­ing of times when my grand­fa­ther had taken me fish­ing and of skat­ing par­ties with friends, and about our high school team (on which I was a sub­sti­tute quar­ter­back, but one so much in­fe­rior to the first­string oc­cu­pant of that po­si­tion that I al­most never got into a game un­less we were sev­eral touch­downs ahead, which was not often), it at last oc­curred to me that there has, in fact, been one thread of the strange—I might al­most say the in­cred­i­ble, though not the su­per­nat­u­ral—in my own his­to­ry. It is sim­ply this: liv­ing all my life, as I have, in a town of less than a hun­dred thou­sand pop­u­la­tion, I have been dimly aware of the ex­is­tence of a cer­tain woman with­out ever meet­ing her or gain­ing any sure idea of her ap­pear­ance. But even this is not, per­haps, as ex­tra­or­di­nary as it may sound. I have never made an effort to meet this wom­an, and I doubt that she has ever at­tempted to meet me, if, in­deed, she is aware that I ex­ist. On the other hand we are nei­ther of us in­valids, nor are we blind. This wom­an—her name is Suzanne (though I fear most of us here have al­ways pro­nounced it “Su­san”) De­lage—lives, or at least so I have al­ways vaguely sup­posed, on the east­ern edge of our lit­tle city; I live on the west­ern. I doubt that we, as chil­dren, at­tended the same el­e­men­tary school, but I know that we were, for four years, at the same high school. I was able to as­cer­tain this as a mat­ter of cer­tainty through my year­books, which my moth­er, with that more or less for­mal­ized sen­ti­men­tal­ity char­ac­ter­is­tic of her, saved for me in the at­tic of this tall, silent frame house (it­self saved for me as well). Ac­tu­al­ly, of the four vol­umes which must orig­i­nally have ex­ist­ed, only two re­main—those for my sopho­more and se­nior years. There are a num­ber of pages miss­ing from the class pic­ture sec­tion of the ear­lier book, and I seem to re­call that these were lorn out and cut up to ob­tain the in­di­vid­ual pho­tographs many decades ago. My own face is among those miss­ing, as well as Suzanne De­lage’s; but in an­other sec­tion, one de­voted to so­cial ac­tiv­i­ties, a girl’s club (it was called, I think, the Pie Club) is shown, and one of the names given in the cap­tion is Suzan­ne’s. Un­for­tu­nately the girls in the pic­ture are so loosely grouped—around a stove and work table—that it is not pos­si­ble to be cer­tain in every case which name should be at­tached to which young la­dy; be­sides, a num­ber of them have their backs to the cam­era. The se­nior book should have told me more—at least so I thought when I, at last, came across it at the end of an hour or so of rum­mag­ing. It is whole and un­dam­aged, and I, thanks largely to foot­ball, have no less than four pic­tures in var­i­ous parts of it. Suzanne De­lage has none. On one of the clos­ing pages a woe­be­gone roll of names re­minds me of some­thing I had for­got­ten for many years—that there was an epi­demic of some kind (I think Span­ish in­fluen­za) just at the time the pic­tures for the an­nual were to be tak­en. Suzanne is listed as one of those “un­able to be pho­tographed.” I should ex­plain that ours was one of those over­grown schools found in the vicin­ity of small towns, a school re­peat­edly ex­panded be­cause the growth of the town it­self had been slow (though al­ways faster, so it seemed in ret­ro­spect, than any­one had an­tic­i­pat­ed) and the tax­pay­ers had not wanted to au­tho­rize a new one. It was large enough, in short, that only a few lead­ing stu­dents—the star ath­letes, the class offi­cers, the few re­ally promis­cu­ous girls and the daz­zlingly beau­ti­ful ones whom we, in those naive times, called “queens”—were known to every­one.

The rest of us, if we moved so­cially at all, went by classes and cliques. A stu­dent might know the oth­ers in his Eng­lish and al­ge­bra rooms; the cliques—at least the ones I re­mem­ber—were the foot­ball play­ers and their girls, the chil­dren of the rich, the boys and girls whose fam­i­lies at­tended a cer­tain fun­da­men­tal­ist church on the out­skirts of town; and cer­tain racial mi­nori­ties, the chess and de­bat­ing so­ci­ety types, and the toughs. It sounds, I sup­pose, as though there were a group for every­one, and at the time (s­ince I was fairly well en­trenched among the ath­letes) I be­lieve I thought my­self (if I thought about the mat­ter at all) that there was. I now re­al­ize that all these lit­tle co­ter­ies em­braced no more than a third of the school, but whether Suzanne De­lage had en­try to one or more of them I do not know.

I should, how­ev­er, have made her ac­quain­tance long be­fore I en­tered high school, since Mrs. De­lage, Suzan­ne’s moth­er, was one of my own moth­er’s close friends. They had met, I think at about the time I was eight, through a shared pas­sion (much more wide­spread in our area, I think, than in the coun­try as a whole, and more ar­dently pur­sued in the past than it is now) for col­lect­ing an­tique fab­rics; in other words, for em­broi­dered table­cloths, for quilts, cro­chet­ing of all kinds, afghans, crewel work, hand-hooked rugs, and the like. If my mother or her friends could dis­cover a sam­pler, or a bed­spread or “com­fort­able” made in the ear­lier part of the nine­teenth cen­tury (it was their en­dur­ing hope, I think never well sat­is­fied, to find a piece from what they called “Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion times”—by which they meant the eigh­teen­th, even such dates as 1790 or 1799), a piece well made and dec­o­rat­ed—the more the bet­ter—in the un­schooled, tra­di­tional ways of the old farm fam­i­lies, then their joy and their pride knew no bounds. If, in ad­di­tion, the work was that of some no­table wom­an—or to be more pre­cise, of some woman re­la­tion of some no­table man; the sis­ter, say, of a lieu­tenant gov­er­nor—and could be au­then­ti­cat­ed, the home of the finder be­came a sort of shrine to which vis­i­tors were brought, and to which soli­tary pil­grims from other towns came (ring­ing our bel­l—­for we pos­sessed, as a re­sult of Moth­er’s efforts, a vast ap­pliqued quilt which had been the civil-wartime em­ploy­ment of the wife of a ma­jor in a fen­ci­ble Zouave reg­i­men­t—usu­ally at about ten-thirty in the morn­ing and offer­ing, in in­tro­duc­tion, a com­pli­cated recita­tion of friend­ships and cous­in­cies link­ing them­selves to our own fam­i­ly) bear­ing homage like cook­ies on a plate and ea­ger to hear, for the bet­ter di­rec­tion of their own fu­ture strate­gies, a cir­cum­stan­tial de­scrip­tion of the in­quiries and over­heard clues, the offers made and re­jected and made again, which had led to the ac­qui­si­tion of that pre­cious ob­ject which would, as ter­mi­na­tor of the in­ter­view, at last be brought forth in a glory of moth crys­tals, and spread sparkling clean (for of course these col­lected pieces were never used) over the liv­ing room sofa to be ad­mired.

Mrs. De­lage, who be­came my moth­er’s friend, pos­sessed pieces of her own as valu­able as the ma­jor’s wife’s quilt (which was, as my mother never tired of point­ing out, en­tirely hand­sewn) and a col­lec­tion, too, of lesser trea­sures rank­ing, as my mother her­self ad­mit­ted, with our own hoard. To­gether they scoured the coun­try­side for more, and made trips (trips so ex­haust­ing that I was, as a boy, al­ways sur­prised to see how very will­ing, in a few weeks, my mother was to go again) to view the riches of neigh­bor­ing coun­ties—and even, once or twice, by rail, of neigh­bor­ing states. It would there­fore have been en­tirely log­i­cal for Mrs. De­lage to have been our fre­quent guest, at least for tea; and for her to have brought, oc­ca­sion­al­ly, her lit­tle daugh­ter Suzan­ne, whom I would no doubt have soon come to both love and hate.

This would doubt­less have oc­curred but for a cir­cum­stance of a kind pe­cu­liar, I think, to towns ex­actly the size of ours, and in­com­pre­hen­si­ble not only to the res­i­dents of cities, but to truly rural peo­ple as well. There lived, di­rectly across the brick­-paved street from us, a bit­ter old wom­an, a wid­ow, who for some rea­son never ex­plained to me de­tested Mrs. De­lage. It was law­ful for my mother to be friendly with Suzan­ne’s, but if (women in small towns some­how know these things) she had gone so far as to in­vite Mrs. De­lage to our house this widow would at once have be­come her en­emy for life. The in­vi­ta­tion was never given, and I be­lieve my moth­er’s friend died while I was at col­lege.

Thus while I was still small I was hardly aware of Suzanne De­lage, though my mother often men­tioned hers; in high school, as I in­di­cat­ed, though I was in much closer prox­im­ity to the girl her­self this was hardly al­tered. I heard of her vague­ly, in con­nec­tion per­haps with some friend of a friend. I must surely have seen her in the cor­ri­dors hun­dreds of times—if one can be said to see, in a crowd, peo­ple one does not know. I must some­times have shared class­rooms with her, and cer­tainly we were to­gether at as­sem­bly and in the vast study hall. She would have at­tended many of the same dances I did, and it is even pos­si­ble that I danced with her—but I do not re­ally be­lieve that, and if, in­deed, it hap­pened the years have so effec­tively sponged the event from my mind that no slight­est trace re­mains.

And in fact I think I would never have re­called the name of Suzanne De­lage at all, as I lay in bed last night lis­ten­ing to the creak­ing of this empty house in the au­tumn wind and search­ing the re­cesses of my mem­ory for some ex­tra­or­di­nary in­ci­dent with which to at­test the au­thor’s the­sis, if it had not been for some­thing that took place a few days ago. I had been shop­ping, and hap­pened to meet, on the side­walk in front of one of the larger stores, a woman of my own age whom I have known all my life and who is now the wife of a friend. We stood chat­ting for a mo­men­t—she, after the usual half teas­ing re­proaches about my (sup­posed) gay bach­e­lor life, gos­sip­ing about her hus­band and chil­dren. As she turned to leave a girl of fifteen or so came out of the store and, smil­ing but in­tent upon her own con­cerns, walked quickly past us and down the street. Her hair was of a lus­trous black, and her com­plex­ion as pure as milk; but it was not these that for a mo­ment en­chanted me, nor the vir­ginal breasts half afraid to press the soft an­gora of her sweater, nor the lit­tle waist I might have cir­cled with my two hands. Rather it was an air, at once in­sou­ciant and shy, of vi­vac­ity cou­pled with an in­no­cence and in­tel­li­gence that were hers alone. To the woman be­side me I said: “What a charm­ing child. Who is she?”

“Her name?” My friend’s wife frowned and snapped her fin­gers. “I can’t think of it. But of course you know whose she is, don’t you? She’s the very im­age of her mother at that age—­Suzanne De­lage.”

Analysis

At first, this very short story seems pretty poor. It’s not hard to find dis­mis­sive rat­ings of it. It’s bor­ing. It ends with a cheap gim­mick of ‘like moth­er, like daugh­ter’. It’s not re­ally wor­thy of a mas­ter writer like Wolfe. It cer­tainly is­n’t wor­thy of be­ing printed in two differ­ent an­tholo­gies.

By now you re­al­ize that it’s a trap.

But what is the trap? What’s the Wolfean sto­ry-in­sid­e-the-s­to­ry? Ah, now that one’s hard to an­swer. But first some ba­sics.

Yes, it’s a trap

First­ly, read­ing through it, what makes us sus­pi­cious? After all, not every Wolfe story is a mul­ti­-lay­ered con­fec­tion.4

Well, the nar­ra­tor promises very early on to tell us about some­thing as­tound­ing: “…some ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­pe­ri­ence, some dis­lo­ca­tion of all we ex­pect from na­ture and prob­a­bil­i­ty…” But prima fa­cie, there is no such pay­off! As one Urth.net user writes:

I re­ally would like an ex­pla­na­tion for this sto­ry. The best I’ve been able to do is: if Suzan­ne’s daugh­ter had re­ally been as strik­ingly beau­ti­ful as the sto­ry’s nex­t-to-last para­graph de­scribes, then the nar­ra­tor would cer­tainly have no­ticed Suzanne. Er­go, the daugh­ter is re­ally not so re­mark­able, and the flow­ery prose of the de­scrip­tion re­flects the sen­ti­men­tal­ity of a lonely mid­dle-aged man. But if that’s all there is to it, it’s not much of a sto­ry. And the way Wolfe writes it, it feels to me that there should be some greater pay­off.5

Sec­ond­ly, the body of the story be­lies the in­tro­duc­tion; Marc:

…the nar­ra­tor opens by say­ing I have no idea what Suzanne looks like or who she hung out with, then pro­ceeds to de­scribe her daugh­ter in de­tail on the last page ob­ses­sive­ly, with some­one say­ing she looks ex­actly like her mother and even de­scribes ex­actly which clubs she par­took in from his year­book, where her pic­tures are cut out. But this seems like sup­pres­sion and erad­i­ca­tion rather than de­lib­er­ate con­scious ly­ing.

Wolfe’s non-mul­ti­lay­ered sto­ries tend to be bet­ter than that. So we are made sus­pi­cious. For­tu­nate­ly, we don’t need to ap­peal to just in­ter­nal ev­i­dence. We have a pretty re­li­able at­tes­ta­tion that there is some­thing be­low the sur­face— (Brod­er­ick 1998) went to the orig­i­nal col­lec­tion in which “Suzanne De­lage” was pub­lished, and he found a damn­ing sum­ma­ry:

I turned for clues to Ms Kid­d’s in­tro­duc­tion to the sto­ry. It proved im­me­di­ately un­re­li­able in a small way, not per­haps a star­tling dis­cov­ery in a pa­per­back orig­i­nal which had printed the clos­ing sen­tences of my own story not on its last page but at the head of the ital­i­cized in­tro­duc­tion to the next, Carol Emsh­willer’s “Omens”. We are mis­in­formed that Mr Wolfe had been ‘work­ing ex­ten­sively on his tetral­ogy (The Rock of the New Sun)’. Nev­er­the­less, it is worth at­tend­ing to Ms Kid­d’s in­sid­erly com­ment:

‘His short story here­un­der is a den of in­iq­ui­ties; no one else could have writ­ten it.’6

Marc Aramini high­lights the in­tro­duc­tory quote:

We can ac­cept this as true in which case the nar­ra­tor does­n’t re­mem­ber or can’t make the con­nec­tion, which would tell us why pic­tures of Suzanne would be cut out for scrap book­ing and the creepi­ness of pos­si­bly en­coun­ter­ing his own daugh­ter, or even of spread­ing small pox through the sheets when he and Suzanne got it on them, but the point is the ex­tra­or­di­nary event can’t be re­mem­bered by the nar­ra­tor, which is ex­actly why the name of Suzanne De­lage and Span­ish In­fluenza and small pox quilts, all as­so­ci­ated with for­got­ten or shame­ful mem­o­ries, are present in the text.

So we’ll just dis­agree on our read­ings, but the text says the nar­ra­tor can’t be trusted to re­late the ex­tra­or­di­nary event and puts his mem­ory in ques­tion with those ref­er­ences. Mil­lions of peo­ple died of Span­ish In­fluen­za, and he is­n’t cer­tain about what dis­ease hit his town. His mem­ory is faulty. He claims he has no idea what Suzanne looks like, then claims the daugh­ter looks just like her7. This is not Wolfe be­ing lazy with de­tail­s….What sways it to the su­per­nat­ural in­ter­pre­ta­tion for me is just the strange­ness of her at­trac­tion, the dec­i­ma­tion of the town, and the premise that an ex­plic­itly “su­per­nat­ural” event that em­bod­ies “there are more things on heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your phi­los­o­phy” would be com­pletely for­got­ten if it oc­curred … which would be more like Proust’s in­vol­un­tary/­sup­pressed ju­ve­nile mem­o­ries than the sec­tion with Suzan­ne’s name in it.

So I still think the ref­er­ence could go ei­ther way. The very idea of com­pletely for­get­ting some­thing men­tioned in the text just screams of eli­sion (and yes, I un­der­stand the cir­cum­stance of the quote, but it does say that in the text, like Chekhov’s gun, su­per­nat­ural events will be for­got­ten).

Proust connection

Michael An­dre-Driussi iden­ti­fied the name “Suzanne De­lage” as be­ing taken di­rectly from ; the Wolfe Wiki cov­ers this—a girl the young Proust was sup­posed to meet but did not. Driussi re­counts:

It sounded fa­mil­iar only be­cause I’d al­ready read Wolfe’s sto­ry. Suzanne De­lage is a mi­nor char­ac­ter who is men­tioned in , the third book in Proust’s . The con­text is the funny part: the con­text of my read­ing a book at ran­dom (but it is known that Gene Wolfe re­ally likes Proust) and see­ing an un­sus­pected link to a Wolfe sto­ry; the con­text of Suzanne De­lage within Proust’s mon­u­men­tal work, wherein she is only a name, only men­tioned in one part! She has far less im­pact than a num­ber of un­named back­ground char­ac­ters.

Any­way, I re­alised that Wolfe had named his char­ac­ter after Proust’s and men­tioned my dis­cov­ery to oth­ers when we were dis­cussing the sto­ry. Well, it took on a life of its own. It started on ; it came up on the Urth List, years lat­er; Damien Brod­er­ick wrote an es­say about it for The New York Re­view of Sci­ence Fic­tion (where, if I re­call, he gave me credit for my dis­cov­ery—yay!); Robert Borski wrote an es­say about it in The Long and the Short of It; and now there’s even an en­try on it in the WolfeWiki which does­n’t men­tion me (un­der­stand­able), nor Brod­er­ick, nor Borski (both of whom re­ally should be men­tioned).8

Gerry Quinn:

In Proust’s nar­ra­tive, how­ev­er, nei­ther the girl nor the fact of him not meet­ing her seem to be of any par­tic­u­lar sig­nifi­cance.

Cloning

The name ‘Suzanne De­lage’ seems to be com­pletely ex­plained as a Proust ref­er­ence, but the sur­name De­lage has an in­ter­est­ing con­nec­tion:

You all know, of course, that (1854-1920) was the French zo­ol­o­gist who (as the EB tells us) `de­vel­oped a method for cul­tur­ing sea urchins fol­low­ing ar­ti­fi­cial fer­til­iza­tion of the eggs with chem­i­cal­s’. This might be ir­rel­e­vant in the work of any­one with less in­ter­est in cloning and redu­pli­ca­tion than Mr Wolfe.9

Co­in­ci­dence? Or a 10?

The theories

There are quite a few the­o­ries as to what’s go­ing on; the ev­i­dence is am­bigu­ous, and a lot de­pends on how much weight one gives to things like the daugh­ter’s com­plex­ion and the ex­tended in­ter­lude about tex­tiles. The fol­low­ing are drawn from my search of the Urth mail­ing list dis­cus­sions, and may be in­com­plete.

Vampires

In this the­o­ry, the in­cred­i­ble thing is that vam­pires are real and that the nar­ra­tor has been fed on by them. This the­ory works pretty well:

  • the daugh­ter is Suzanne her­self; clas­sic fe­male vam­pires don’t age and can ap­pear flaw­lessly beau­ti­ful. That she ap­pears ‘vir­ginal’ only height­ens the de­cep­tion.
  • the em­pha­sis on the white­ness of her skin is ex­plained
  • the rea­son she would not be pho­tographed is ex­plained: clas­sic vam­pires ei­ther can’t be pho­tographed or pho­to­graph in all their un­dead hor­ror
  • the ‘ex­haust­ing’ na­ture of the trips to the coun­try is due to blood loss when his mother is fed upon11
  • Vam­pires are very com­mon char­ac­ters in Wolfe’s fic­tion12—they’ve ap­peared in mul­ti­ple sto­ries and nov­el­s—and so are pos­si­ble.

What are the ob­jec­tions?

  • the color of her skin is like ‘milk’, not ca­dav­er­ous or just pale. The de­scrip­tion does­n’t seem very vam­pir­ic.13
  • if Suzanne made the nar­ra­tor for­get with vam­piric pow­ers, then why does the friend know ex­actly who the daugh­ter & Suzanne are, and ex­pect the nar­ra­tor to?
  • the pho­tographs don’t quite work out­—we aren’t told that the pic­ture of the Pie Club, which claims to show Suzan­ne, shows 1 too few girls, nor does Suzanne be­ing un­pho­tograph­able jibe with the fact that there ap­par­ently were pic­tures of her in the nar­ra­tor’s early year­book (they were sim­ply torn out pre­vi­ous­ly).

Affair

In this ver­sion, we’re be­ing lied to (like we are in so many Wolfe work­s). The nar­ra­tor did not lead a charmed life, and did meet Suzanne. She was beau­ti­ful, as we know from the end­ing, and the two often met. He fell in love with her and she with him, but some­thing went wrong. The re­la­tion­ship ended in ac­ri­mo­ny. He was so em­bit­tered by this that he ex­punged all traces of Suzanne from his life, and only al­lowed him­self to re­mem­ber it decades later when he runs into her daugh­ter. (Pre­sum­ably she grew up and even­tu­ally mar­ried some­one else.)

This ex­plains the lack of pho­tos in the nar­ra­tor’s pos­ses­sion, the dat­ing, why the friend ex­pects him to rec­og­nize the girl, and even the de­tailed de­scrip­tion of the girl14.

But this the­ory is un­sat­is­fy­ing in some re­spects:

  1. There’s noth­ing par­tic­u­larly as­tound­ing about this time­line
  2. It does­n’t ex­plain the quilt in­ter­lude
  3. It does­n’t ex­plain the pe­cu­liar Pie Club pho­to­graph
  4. It does­n’t ex­plain the ‘un­able to be pho­tographed’ list­ing
  5. The Span­ish In­fluenza anom­aly goes un­ex­plained

Affair & pregnancy

This vari­ant at­tempts to fix prob­lems 3 & 4 by ex­pand­ing the hid­den story a bit more. In this ver­sion, the nar­ra­tor had a re­la­tion­ship with Suzan­ne, the two teenagers fooled around too much, and she got preg­nant15. This im­proves on the above as now we have a solid ex­pla­na­tion for the odd Pie Club pho­to: the girls are loosely grouped around some­thing so Suzan­ne’s bulging belly could be hid­den. She was­n’t pho­tographed for a sim­i­lar rea­son—in the 1910s, when the story is set, teenage preg­nancy would be ex­tremely shame­ful.

But this raises an is­sue. The nar­ra­tor says he has learned and prac­ticed a pro­fes­sion, been mar­ried twice, and re­tired. Fur­ther, the high­school pho­tos miss­ing from his year­books were re­moved ‘many decades ago’. The daugh­ter at the end is surely in her teen­s—the nar­ra­tor guesses 15, and could­n’t be too badly wrong (a 25 year old looks quite differ­ent from a 15 year old, and a 15 year old looks even more differ­ent from a 5 year old). So how could the daugh­ter at the end be the baby Suzanne was preg­nant with many decades ago? The daugh­ter should be in her 30s or 40s, and surely at least her 20s.

They have an affair in high school, and a kid. The daugh­ter then grows up, and is 20 or so; this puts the nar­ra­tor at ~35 (), and the daugh­ter has a daugh­ter; the grand­daugh­ter needs 15 years or so to be­come the at­trac­tive teenager at the end, which puts the nar­ra­tor at ~50 (). This might work with the early re­tire­ment, since the tra­di­tional re­tire­ment age was ~60-7016.

But if the daugh­ter at the end is­n’t Suzanne & the nar­ra­tor’s daugh­ter, then who is she? This the­ory solves the is­sue of the pho­tos, but it in­tro­duces sev­eral new en­ti­ties—whomever Suzanne mar­ries and her off­spring by him, or if the sight­ing is of Suzanne and the nar­ra­tor’s grand­daugh­ter, whom their daugh­ter mar­ried.

(Note that this the­ory still suffers from prob­lems #1, 2, and 5.)

Spanish influenza

On re­flec­tion, one strik­ing part of the story is

On one of the clos­ing pages a woe­be­gone roll of names re­minds me of some­thing I had for­got­ten for many years-that there was an epi­demic of some kind (I think Span­ish in­fluen­za) just at the time the pic­tures for the an­nual were to be tak­en. Suzanne is listed as one of those ‘un­able to be pho­tographed.’

The first time through, one prob­a­bly fo­cuses on the un­able to be pho­tographed. Sus­pi­cious! But ac­tu­al­ly, what should alarm us is the in­fluen­za. He for­got it for many years? It was an epi­demic of some kind? The was a pan­demic that killed half its vic­tims and re­sulted in up to 100 mil­lion deaths. Yes, 100 mil­lion. To for­get about such a thing would be like for­get­ting about World War II, or the Black Plague, or the Civil War. It’s not even plau­si­ble with­out very strange go­ing ons17. Gerry Quinn sug­gests that per­haps it was a parental coverup or ac­tu­ally a ref­er­ence to a later & milder flu epi­demic18, and Jerry Fried­man that the Span­ish In­fluenza is com­monly de­scribed as “the for­got­ten epi­demic” with mul­ti­ple waves, some not very lethal at all.

The men­tion of Span­ish In­fluenza also serves to date the high­school years of Suzanne and the nar­ra­tor to within World War I; the recre­ations de­scribed are con­sis­tent with that pe­riod19.

Ives De­lage, in­ci­den­tal­ly, died in 1920—not long after the Span­ish In­fluenza pan­demic of 1918.

Smallpox

The ex­pe­di­tions of Suzan­ne’s mother and the nar­ra­tor’s mother turn up a blan­ket—­such tex­tiles be­ing the pro­fessed point. The blan­ket goes to Suzan­ne’s mother per­haps. But amaz­ing­ly, it is one of the in­fa­mous blan­kets used by small­pox vic­tims and given to the In­di­ans. Or per­haps it was just an in­fected blan­ket. Re­gard­less, the mir­a­cle the nar­ra­tor al­ludes to is how the bac­te­ria have man­aged to sur­vive 2 cen­turies or more to in­fect some­one.

Small­pox fa­mously scars vic­tims; Suzan­ne’s beauty would be ut­terly marred. Per­haps she would be made hideous. Re­gard­less, the nar­ra­tor would feel guilty about his fam­i­ly’s re­spon­si­bil­ity in mak­ing such a poi­so­nous gift.

The scar­ring also ex­plains the lack of pho­tos, and the old pho­tos pre-s­car­ring are de­stroyed out of guilt and shame. That small­pox could re­turn and the nar­ra­tor for­get about it for many decades might strike us as un­like­ly, but the Span­ish In­fluenza men­tions re­mind us that the nar­ra­tor has al­ready done ex­actly that20—for­got­ten a hideous dis­ease that killed un­told mil­lions.

This the­ory works out pretty well. One might quib­ble about small­pox sur­vival be­ing all that amaz­ing, and point out that the en­mity of the old lady is still un­ex­plained, and we still need to as­sume that at a very late date Suzanne mar­ried and had a child, but this the­ory seems as solid as the vam­pirism one.

Objections

Dan’l Danehy Oakes writes:

the small­pox bit won’t wash, not in a quilt from Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion times. While the idea of lep­rosy com­ing through in­fected items might have oc­curred to some colonists (via the Bib­li­cal pre­cepts there­on), it’s un­likely that any­one would have tried to pass small­pox on through germ war­fare in those pre-van-Leeuwen­hoek days.

William and Mike re­ply, re­spec­tive­ly, that it is per­fectly plau­si­ble:

But, I was mo­ti­vated to find where I had read that this had hap­pened and, for­tu­nate­ly, it was­n’t hard. It is on p. 251 of Plagues and Peo­ples21:

‘The rav­ages of small­pox among In­di­ans may in fact have been as­sisted by de­lib­er­ate efforts at germ war­fare. In 1763, for in­stance, Lord Jeffery Amherst or­dered that blan­kets in­fected with small­pox be dis­trib­uted among en­emy tribes, and the or­der was acted on. Whether the re­sult was as ex­pected seems not record­ed.’

Ac­tu­ally the small­pox is pos­si­ble. I’ve read sev­eral ac­counts of Eu­ro­pean colonists and/or sol­diers giv­ing clothes/bed­clothes from small­pox vic­tims to Na­tive Amer­i­cans specifi­cally in the hope that they would catch the dis­ease.

Lesbian MILF

The two moth­ers were hav­ing a les­bian affair. The old bit­ter neigh­bor is a dis­carded lover of Suzan­ne’s moth­er; the beau­ti­ful young thing (pre­sum­ably Suzan­ne’s mother would be as beau­ti­ful as her grand­daugh­ter) jilts her for the nar­ra­tor’s moth­er. Their trips to the coun­try­side are ex­haust­ing, as they are the oc­ca­sion of marathon les­bian sex, and the mother be­comes ea­ger to go as her li­bido builds up again.22 Even­tu­ally the nar­ra­tor’s mother is her­self jilt­ed, and in re­venge she re­moves the pho­tographs of Suzanne from the year­book—she too painfully re­sem­bles her moth­er. The nar­ra­tor for­gets be­cause it’s all too sex­u­ally con­vo­luted for his ten­der Ed­war­dian teenage sen­si­bil­i­ties.

This sala­cious the­ory does­n’t ex­plain many im­por­tant points, though (non-pho­tographs, as­tound­ing event, the daugh­ter, etc.)

Ghosts

The WolfeWiki ar­ti­cle cov­ers the al­lu­sion to a sto­ry. In some way, the Span­ish In­fluen­za, the daugh­ter, and Suzanne come to­geth­er, but Adam Stephanides is none too clear about how ex­actly this ex­pla­na­tion works; he’s not alone in say­ing it feels ghost­ly, though.

There can only be one

Suzanne does­n’t ex­ist; there’s just her moth­er, re­ju­ve­nat­ing her­self. We meet her at the end, pos­ing as her own daugh­ter. The nar­ra­tor never met her as a child be­cause he only saw Suzan­ne’s moth­er, and she could­n’t ap­pear twice in the same place. This would work with the vam­pire the­ory as well23, or could per­haps be a cloning story akin to . How the nar­ra­tor would know it is the same woman (and hence ap­pre­ci­ate her unique­ness) is un­clear.

Send in the clones

David Stock­hoff24 ar­gues for cloning be­ing the skele­ton key to the sto­ry:

2. [Ives De­lage’s] Ar­ti­fi­cial fer­til­iza­tion of urchins: There are no co­in­ci­dences, or rather none that go un­ex­ploit­ed, in Wolfe. 3. The Snow White cor­re­spon­dence: We know Wolfe works this way, as com­mented in the en­try.

With­out hav­ing thought much about the sto­ry, I pro­pose that the story is ba­si­cally a Prous­t­ian mem­ory anec­dote draped on a Snow White frame, with cloning as a mech­a­nism to con­nect the two. The rest is noise.

Snow White

Robert Borski ar­gues in 2 emails in 1998 (1, 2), and in his 2006 The Long and the Short of It (which rel­e­vant sec­tion is the same as the first email with some more quotes), that the es­o­teric story of “Suzanne De­lage” is ac­tu­ally “”, just as many other Wolfe works are par­o­dies, homages, in­ver­sions, or retellings of other clas­sic works. His points:

  • the daugh­ter’s ap­pear­ance is al­most ex­actly that of Dis­ney’s Snow White
  • ‘Suzanne’ et­y­mo­log­i­cally goes back to ‘lily’ (as in white)25
  • the nam­ing of the girls ‘queens’
  • the old neigh­bor women is the wicked witch
  • the mu­ti­la­tion of the year­books is the de­struc­tion of the magic mir­ror
  • the pie club is meant to bring up ap­ples, like the poi­soned ap­ple in SW
  • Span­ish In­fluenza has some­times been called ‘sleep­ing sick­ness’

And the in­ver­sion is that the nar­ra­tor was not manly enough, too in­ter­ested in sex, not no­ble & princely enough to be Suzan­ne’s prince, which is why he never again saw her.

Missed chances

Some posters avoided ex­plain­ing the anom­alies, say­ing there’s noth­ing there ex­cept Prous­t­ian melan­choly, stop look­ing for clones or vam­pires al­ready!26

If you need hor­ror, the waste of a man’s life be hor­ror enough. Gerry Quinn ably de­scribes this in­ter­pre­ta­tion27:

This man’s life is empty and blight­ed. Why? Be­cause by some per­verse op­er­a­tion of chance, he has never met his other half, the woman he is made to love….

At the end after “the usual half teas­ing re­proaches about my (sup­posed) gay bach­e­lor life” he sees and is en­chanted by Suzan­ne’s daugh­ter, who is (we are told) the im­age of Suzanne at the age when he should have met her. There is no auc­to­r­ial du­plic­ity here. She is in­deed the daugh­ter, not Suzan­ne, and she is in­deed the im­age of Suzanne. The de­scrip­tion is de­lib­er­ately sen­su­ous in re­gard to her body “the vir­ginal breasts half afraid to press the soft an­gora of her sweater, nor the lit­tle waist I might have cir­cled with my two hands”, and also refers to her spirit “vi­vac­ity cou­pled with an in­no­cence and in­tel­li­gence that were hers alone”. There is no doubt here—this is the im­age of the woman he would have loved. If only he had met her.

By some per­verse con­spir­acy of chance or fate he did not, and his life has been wast­ed.

This in­ter­pre­ta­tion may not seem to sat­isfy some of the more no­table prob­lems, but it has been ar­gued that the ‘con­spir­acy of chance or fate’ (pos­si­bly su­per­nat­ural28) is ex­tra­or­di­nary enough to ful­fill the nar­ra­tor’s promise of a re­mark­able point to his story29.

Shaggy dog story

Pe­ter Wright’s At­tend­ing Daedalus ar­gues that it is a prank on the read­er—how long can Gene write an ‘un­canny tale’ be­fore the reader re­al­izes that there’s noth­ing ac­tu­ally un­canny there?

For ex­am­ple, in ‘Suzanne De­lage’—which has pro­voked sig­nifi­cant dis­cus­sion on the In­ter­net—­Wolfe leads the reader to be­lieve that the text is an un­canny tale by im­i­tat­ing the ini­tial nar­ra­tive stages of such sto­ries. If the reader is ac­quainted with su­per­nat­ural fic­tion, he or she re­calls its con­ven­tions and may be­gin to ac­cept Wolfe’s text as an ex­am­ple of the genre when, in fact, the story ac­tu­ally sub­verts rather than re­pro­duces the form. Riffaterre re­marks that, ‘In a re­sponse ren­dered com­pul­sive, and fa­cil­i­tated by the fa­mil­iar mod­el, as soon as the reader no­tices a pos­si­ble sub­sti­tutabil­i­ty, he or she au­to­mat­i­cally yields to the temp­ta­tion to ac­tu­alise it.’ In the case of ‘Suzanne De­lage’, the ‘fa­mil­iar model’ is the weird tale. The reader ac­cepts the story as such be­cause he or she sees a ‘pos­si­ble sub­sti­tutabil­ity’ and sub­se­quently ac­tu­alises that sub­sti­tu­tion only to dis­cover his or her ex­pec­ta­tions un­der­cut.30

Gerry Quinn offers the sug­ges­tion that the dull in­ci­dent is sim­ply the best that the nar­ra­tor can do in try­ing to come up with in­ter­est­ing in­ci­dents:

That’s [‘that every man has had in the course of his life some ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­pe­ri­ence’] what the nar­ra­tor thinks is the premise. He tries to find a mem­ory of an ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­pe­ri­ence in his life, and can­not. Then he re­alises that there is one—his hav­ing lived in a small town with a girl whose name he often heard, but whom he never met….In fact, what hap­pens in the story is not so very far from this: cer­tainly there is a dis­lo­ca­tion of prob­a­bil­i­ty, and the nar­ra­tor had for­got­ten it un­til he thought about it. And at the end he still does not, per­haps, recog­nise the im­pli­ca­tions and how im­por­tant it has been for him: that might also be con­sid­ered a kind of for­get­ting.

Just be­cause it is in a fan­tasy col­lec­tion does­n’t mean there have to be ghosts or vam­pires…The ti­tle is ex­plained well enough by it be­ing the name of a girl the nar­ra­tor should have met but never did, just like the girl in Proust. And I don’t think the story sucks at al­l—in fact, I like it a lot. The best fan­tasy is often that which is clos­est to re­al­i­ty.

Dan’l Dane­hy-Oakes has a sim­i­lar view:

A cou­ple of the short pieces, OTOH, just leave me go­ing, “Huh?” I sus­pect that in a cou­ple of cas­es, what’s go­ing on is just what’s go­ing on. I re­mem­ber all the spec­u­la­tion here about “Suzanne De­lage”; on reread­ing that story a month or two ago, I came away firmly con­vinced that it was just about what it says it’s about, the cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing an event that the nar­ra­tor sim­ply can­not re­mem­ber be­cause it fails to fit into the con­text of his life. Be­cause he can’t re­mem­ber it, he can’t re­ally tell us any­thing about it, and so we can­not know what it is. End of sto­ry. (If any­one wants to say that this makes the story point­less I won’t ar­gue; I find it en­ter­tain­ing on its own terms.)

Further Reading

  • Re­port­edly, Wolfe’s short story “Pro­cre­ation” has a sim­i­lar am­ne­sia theme.

  1. ed. and , 1980; there’s a more com­plete pub­li­ca­tion his­tory at Au­thor Wars↩︎

  2. Surely the fa­mous quote from the 5th scene of the 1st act—“There are more things in heaven and earth, Ho­r­a­tio, Than are dreamt of in your phi­los­o­phy.”↩︎

  3. Dan’l sources this to , Chap­ter V:

    A thing can some­times be too ex­tra­or­di­nary to be re­mem­bered. If it is clean out of the course of things, and has ap­par­ently no causes and no con­se­quences, sub­se­quent events do not re­call it, and it re­mains only a sub­con­scious thing, to be stirred by some ac­ci­dent long after.

    ↩︎
  4. For ex­am­ple in En­dan­gered Species, “The De­tec­tive of Dreams” is straight­for­ward once you re­al­ize the dreams are Gospel sto­ries.↩︎

  5. http://www.urth.net/urth/archives/v0010/0111.shtml↩︎

  6. http://www.urth.net/urth/archives/v0011/0014.shtml↩︎

  7. Gerry Quinn points out that the nar­ra­tor does­n’t claim that; rather, his friend with him tells him that the ‘charm­ing child’ looks like Suzanne De­lage.↩︎

  8. ‘“Tell me about the Lex­i­con Urthus”: an in­ter­view with Michael An­dre-Driussi’↩︎

  9. http://www.urth.net/urth/archives/v0011/0014.shtml↩︎

  10. http://list­s.urth.net/piper­mail/urth-urth.net/2010-De­cem­ber/019137.html↩︎

  11. http://www.urth.net/urth/archives/v0010/0113.shtml↩︎

  12. http://www.urth.net/urth/archives/v0010/0105.shtml↩︎

  13. http://www.urth.net/urth/archives/v0010/0125.shtml↩︎

  14. http://www.urth.net/urth/archives/v0010/0125.shtml↩︎

  15. http://www.urth.net/urth/archives/v0010/0109.shtml↩︎

  16. Con­sider the usual re­tire­ment ages for pro­grams like So­cial Se­cu­ri­ty.↩︎

  17. http://www.urth.net/urth/archives/v0010/0135.shtml↩︎

  18. Gerry Quinn:

    …Not so weird even if it was the 1918 epi­dem­ic. Par­ents prob­a­bly tried to pro­tect their chil­dren from learn­ing too much about it. But it could have been a lat­er, milder flu epi­dem­ic. Maybe peo­ple over­re­acted to flu for a bit.

    ↩︎
  19. http://www.urth.net/urth/archives/v0011/0021.shtml↩︎

  20. http://www.urth.net/urth/archives/v0010/0145.shtml↩︎

  21. William H. Mac­Neill, Plagues and Peo­ples, 1976, An­chor Press/­Dou­ble­day, Gar­den City, New York. ISBN: 0-385-11256-4↩︎

  22. http://www.urth.net/urth/archives/v0011/0014.shtml↩︎

  23. http://www.urth.net/urth/archives/v0010/0113.shtml↩︎

  24. http://list­s.urth.net/piper­mail/urth-urth.net/2010-De­cem­ber/019115.html↩︎

  25. Mes­sages hid­den in char­ac­ter names and ono­mas­tics are an­other clas­sic Wolfe tech­nique.↩︎

  26. http://www.urth.net/urth/archives/v0010/0121.shtml, http://www.urth.net/urth/archives/v0010/0140.shtml↩︎

  27. http://list­s.urth.net/piper­mail/urth-urth.net/2010-De­cem­ber/019108.html↩︎

  28. http://list­s.urth.net/piper­mail/urth-urth.net/2010-De­cem­ber/019132.html↩︎

  29. http://list­s.urth.net/piper­mail/urth-urth.net/2010-De­cem­ber/019144.html↩︎

  30. pg 46 of At­tend­ing Daedalus↩︎