Very cool site: William H. Gass: The Soul Inside the Sentence. Where you can–
Explore drafts of published and unpublished writings, recordings of his interviews and readings, photographs and scans of important documents and objects that have shaped his life. You will also find an essay, “My Memories of the Service,” which Gass wrote specifically for this digital exhibit.
Lots of great photos, including lots of pics of Gass’s book shelves, which is the sort of thing you might like to nerd out over (I did, anyway), and all the slides Gass used to accompany his “The Surface of the City” lecture. The site even shares a digital gallery of a scrapbook of reviews, articles, ads, and photos that Gass created in the 1950s and ’60s. Also: report cards, a map Gass drew of places he went in the navy, letters, poems, essays, all kinds of manuscripts, etc. etc. etc.
Composed in 1836, Georg Büchner’s novella-fragment Lenz still seems ahead of its time. While Lenz’s themes of madness, art, and ennui can be found throughout literature, Büchner’s strange, wonderful prose and documentary aims bypass the constraints of his era.
Let me share some of that prose. Here is the opening paragraph of Lenz:
The 20th, Lenz walked through the mountains. Snow on the peaks and upper slopes, gray rock down into the valleys, swatches of green, boulders, firs. It was sopping cold, the water trickled down the rocks and leapt across the path. The fir boughs sagged in the damp air. Gray clouds drifted across the sky, but everything so stifling, and then the fog floated up and crept heavy and damp through the bushes, so sluggish, so clumsy. He walked onward, caring little one way or another, to him the path mattered not, now up , now down. He felt no fatigue, except sometimes it annoyed him that he could not walk on his head. At first he felt a tightening in his chest when the rocks skittered away, the gray woods below him shook, and the fog now engulfed the shapes, now half-revealed their powerful limbs; things were building up inside him, he was searching for something, as if for lost dreams, but was finding nothing. Everything seemed so small, so near, so wet, he would have liked to set the earth down behind an oven, he could not grasp why it took so much time to clamber down a slope, to reach a distant point; he was convinced he could cover it all with a pair of strides.
Büchner sets us on Lenz’s shoulder, moving us through the estranging countryside without any exposition that might lend us bearings. The environment impinges protagonist and reader alike, heavy, damp, stifling. Büchner’s syntax shuffles along, comma splices tripping us into Lenz’s manic consciousness, his mind-swings doubled in the path that is “now up, now down.” We feel the “tightening” in Lenz’s chest as the “rocks skittered away,” as the “woods below him shook” — the natural world seems to envelop him, cloak him, suffocate him. It’s an animist terrain, and Büchner divines those spirits again in the text. The claustrophobia Lenz experiences then swings to another extreme, as our hero, his consciousness inflated, feels “he could cover [the earth] with a pair of strides.
And that baffling line: “He felt no fatigue, except sometimes it annoyed him that he could not walk on his head.” Well.
The end notes to the Archipelago edition I read (translated by Richard Sieburth) offer Arnold Zweig’s suggestion that “this sentence marks the beginning of modern European prose,” as well as Paul Celan’s observation that “whoever walks on his head has heaven beneath him as an abyss.”
Celan’s description is apt, and Büchner’s story repeatedly invokes the abyss to evoke its hero’s precarious psyche. Poor Lenz, somnambulist bather, screamer, dreamer, often feels “within himself something . . . stirring and swarming toward an abyss toward which he was being swept by an inexorable force.” Lenz is the story of a young artist falling into despair and madness.
But perhaps I should offer a more lucid summary. I’ll do that in the next paragraph, but first: Let me just recommend you skip that paragraph. Really. What I perhaps loved most about Lenz was piecing together the plot through the often elliptical or opaque experiences we get via Büchner’s haunting free indirect style. The evocation of a consciousness in turmoil is probably best maintained when we read through the same confusion that Lenz experiences. I read the novella cold based on blurbs from William H. Gass and Harold Bloom and I’m glad I did.
Here is the summary paragraph you should skip: Jakob Lenz, a writer of the Sturm and Drung movement (and friend and rival to Goethe), has recently suffered a terrible episode of schizophrenia and “an accident” (likely a suicide attempt). He’s sent to pastor-physician J.F. Oberlin, who attends to him in the Alsatian countryside in the first few weeks of 1778. During this time Lenz obsesses over a young local girl who dies (he attempts to resurrect her), takes long walks in the countryside, cries manically, offers his own aesthetic theory, prays, takes loud late-night bath in the local fountain, receives a distressing letter, and, eventually, likely—although it’s never made entirely explicit—attempts suicide again and is thusly shipped away.
Büchner bases his story on sections of Oberlin’s diary, reproduced in the Archipelago edition. In straightforward prose, these entries fill in the expository gaps that Büchner has so elegantly removed and replaced with the wonder and dread of Lenz’s imagination. The diary’s lucid entries attest to the power of Büchner’s speculative fiction, to his own art and imagination, which so bracingly take us into a clouded mind.
In Sieburth’s afterword (which also offers a concise chronology of Lenz’s troubled life), our translator points out that “Like De Quincey’s “The Last Days of Immanuel Kant” or Chateaubriand’s Life of Rancé, Büchner’s Lenz is an experiment in speculative biography, part fact, part fabrication—an early nineteenth-century example of the modern genre of docufiction.” Obviously, any number of postmodern novels have explored or used historical figures—Public Burning, Ragtime, and Mason & Dixon are all easy go-to examples. But Lenz is more personal than these postmodern fictions, more an exploration of consciousness, and although we are treated to Lenz’s ideas about literature, art, and religion, we access this very much through his own skull and soul. He’s not just a placeholder or mouthpiece for Büchner.
Lenz strikes me as something closer to the docufiction of W.G. Sebald. Perhaps it’s all the ambulating; maybe it’s the melancholy; could be the philosophical tone. And, while I’m lazily, assbackwardly comparing Büchner’s book to writers who came much later: Thomas Bernhard. Maybe it’s the flights of rant that Lenz occasionally hits, or the madness, or the depictions of nature, or hell, maybe it’s those long, long passages. The comma splices.
Chronologically closer is the work of Edgar Allan Poe, whose depictions of manic bipolar depression resonate strongly with Lenz—not to mention the abysses, the torment, the spirits, the doppelgängers. Why not share another sample here to illustrate this claim? Okay:
The incidents during the night reached a horrific pitch. Only with the greatest effort did he fall asleep, having tried at length to fill the terrible void. Then he fell into a dreadful state between sleeping and waking; he bumped into something ghastly, hideous, madness took hold of him, he sat up, screaming violently, bathed in sweat, and only gradually found himself again. He had to begin with the simplest things in order to come back to himself. In fact he was not the one doing this but rather a powerful instinct for self preservation, it was as if he were double, the one half attempting to save the other, calling out to itself; he told stories, he recited poems out loud, wracked with anxiety, until he came to his sense.
Here, Lenz suspends his neurotic horror through storytelling and art—but it’s just that, only a suspension. Büchner doesn’t blithely, naïvely suggest that art has the power to permanently comfort those in despair; rather, Lenz repeatedly suggests that art, that storytelling is a symptom of despair.
What drives despair? Lenz—Lenz—Büchner (?)—suggests repeatedly that it’s Langeweile—boredom. Sieburth renders the German Langeweile as boredom, a choice I like, even though he might have been tempted to reach for its existentialist chain-smoking cousin ennui. When Lenz won’t get out of bed one day, Oberlin heads to his room to rouse him:
Oberlin had to repeat his questions at length before getting an answer: Yes, Reverend, you see, boredom! Boredom! O, sheer boredom, what more can I say, I have already drawn all the figures on the wall. Oberlin said to him he should turn to God; he laughed and said: if I were as lucky as you to have discovered such an agreeable pastime, yes, one could indeed wile away one’s time that way. Tedium the root of it all. Most people pray only out of boredom; others fall in love out of boredom, still others are virtuous or depraved, but I am nothing, nothing at all, I cannot even kill myself: too boring . . .
Lenz fits in neatly into the literature of boredom, a deep root that predates Dostoevsky, Camus, and Bellow, as well as contemporary novels like Lee Rourke’s The Canal and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King.
Ultimately, the boredom Lenz circles around is deeply painful:
The half-hearted attempts at suicide he kept on making were not entirely serious, it was less the desire to die, death for him held no promise of peace or hope, than the attempt, at moments of excruciating anxiety or dull apathy bordering on non-existence bordering on non-existence, to snap back into himself through physical pain. But his happiest moments were when his mind seemed to gallop away on some madcap idea. This at least provided some relief and the wild look in his eye was less horrible than the anxious thirsting for deliverance, the never-ending torture of unrest!
The “never-ending torture of unrest” is the burden of existence we all carry, sloppily fumble, negotiate with an awkward grip and bent back. Büchner’s analysis fascinates in its refusal to lighten this burden or ponderously dwell on its existential weight. Instead, Lenz is a character study that the reader can’t quite get out of—we’re too inside the frame to see the full contours; precariously perched on Lenz’s shoulder, we have to jostle along with him, look through his wild eyes, gallop along with him on the energy of his madcap idea. The gallop is sad and beautiful and rewarding. Very highly recommended.
From William H. Gass’s essay “The Concept of Character in Fiction.”
William H. Gass on Robert Walser. From Gass’s introduction to Masquerade and Other Stories; also collected in Gass’s Finding a Form.
–from William H. Gass’s essay “Finding a Form.”
(From William Gass’s 1995 novel The Tunnel; The Quarterly Conversation will lead a Big Read of The Tunnel starting next week).
Is the reader an adversary for you?
No. I don’t think much about the reader. Ways of reading are adversaries—those theoretical ways. As far as writing something is concerned, the reader really doesn’t exist. The writer’s business is somehow to create in the work something which will stand on its own and make its own demands; and if the writer is good, he discovers what those demands are, and he meets them, and creates this thing which readers can then do what they like with. Gertrude Stein said, “I write for myself and strangers,” and then eventually she said that she wrote only for herself. I think she should have taken one further step. You don’t write for anybody. People who send you bills do that. People who want to sell you things so they can send you bills do that. People who want to tell you things so they can sell you things so they can send you bills do that. You are advancing an art—the art. That is what you are trying to do.
Who are some living novelists you respect?
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.
I have terrible writer’s block. It’s not that I have nothing to say, it’s just that I can’t seem to say it. Or that I write sentences like the previous one and shudder at their awkward clunky artless awfulness. But I’m gonna press through it, write through it, and share a few thoughts on what I’ve read this week–
First up: Adam Langer’s new novel, The Thieves of Manhattan, a send-up of the publishing industry that sets its targets directly on the current swath of (faked) memoirs that have done gangbusters for publishers in the past few years. Ian Minot is a broke-assed barista one fuck-up away from an overdue firing, who moves from the Midwest to make it as a writer in the big city. Only he’s not doing so well–in contrast to his gorgeous Romanian girlfriend Anya whose literary star is on the rise. For Minot though, this isn’t the worst–that would be the rampant success of über-poseur Blade Markham, a wanna-be gangsta whose memoir Blade on Blade is a blatant fabrication (albeit a fabrication that no one but savvy schlemiel Minot seems to notice (or, at the least, be bothered by)). I read the first fifty-odd pages of the Thieves in one sitting–a good sign to be sure. Langer’s Minot’s voice is familiar territory, the boy who loves to mock the literati he would love to be a part of. In one of the signal moves of his patois, the names of famous authors (and characters) regularly replace common nouns–a bed becomes a proust, a full head of hair is a chabon, sex is chinaski and so on. Minot seems to be headed to running his own grift soon with the help of a man he appropriately calls the Confident Man–should be good stuff. Full review forthcoming. The Thieves of Manhattan is available July 13, 2010 from Spiegel & Grau.
I’ve also been reading William H. Gass’s first novel, Omensetter’s Luck. It’s weird, wonderful, Faulknerish in its loose (but somehow layered and constructed) stream of consciousness. Omensetter’s Luck comprises three sections, each progressively longer; I finished the second one today, and so far the novel seems to dance around a description or accounting of its namesake, Brackett Omensetter who carts his family into the small sleepy town of Gilean, Ohio, and immediately perplexes the townsfolk with his amazing luck. As Frederic Morton put it in his contemporary 1966 New York Times review, “It quickly becomes apparent that as other people have green thumbs, [Omensetter] has a green soul. The cosmos and he live in mysterious congruity.” There’s much to commend and unpack in Gass’s writing here, but the pleasure of his musical rhythm are enough for me now (in my writer’s block, I retreat to aesthetic criticism [shudders]). Besides, do I really have to recommend this novel when David Foster Wallace already did so in his semi-famous list “Five Direly Underappreciated U.S. Novels > 1960″? No, I don’t, that’s right. Here’s Wallace on Omensetter’s Luck: “Gass’ first novel, and his least avant-gardeish, and his best. Basically a religious book. Very sad. Contains the immortal line ‘The body of Our Saviour shat but Our Saviour shat not.’ Bleak but gorgeous, like light through ice.”
Speaking of Wallace and début novels, Richard Rayner at The Los Angeles Times has reviewed Wallace’s first book The Broom of the System, which is being republished at the end of this month with a cool new cover by tattoo artist Duke Riley. A considered, well-written review, one which prompted me to dig out (okay, bad verb phrase choice; no unearthing involved, my Wallace volumes are neatly aligned together on a shelf in my living room) my copy of Broom. I remember reading a friend’s copy in the burning humidity of a Gainesville summer, in ’98 or ’99, reading the book in long chunks. I tried to read it again after I finishing Infinite Jest but it seemed kinda sorta goofy (albeit purposely, Pynchonesquely goofy). Anyway, Rayner’s review makes a strong case for a re-reading.
And, speaking of Wallace (again), or at least using him as a crutch–I’ve almost finished Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead by Frank Meeink (“as told to” Jody M. Roy; they’ve sort of got the whole Malcolm X/Alex Haley thing going on there). So, yeah, why the Wallace segue? How to justify it? Well, reading Meeink’s story, the true story of an abused, battered Philadelphia kid who falls into the American neo-Nazi movement and its attendant violent crime and terrorism, who goes to prison and finds redemption and human connection and a new purpose for the nihilistic void of his life, who falls into alcoholism and drug addiction only to be redeemed again–reading Meeink’s story, even knowing its veracity (demonstrable to a point that would satisfy even Langer’s Ian Minot)–I couldn’t help but read his strong, immediate, gritty, and utterly real voice as something not unlike one of the creations in David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. It’s not just Meeink’s hideousness, his violence, or the grace that he works toward–all constituents of DFW’s collection–it’s that voice, the realness of the volume, surely the book’s greatest asset. Recovering Skinhead is an engrossing read, fascinating in the same way that an infected wound prompts our attention, our paradoxical compulsion and repulsion, but most of all it’s an exhilarating and exhausting performance of voice, of Meeink’s unrelenting, authentic telling of a tale, a telling that any novelist would thrill to channel. Only Meeink’s voice isn’t a novel creation: it’s real. Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead is available now from Hawthorne Books.
About the same time I was finishing up James Wood’s How Fiction Works, I was also beginning William Gaddis‘s massive tome The Recognitions. So far the book is fantastic–I’m about 180 pages in–but it’s (very, very) long and there’s a big stack of upcoming releases here that needs to be digested for review, so who knows if I’ll finish it anytime soon. Anyway, I thought this notation from William H. Gass‘s brilliant introduction does a fantastic job of speaking to both the limits of literary criticisms (like Wood’s) as well as underscoring the value of reading–and rereading:
No great book is explicable, and I shall not attempt to explain this one. An explanation–indeed, any explanation–would defile it, for reduction is precisely what a work of art opposes. Easy answers, convenient summaries, quiz questions, annotations, arrows, highlight lines, lists of its references, the numbers of its sources, echoes, and influences, an outline of its design–useful as sometimes such helps are–nevertheless seriously mislead. Guidebooks are useful, but only to what is past. Interpretation replaces the original with the lamest sort of substitute. It tames, disarms. “Okay, I get it,” we say, dusting our hands, “and that takes care of that.” “At least I understand Kafka” is a foolish and conceited remark.