RIP William H. Gass

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RIP William H. Gass, 1924-2017

I have now deleted three iterations of this “RIP William H. Gass” blog post. (If this iteration survives I will not edit it (this is the only way it will survive)). Each of these earlier drafts did not start with the grammatical subject “I” (here referring to me, Ed Turner, the dumbass blogger running this dumbass blog).  Instead, I (I!) tried to make “William H. Gass” the grammatical subject of each sentence (or, like, he, the pronoun reference to Gass; or, in a bit of extension, his body of literature (or some such iteration))—leading to sentences like these:

“William H. Gass was one of the best and perhaps most underrated American authors of the past one hundred years. He published three novels in his lifetime: Omensetter’s Luck (1966), The Tunnel (a project that took over a quarter century to finish, published in 1995), and Middle C (2013). Gass’s literary criticism—a broad term here, one that serves as a catchall for language and life and what it all means—was and is especially special in its special specialness. William Howard Gass is a literary giant who will continue to cast a long shadow” [Etcetera].

The truth is that I have to be the grammatical subject here because want to perform the action expressed by the predicate verb, a verb which we have not yet arrived to, thanks to all of my dilly-dallying. That verb I want to arrive at is Thanks. Thanks is the whole damn big main point of this deal: I want to say Thank you. I want to say thank you to William H. Gass (he here the you) for teaching me to read literature anew. And by literature, I mean words:

“It seems a country-headed thing to say: that literature is language, that stories and the places and the people in them are merely made of words as chairs are made of smoothed sticks and sometimes of cloth or metal tubes” (Gass, “The Medium of Fiction,” Fiction and the Figures of Life, 1970).

I look at the silly little blurb I spurted out above, the indented bit that begins with the grammatical subject William H. Gass. It ends in a metaphor that is properly a cliché—Gass as a giant who casts a long shadow—an image that Gass the critic wouldn’t even bother to pick apart, I hope, it being such a hackneyed bit. I’d be better off to image Gass as a giant reflecting light, not casting a shadow. A generative grow lamp, a big fat beaming sun, shining down, nourishing words. But that’s probably just as corny too.

The cast a shadow cliché though seems maybe kinda sorta perhaps possibly peradventure appropriate.  Gass (never the kind of  hedger to use like maybe seven synonyms for peradventure) was a critic-author profoundly confident in his prose prowess. Unlike Harold Bloom, Gass didn’t foreground an anxiety of influence in his criticism or writing. Bloom’s heir apparent James Wood claimed that the “writer-critic is always showing a little plumage to the writer under discussion.” Whether he was teaching me how to read or reread Gertrude Stein or William Gaddis or Franz Kafka (et al), Gass never had to show a little plumage. I never registered any competitive anxiety, but rather a writer fully in control of his own prowess. Gass was a goldenthroated original, a dude who could wallop out a few sentences, fat and heavy, and then make them nimbly bend obliquely back to some other purpose that you weren’t aware you were jogging along to.

Hell, look at Gass’s contemporary Denis Donoghue wrasslin’ with Gass’s prose in a 1978 review of The World Within the World

“I haven’t, I know, given the impression that I enjoyed Mr. Gass’s book. The truth is I reveled in it, every last vivid, golden-tongued, wrong-headed word of it. Normally, I don’t like golden boys: monsters of wit, charm, the well-shaped thighs of phrase and cadence. But I don’t claim credit for making an exception in Mr. Gass’s favor…Mr. Gass will not thank me for suggesting that his book is best read as a sensuous experience, but the fact is (embarrassing to a sobersides like me) that his sentences, true or false, are pleasures. Reading them, I find myself caring about their truth or error to begin with, but ending up not caring as much as I suppose I ought, and taking them like delicacies of the palate.

Donoghue shows a bit of plumage here to Golden Boy Gass and his “well-shaped thighs of phrase,” methinks—and why not?! What motherfucker wouldn’t wish to serve up delicious sentence after delicious sentence, if he or she was able to? Donoghue calls out Gass as a “literary rake” (as if that were a bad thing) and eventually gets to the real but secret point of his essay:

“The price the literary rake pays for his dazzle is that his works stay in the reader’s mind not as convincing arguments but as things the reader wishes he had said–like this, for me, on [Malcolm] Lowry:

‘Lowry could not invent at the level of language, only at the level of life, so that having lied life into a condition suitable for fiction, he would then faithfully and truthfully record it.'”

And there we go: Donoghue gets to it then, bending assbackwards over to not say what he really means to say: I wish I had written what Gass had written. I. There, the point.  wish I had written what William H. Gass had written.

Gass was a great writer, a great critic. I haven’t read everything he’s written—I still haven’t made it through The Tunnel, but that’s something to look forward to, not a distant chore—I haven’t read everything Gass has written, but those interested in his fiction might start with Middle C or In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968) or really Cartesian Sonata and Other Novellas (1998), which I think is pretty perfect. Later, advance to his first novel, Omensetter’s Luck.

And you can’t go wrong with Gass’s nonfiction. Start with Fiction and the Figures of Life; here’s a sample:

“The aim of the artist ought to be to bring into the world objects which do not already exist there, and objects which are especially worthy of love. We meet people, grow to know them slowly, settle on some to companion our life. Do we value our friends for their social status, because they are burning in the public blaze? do we ask of our mistress her meaning? calculate the usefulness of our husband or wife? Only too often. Works of art are meant to be lived with and loved, and if we try to understand them, we should try to understand them as we try to understand anyone—in order to know them better, not in order to know something else (‘The Artist and Society,’ Fiction and the Figures of Life, 1970).

Or seek On Being Blue (1976), a poem disguised as a riff disguised as an essay. Or The World within the Word (1978), a collection of essays pretending to be about literary criticism that are actually about life and death and family and love and etcetera. Or if you want something more recent, something more like a master syllabus (?!), get to A Temple of Texts (2006) and read Gass on Flann O’Brien and Robert Coover and Stanley Elkin and William Gaddis and Rainer Maria Rilke and Gertrude Stein and etcetera.

Etcetera etcetera.

I could keep listing.

Gass loved lists. Good Christ, if you want a good list, you can look to his “Fifty Literary Pillars,” included (but not really the foundation of) A Temple of Texts. Gass led me to read stuff I might not have found or tried, like Georg Büchner’s fragment Lenz, or  John Hawkes’s  The Lime Twig or Stendhal—but what he did best was articulate what I loved or hated or what had perplexed me in the literature I’d read or tried to read before, whether it was Gaddis or Stein or Faulkner. And, selfishly, I want more of that. RIP William Gass. But, more than that, I thank you, William Gass. 

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Orson Welles’ Sketchbook: Critics

Steinbeck on Critics: “Curious Sucker Fish Who Live with Joyous Vicariousness on Other Men’s Work”

ON CRITICS

This morning I looked at the Saturday Review, read a few notices of recent books, not mine, and came up with the usual sense of horror. One should be a reviewer or better a critic, these curious sucker fish who live with joyous vicariousness on other men’s work and discipline with dreary words the thing which feeds them. I don’t say that writers should not be disciplined, but I could wish that the people who appoint themselves to do it were not quite so much of a pattern both physically and mentally.

I’ve always tried out my material on my dogs first. You know, with Angel, he sits there and listens and I get the feeling he understands everything. But with Charley, I always felt he was just waiting to get a word in edgewise. Years ago, when my red setter chewed up the manuscript of Of Mice and Men, I said at the time that the dog must have been an excellent literary critic.

Time is the only critic without ambition.

Give a critic an inch, he’ll write a play.

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

Kakutani, Limn Addict

There’s a piece today in Salon about Michiko Kakutani taking up her favorite verb “limn” again. Thrilling stuff, I know, but it recalled to me this list compiled in Harper’s eight years ago by Christian Lorentzen of Kakutani’s use of “limn” (the Harper’s bit is not mentioned in the Salon article) —

Limn an entire life in a couple of pages

Limn the trajectory of an entire life in a handful of pages

Limn the suffocating atmosphere of small-town life and the alienation experienced by those who defy its provincial mores

Limn the last days of an alcoholic frontierswoman living in a small western town

Limn a man’s sudden apprehension of vulnerability and loss–all brought on by his discovery of a dead rat on his kitchen floor

Limn his inner life or probe the sources of his equipoise

Limn the inner life of people, surprised by the deceptions of time

Limn, with tenderness, wisdom, and humor, a vast array of human relationships, both straight and gay

Limn the rituals of hunting, trapping, planting, and canning with a wry mixture of amusement and respect

Limn the daily minutiae of life

Limn the human condition

Limn the complicated emotional geometry

Limn the delicate geometry of emotions

Limn a marriage of enduring passion and shared ideals

Limn Willy’s fears of losing Biff’s love and his own longings for immortality

Limn the brutal, perilous, and harrowing art of killing a forty-ton creature with a hand-thrown weapon

Limn some of its burgeoning manifestations

Limn the social and geopolitical fallout

Limn the surrealness of contemporary life

Limn the rhythms of the universe and an artist’s inner state of mind

Limn a future in which Pop Art gives way to Poll Art

Limn the nervous, almost flirtatious banter

Limn a hero’s efforts to achieve self-understanding

Limn girls’ secret struggle for womanhood in the post-sexual-revolution world

Limn the dangers posed by emerging diseases

Limn the spiritual yearnings and dislocations of an entire nation as it lurched from the certainties of the World War II years toward the confusions of the 1970s

Limn the irrationalities of history

Limn the impermanence–and emotional chaos–that threatens to overwhelm ordinary people

Limn the fabulous

Limn the ordinary with seeming nonchalance

Limn this deeply felt, if somewhat limited, theme with clarity and moral vigor

How Roberto Bolaño Handled Criticism

From Roberto Bolaño’s July, 2003 interview with Mexican Playboy, collected in The Last Interview and Other Conversations

Every time I read that someone has spoken badly of me I begin to cry, I drag myself across the floor, I scratch myself, I stop writing indefinitely, I lose my appetite, I smoke less, I engage in sport, I go for walks on the edge of the sea, which by the way is less than 30 meters from my house, and I ask the seagulls, whose ancestors ate the fish who ate Ulysses: Why me? Why? I’ve done you no harm.

 

James Wood on Virginia Woolf and the Anxiety of Influence

James Wood, writing about Virginia Woolf in his essay “Virginia Woolf’s Mysticism” (collected in The Broken Estate)–

Woolf, I think, became a great critic, not simply a “great reviewer.” The Collected Essays, which are still being edited, is the most substantial body of criticism in English this century. They belong in the tradition of Johnson, Coleridge, Arnold, and Henry James. This is the tradition of poet-critics, until the modern era, when novelists like Woolf and James join it. That is, her essays and reviews are a writer’s criticism, written in the language of art, which is the language of metaphor. The writer-critic, or poet-critic, has a competitive proximity to the writers she discusses. The competition is registered verbally. The writer-critic is always showing a little plumage to the writer under discussion. If the writer-critic appears to generalize, it is because literature is what she does, and one is always generalizing about oneself.

Wood’s description of Woolf is really Wood’s description of Wood.

Criticism

Lucinella — Lore Segal

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The story of a group of poets and critics in the late 60s/early 70s NYC should not be so fun or rewarding. From its first page, Lore Segal’s novella Lucinella invents itself as a scathing satire of writers and would-be writers. Segal’s book paradoxically reveres its subject matter, a back-biting and insular literati; and yet at the same time it exposes their solipsistic, narcissistic, cannibalistic shortcomings. These are not particularly generous people, but they are somehow endearing.

Lucinella takes first-person authority to tell the story–and boy does she take authority, bending reality, reason, and narrative cohesion to fit her whim. Lucinella is a poet (a minor poet, perhaps), and Lucinella is very much a poetic action, an act of creation in thirteen parts. The story begins with our (utra-)self-conscious heroine at the idyllic artists’ retreat Yaddo, where she’s ostensibly trying to compose a poem about a root cellar but really just having a grand ole time with a host of notable intellectuals, the poets and critics who will populate the book. “I will make up an eye here, borrow a nose or two there, and a mustache and something funny someone said and a pea-green sweater, so it’s no use your fitting you keys into my keyholes, to try and figure out who’s who,” Lucinella tells us. No worries, Lucinella, we had no idea who, if anyone, your Betterwheatling and Winterneet and Meyers were based on–heck, it took us a few pages to figure out that your Zeus was, um, y’know, that Zeus.

Segal’s (or Lucinella’s) inventions work within a hyperbolic schema set to slow burn. Describing a fellow poet of greater renown:

This Winterneet walking beside me has walked beside Roethke, breakfasted with Snodgrass and Jarrell–with Auden! Frost is his second cousin; he went to school with Pound, traveled all the way to Ireland once, to have tea with Yeats, and spent the weekend with the Matthew Arnolds. He remembers Keats threw up on his way from anatomy; Winterneet says he admires Wordsworth’s poetry, but couldn’t stand the man.

This is pretty much Lucinella‘s program: plausibly esoteric literary references running amok into sublimely surrealistic sketches. If you don’t like that, take your sense of humor to its doctor. Lucinella’s time at the haven of Yaddo is soon up, and she must return to the monster of Manhattan, where young poet William (despite his too-thin neck) shows up at her doorstep to fall in love and eventually marry her. The two attend every literary party, where they feel alternately bedazzled, thrilled, or–mostly–slighted. William, composer of a never-quite-finished epic about Margery Kempe, takes his snubs especially hard, even when he’s being celebrated (and published). We weren’t there, but it seems that Segal evokes her Manhattanite milieu with painterly (or perhaps cartoonly) accuracy. Really, the infighting intellectuals are reminiscent of poseurs and scenesters of any time and place. Lucinella and William go to parties, throw parties, complain about parties, and throw fits like children when they don’t get invited to parties. It’s all very real and very silly and very funny. In one (literally) fantastic set-piece (okay, the whole book might be a fantasy set-piece), Lucinella meets Old Lucinella and Young Lucinella at a party, giving her an(other) opportunity to critique herself. “There’s old Lucinella, the poet,” says one character. “She hasn’t written much in these last years. Used to be good in a minor way” comes the nonchalant reply. Young Lucinella fares no better, although she does manage an affair with William (don’t worry, Lucinella proper hooks up with Zeus in one of the book’s strangest flights of fancy).

The real seduction, as Lucinella points out at a party (of course), is her attempt to seduce her reader into a trenchant unreality that the poets and critics pretend is reality even as they bemoan the reality that their addiction to unreality is their main reality. Yeah. It’s all a bit surreal, and it all comes to a head quite pointedly twice in the novel. The first unmasking occurs at a symposium where the group holds forth on weighty matters – “Why Read?” – “Why Write?” – “Why Publish?” The house lights come up to reveal our fretting poets addressing an empty hall. Even in 1970, no one cares about reading and writing and publishing. And it’s not just the symposium–when Lucinella hosts a party for her pal Betterwheatling, who’s just published a collection of a criticism, she’s shocked to realize as the party dwindles that, not only has she not read his new book, she’s never read anything he’s written. But that’s not all: “I can tell, with the shock of a certitude, by the set of the line of Betterwheatling’s jaw, by the way his hair falls into his forehead, that Betterwheatling has never read a line I have written either and I flush with pain.” Betterwheatling’s punishment: “I’ll never invite him to another party!” Ahhh . . . the petulance. Oh, all the backstabbing and perceived slighting and posing and posturing leads up to an apocalyptic climax, complete with a proper de-invention of Lucinella. It’s all really great.

If Lucinella is light on plot–which we don’t really think it is, despite its slim build, light weight, and 150 or so pages–it’s big on ideas and even bigger on voice. Lucinella is kinda like that crazy art chick you knew in college who was always working on some project that never quite came to fruition, and her cohorts are just the sort of mad loonies you spend time alternately ducking calls from or hoping to run into at a party (depending on your mood). Her evocation of the youthful excitement and nascent romance of poetry reminds us of some of Roberto Bolaño‘s work, particularly the joyful jocularity of Garcia Madero’s section of The Savage Detectives (Segal’s volume is in no short supply of exclamations points). The book builds to a massive millennial climax, a hodgepodge of social consciousness movements and poetry and block party–a moveable feast of paranoia and art and possibility and good clean fun, and, more than anything else, the death-sentences we impose upon ourselves. But we’re overextending our review. Let’s just say that the book is great, and if you love books that both simultaneously mock and valorize the creative process, you’ll probably dig Lucinella’s metafictional tropes. Highly recommended.

Lucinella is in print again for the first time since the 1970s thanks to indie stronghold Melville House Publishing.

John Leonard, 1939-2008

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American critic John Leonard died of lung cancer last Wednesday. From The New York Times obituary:

John Leonard, a widely influential and enduringly visible cultural critic known for the breadth of his knowledge, the depth of his inquiries and the lavish passion of his prose, died on Wednesday in Manhattan. He was 69 and lived in Manhattan. . . .

As a critic, Mr. Leonard was far less interested in saying yea or nay about a work of art than he was in scrutinizing the who, the what and the why of it. His writing opened a window onto the contemporary American scene, examining a book or film or television show as it was shaped by the cultural winds of the day.

Amid the thicket of book galleys he received each week, Mr. Leonard often spied glimmers that other critics had not yet noticed. He was known as an early champion of a string of writers who are now household names, among them Mary Gordon, Maxine Hong Kingston and the Nobel Prize winners Toni Morrison and Gabriel García Márquez.

Mr. Leonard’s prose was known not only for its erudition, but also for its sheer revelry in the sounds and sentences of English. Stylistic hallmarks included wit, wordplay, a carefully constructed acerbity and a syntax so unabashedly baroque that some readers found it overwhelming. The comma seemed to have been invented expressly for him.

I’ve subscribed to Harper’s for about a decade now, and in that time John Leonard’s “New Books” column has been not only one of my favorite features of the magazine, but also an inspirational guide on how to review a book. Leonard knew how to show why a book mattered; he also knew how to capture the essence of not just the plot but the author’s style in just a few short lines–something that’s really, really tough to do. I read one of Leonard’s last reviews, a write up of Toni Morrison’s latest A Mercy in this month’s Harper’s, just last Monday to a group of my high school students who were interested in Morrison’s work. The review made one of them say: “I want to read that book.” I think there is no higher compliment for any critic. John Leonard will be missed.