The many interpretations of a Wolfe story which remains a mystery.
“Suzanne Delage” is a short story by the SF author Gene Wolfe, 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.
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.”
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—Damien 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).
Michael Andre-Driussi identified the name “Suzanne Delage” as being taken directly from Marcel Proust; 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 Le Côté de Guermantes, the third book in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. 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 GEnie; 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
In Proust’s narrative, however, neither the girl nor the fact of him not meeting her seem to be of any particular importance.
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 Ives Delage (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 red herring10?
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.
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).
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:
- There’s nothing particularly astounding about this timeline
- It doesn’t explain the quilt interlude
- It doesn’t explain the peculiar Pie Club photograph
- It doesn’t explain the ‘unable to be photographed’ listing
- 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 (15+20), 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 (35+15). 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.)
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 Spanish Influenza 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.
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.
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.
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.)
The WolfeWiki article covers the allusion to a Henry James 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 Fifth Head of Cerberus. 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.
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 “Snow White”, 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.
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 substantial 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.)
- Reportedly, Wolfe’s short story “Procreation” has a similar amnesia theme.
- “Investigations of a Dog”, Franz 1922
ed. Ursula K. LeGuin and Virginia Kidd, 1980; there’s a more complete publication history at Author Wars↩︎
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.”↩︎
Dan’l sources this to G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, 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.
For example in Endangered Species, “The Detective of Dreams” is straightforward once you realize the dreams are Gospel stories.↩︎
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.↩︎
‘“Tell me about the Lexicon Urthus”: an interview with Michael Andre-Driussi’↩︎
Consider the usual retirement ages for programs like Social Security.↩︎
…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.
William H. MacNeill, Plagues and Peoples, 1976, Anchor Press/Doubleday, Garden City, New York. ISBN: 0-385-11256-4↩︎
Messages hidden in character names and onomastics are another classic Wolfe technique.↩︎
pg 46 of Attending Daedalus↩︎