Blog about a metatextual moment at the end of William Gaddis’s novel The Recognitions

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In the epilogue of his 1955 novel The Recognitions, William Gaddis checks in on the book’s enormous background cast, tying up loose ends, but also leaving many of the characters frayed, burned out, or destroyed. There’s a remarkable metatextual moment in this epilogue in which two minor characters are revealed to be carrying copies of a book that bears more than a passing resemblance to The Recognitions itself. These characters are both literary counterfeiters—Mr. Feddle, a faker who forges book jackets with his name in the author’s position and slips them over classic novels, and “the critic in the green wool shirt,” who doesn’t bother to read the books he reviews.

Meeting at a tailor’s shop, Feddle and the critic peer at each other, “fix[ing] the book the other was carrying with a look of myopic recognition.” The passage continues with the following acerbically ironic exchange:

—You reading that? both asked at once, withdrawing in surprise. —No. I’m just reviewing it, said the taller one, hunching back in his green wool shirt.

—A lousy twenty-five bucks. It’ll take me the whole evening tonight. You didn’t buy it, did you? Christ, at that price? Who the hell do they think’s going to pay that much just for a novel. Christ, I could have given it to you, all I need is the jacket blurb to write the review.

The exchange here accurately anticipates exactly how The Recognitions would be received by its contemporary critics—or “hacks,” as Jack Green repeatedly calls them in his infamous 1962 screed Fire the Bastards! For almost 80 pages, Green details the failures of the 55 critics who reviewed the book upon its release. Some of these major failures include—

failing to recognize the greatness of the book

failing to convey to the reader what the book is like, what its essential qualities are

counterfeiting this with stereotyped preconceptions—the standard cliches about a book that is “ambitious,” “erudite,” “long,” “negative,” etc

counterfeiting competence with inhuman jargon

Green’s repeated use of the word “counterfeit” not just here but throughout his tract demonstrates the essential realism of The Recognitions: Gaddis conceived how his novel of counterfeiters, poseurs, plagiarists, and hacks would be misread, misremembered, and misrecognized by counterfeiters, poseurs, plagiarists, and hacks. The green-wool-shirted critic’s declaration that all he needs “is the jacket blurb to write the view” transcends its original satirical contours—it is a prophecy that comes true.

This satirical metatextual prognostication finds fruition in the review of The Recognitions published in The Louisville Courier-Journal. In Fire the Bastards!, Green details how the reviewer plagiarized his review of The Recognitions from the novel’s jacket blurb. The metatextuality here is magical: Gaddis conjures the character of an unnamed counterfeiter critic who will (not-)review a book that appears to be The Recognitions itself; this character becomes real by (not-)reviewing the book in an unsigned review in The Louisville Courier-Journal that plagiarizes the book’s blurb.

But perhaps I’ve neglected to demonstrate that the book that Feddle the faker and the critic in the green wool shirt are both not reading is in fact a version of The Recognitions itself. Here is the next paragraph in the episode:

It was in fact quite a thick book. A pattern of bold elegance, the lettering on the dust1M5vpxx wrapper stood forth in stark configurations of red and black to intimate the origin of design. (For some crotchety reason there was no picture of the author looking pensive sucking a pipe, sans gêne with a cigarette, sang-froid with no necktie, plastered across the back.)

In his invaluable work A Reader’s Guide to William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, Steven Moore gives the following annotation to these lines:

 the description is of the first edition of R [The Recognitions]. Martin Dworkin’s photograph of Gaddis “sans gêne with a cigarette, sang-froid with no necktie” appeared in both the Time and Newsweek reviews.

Jack Green is more succinct in Fire the Bastards!: “the book the stubby
poet [Feddle] has is the recognitions [sic] itself.” And what is “the stubby poet” doing with such a bigass book? Reading it?

—Reading it? Christ no, what do you think I am? I just been having trouble sleeping, so my analyst told me to get a book and count the letters, so I just went in and asked them for the thickest book in the place and they sold me this damned thing, he muttered looking at the book with intimate dislike.

At least Feddle’s dislike is “intimate.” If he’d bothered to read it he might have gotten some weird alarming joy from this (meta)Recognitions. Or, even better, he might reread it—which is really the only way to read The Recognitions, I’m convinced, after my second full read. The book is more precise, more artfully constructed—more stuffed with motifs and symbols, doubled, tripled, quadrupled—than I had realized on first reading.

Jack Green made rereading The Recognitions a significant part of his life. He was an evangelist for the text, going so far as to take out a full page ad in The Village Voice in 1962 when the book was reprinted in paperback. His advertisement is five short paragraphs. The second paragraph is a proper, original blurb. The second paragraph is an argument for rereading. Here they are:

“The Recognitions” is a 956-page novel whose main theme is vanity or forgery—of Old Masters, $20 bills, slings, personality, everything. It is like a painting with a few primary figures presented in depth and an army of caricatures in the background. The main characters are unforgettable and, as is usually true, give the book most of its greatness. The minor characters, including the author himself who has a bit part, are very funny.

Like “Ulysses,” Gaddis’s book can be read the first time with enjoyment (my advice: don’t work at it) and then reread for years with increasing fascination. It has an intricate network of thousands of cross-references which give it a unique time-sense: as the connections are gradually recognized on rereading, the book appears to grow like a living being.

“Grow like a living being.” I think that’s about right.

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The American Poseur’s Journal | Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook

This section of Doris Lessing’s novel The Golden Notebook actually made me laugh aloud. She offers a wonderful parody of “a young American living on an allowance from his father who works in insurance”; the section recalls William Gaddis’s similar send-ups in The Recognitions (and again links the two novels together in my consciousness).

[The right side of the black notebook, under the heading Money, continued.]

Some months ago I got a letter from the Pomegranate Review, New Zealand, asking for a story. Wrote back, saying I did not write stories. They replied asking for ‘portions of your journals, if you keep them’. Replied saying I did not believe in publishing journals written for oneself. Amused myself composing imaginary journal, of the right tone for a literary review in a colony or the Dominions: circles isolated from the centres of culture will tolerate a far more solemn tone than the editors and their customers in let’s say London or Paris. (Though sometimes I wonder.) This journal is kept by a young American living on an allowance from his father who works in insurance. He has had three short stories published and has completed a third of a novel. He drinks rather too much, but not as much as he likes people to think; takes marihuana, but only when friends from the States visit him. He is full of contempt for that crude phenomenon, the United States of America.

April 16th. On the steps of the Louvre. Remembered Dora. That girl was in real trouble. I wonder if she has solved her problems. Must write to my father. The tone of his last letter hurt me. Must we be always isolated from each other? I am an artist – Mon Dieu!

April 17th. The Gare de Lyon. Thought of Lise. My God, and that was two years ago! What have I done with my life? Paris has stolen it … must re-read Proust.

April 18th. London. The Horseguards’ Parade. A writer is the conscience of the world. Thought of Marie. It is a writer’s duty to betray his wife, his country and his friend if it serves his art. Also his mistress.

April 18th. Outside Buckingham Palace. George Eliot is the rich man’s Gissing. Must write to my father. Only ninety dollars left. Will we ever speak the same language? Continue reading “The American Poseur’s Journal | Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook”

Hoax, Italian Style

In this week’s issue of The New Yorker Judith Thurman reports on the literary hoaxes of Tommaso Debenedetti, an Italian “journalist” who has apparently fabricated dozens of interviews with famous authors in the paper Il Piccolo. Authors–so far–include Philip Roth, John Grisham, Gunter Grass, Toni Morrison, Herta Müller, Nadine Gordimer (Thurman is continuing to investigate Debedenetti’s archival interviews).

Thurman contacted Debenedetti, who denied that he faked the interviews. From the article:

Debenedetti said he was completely “shocked and saddened” that all these writers would have denied the veracity of his reporting. When I asked him about the interviews with Roth and Grisham, he flatly denied having invented them, and told me that Roth and Grisham were lying for “political” reasons—because their views on Obama would make them unpopular with left-leaning intellectuals. Roth, he added, might have decided that it was impolitic to express hostility toward Obama because it might spoil his chances for the Nobel.

I then read the list of other writers who had denied or questioned his conversations with them. In every case, Debenedetti asserted that he had invented nothing. When I asked if he could produce any recordings or notes from his interviews, he laughed and, admitting that it sounded like a “tired” excuse, told me that he had lost the tapes in some cases, and in others had “thrown them away.”

April Fools: Seven Literary Hoaxes

J.T. LeRoy, James Frey, Herman Rosenblat, Margaret Seltzer . . . recent years have seen an explosion of memoirists lying, faking, or otherwise hoaxing the public–but this is hardly anything new. In honor of April Fool’s Day we present seven April Fools.

The Amber Witch — Johannes Wilhelm Meinhold (1844)

Meinhold pretended that The Amber Witch was the true story of a seventeenth-century minister’s daughter falsely accused of witchcraft. Meinhold claimed he found the minister’s manuscript in the refuse of an old church. When the book received critical attention, Meinhold admitted to the hoax, but audiences didn’t believe him at first.

“Geraint the Blue Bard” aka Iolo Morganwg aka Edward Williams (1747-1826)

Welshman Edward Williams was widely considered a leading antiquarian and expert on the antiquities of the British Isles. After his death, however, many of his manuscripts were revealed to have been forgeries, including those produced by “Geraint the Blue Bard,” supposedly a ninth-century composer. Oh well.

I, Libertine — Frederick R. Ewing  (1956)

Proto-shock jock Jean “Shep” Shepherd perpetrated I, Libertine as a purposeful hoax. He told his radio audience to demand the (non-existent) book by the (non-existent) author “Frederick R. Ewing” from their local booksellers, and even fabricated a basic plot for listeners to in turn relate (he even included the salacious detail that the book had been banned in Boston). Publisher Ballantine hired sci-fi scribe Theodore Sturgeon to write the book from Shepherd’s outline, and the book was published very soon after. All proceeds went to charity.

Naked Came the Stranger — Penelope Ashe (1969)

To prove that American culture was smutty and degraded, Newsday columnist Mike McGrady enlisted 24 of his fellow writers to write a smutty and degraded novel that they believed would top the bestseller list in spite of its lack of literary value. By the time “Penelope Ashe” had put out Naked Came the Stranger, the hoax had linked, and it was unclear if this is what led to the book actually topping the New York Times bestseller list (for one slim week). The book later became the basis of a porno film.

A Separate Reality — Carlos Castaneda (1971)

The debate around Castaneda’s series of “memoirs” in some ways gets to the heart of the problems of truth and invention, facts and authenticity, experience and memory. Castaneda claimed that he trained under Don Juan Matus, a Yaqui Indian sorcerer. Part of that training included taking massive amounts of psychotropic drugs like peyote as a means to “see” the energy of the universe. Don Juan Matus’s actual existence is questionable at best, but hey, when you’re doing large quantities of peyote, who knows what, like, truth is, man.

“Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”– Alan Sokal (1996)

Disgusted with a perceived slackness and ineptitude in modern academia, Dr. Alan Sokal published a paper full of nonsensical gibberish in Duke University’s cultural studies journal Social Text. The same day the essay was published, he announced the hoax in the journal Lingua Franca. Ouch. Biblioklept wrote a post about the incident a few years ago, if you’re interested.

The Songs of Bilitis Pierre Louÿs (1894)

Louÿs claimed that the erotic poems he fabricated were the work of “Bilitis,” one of Sappho’s lovers; he even invented a biography of the woman, citing a fictional archaeologist named Herr G. Heim with discovering her tomb. (“Herr G. Heim” translates roughly to “Lord S. Ecret”). Despite the hoax, many critics consider it a work of literary merit, and it’s become something of a cult book among queer theory enthusiasts.