David Markson on Lowry, Gaddis, Vonnegut, Etc.

From David Markson’s 2007 interview in Conjunctions:

Harlin: Incidentally, you wrote your M.A. thesis on Malcolm Lowry, a relatively unknown writer at the time, and became very friendly with him. What was the impulse behind writing him?

Markson: A great percentage of the people in the world haven’t had this experience, but sometimes you read a book, and it’s almost as if it’s been written for you, or you’re the only one who really understands it. The impulse—creatively, artistically, spiritually—was to say, “Be my daddy. Be my father.” It took a letter or two, but obviously I struck a chord. He had done the same thing. As a young boy in England, he’d written to Conrad Aiken, he so admired Aiken’s poetry. I became friendly with Aiken, too, through Lowry. When Malc died, we got back in touch, and when he was in New York he would come to dinner. He kept a cold-water flat—are there still such things?—up on the East Side.

Harlin: You also became friends with Dylan Thomas and Kerouac.

Markson: The Dylan Thomas thing was a fluke. I don’t think I’d ever met a writer. Back then, I was only in correspondence with Lowry. Thomas did a reading, and on impulse I went backstage. You can’t imagine how popular he was or how highly thought-of he was, even though he was a legendary troublemaker. Out of the blue, I said, “How would you like to have a couple of drinks with some graduate students?” He said, “Yeah, I’ll meet you.” One thing led to another, and we had, at most, nine or ten evenings together. Kerouac was sheer chance and non-literary. My next door neighbor at the time, on 11th Street in the Village, was a recording engineer, and he was friendly with Jack. They used to listen to jazz together. In fact, this guy, who’s long-since dead, was one of the first to lug that old-style heavy equipment up to Harlem to record it. Jack loved it, and he’d go with him once in a while. He lived right next-door. Frequently, we’d go from apartment to apartment drinking together. Sometimes, Jack would come to New York, and this fellow, Jerry, would be away, so he’d ring our bell. For about two years—I’m guessing a dozen, fifteen times—the doorbell would ring, never a word in advance, and there he’d be, drunk as hell all the time. Generally he’d stay the night. One time he borrowed a T-shirt. He came back a week later, and we’re sitting in the living room, and I’m recognizing the outer shirt from a week before. I saw this filthy T-shirt and said, “You son of a bitch, is that the shirt of mine that you put on here a week ago?” And he said, “Well, I had a shower.” Then he stopped coming around; I guess he was in Florida. We just lost track of him, and the next thing I knew he was dead.

Harlin: There’s also William Gaddis.

Markson: I thought The Recognitions was—Lowry being English—the great American novel of that period. That’s the only other letter I wrote to a writer, but it was different from the Lowry one. When The Recognitions came out, it was shat on by every reviewer. They said, “How dare he write so long a book? How dare he deliberately try to create a masterpiece?” I wrote this casual letter, saying, “Screw them. Some of us out here know what you did.” When my wife and I went to Mexico for three years, an editor came down there, and Aiken had given him my name. We had him to dinner, and all I did was talk about The Recognitions. And this guy said, “Shut up already. Tell me about Mexico. I’ll read it when I get home.” And he did. The Recognitions came out in 1955, and this would have been about 1961. One day I get a letter there: “Dear David Markson, If I may presume to answer yours of”—whatever it was—”May 16, 1955.” It turned out that this editor, Aaron Asher, had come home, read the book, and decided to resurrect it. There had never been a paperback, and he put it in print, and it brought Gaddis back to life.

Harlin: Anyone else?

Markson: Kurt Vonnegut I’d known for about forty years. We weren’t that intimate, but for the last twenty years, he and I and two other people had dinner twice a year. And Joe Heller. We weren’t buddy-buddy, but I knew him before Catch-22. If you’re writing, who do you know? If you’re a lawyer, you know lawyers. If you’re a dentist, you know dentists. If you’re a writer, you know other writers. Heller was working in public relations. I remember when we came back from Mexico, one of the first people I saw said, “Hey, Joe Heller finished his book, and it’s great.” This all probably sounds very exotic. In fact, a book just came out recently called Sleeping with Bad Boys, by a woman named Alice Denham. She had been a Playboy centerfold, but she was the only Playboy centerfold who was the author of a short story in the same issue. I can say this, because she’s admitted it in her book, but she slept with everybody. She slept with James Jones, with Gaddis, a long list. She and Heller, for some reason, they would just neck or something. And she and I had an affair at one point. In fact, she refers to me as one of her favorite lovers. The Times review reported that she’d slept with this one and that one and then quoted something about each person. After my name, “the novelist David Markson,” was “stud lover boy.” And here I am seventy-nine years old! I still run into Alice; she lives a couple of blocks from me.

 

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Novels That Will Be Considered the Most Important Literary Works of the Twentieth Century in the Year 2100 (According to Dalkey Archive)

Novels That Will Be Considered the Most Important Literary Works of the Twentieth Century in the Year 2100

Nightwood, Djuna Barnes
Malone Dies, Samuel Beckett
Molloy, Samuel Beckett
The Unnamable, Samuel Beckett
The Lime Works, Thomas Bernhard
Nostromo, Joseph Conrad
JR, William Gaddis
The Recognitions, William Gaddis
Ulysses, James Joyce
One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
At Swim-Two-Birds, Flann O’Brien
The Inquisitory, Robert Pinget
Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust
Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon
Mulligan Stew, Gilbert Sorrentino

Speculative list from the Dalkey Archive (from an issue of their journal Context; compiled from responses  of “advisors at universities and bookstores”). I’m sure the fact that they publish several of these titles has nothing to do with these books’ inclusion. I’ve read all of seven of these, some of five of these, and none of three of these.

Some Annotations on the First Sentence of William Gaddis’s Last Novel, Agapē Agape

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1. Let’s start with the what:

Agapē Agape is the last novel by William Gaddis, that underread titan who gave us The Recognitions and J R. Agapē Agape was published in 2002, four years after Gaddis’s death. Agapē Agape is 96 pages in my Penguin Classics edition (the font is rather large, too)—almost exactly one-tenth the length of The Recognitions in my Penguin Classics edition, which is 956 pages (and in a smaller font).

2. And why?

Let’s say I’ve struggled with this review, perhaps more than I struggled with writing about J R (which I did here and here) or The Recognitions (which I did here and here), which seems nonsensical because those books are so big and this one is so short. But that’s a surface argument.

See, Agapē Agape is dense. It seems to compact and condense all of Gaddis’s themes and ideas and motifs into this little book that’s uranium heavy, too dense to allow for line breaks or paragraph breaks or indentations, let alone chapters. It’s one big block of text.

3. And so—

After reading the book twice I’ve marked every page (which is exactly like marking no pages), and at this point the only way that I can find to discuss it (I know there must be others) is to annotate the opening paragraph, its first sentence, really—which of course isn’t really a paragraph or a sentence in the traditional grammatical sense—I mean, there are a set of clauses, some fused sentences, perhaps a comma splice or two—but what marks it as a discrete sentence is that it’s punctuated by a question mark, a tiny caesura before the next onslaught of words. (Some of Agapē Agape’s sentences go on for pages).

4. The style of Agapē Agape recalls Thomas Bernhard, who Gaddis’s narrator accuses of having plagiarized the book that the narrator has yet to write. The accusation (ironic, purposefully, of course) points to Agapē Agape’s concern for synthesis, for transmitting some clear thesis statement out of the muddle of Western culture. Agapē Agape tries to suss out that muddle and as such is larded with discussions of Plato, Nietzsche, Melville, Hawthorne, Byron, Freud (“Sigi”!), Bach, Caesar, Joyce, Pulitzer, Tolstoy, Frankenstein, Huizinga, Pound, Philo T. Farnsworth, player-pianos . . . It overwhelms the narrator; it overwhelms the reader. But enough dithering—

5. —here is the opening sentence:

No but you see I’ve got to explain all this because I don’t, we don’t know how much time there is left and I have to work on the, to finish this work of mine while I, why I’ve brought in this whole pile of books notes pages clippings and God knows what, get it all sorted and organized when I get this property divided up and the business and worries that go with it while they keep me here to be cut up and scraped and stapled and cut up again my damn leg look at it, layered with staples like that old suit of Japanese armour in the dining hall feel like I’m being dismantled piece by piece, houses, cottages, stables orchards and all the damn decisions and distractions I’ve got the papers land surveys deeds and all of it right in this heap somewhere, get it cleared up and settled before everything collapses and it’s all swallowed up by lawyers and taxes like everything else because that’s what it’s about, that’s what my work is about, the collapse of everything, of meaning, of values, of art, disorder and dislocation wherever you look, entropy drowning everything in sight, entertainment and technology and every four year old with a computer, everybody his own artist where the whole thing came from, the binary system and the computer where technology came from in the first place, you see?

6. “No but you see I’ve got to explain all this because I don’t, we don’t know how much time there is left and I have to work on the, to finish this work of mine while I,”

Ulysses ends with a “Yes”; Agapē Agape begins with a “No.” This is a deeply negative book, cruel almost, bitter, caustic, acidic, but also erudite, funny, and even charming. We see right away the narrator—surely a version of Gaddis himself—concerned with the ancient problem of communication, the problem that occupied Plato and every philosopher since: “I’ve got to explain all this.” We also see here the same stream-of-consciousness technique here that Joyce used so frequently in Ulysses (putting aside Gaddis’s denials of a Joyce influence)—the suspended referent, the unnamed (the unnameable?): “I have to work on the, to finish this work of mine while I”—while I what? Still can? Still live? From the outset, Agapē Agape is a contest against time, death, and entropy.

7. “why I’ve brought in this whole pile of books notes pages clippings and God knows what, get it all sorted and organized”

Synthesis, synthesis, synthesis. Making books out of other books. Plugging literature into other literature. I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors-and-paste man, said someone once. And then others said it again. And then I cited it here, now.

I’m reminded here of a list that Gibbs (erstwhile Gaddis stand-in in J R) keeps in his pocket, a scrap paper crammed with ideas, fragments, citations:

Is it possible to get it sorted?

Recall now Gaddis’s hero Ezra Pound. From Tom McCarthy’s essay on synthesis, “Transmission and the Individual Remix”:

With the Cantos, he kept up this furious enterprise for five whole decades, ramping its intensity up and up until the overload destroyed him, blew his mind to pieces, leaving him to murmur, right toward the end: “I cannot make it cohere.”

It is the reader’s job to make Agapē Agape cohere.

8. “when I get this property divided up and the business and worries that go with it”

Agapē Agape may be said to have a few formalizing plots beyond its object of synthesizing Western culture vis-à-vis art and entertainment.

One of these formalizing elements is the idea of an old man divvying up his property to his daughters. Oh, hey, King Lear anyone? What’s most interesting to me about this plot (okay, more of a motif really) is that it’s the only allusive device that the narrator doesn’t remark upon. We have a narrator who’s trying to control all these notes and clippings, all these scraps of culture, a narrator with a sharp (if distracted intelligence) who nevertheless fails to remark upon the fact that his personal circumstances echo the great dismal swan song of English literature. King Lear: madness, unraveling, degeneracy, death, entropy.

9. “while they keep me here to be cut up and scraped and stapled and cut up again my damn leg look at it, layered with staples like that old suit of Japanese armour in the dining hall feel like I’m being dismantled piece by piece,”

Another formalizing element in Agapē Agape are the health issues the narrator faces, presumably a series of surgeries that involve at least one of his legs. The motif of surgeries, of transplants, and implants runs throughout The Recognitions and J R as well. In The Recognitions we get poor Stanley’s mother’s amputated leg, another strange reliquary trace floating through the text. In J R, we get Cates prepped for a heart transplant, yet another organ transferral for this massive man. There’s the idea here of borrowed parts, that humans might not be “natural,” cohesive entities but rather a collection of parts that may be swapped out. Again, synthesis in the face of break down; the surgeon as entropy repairman.

10. “houses, cottages, stables orchards and all the damn decisions and distractions I’ve got the papers land surveys deeds and all of it right in this heap somewhere, get it cleared up and settled before everything collapses and it’s all swallowed up by lawyers and taxes like everything else because that’s what it’s about,”

Here, the personal, the concrete, the immediate, and the real tips into what Gaddis took to be the grand subject of his corpus—collapse, chaos, entropy. Spelled out clearly in the next line:

11. “that’s what my work is about, the collapse of everything, of meaning, of values, of art, disorder and dislocation wherever you look, entropy drowning everything in sight,”

I don’t think commentary from me is necessary here. Instead, let me share a quote from Gibbs in J R, ranting to his young students:

Before we go any further here, has it ever occurred to any of you that all this is simply one grand misunderstanding? Since you’re not here to learn anything, but to be taught so you can pass these tests, knowledge has to be organized so it can be taught, and it has to be reduced to information so it can be organized do you follow that? In other words this leads you to assume that organization is an inherent property of the knowledge itself, and that disorder and chaos are simply irrelevant forces that threaten it from the outside. In fact it’s the opposite. Order is simply a thin, perilous condition we try to impose on the basic reality of chaos . . .

12. “entertainment and technology and every four year old with a computer, everybody his own artist where the whole thing came from, the binary system and the computer where technology came from in the first place, you see?”

The age of the amateur. Paint-by-numbers. Everyone wants to write a novel but no one wants to read one. Etc. When the narrator grumbles “where technology came from in the first place,” he means entertainment. That’s one thesis in Agapē Agape: that the technological progress we so value, that so underwrites the march of our grand civilization has its roots in toymaking and child’s play.

13. The novel that follows this addled, rattled opening line is remarkable for its brilliance, its cruelty, but most of all its sheer verbal force. Gaddis showed a mastery of voice in J R, a heteroglossic novel of speech, speech, speech, a grand dare to any reader, I suppose. Agapē Agape is even more stripped down, the monologue of a dying voice, a voice that’s been too-long ignored and under-appreciated. I don’t know if something so sad, so personally sad can be called perfect, but I can’t think of a more appropriate or fitting final statement from Gaddis.

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

Book Shelves #21, 5.20.2012

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Book shelves series #21, twenty-first Sunday of 2012: William T. Vollmann and David Foster Wallace

Sorry about the glare in the photo above. As I seem to attest weekly, photography is hard. Photographing books is hard. Lighting issues, glare etc. Anyway, this shelf is half Vollmann, half DFW. I’ve written so extensively about these guys on the site that I won’t bother linking to anything here. A few months ago, Gaddis’s JR and The Recognitions was hanging out here, but then I put Expelled and Imperial on the shelf, bought Everything and More, and also picked up some more Gaddis, and, well, anyway, had to move him up with Joyce, where he seems to belong. The paperback of The Pale King is a review copy; it has additional stuff. Maybe I should part with the hardback. It seems ridiculous to have them both.

The copy of Girl with Curious Hair is extremely important to me, as silly as that sounds. It was one of the first books I ever “reviewed” on this blog, back when I still focused almost entirely on books I’d stolen or books I’d never returned to. From that review:

Scott Martin was kind enough to loan me this book. Did he know that it would forever change the way I read? It was the first semester of my freshman year in college, and I was slowly reaching beyond stuff like Henry Miller, Wm Burroughs and Franz Kafka. David Foster Wallace’s short story collection Girl With Curious Hair introduced me to a whole new world of writing. Reading DFW is like having a very witty friend tell you a moving and funny story over a few beers. He’s hilarious, thought-provoking, and not nearly as hard to read as people seem to think.

I leave the bookmark I’ve been using in almost every book I read. When I pulled Girl from the shelf, I found a Polaroid of my cat:

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He’s just a kitten here. His name is Remy. He no longer lives with us, but he’s still around. We moved a year ago from a bungalow set above the ground (i.e. with cat crawl space) to a ranch on a block (i.e. no crawl space). He didn’t want to move because he was having this romance with a stray my daughter named Pearly. I eventually trapped him and moved him to the new place, but I foolishly forgot he’d have no place to run and hide while getting acclimated. He ran away. A few months later I found him down the street. He looked happy and came up and talked to us. He followed us back to the new place and we gave him some people food treats. Then he left again. We seem him every now and then. He’s gotten surprisingly fat and seems to like the new people he’s taken up with. They have two boys, a little older than my kids. Sometimes I miss my cat.

Crews, Gaddis, Lish, Mutis (Books Acquired Late Last Week)

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I picked up Harry Crews’s novel The Knockout Artist, which I hadn’t read, after his recent death. I was not the only person to pick up Crews books: the Crews section of my favorite used bookstore, once swollen is now depleted (the omnibus and collections all snapped up).

William Gaddis’s last novel Agapē Agape was my occasion (as if I needed one) for visiting said store; I ordered it after finishing The Recognitions. I managed to bend the cover badly in the first five minutes of ownership. I started it over the weekend and then got distracted by a friend calling me to meet at a bar. I started it again last night and got about a third of the way in. Full review on the horizon.

I have no idea why I picked up Lish’s novel other than the fact that Lish is awesome; it’s a first edition paperback and the cover is awesome. Maybe that’s why. I have no idea when I’ll get around to reading it. Compulsive behaviors.

The Mutis novel, or collection of novellas, is half of the book that Dave Cianci aka Noquar reviewed on this blog  a few months ago. I wanted the full version, which collects six novellas, but I’ll settle for this (it’s used; I have store credit, etc.). Anyway, Noquar’s review made me want to read it, so I’ve slated it for summer reading (May?).

A Riff on William Gaddis’s The Recognitions

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1. I finished reading William Gaddis’s enormous opus The Recognitions a few days ago. I made a decent first attempt at the book in the summer of 2009, but wound up distracted not quite half way through, and eventually abandoned the book. I did, however, write about its first third. I will plunder occasionally from that write-up in this riff. Like here:

In William Gaddis‘s massive first novel, The Recognitions, Wyatt Gwyon forges paintings by master artists like Hieronymous Bosch, Hugo van der Goes, and Hans Memling. To be more accurate, Wyatt creates new paintings that perfectly replicate not just the style of the old masters, but also the spirit. After aging the pictures, he forges the artist’s signature, and at that point, the painting is no longer an original by Wyatt, but a “new” old original by a long-dead genius. The paintings of the particular artists that Wyatt counterfeits are instructive in understanding, or at least in hoping to understand how The Recognitions works. The paintings of Bosch, Memling, or Dierick Bouts function as highly-allusive tableaux, semiotic constructions that wed religion and mythology to art, genius, and a certain spectacular horror, and, as such, resist any hope of a complete and thorough analysis. Can you imagine, for example, trying to catalog and explain all of the discrete images in Bosch’s triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights? And then, after creating such a catalog, explaining the intricate relationships between the different parts? You couldn’t, and Gaddis’s novel is the same way.

I still feel the anxiety dripping from that lede, the sense that The Recognitions might be a dare beyond my ken. Mellower now, I’m content to riff.

2. I read this citation in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Human, All Too Human, Part II the other night, mentally noting, “cf. Gaddis”:

188. The Muses as Liars. —“We know how to tell many lies,” so sang the Muses once, when they revealed themselves to Hesiod.—The conception of the artist as deceiver, once grasped, leads to important discoveries.

3. The Recognitions: crammed with poseurs and fakers, forgers and con-men, artists and would-be artists.

4. To recognize: To see and know again. Recognition entails time, experience, certitude, authenticity.

5. Who would not dogear or underline or highlight this passage?:

That romantic disease, originality, all around we see originality of incompetent idiots, they could draw nothing, paint nothing, just so the mess they make is original . . .

6. In many ways The Recognitions, or rather the characters in The Recognitions whom we might identify with genuine talent, genius, or spirit (to be clear, I’m thinking of Wyatt/Stephan, Basil Valentine, Stanley, Anselm, maybe, and Frank Sinisterra) are conservative, reactionary even; this is somewhat ironic considering Gaddis’s estimable literary innovations.

7. Esme: A focus for the novel’s masculine gaze, or a critique of such gazes?

8. The central problem of The Recognitions (perhaps): What confers meaning in a desacralized world?

Late in the novel, in one of its many party scenes, Stanley underlines the problem, working in part from Voltaire’s (in)famous quote that, “If there were no God, it would be necessary to invent him”:

. . . even Voltaire could see that some transcendent judgments is necessary, because nothing is self-sufficient, even art, and when art isn’t an expression of something higher, when it isn’t invested you might even say, it breaks up into fragments that don’t have any meaning . . .

Here we think of Wyatt: Wyatt who rejects the ministry, contemporary art, contemporary society, sanity . . .

9. Wyatt’s quest: To find truth, meaning, authenticity in a modern world where the sacred does not, cannot exist, is smothered by commerce, noise, fakery . . .

10. The Recognitions conveys a range of tones, but I like it best when it focuses its energies on comic irony and dark absurdity to detail the juxtapositions and ironies between meaning and noise, authenticity and forgery.

11. (I like The Recognitions least when its bile flares up too much in its throat, when its black humor tips over into a screed of despair. A more mature Gaddis handles bitterness far better in JR, I think—but I parenthesize this note, as it seems minor even in a list of minor digressions).

12. Probably my favorite chapter of the book — after the very first chapter, which I believe can stand on its own — is Chapter V of Part II. This is the chapter where Frank Sinisterra reemerges, setting into motion a failed plan to disseminate his counterfeit money (“the queer,” as his accomplice calls it). We also meet Otto’s father, Mr. Pivner, a truly pathetic figure (in all senses of the word). This chapter probably contains more immediate or apparent action than any other in The Recognitions, which largely relies on implication (or suspended reference).

13. More on Part II, Chapter V: Here we find a savagely satirical and very funny discussion of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, a book that seems to stand as an emblem (one of many in The Recognitions) of the degraded commercial world that Gaddis repeatedly attacks. The entire discussion of Carnegie’s book is priceless — it begins on page 497 of my Penguin edition and unfurls over roughly 10 pages—and the book is alluded to enough in The Recognitions to become a motif.

I’ll quote from page 499 a passage that seems to ironically situate How to Win Friends and Influence People against The Recognitions itself (this is one of the many postmodern moves of the novel):

It was written with reassuring felicity. There were no abstrusely long sentences, no confounding long words, no bewildering metaphors in an obfuscated system such as he feared finding in simply bound books of thoughts and ideas. No dictionary was necessary to understand its message; no reason to know what Kapila saw when he looked heavenward, and of what the Athenians accused Anaxagoras, or to know the secret name Jahveh, or who cleft the Gordian knot, the meaning of 666. There was, finally, very little need to know anything at all, except how to “deal with people.” College, the author implied, meant simply years wasted on Latin verbs and calculus. Vergil, and Harvard, were cited regularly with an uncomfortable, if off-hand, reverence for their unnecessary existences . . . In these pages, he was assured that whatever his work, knowledge of it was infinitely less important that knowing how to “deal with people.” This was what brought a price in the market place; and what else could anyone possibly want?

14. I’m not sure if Gaddis is ahead of his time or of his time in the above citation.

The Recognitions though, on the whole, feels more reactionary than does his later novel JR, which is so predictive of our contemporary society as to produce a maddening sense of the uncanny in its reader.

15. Even more on Part II, Chapter V (which I seem to be using to alleviate the anxiety of having to account for so many of the book’s threads): Here we find a delineation of (then complication of, then shuffling of) the various father-son pairings and substitutions that will play out in the text. (Namely, the series of displacements between Pivner, Otto, and Sinisterra, with the subtle foreshadowing of Wyatt’s later (failed) father-son/mentor-pupil relationship with Sinisterra).

16. Is it worth pointing out that the father-son displacements throughout the text are reminiscent of Joyce’s Ulysses, a book that Gaddis pointedly denied as an influence?

Ignorant of Gaddis’s deflections, I wrote the following in my review almost three years ago:

Gaddis shows a heavy debt to James Joyce‘s innovations in Ulysses here (and throughout the book, of course), although it would be a mistake to reduce the novel to a mere aping of that great work. Rather, The Recognitions seems to continue that High Modernist project, and, arguably, connect it to the (post)modern work of Pynchon, DeLillo, and David Foster Wallace. (In it’s heavy erudition, numerous allusions, and complex voices, the novel readily recalls both W.G. Sebald and Roberto Bolaño as far as I’m concerned).

17. But, hey, Cynthia Ozick found Joyce’s mark on The Recognitions as well (from her 1985 New York Times review of Carpenter’s Gothic):

When ”The Recognitions” arrived on the scene, it was already too late for those large acts of literary power ambition used to be good for. Joyce had come and gone. Imperially equipped for masterliness in range, language and ironic penetration, born to wrest out a modernist masterpiece but born untimely, Mr. Gaddis nonetheless took a long draught of Joyce’s advice and responded with surge after surge of virtuoso cunning.

18. We are not obligated to listen to Gaddis’s denials of a Joyce influence, of course. When asked in his Paris Review interview if he’d like to clarify anything about his personality and work, he paraphrases his novel:

I’d go back to The Recognitions where Wyatt asks what people want from the man they didn’t get from his work, because presumably that’s where he’s tried to distill this “life and personality and views” you speak of. What’s any artist but the dregs of his work: I gave that line to Wyatt thirty-odd years ago and as far as I’m concerned it’s still valid.

19. And so Nietzsche again, again from Human, All Too Human, Part II:

140. Shutting One’s Mouth. —When his book opens its mouth, the author must shut his.

20. And if I’m going to quote German aphorists, here’s a Goethe citation (from Maxims and Reflections) that illustrates something of the spirit of The Recognitions:

There is nothing worth thinking but it has been thought before; we must only try to think it again.

21. And if I’m going to quote Goethe, I’ll also point out then that Gaddis began The Recognitions as a parody of Goethe’s Faust. Peter William Koenig writes in his excellent and definitive essay “Recognizing Gaddis’ Recognitions” (published in the Winter Volume Contemporary Literature, 1975):

To understand Gaddis’ relationship to his characters, and thus his philosophical motive in writing the novel, we are helped by knowing how Gaddis conceived of it originally. The Recognitions began as a much smaller and less complicated work, passing through a major evolutionary stage during the seven years Gaddis spent writing it. Gaddis says in his notes: “When I started this thing . . . it was to be a good deal shorter, and quite explicitly a parody on the FAUST story, except the artist taking the place of the learned doctor.” Gaddis later explained that Wyatt was to have all talent as Faust had all knowledge, yet not be able to find what was worth doing. This plight-of limitless talent, limited by the age in which it lives-was experienced by an actual painter of the late 1940s, Hans Van Meegeren, on whom Gaddis may have modeled Wyatt. The authorities threw Van Meegeren into jail for forging Dutch Renaissance masterpieces, but like Wyatt, his forgeries seemed so inspired and “authentic” that when he confessed, he was not believed, and had to prove that he had painted them. Like Faust and Wyatt, Van Meegeren seemed to be a man of immense talent, but no genius for finding his own salvation.

The Faust parody remained uppermost in Gaddis’ mind as he traveled from New York to Mexico, Panama and through Central America in 1947, until roughly the time he reached Spain in 1948. Here Gaddis read James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, and the novel entered its second major stage. Frazer’s pioneering anthropological work demonstrates how religions spring from earlier myths, fitting perfectly with Gaddis’ idea of the modern world as a counterfeit-or possibly inspiring it. In any case, Frazer led Gaddis to discover that Goethe’s Faust originally derived from the Clementine Recognitions, a rambling third-century theological tract of unknown authorship, dealing with Clement’s life and search for salvation. Gaddis adapted the title, broadening the conception of his novel to the story of a wandering, at times misguided hero, whose search for salvation would record the multifarious borrowings and counterfeits of modern culture.

22. Is Wyatt the hero of The Recognitions? Here’s Basil Valentine (page 247 of my ed.):

. . . that is why people read novels, to identify projections of their own unconscious. The hero has to be fearfully real, to convince them of their own reality, which they rather doubt. A novel without a hero would be distracting in the extreme. They have to know what you think, or good heavens, how can they know that you’re going through some wild conflict, which is after all the duty of a hero.

23. If Wyatt is the hero, then what is Otto? Clearly Otto is a comedic double of some kind for Wyatt, a would-be Wyatt, a different kind of failure . . . but is he a hero?

When I first tried The Recognitions I held Otto in special contempt (from that earlier review of mine):

Otto follows Wyatt around like a puppy, writing down whatever he says, absorbing whatever he can from him, and eventually sleeping with his wife. Otto is the worst kind of poseur; he travels to Central America to finish his play only to lend the mediocre (at best) work some authenticity, or at least buzz. He fakes an injury and cultivates a wild appearance he hopes will give him artistic mystique among the Bohemian Greenwich Villagers he hopes to impress. In the fifth chapter, at an art-party, Otto, and the reader, learn quickly that no one cares about his play . . .

But a full reading of The Recognitions shows more to Otto besides the initial anxious shallowness; Gaddis allows him authentic suffering and loss. (Alternately, my late sympathies for Otto may derive from the recognition that I am more of an Otto than a Wyatt . . .).

24. The Recognitions is the work of a young man (“I think first it was that towering kind of confidence of being quite young, that one can do anything,” Gaddis says in his Paris Review interview), and often the novel reveals a cockiness, a self-assurance that tips over into didactic essaying or a sharpness toward its subjects that neglects to account for any kind of humanity behind what Gaddis attacks. The Recognitions likes to remind you that its erudition is likely beyond yours, that it’s smarter than you, even as it scathingly satirizes this position.

I think that JR, a more mature work, does a finer job in its critique of contemporary America, or at least in its characterization of contemporary Americans (I find more spirit or authentic humanity in Bast and Gibbs and JR than in Otto or Wyatt or Stanley). This is not meant to be a knock on The Recognitions; I just found JR more balanced and less showy; it seems to me to be the work of an author at the height of his powers, if you’ll forgive the cliché.

I’ll finish this riff-point by quoting Gaddis from The Paris Review again:

Well, I almost think that if I’d gotten the Nobel Prize when The Recognitions was published I wouldn’t have been terribly surprised. I mean that’s the grand intoxication of youth, or what’s a heaven for.

(By the way, Icelandic writer Halldór Kiljan Laxness won the Nobel in lit in 1955 when The Recognitions was published).

25. Looking over this riff, I see it’s lengthy, long on outside citations and short on plot summary or recommendations. Because I don’t think I’ve made a direct appeal to readers who may be daunted by the size or reputation or scope of The Recognitions, let me be clear: While this isn’t a book for everyone, anyone who wants to read it can and should. As a kind of shorthand, it fits (“fit” is not the right verb) in that messy space between modernism and postmodernism, post-Joyce and pre-Pynchon, and Gaddis has a style and approach that anticipates David Foster Wallace. (It’s likely that if you made it this far into the riff that you already know this or, even more likely, that you realize that these literary-historical situations mean little or nothing.

26.Very highly recommended.

I Riff–Again–on William Gaddis’s Enormous Novel JR (This Time After Finishing It)

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1. Let me point those of you who may care to my first riff on William Gaddis’s J R, which I wrote about half way into the book, and which will likely provide more context than I’m prepared to offer here. Also, there might be spoilers ahead.

2. The end of J R is heartbreaking. We find some of our principal characters—Bast, Gibbs, and JR—in nebulous spaces, their plans and dreams and hopes crumbling or smoking or fizzing out or jettisoned (pick your verb as I’m too lazy or unequipped).

3. The final face-to-face scene between Bast and JR, the one that begins with them riding in a limousine and ends with Bast’s psycho breakdown—heartbreaking. Little JR, we realize, is most motivated by his intense need for human connection, his desire for family, perhaps, or place, at least. Bast’s rejection of JR—really a rejection of contemporary consumer culture—is almost horrific, even more so because the reader (this reader, anyway) so readily identifies with Bast and JR simultaneously.

4. Here’s Gaddis on his character JR (from The Paris Review interview):

The boy himself is a total invention, completely sui generis. The reason he is eleven is because he is in this prepubescent age where he is amoral, with a clear conscience, dealing with people who are immoral, unscrupulous; they realize what scruples are, but push them aside, whereas his good cheer and greed he considers perfectly normal. He thinks this is what you’re supposed to do; he is not going to wait around; he is in a hurry, as you should be in America—get on with it, get going. He is very scrupulous about obeying the letter of the law and then (never making the distinction) evading the spirit of the law at every possible turn. He is in these ways an innocent and is well-meaning, a sincere hypocrite. With Bast, he does think he’s helping him out.

5. And again:

INTERVIEWER

Which is the novel you care most for?

GADDIS

I think that I care most for JR because I’m awfully fond of the boy himself.

6. In that same interview, Gaddis contends that JR is motivated by “good-natured greed,” which is probably true (see above re: letter vs. spirit). Despite his predatory capitalism, his willingness to strip company employees of basic safety nets, JR remains sympathetic.

7. Why is JR a sympathetic character? He’s just a child, one who lives in a world without adult supervision let alone love and care. In a touching scene that telegraphs the bizarre black humor that runs through the novel, JR suggests that the Eskimos on display at a museum are the work of a taxidermist: That is, said Eskimos were once, like, alive, and are now on display. Amy Joubert, his social studies teacher (and the object of Gibbs’s and possibly Bast’s affection) is moved to both pity and terror by JR’s confusion, and clutches him to her breast.

8. While we’re on Eskimos, which is to say Native Americans, which is to say, perhaps, Indians: The Indian plot in JR fascinates; it recapitulates a bloody, awful past, pointing to the brutal way the quote unquote invisible hand of the market might sweep entire people away and then come back (in a cheap costume) to offer modernity at a price.

9. Ethnic minorities in general find themselves displaced in JR, or at least displaced in the language of JR (and is there a novel that is more language than JR, if such a statement might be permitted to exist (at least metaphorically)? No, I don’t think there is, or at least I don’t know of one). The casual racism of 1%ers like Zona Selk and Cates is ugly and bitter, but the PR man Davidoff is somehow worse—he sees race as something to use, to manipulate, to control.

10. And, of course, JR’s infamous “Alsaka Report,” a connection to Manifest Destiny, to the valuation of our ecosystem in the most base and short-sighted terms (there’s a perhaps overlooked streak of environmentalism to JR):

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11. Sci-fi elements to JR: The Frigicom process, which promises to freeze noise. The Teletravel transmission process.

12. At the end of JR, we learn that poor diCephalis is lost in Teletravel transmission.

13. I couldn’t help but be reminded—repeatedly—of David Foster Wallace’s work during JR (diCephalis stuck in Teletravel recalls poor Orin in the giant glassjar at the end of Infinite Jest). In general, the loose threads of JR recall Wallace’s loose threads (other way round, I know).

14. The phone motif alone might have led me to compare Wallace to Gaddis—but there’s also all that, y’know, thematic unity.

15. And clearly, too, style. I’m sure that longtime readers of Gaddis have likely made the comparisons already, but throughout his work, Wallace repeatedly uses chapters or sections that comprise only dialogue. A good example is §19 of The Pale King (which I riffed on a bit this summer), a conversation between three IRS agents stuck in an elevator. In some ways, the scene, set only a few years after the publication of JR feels like a strange little sequel, or an echo of a shadow of a chapter of a sequel (or maybe not—just riffing here). Wallace’s concerns about civics, ethics, and compassion seem more straightforward than Gaddis’s angry vision of a desacralized world, a world where symphonies must be chopped into three minute segments to allow for commercial interruptions (or, rather, that symphonies must interrupt commercials). Wallace is obviously writing after the victory of Pop Art, of populism, of the slow sprawling stripmalling of America . . . but I’ve riffed off track (there is no track).

16. ” . . . I mean they never lose these banks don’t, I mean where we’re getting screwed . . . ” — JR laments on page 653 of my Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics edition.

17. The above quote as the briefest illustration that, published in 1975, JR is more relevant than ever.

18. To wit, Gaddis again, again from The Paris Review interview, commenting on hollow, false values:

. . . I’d always been intrigued by the charade of the so-called free market, so-called free enterprise system, the stock market conceived of as what was called a “people’s capitalism” where you “owned a part of the company” and so forth. All of which is true; you own shares in a company, so you literally do own part of the assets. But if you own a hundred shares out of six or sixty or six hundred million, you’re not going to influence things very much. Also, the fact that people buy securities—the very word in this context is comic—not because they are excited by the product—often you don’t know what the company makes—but simply for profit: The stock looks good and you buy it. The moment it looks bad you sell it. What had actually happened in the company is not your concern.

19. Gaddis’s take on the “art” of capitalism: design mock ups for a potential logo for the JR Family of Companies:

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20. JR is one of the most prescient novels I’ve ever read—and not just in its illustration of the the chaos at the intersection of corporatism, Wall Street, government, and military, but also in its handling and treatment of education. Gaddis is way ahead of an ugly curve, showing us an educational system largely disinterested in intellectual, aesthetic, or even athletic development. Instead we get a storehouse for children, reliant on programmed lessons delivered via technology and assessment by standardized testing. It’s ugly and it’s more real than ever now.

21. And here’s Gibb’s railing against it, in a way, in (what’s likely a half-drunken or at least hung-over) rant to his students:

Before we go any further here, has it ever occurred to any of you that all this is simply one grand misunderstanding? Since you’re not here to learn anything, but to be taught so you can pass these tests, knowledge has to be organized so it can be taught, and it has to be reduced to information so it can be organized do you follow that? In other words this leads you to assume that organization is an inherent property of the knowledge itself, and that disorder and chaos are simply irrelevant forces that threaten it from the outside. In fact it’s the opposite. Order is simply a thin, perilous condition we try to impose on the basic reality of chaos . . .

(That’s from page 20 of my Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics edition, by the bye).

22. There are no happy families in JR. Just broken families.

23. I said this at the top of the riff, but again–-heartbreaking.

24. This is probably a direction out of this riff—to resuscitate the emotional dimension of the novel, which is too easily overlooked, perhaps, because Gaddis’s manipulations (and all novelists manipulate their audience) require so much active participation from the reader. JR is without exposition, without the overt imposition of the novelist telling us how to feel: instead there’s a thickness to it, a building of buzz and clatter, yes, but music under all that noise: even a kernel of love (and hope!) under the heavy folds of anger.

25. Very highly recommended.

William Gaddis on Hipsters: “An Ill-dressed, Underfed, Overdrunken Group of Squatters with Minds So Highly Developed That They Were Excused from Good Manners”

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Love this passage from William Gaddis’s The Recognitions. Mocking “hipsterism” has been around forever (or at least 50 years):

And by now they were at the door of the Viareggio, a small Italian bar of nepotistic honesty before it was discovered by exotics. Neighborhood folk still came, in small vanquished numbers and mostly in the afternoon, before the two small dining rooms and the bar were taken over by the educated classes, an ill-dressed, underfed, overdrunken group of squatters with minds so highly developed that they were excused from good manners, tastes so refined in one direction that they were excused for having none in any other, emotions so cultivated that the only aberration was normality, all afloat here on sodden pools of depravity calculated only to manifest the pricelessness of what they were throwing away, the three sexes in two colors, a group of people all mentally and physically the wrong size.

“The Charade of the So-Called Free Market” — William Gaddis on What Moved Him to Write JR

From William Gaddis’s 1986 Paris Review interview:

INTERVIEWER

What moved you to write JR?

GADDIS

Even though I should have known from The Recognitions that the world was not waiting breathlessly for my message, that it already knew, and was quite happy to live with all these false values, I’d always been intrigued by the charade of the so-called free market, so-called free enterprise system, the stock market conceived of as what was called a “people’s capitalism” where you “owned a part of the company” and so forth. All of which is true; you own shares in a company, so you literally do own part of the assets. But if you own a hundred shares out of six or sixty or six hundred million, you’re not going to influence things very much. Also, the fact that people buy securities—the very word in this context is comic—not because they are excited by the product—often you don’t know what the company makes—but simply for profit: The stock looks good and you buy it. The moment it looks bad you sell it. What had actually happened in the company is not your concern. In many ways I thought . . . the childishness of all this. Because JR himself, which is why he is eleven years old, is motivated only by good-natured greed. JR was, in other words, to be a commentary on this free enterprise system running out of control. Looking around us now with a two-trillion-dollar federal deficit and billions of private debt and the banks, the farms, basic industry all in serious trouble, it seems to have been rather prophetic.

William Gaddis on James Joyce

William Gaddis on James Joyce (via/more):

I recall a most ingenious piece in a Wisconsin quarterly some years ago in which The Recognitions’ debt to Ulysses was established in such minute detail I was doubtful of my own firm recollection of never having read Ulysses.

(March 1972 letter to Jean [?] Howes)

I’ve about reached the end of the line on questions about what I did or didn’t read of Joyce’s 30 years ago. All I read of Ulysses was Molly Bloom at the end which was being circulated for salacious rather than literary merits; No I did not read Finnegans Wake though I think a phrase about “psychoanaloosing” one’s self from it is in The Recognitions; Yes I read some of Dubliners but don’t recall how many & remember only a story called “Counterparts”; Yes I read a play called Exiles which at the time I found highly unsuccessful; Yes I believe I read Portrait of an Artist but also think I may not have finished it; No I did not read commentary on Joyce’s work & absorb details without reading the original. I also read, & believe with a good deal more absorbtion [sic], Eliot, Dostoevski, Forster, Rolfe, Waugh, why bother to go on, anyone seeking Joyce finds Joyce even if both Joyce & the victim found the item in Shakespear, read right past whole lines lifted bodily from Eliot &c, all of which will probably go on so long as Joyce remains an academic cottage industry.

(June 1975 letter to Grace Eckley)

“I Suppose You Become Addicted to a Certain Kind of Writing” — David Markson on Lowry, Joyce, and Gaddis

David Markson talked with Joseph Tabbi about (among many other things) his friendship with Malcolm Lowry, his love for William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, and how James Joyce teaches us to read. Read the entire interview at the Dalkey Archive:

JT: You mention your critical study of “Volcano.” But you did a master’s thesis on it at Columbia much earlier?

DM: While we were in touch, but before I’d actually met him, yes. In 1951.

JT: Which means it was only four years after the novel had been published. Isn’t that rare, an academic paper on an entirely “new” writer with no body of criticism to verify his status?

DM: As a matter of fact I had to wander around the English department knocking on doors looking for someone to approve the project. I remember Lionel Trilling’s dismissal in particular: “What is all this drunkenness all about?” My whole object was to explain just that, obviously, but I decided to find less of a current to buck. Finally William York Tindall gave me a go-ahead.

JT: That brings up a question of a different sort, however. “Volcano” is scarcely your everyday traditional novel. What sort of training or background did you have that let you feel able to confront the challenge of interpreting something that difficult?

DM: To tell the truth, I’m not sure if I had any real idea what I was getting into, or if any of us do, the first time we’re seduced by a book of that sort. Though Joyce certainly teaches us, for starters. By which I mean that we all learn quickly with “Ulysses” that we cannot simply read the novel itself but have to lean on some of the critical crutches.

JT: But you had no crutches at all?

DM: Oh, well, but there are always clues in the text itself—this reference to that which leads to patterns you begin to trace out. On one level I impressed the hell out of myself, surprised at what I did know. And evidently I impressed a few other creatures as well, since I kept hearing that the thesis was being stolen from by students all over the place. The again when I sat down years later to turn that early stuff into a full length book I was almost embarrassed at how little I’d seen after all.

JT: Not long after that original Lowry thesis you were proselytizing fairly extensively for “The Recognitions” too?

DM: I suppose you become addicted to a certain kind of writing. There’s little enough of it extant, God knows. I’m not sure how much actual “proselytizing” I did for Gaddis, however. Except of course for practically button-holing friends on street corners.

JT: But I understand you were very directly responsible for the first reissue of the book, also?

DM: Evidently I was. It’s a funny story, actually. I was living in Mexico, and someone—well, old Aiken, in fact—gave my address to Aaron Asher, who was the editor of Meridian Books at the time. I picked him and his wife Linda up at their hotel and brought them out to where Elaine and I were living—outside Mexico City—for dinner and then spent approximately three solid hours talking nonstop about Gaddis. Finally Aaron threw up his hands in despair, telling me, “Please, please, I promise I’ll read the darned thing as soon as I get home! But now tell us something about where to go and what to see in Mexico, for heaven’s sake!”

JT: And then he did publish it. Did Gaddis himself know about the impetus?

DM: That’s fairly funny too, as it happens. “The Recognitions” came out in 1955. I’d read it twice when it did, and then wrote Gaddis a letter. It’s perhaps the only other letter I’ve written to an author I didn’t know, but it was completely different from the one I wrote to Lowry. In this case I’d just been infuriated by the rotten reviews and simply wanted to tell the man the hell with them all, that there were some few of us out there who did see what he’s accomplished. I didn’t get an answer, though I eventually heard secondhand that Gaddis had been too depressed at the time to send one. Or that he’d ultimately decided it was too late. But then sometime in 1961, not long after the Asher incident, I did hear. Six years after the fact, this was, a long letter beginning with something like, “Dear David Markson, if I can presume to answer yours of June whatever, 1955!” Which went on to say that Asher was in fact about to do a first reprint.

“Style and Content Must Match” — William Gaddis on Voice and Risk in His Novels

From a brief  1982 interview with William Gaddis

Q: The pervasive and distinctive authorial voice of The Recognitions gives way in J R to a self-effacing voice that seems to serve only functional purposes. Also in J R there is an increased dependence on dialogue. For verisimilitude in Lolita, Nabokov “travelled in school buses to listen to the talk of schoolgirls.” Did you take any special measures to hear and note the speech patterns of any of the wide variety of people who speak in “J R”?

William Gaddis: Style and content must match, must be complementary, accounting in part for a difference between the two books, though the lack of a conventional narrative style had already jarred a good many readers of The Recognitions when it appeared, as its hapless reviews show. J R was started as a story which quickly proved unsatisfactory, inspired- here’s the legitimate gossip—-by the postwar desecration of the Long Island village of Massapequa where my family had had property since around 1910, take a look at it now and you’ll see all the book’s worst hopes realized. In approaching J R as a novel, I was at pains to remove the author’s presence from the start as must be obvious. This was partly by way of what I mentioned earlier, obliging the thing to stand on own, take its own chances. But it was also by way of setting up a problem, a risk, in order to sustain my own interest, especially since the largely uninterrupted dialogue raised the further risk of presenting a convincing sense of real time without the conventional chapter breaks, white spaces, such narrative intrusions as “A week later . . .” How some of the writers I come across get through their books without dying of boredom is beyond me. As for what you call speech patterns, one is always listening and has got an ear or hasn’t, and without one, unless perhaps in dealing with an unfamiliar language and culture, no amount of your special measures like riding around on school buses will get you out of the swamp.