Recognizing Gaddis

I first came to know William Gaddis at a writers’ conference in the Soviet Union in 1985. I had heard that he was shy and averse to publicity, but I found that this reputation was based only on his belief that a writer’s life and personality should be as little as possible associated with his work. As a conferee, he was both eloquent and precise.

Perhaps the most amusing contrast in our group was between him and Allen Ginsberg. Allen, shaggy and bearded, chanted his verse in loud, emotional tones as he pounded a species of accordion that he always carried with him. Will, on the other hand, reserved and quiet, impeccably clad, with the patient composure of a man of the world and the piercing eye of a wit, spoke in measured tones of the small sales that the serious novelist might expect.

If Danielle Steele counted her sales in the millions while he had to make do with a few thousands, he said, it was because she wrote books and he wrote ‘”literature.” Asked for pointers as to future conferences, he glanced obliquely down the table at Allen and suggested that the novelists and poets be separated, so that the accordion would be heard only “down a long corridor, through a closed door.”

Gaddis, who is considered by some critics to be the nearest thing to Herman Melville that our century has produced, who is almost a cult figure among students of English, is nonetheless not well-known to the wider reading public. His first two novels, The Recognitions and JR, published 20 years apart, in 1955 and 1975, frightened off many readers by their length, erudition and supposed ”difficulty.” But this difficulty is much exaggerated by symbol and ambiguity hunters (“What can I do if people insist I’m cleverer than I think I am?” Gaddis asks with a shrug), and length and erudition become virtues when the stories are as interesting as his.

Gaddis has more to say to American readers today than any other novelist I can think of. Take just three fields in which his knowledge is significant: theology, painting and corporate finance. Then consider the space devoted by the press in the 1980’s to religious strife and revivalism, to art sales and art frauds, to stock-market chicanery and insider trading. Some critics have credited me as a novelist with a degree of familiarity in the last-named field, but I have treated it only in broad outlines and with a minimum of legal details. Gaddis could almost qualify as an expert witness in the trial of a malefactor.

From “Recognizing Gaddis,” a longish profile of William Gaddis by novelist (and lawyer) Louis Auchincloss. “Recognizing Gaddis” was published in the 15 Nov. 1987 issue of The New York Times.

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