William Gaddis’s Zebra Skin

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From Matthew Erickson’s article “Mysterious Skin: The Realia of William Gaddis” at The Paris Review. From the article:

What the researcher, or even the dilettante, might want to know is how an author’s material surroundings and posthumous personal effects might distill and leak into their work. Most often, the realia from a literary archive are the typical objects that we would associate with the physical act of writing, such as it is: fountain pens, stationery, reading glasses, ashtrays. Essentially, these objects are to dead authors what the items in Hard Rock Cafe display cases are to dead rock stars: memorabilia. Hendrix’s famous acid-soaked headband or Faulkner’s famous tin of beloved pipe tobacco, take your pick. This fact makes an author’s nonwriterly objects stand out and seem more significant, more imbued with potential coded meaning. Indeed, zebras and their skins do make appearances within Gaddis’s fiction, so the poor beast in the special collections isn’t entirely irrelevant when considering his corpus. A rolled-up zebra skin appears midway through Carpenter’s Gothic (“He’d kicked aside a cobwebbed roll of canvas, the black on white, or was it white on black roll of a hide …”), sporadically emerging from the silent background and into the incessant stream of dialog that makes up the majority of the text. In JR, the downtrodden composer Edward Bast is commissioned to write a score of “zebra music” for a documentary being made by the big-game hunter and stockbroker Crawley, in a lobbying effort to convince Congress to introduce various African species, zebras included, into the U.S. National Parks system…

I Review Object Lessons, Where 20 Contemporary Authors Select and Introduce 20 Short Stories from The Paris Review

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Object Lessons anthologizes 20 stories published in the Paris Review over the past fifty years. “It is not a greatest hits anthology,” advises the brief editor’s note, “Instead, we asked twenty masters of the genre to choose a story from the Paris Review archives—a personal favorite—and to describe the key to its success as a work of fiction.” Hence, we get Ann Beattie introducing Craig Nova’s “Another Drunk Gambler,” Amy Hempel introducing Bernard Cooper’s “Old Birds,” and Sam Lipsyte introducing Mary Robinson’s “Likely Lake.”

Most of the introductions are short—most are fewer than three pages—and each author approaches his or her selection differently. Ben Marcus, prefacing “Several Garlic Tales,” tells us that, “Donald Barthelme was a magician of language, and it would be most respectful, perhaps even ethical, not to look too closely into the workings of his magic.” Marcus proposes a few approaches to find meaning in Barthelme’s surreal tale, but never over-explicates. In contrast, Lydia Davis’s surprisingly long intro to Jane Bowles’s “Emmy Moore’s Journal” is a sentence-to-paragraph close reading; Davis interrogates Bowles’s diction and syntax and concludes her little essay by situating Bowles’s (underappreciated) place in the canon. Davis’s insights are compelling, but one wonders if they wouldn’t be better appreciated after reading the story.

Davis also appears as author of one of the selected stories—Ali Smith picks Davis’s excellent number “Ten Stories from Flaubert.” Smith’s intro is wonderful, explaining the genesis of “Ten Stories,” which “came about when Davis (who is also a translator) was working on a a new translation of Madame Bovary and reading through Flaubert’s letters to his friend and lover Louise Colet.” I’m a huge fan of Lydia Davis, whose work defies easy definition. Smith wonders about her selection: “Are they translations? Are they by Flaubert? Are they by Davis?” The questions are better than answers.

Occasionally an author veers close to spoiling the story he introduces, as does Jeffrey Eugenides when he gracelessly steps all over Denis Johnson’s already-much-anthologized classic “Car Crash While Hitch Hiking.” Elsewhere, Jonathan Lethem mashes and minces misplaced metaphors in his confusing and forgettable introduction to Thomas Glynn’s story “Except for the Sickness I’m Quite Healthy Now. You Can Believe That.” Lethem’s sloppy, unrestrained attempt to dazzle is regrettable. He’s like the warm-up act that tries too hard to show up the headliner and winds up falling on his face.

For the most part though, the introductions simply allow readers new ways to see a story they’ve perhaps read before, as in Aleksandar Hemon’s preface to Jorge Luis Borges’s “Funes the Memorious” or David Means’s preface to Raymond Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance.” Means suggests that “A great story is like an itch that has to be scratched eternally . . . We’re left with more questions than answers, and more answers than questions; therefore, the paradoxical quality of a good story is that it seems to give us everything we need and yet not quite enough to fulfill a sense of having been shown a full life.” Surprisingly good is Dave Eggers’s intro to James Salter’s “Bangkok,” which reads almost like a loose riff of notes that a harried but talented adjunct might bring to his Creative Writing 101 workshop. Eggers showcases keen intuition about Salter’s narrative coupled with an eagerness that makes one want to read the story.

And what about those stories? If I’ve focused more on the introductions than the stories themselves, it’s perhaps because I’ve taken for granted that the selections are solid for an anthology. Sure, any reader might have his or her gripes, but the range of talent here is undeniable, and the spectrum of stories is satisfying. Object Lessons would make a fine addition to the syllabus of any beginning writing course, and any young person interested in honing her craft could do worse than attending the examples collected here. To be clear, Object Lessons is in no way some master course in How to Write a Short Story, but it does provide the most valuable writer’s tool—good reading.

Samuel Delany on Sex and Prose

From Samuel Delany’s interview with Paris Review last year

INTERVIEWER

You describe learning, as a young teenager, that a sexual fantasy you hadn’t yet written down could be eked out for a number of days or even weeks, whereas putting it on the page—using what you call “the whole narrative excess we think of as realism”—would make it briefly far more exciting, but then leach it of all subsequent erotic charge. Do you still feel that tug between the urge to put something into language and the urge to fend off writing?

DELANY

I still feel that style is important for reading pleasure, and sex is important for pleasure in life. Each appeases a different type of desire. And while I find nothing shameful in taking direct erotic pleasure from reading or writing, I don’t think they entail a necessary relation. The processes you have me describing are contingent psychological processes. Neither marks one end nor the other of any necessary or even philosophical relationship. Do I still feel the tug between the urge to put something into writing and the urge to fend it off? Less so as I get older. I shall always be able to come up with new fantasies. As long as there are people walking around in the street, as long as I have books to read and windows to look out of, I’m not going to use them up. I assume the universe will go on providing me with many more. The man I’ve lived quite happily with for twenty-two years provides me with much of my sexual satisfaction, physical and psychological. But, no, not all—thank Deus sive Natura, to borrow a phrase from Spinoza. Nor do I provide all his. What an unachievable responsibility!

John Steinbeck on Work Habits

Mark Twain used to write in bed—so did our greatest poet. But I wonder how often they wrote in bed—or whether they did it twice and the story took hold. Such things happen. Also I would like to know what things they wrote in bed and what things they wrote sitting up. All of this has to do with comfort in writing and what its value is. I should think that a comfortable body would let the mind go freely to its gathering.

You know I always smoke a pipe when I work—at least I used to and now I have taken it up again. It is strange—as soon as a pipe begins to taste good, cigarettes become tasteless. I find I smoke fewer and fewer cigarettes. Maybe I can cut them out entirely for a while. This would be a very good thing. Even with this little change, my deep-seated and perennial cigarette cough is going away. A few months without that would be a real relief.

I have dawdled away a good part of my free time now carving vaguely on a scrap of mahogany, but I guess I have been thinking too. Who knows. I sit here in a kind of a stupor and call it thought.

Now I have taken the black off my desk again, clear down to the wood, and have put a green blotter down. I am never satisfied with my writing surface.

My choice of pencils lies between the black Calculator stolen from Fox Films and this Mongol 2 3/8 F which is quite black and holds its point well—much better in fact than the Fox pencils. I will get six more or maybe four more dozen of them for my pencil tray.

I have found a new kind of pencil—the best I have ever had. Of course it costs three times as much too but it is black and soft but doesn’t break off. I think I will always use these. They are called Blackwings and they really glide over the paper.

In the very early dawn, I felt a fiendish desire to take my electric pencil sharpener apart. It has not been working very well and besides I have always wanted to look at the inside of it. So I did and found that certain misadjustments had been made at the factory. I corrected them, cleaned the machine, oiled it and now it works perfectly for the first time since I have it. There is one reward for not sleeping.

Today is a dawdly day. They seem to alternate. I do a whole of a day’s work and then the next day, flushed with triumph, I dawdle. That’s today. The crazy thing is that I get about the same number of words down either way. This morning I am clutching the pencil very tight and this is not a good thing. It means I am not relaxed. And in this book I want to be just as relaxed as possible. Maybe that is another reason I am dawdling. I want that calmness to settle on me that feels so good—almost like a robe of cashmere it feels.

It has been a good day of work with no harm in it. I have sat long over the desk and the pencil has felt good in my hand. Outside the sun is very bright and warm and the buds are swelling to a popping size. I guess it is a good thing I became a writer. Perhaps I am too lazy for anything else.

On the third finger of my right hand I have a great callus just from using a pencil for so many hours every day. It has become a big lump by now and it doesn’t ever go away. Sometimes it is very rough and other times, as today, it is as shiny as glass. It is peculiar how touchy one can become about little things. Pencils must be round. A hexagonal pencil cuts my fingers after a long day. You see I hold a pencil for about six hours every day. This may seem strange but it is true. I am really a conditioned animal with a conditioned hand.

I am really dawdling today when what I want to write is in my head. It is said that many writers talk their books out and so do not write them. I think I am guilty of this to a large extent. I really talk too much about my work and to anyone who will listen. If I would limit my talk to inventions and keep my big mouth shut about work, there would probably be a good deal more work done.

The callus on my writing finger is very sore today. I may have to sandpaper it down. It is getting too big.

The silly truth is that I can take almost any amount of work but I have little tolerance for confusion.

From John Steinbeck’s 1969 interview in The Paris Review.

Occupy Gaddis (A William Gaddis Resource Page)

Why Occupy Gaddis?

 The Gaddis Annotations is, like, the source

Biblioklept reviews J R (part 1)

Biblioklept reviews J R (part 2)

“Trickle-Up Economics: JR Goes to Washington” (1987 sequel to J R)

“Fire the Bastards!”: Jack Green’s wonderful rant against the critics who panned The Recognitions

Biblioklept reviews The Recognitions

William Gaddis fiction-to-music entelechy transducer

Gaddis’s interview with The Paris Review

Julian Schnabel’s Gaddis portrait:

Gaddis interview at The Dalkey Archive

Why did Gaddis write J R?

Biblioklept reviews Agapē Agape

“A well-meaning, sincere hypocrite” : Gaddis on his title character, JR (and capitalism)

“Authenticity’s wiped out” — A passage from Agapē Agape

“Recognizing Gaddis” (1987 NYT article)

William Gaddis’s self-portrait:

William Gaddis on the Pulitzer Prize: “The Ultimate Seal of Mediocrity”

Gaddis on hipsters

“Mr. Difficult” (Jonathan Franzen whines about Gaddis)

William Gaddis on James Joyce

The State of Gaddis

The Guardian review of Agapē Agape

Cynthia Ozick’s review of Carpenter’s Gothic

Gaddis annotates Thomas Bernhard

The failure of Gaddis

LRB review of Agapē Agape/The Rush for Second Place

William Gass on Gaddis, Calvino, Bernhard and More

In his Paris Review interview from 1977, William Gass riffs on the writers he admires:

INTERVIEWER

Who are some living novelists you respect?

GASS

Well, the question leaves out so many dead ones who are more alive. I think Barth is one of the great writers. I have admired his work since I first encountered it. I think he is incredible. Several of his books, in particular The Sot-Weed Factor, are the works which stand to my generation as Ulysses did to its. His habits of work are wholly unlike mine, and the kind of thing which engages him is quite different too. He is a great narrator, one of the best who ever plied the pen, as they used to say. He has been accused of being cold, purely mental, but I find him full of passion and excitement. And what I like about his work in great part is the unifying squeeze which that great intellectual grasp of his gives to his work, and the combination of enormous knowledge with fine feeling and artistic pride and energy and total control. I really admire a master. He’s one.

A lot of the work of Hawkes is extraordinary, breathtaking. Everybody likes Beckett. Now. It’s silly to mention Bellow, Borges, Nabokov—so obvious. And of course Stanley Elkin’s work I like enormously. Some of Coover’s, too, I find extraordinarily interesting. Control again. Gaddis. Control. Also Barthelme—a poet. A great many South American writers write rings around us. Infante’s Three Trapped Tigers is a great book. I taught Hopscotch once. I’ll never get over it. Márquez, Fuentes, Lima, Llosa . . . it is always an exciting time to be a reader. Lots of European writers are overblown, especially some of the French experimentalists, but Italo Calvino is wonderful. Thomas Bernhard’s The Lime Works is impressive. In general, I would think that at present prose writers are much in advance of the poets. In the old days, I read more poetry than prose, but now it is in prose where you find things being put together well, where there is great ambition, and equal talent. Poets have gotten so careless, it is a disgrace. You can’t pick up a page. All the words slide off.

“Give me half a bottle. Justice reigns” — Charles Olson in The Paris Review

Charles Olson’s interview with The Paris Review is one of the best things I’ve read in ages. Here’s a nice big chunk from the beginning:

CHARLES OLSON

Get a free chair and sit down. Don’t worry about anything. Especially this. We’re living beings and forming a society; we’re creating a total, social future. Don’t worry about it. The kitchen’s reasonably orderly. I crawled out of bed as sick as I was and threw a rug out the window.

INTERVIEWER

Now the first question I wanted to ask you. What fills your day?

OLSON

Nothing. But nothing, literally, except my friends.

INTERVIEWER

These are very straight questions.

OLSON

Ah, that’s what interviews are made of.

INTERVIEWER

Why have you chosen poetry as a medium of artistic creation?

OLSON

I think I made a hell of a mistake. That’s the first confidence I have. The other is that—I didn’t really have anything else to do. I mean I didn’t even have enough imagination to think of something else. I was supposed to go to Holy Cross because I wanted to play baseball. I did, too. That’s the only reason I wanted to go to Holy Cross. It had nothing to do with being a priest.

INTERVIEWER

Are you able to write poetry while remaining in the usual conditions of life—without renouncing or giving up anything?

OLSON

That’s the trouble. That’s what I’ve done. What I’ve caused and lost. That describes it perfectly. I’ve absolutely.

INTERVIEWER

Are the conditions of life at the beginning of a work . . .

OLSON

I’m afraid as well at the end. It’s like being sunk in a cockpit. I read the most beautiful story about how Will Rogers and Wiley Post were lost; they stomped onto a lake about ten miles from Anchorage, Alaska, to ask an Indian if Anchorage was in that direction and when they took off, they plunged back into the lake. The poor boy was not near enough to rescue them, so he ran ten miles to Anchorage to get the people to come out. He said one of the men had a sort of a cloth on his eye and the guy then knew Post and Rogers were lost. Wiley Post put down on pontoons; so he must have come up off this freshwater lake and went poomp. Isn’t that one of those great national treasures. I’ll deal you cards, man. I’ll make you a tarot.

INTERVIEWER

Does poetry constitute the aim of your existence?

OLSON

Of course I don’t live for poetry; I live far more than anybody else does. And forever and why not. Because it is the only thing. But what do you do meanwhile? So what do you do with the rest of the time? That’s all. I said I promised to witness. But I mean I can’t always.

INTERVIEWER

Would you say that the more you understand what you are doing in your writing, the greater the results?

OLSON

Well, it’s just one of those things that you’re absolutely so bitterly uninterested in that you can’t even live. Somehow it is so interesting that you can’t imagine. It is nothing, but it breaks your heart. That’s all. It doesn’t mean a thing. Do you remember the eagle? Farmer Jones gets higher and higher and he is held in one of the eagle’s claws and he says you wouldn’t shit me would you? That’s one of the greatest moments in American poetry. In fact, it is the great moment in American poetry. What a blessing we got.

INTERVIEWER

Does Ezra Pound’s teaching bear any relevance to how your poems are formed on the page?

OLSON

My masters are pretty pertinent. Don’t cheat your own balloon. I mean—literally—like a trip around the moon—the Jules Verne—I read that trip . . . it is so completely applicable today. They don’t have any improvements yet.

INTERVIEWER

Do you write by hand or directly on the typewriter? Does either method indicate a specific way in which the poem falls on the page?

OLSON

Yeah. Robert Duncan is the first man to ask me the query. He discovered when he first came to see me that I wrote on the machine and never bothered to correct. There’s the stuff. Give me half a bottle. Justice reigns.