William Gaddis’s contribution to a 6 June 1982 New York Times article asking numerous authors what their next book will be. I suppose that Carpenter’s Gothic, being a Gothic, is a romance.
William Gaddis’s contribution to a 6 June 1982 New York Times article asking numerous authors what their next book will be. I suppose that Carpenter’s Gothic, being a Gothic, is a romance.
The above ad was published in The New York Times, 16 March 1955. Blurbs, bigger (Sterling North’s is my fave):
The second ad is from 1 May 1955, also in The New York Times:
This is a clipping of W.G. Rogers’ (circa 1973) review of Gravity’s Rainbow (click on the image to enlarge it). The marginal annotation is by William Gaddis:
Rogers’ review of Gravity’s Rainbow is eleven paragraphs long in two columns. The final three paragraphs are devoted to a comparison with The Recognitions (this comparison takes up about three quarters of the second column). Rogers refers to Gaddis’s novel as Recognitions.
The final paragraph reads:
Gaddis could have written Gravity’s Rainbow and Pynchon could have written Recognitions [sic].That two hearts can beat as one is no proof two minds can. Would we not expect Gaddis to use his own respected name? Could there be two separate master hands? I suppose so, but…
Gaddis published his second novel J R, two years later, in 1975.
This document is part of the William Gaddis Papers collection at Washington University. I saw it earlier this morning thanks to Reddit user Signor Mantissa.
Otherwise I scarcely know what to say to your request for help on ‘more background’ first, I think, and I am not being facetious when I plead not that it’s so long since I wrote it but that [following a strikeover] (I’ve been typing all day and getting a little bleary) so long since I read it. If I named a single influence it would certainly be TS Eliot who still takes my breath away as he did then (and as a fair number of his lines sprinkled through the book might attest). Regarding any ‘message’, perhaps that art abides and the artist is its tool and victim but despite that it is the only enterprise worth embracing in the attempt to justify life; that art executed without love is bad (false) art but such love is not easy to come by. There was a corollary there too with God (perfection, gold) and the driving impossibility of grasping it because of our finite condition but that attempt being all we have to justify this finite condition (page 689 at the top I suppose is the key to the book if there is such). And in taking it down just now to look for this reference I read a few pages at random and must confess found them quite entertaining. I suppose if there has been one immense frustration with the book’s often grudging acceptance it has been how few people seemed able to permit themselves, despite its so-called ‘erudition’, to simply enjoy it.
From Letters of William Gaddis, edited by Steven Moore. Excerpted from a 1972 reply to Jeanne G. Howes, a student at Case Western Reserve University who wrote a thesis on The Recognitions.
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 dust 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.
— Where were you all day? Mr. Yak asked again, when they bumped the second time.
—The art museum? Mr. Yak shrugged. —What did you do there? He glanced up at the face beside him, and said, —You don’t look like you liked it much. The art there.
—Well they . . . the El Greco, his companion began, as though called upon to comment, and he drew his hand across his eyes.
—They have so many in one room, they’re almost hung on top of each other and it’s too much, it’s too much plasticity, there’s too much movement there in that one room . . . He suddenly looked up at Mr. Yak, holding a hand out before them which appeared to try to shape something there. —Do you … do you see what I mean? With a painter like El Greco, somebody called him a visceral painter, do you see what I mean? And when you get so much of his work hung together, it … the forms stifle each other, it’s too much. Down where they have the Flemish painters hung together it’s different, because they’re all separate . . . the compositions are separate, and the . . . the Bosch and Breughel and Patinir and even Dürer, they don’t disturb each other because the . . . because every composition is made up of separations, or rather … I mean … do you see what I mean? But the harmony in one canvas of El Greco is all one . . . one . . . He had both hands out before him now, the fingers turned in and the thumbs up as though holding something he was studying with a life which Mr. Yak had not seen in his face before. But he broke off abruptly, and his hands came down to his sides.
From William Gaddis’s The Recognitions.
The second episode of Part II, Ch. 5 of William Gaddis’s 1955 novel The Recognitions returns to the consciousness of sadsack everyman Mr. Pivner. Through milquetoast Mr. Pivner (the long-lost father of poseur-supreme Otto), Gaddis critiques the banal emptiness and rank venality of post-war life in America. In this particular section of The Recognitions, Gaddis reinforces one of his novel’s central themes: modern commerce has supplanted culture in contemporary America. Indeed, commerce is culture in America.
The episode begins as Papa Pivner prepares to meet Otto for the first time (their estrangement has not yet been explained in the narrative). They arrange to meet in a hotel restaurant, their recognition of each other secured in a promise to wear matching green scarves. Gaddis weaves this father-son plot into the schemes of the counterfeiter Frank Sinisterra, who plans to offload his oh-so-artistic fraudulent currency to “a spreader” who will disseminate “the queer” bills. Ever the conman, Sinisterra disguises himself before heading to the meetup, which is to be held in a hotel restaurant. He dons a green scarf, by which his contact will recognize him. You get it: Sinisterra misrecognizes Otto for the spreader, Otto misrecognizes Sinisterra for his long-lost father, tragicomedy ensues, and Gaddis multiplies the strands of deferred and displaced father figures threaded through his bigass too-big too-long novel. This paternity motif is underlined even more when we remember Otto’s competition with Sinisterra’s son Chaby for the affections of Esme. But such deferrals and displacements are the material for a different riff. Let us shift back to Papa Pivner, sad soul, Gaddis’s little manikin-symbol-thing of paternal cultural authority cuckolded by commercial masscult modernity.
As he preps to meet his boy Otto, Mr. Pivner skims through Dale Carnegie’s 1936 utlrabestseller How to Win Friends and Influence People, a self-help book that Gaddis beats up for nearly ten straight pages in The Recognitions. (Not incidentally, Gaddis had his students at Bard College read Carnegie’s book as part of a class he taught called “The Theme of Failure in American Literature”). Carnegie’s book is the AntiRecognitions, and Gaddis delights in savaging its self-help hucksterism by setting How to Win Friends against the Western canon:
Mr. Pivner sat staring through rimless glasses at a kindly book-jacket face which returned his amorphous gaze. He was preparing to meet his son, to win him as a friend, and influence him as a person. As Odysseus had Mentor, Jesus John the Baptist, Cesare Borgia Machiavelli, Faust Mephistopheles, Descartes Father Dinet, Schopenhauer’s dog Schopenhauer, and Schiller his drawerful of rotten apples, Mr. Pivner had Dale Carnegie: he and four million other individuals, that is…
The passage’s bathos exemplifies Gaddis’s techniques in the Pivner episodes. Gaddis inflates the rhetoric with rich allusion and haughty parallelism, only to puncture the verbal balloon with the banality of middlebrow midcentury American values. For Gaddis, Carnegie’s book represented a signal synthesis of these venal values. How to Win Friends and Influence People cannibalized millennia of writings on wisdom, philosophy, ethics—and the strange mystery vibrating underneath these disciplines—and distilled it all into a self-help book centered on selling yourself to others. The contempt is palpable in another bathetic passage:
True, Mr. Pivner might have read Descartes; and, with tutelage, understood from that energetic fellow, well educated in Jesuit acrobatics (cogitans, ergo sum-ing), that everything not one’s self was an IT, and to be treated so. But Descartes, retiring from life to settle down and prove his own existence, was as ephemeral as some Roger Bacon settling down to construct geometrical proofs of God: for Mr. Pivner, a potential buyer (on page 95) who was head of the Hotel Greeters of America (and president of the International Greeters too!) was far more real.
Cribbing and re-appropriating Carnegie’s own words, Gaddis’s narrator notes that How to Win Friends “was not a book of thought, or thoughts, or ideas, but an action book.” Gaddis then ironically resituates the value of such a book:
An action book; and herein lay the admirable quality of this work: it decreed virtue not for virtue’s sake (as weary Stoics had it); nor courtesy for courtesy (an attribute of human dignity, as civilized culture would have it); nor love for love (as Christ had it); nor a faith which is its own explanation and its own justification (as any faith has it); but all of these excellences oriented toward the market place.
Gaddis posits How to Win Friends as the cynical, terminal destination for the radical transcendental values of the previous century. The values of self-determination, self-reliance, and self-making upheld by Henry David Thoreau, whose writings are alluded to in The Recognitions, are converted into self-improvement, which translates into self-selling. Art and philosophy are simply commodities. Gaddis intuits the ways that capitalism glosses its venality over with the promises of culture and transcendence. Consider this passage, which begins with a quote from Carnegie:
“Let me repeat: the principles taught in this book will work only when they come from the heart. I am not advocating a bag of tricks. I am talking about a new way of life.” That was the wonderful thing about this book [. . .] if at first its approach seemed fraught with guile, subterfuge, duplicity, sophistry, and insidious artifice, that feeling soon disappeared, and one had . . . “Ah yes, you are attempting a new way of life.”
The litany of the huckster’s “bag of tricks” — “guile, subterfuge, duplicity, sophistry, and insidious artifice” — doubles back to The Recognitions’ motif of counterfeiting and also bites viciously into Carnegie’s core disingenuousness.
Gaddis not only attacks the content of Carnegie’s book, but also the form and style of the book. Carnegie’s hucksterism evinces in its very rhetoric. Gaddis seems to propose his own novel as the opposite of How to Win Friends and Influence People in both content (searching quest for meaning and authenticity in a degraded commercial world) and form (an unwieldy and often abstruse polyglossic beast of a book). In the following remarkable passage he decidedly (if obliquely) situates The Recognitions as a work contra Carnegie:
Here was no promise of anything so absurd as a void where nothing was, nor so delusive as a chimerical kingdom of heaven: in short, it reconciled those virtues he had been taught as a child to the motives and practices of the man, the elixir which exchanged the things worth being for the things worth having. 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 of 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.”
Poor Pivner. He’s really just wanting to win the friendship of the son he’s only just learned he has. Gaddis uses Pivner to indict American culture’s commercially cruel contours, where any entity might be misappropriated and misused in the market place of ideas:
Here were Barnum and the Bible, Charles Schwab, Dutch Schultz and Shakespeare, two Napoleons, Pola Negri, and the National Credit Men’s Association, Capone, Chrysler, Two-Gun Crowley, and Jesus Christ, each in his own way posting the way to the market place. Even Jehovah appeared, if only in brief reversal…
The repeated bathos in II.5 of The Recognitions is wonderfully mean humor, but Pivner doesn’t seem like Gaddis’s main mark—rather, Gaddis shows us that Pivner is Carnegie’s mark. And for all the bathos here, there’s pathos too. We can find a certain sympathy in Pivner’s mild and foiled quest to meet with his progeny. A diabetic (like Chaby Sinisterra, he too uses needles), Pivner waits too long to take his insulin and conks out in the hotel lobby. He is briefly arrested and of course fails to meet Otto.
The next chapter, II.6 is set on Christmas Eve. Pivner receives a Christmas present from Otto, a beautiful and expensive robe (Otto is now flush with plenty of the counterfeit cash). Pivner is deeply moved by the gift, and elects to head back to the hotel to try to meet Otto again. The moment he dons the robe is rendered with disarming pathos. Gaddis’s narrator describes Pivner as a man “whose world was a series of disconnected images, his life a procession of faces reflecting his own anonymity in the street, and faces sharing moments of severe intimacy in the press.” If Pivner is prey to a conman like Carnegie, it is because Pivner is lonely and alienated. The modern condition is one of anxious anonymity, where “intimacy” boils down to reading the same gruesome news that others read. Human connection is mediated through mass media.
When Pivner returns to the hotel, he actually does encounter Otto. They stand next to each other, pissing into urinals in the hotel lobby men’s room, staring straight ahead at the obscene graffiti scrawled on the wall. A pornographic drawing so alarms Pivner that he turns and lowers his head, catching a glimpse of a green scarf poking from the proximal pisser’s pocket. The recognition remains incomplete though: Otto turns his “bloodshot eyes in a desolation of contempt” upon the older man and departs into the night. Pivner is unable to find confirmation of the younger man’s identity, and retreats to the bar to drink orange juice.
The final image of the chapter resonates with sympathetic and lonely despair. It is like something from an Edward Hopper painting. On one end of the bar sits a blonde; next to her Pivner; to his right, a newly-disguised Mr. Sinisterra, hoping too to catch Otto. When the blonde pays for her drink with one of his fake bills, Sinisterra gasps in a moment of recognition. The gasp draws Pivner’s attention and he looks to Sinisterra whose
sharp eyes gleamed at something beyond him, and with such intensity that his own were drawn in a reflex to look to where the blonde paid for her drink. But all Mr. Pivner saw, in the dim light, was a crisp twenty-dollar bill exchange hands: or so it looked to him, moonblind in the tinted gloom of that landscape where the three of them hung, asunder in their similarity, images hopelessly expectant of the appearance of figures, or a figure, of less transient material than their own.
In those final words and images we see the dream behind The Recognitions—the dream of recognizing the metaphysical, the original thing itself comprised of “less transient material” than our own. The final image seems to emanate from Pivner’s consciousness, and to emanate in a moment freed from the ironic bathos the narrator dragged him through before. There’s an emergent if subdued rejection of the market place figures that Dale Carnegie blithely promises his marks can attain, replaced, if fleetingly, for a longing after something more, something mysterious and unnameable. Gaddis conjures a small moment of strange, hopeless expectation—the wish for transcendent recognition.
It seems that for the past two weeks I have been reading mostly final exams and research papers, but I have read some other things too.
I have all but finished Tristan Foster’s collection Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father, which I think is excellent contemporary fiction. Foster’s pieces do things that I did not know that I wanted contemporary fiction to do until I read the pieces. Read his story/poem/thing “Economies of Scale” to get an illustrating example. Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father deserves a proper review and I will give it one sooner rather than later. For now let me say that I am jealous of that title.
I’ve continued sifting unevenly through John Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs. Earlier this year I tried reading one Dream Song a day and then realized I didn’t like reading one Dream Song a day. Some days I wanted to read three or five and some days I wanted to read none and some days I felt like skipping ahead to later Dream Songs and some days I got stuck on a few lines or a spare image or an oblique word and then I couldn’t move on. Here is Dream Song 30, which took me two days to read (I got hung up on “Hell talkt my brain awake” for more than a little while):
I am still auditing/rereading William Gaddis’s first novel The Recognitions. I riffed on rereading it here and here and here) and hope to riff some more, but I doubt I’ll have anything comprehensible to write about the chapter I just finished, II.3 (Chapter 3 of Section II). The opening of this chapter is a stream-of-consciousness flowing so freely that it overwhelms the reader. Gaddis takes us into Wyatt’s addled brains, a space overstuffed with hurtling esoteric mythopoetic gobbledygook. (The section also strongly recalls Stephen Dedalus’s stroll on the beach in Chapter 3 of Ulysses—although Gaddis denied having read Joyce’s opus).
The interior of Wyatt’s skull is frustrating as hell, which is maybe half the point. Things don’t get any simpler when Wyatt goes to his childhood home where no one recognizes him. Or, rather, he is misrecognized, recognized as someone else: an acolyte of Mithras, Prester John, the Messiah. As always with The Recognitions though, there’s a radical ambiguity: Is Wyatt misrecognized? Or is there an originality under the surface that his ersatz fragmented family recognizes?
I have around 100 more pages left to read of Helen DeWitt’s debut novel The Last Samurai. I’ve read the book at such a fast clip that I’m frankly suspicious of it. The book is 530 pages but feels like its 150 pages. I’m not sure what that means. Maybe it means it’s not a particularly dense novel, although it is rich in ideas—ideas about art, language, family. The book won me over when DeWitt steers the narrative into one of its first major side quests, the story of a musician named Kenzo Yamamoto. I recall reading late into the night, overtired but unable to put the book down. I stayed up too late and was too tired the next day, and then sneaked in a few sections during office hours the next morning. I think that means that I like the book very much—but I also find myself irked at times by something in DeWitt’s style—a sort of archness that veers into preciousness, a cleverness that interminably announces itself. The book tries to spin irony into earnestness, which is vaguely exhausting. I think I would have been head over heels in love with this book if I had read it ten or fifteen years ago.
In his recent review of The Last Samurai at Vulture — where the book garnered the dubious prize of being prematurely called “The Best Book of the Century” — Christian Lorentzen wrote that DeWitt’s “novel was never easily subsumed in one of the day’s critical categories, like James Wood’s hysterical realism.” But reading The Last Samurai, I am reminded of the books that Wood thought of as “hysterical realism.” Wood coined the term to describe a trend he saw in literature of the late nineties, literature that combined absurdity with social and cultural realism (at the expense of Wood’s precious psychological realism). Wood specifically applied his description to Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth (published, like The Last Samurai, in 2000), but slapped it down elsewhere, notably to David Foster Wallace. While I don’t endorse Wood’s scolding use of the phrase “hysterical realism,” I do think that it’s a useful (if perhaps too-nebulous) description for a set of trends in some of the major novels published in the late nineties and early 2000s: Infinite Jest, Middlesex, The Corrections, A Heartbreaking Work of Something or Other, etc. And, to come in where I started: The Last Samurai shares a lot of the same features with these texts—the blending of styles and texts and disciplines, etc. DeWitt’s filtering a lot of the same stuff, I guess. I would maybe use the term post-postmodernism in place of “hysterical realism” though—although a novel need not be subsumed by any term, and maybe the best can’t really be described in language at all.
An intriguing and confounding section of Chapter 1 of Part II of William Gaddis’s 1955 novel The Recognitions focuses heavily on Esme, the poet who models for Wyatt Gwyon as he paints his forgeries. The episode eventually reveals Esme as one of the heroes of The Recognitions. It begins with Esme cloistering herself, pinning a sign to her door that reads: “Do Not Disturb Me I Am Working Esme.” She begins her “work” in a manic blur, “delighted to be alone.” As her energy shifts, she sews for a bit, before finally switching to attend to her small library:
But before that sewing was done she was up, rearranging her books with no concern but for size. There was, really, little else their small ranks held in common (except color of the bindings, and so they had been arranged, and so too the reason often enough she’d bought them). Their compass was as casual as books left behind in a rooming house; and this book of stories by Stevenson, with no idea where she’d got it, she hadn’t looked into it for years, now could not put it down, and to her now it was the only book she owned.
Esme’s bookshelving is purely aesthetic, and the aesthetic seems arbitrary (and likely temporary). In this little scene she moves from arrangement by color to arrangement by size. Her aesthetic arrangement leads her back to a collection of Robert Louis Stevenson stories (likely The Merry Men, and Other Tales), her current (arbitrary, temporary) aesthetic obsession. The “Esme working” section of II.1 of The Recognitions actually begins with an entire paragraph a Stevenson story, presumably read aloud by Esme. This long quote goes unattributed, but Steven Moore identifies it in his annotations for The Recognitions as part of the Gothic short story “Olalla.”
The passage from “Olalla” quoted in The Recognitions begins with the phrase “What is mine, then, and what am I?” Olalla poses these questions to the narrator of Stevenson’s tale, a nameless Scottish soldier who recuperates from wounds in a Spanish hospital and then in the home of a fallen noble family (Gaddis cribs from this plot in the first chapter of The Recognitions, where Wyatt’s father, the Reverend Gwyon, recovers in a Spanish monastery).
Olalla’s questions are quite literal. She recognizes herself in the paintings of her ancestors, which line the walls of her family’s house, and claims a part of herself in those paintings in a haunting phrase: “Others, ages dead, have wooed other men with my eyes.” Olalla recognizes something in herself that antecedes her ancestors, some essential element that surpasses death and transcends time. She describes herself as “a transitory eddy” in a stream of time (lines not included in Gaddis’s graft from the story): not the original, but the wave that carries the impulse of origination. Her words challenge the notion of a stable, self-present self.
Olalla’s questions — “What is mine, then, and what am I?” — are essentially Esme’s questions. Esme fragments as the novel progresses, and Gaddis rhetorically highlights her looming madness by employing a daunting elliptical prose style in the sections that wander into her consciousness. Consider here, where we learn about Esme the reader:
Even so she had never read for the reasons that most people give themselves for reading. Facts mattered little, ideas propounded, exploited, shattered, even less, and narrative nothing.
This sentence is fairly straightforward—we see how Esme’s reading might differ from the way most of us read. But let’s see where we go next—what does Esme read for?
Only occasional groupings of words held her,
Esme reads discontinuously, perhaps arbitrarily, aesthetically—but let’s let that sentence unwind:
Only occasional groupings of words held her, and she entered to inhabit them a little while, until they became submerged, finding sanctuary in that part of herself which she looked upon distal and afraid, a residence as separate and alien, real or unreal, as those which shocked her with such deep remorse when the features of others betrayed them. An infinite regret, simply that she had seen, might rise in her then, having seen too much unseen; and it brought her eyes down quick.
I’ll admit I find the lines baffling. Esme inhabits the words, which then, strangely, become submerged within her, or a part of her that she has disassociated from her self-present self. The paragraph ends with a shock of recognition. Is this Esme gazing into the abyss? In any case, we see here Gaddis’s rhetorical skill at conjuring complex instability in his subject.
Let’s continue by moving from Esme the aesthetic reader to Esme the aesthetic writer:
The sole way, it seemed to her often enough when she was working at writing a poem, to use words with meaning, would be to choose words for themselves, and invest them with her own meaning: not her own, perhaps, but meaning which was implicit in their shape, too frequently nothing to do with dictionary definition.
And yet it would be too simple to suggest that Esme’s poetry is utterly meaningless, pure sound and shape without content. Rather, her writing is a writing against: A writing against the cheapness of language in a masscult zeitgeist, against newspapers and memos and comic books and flyers and stock ticker tape and museum guides and informational pamphlets and millions and millions of copies of How to Win Friends and Influence People. The paragraph continues, highlighting Gaddis’s fascination with entropy:
The words which the tradition of her art offered her were by now in chaos, coerced through the contexts of a million inanities, the printed page everywhere opiate, row upon row of compelling idiocies disposed to induce stupor, coma, necrotic convulsion; and when they reached her hands they were brittle, straining and cracking, sometimes they broke under the burden which her tense will imposed, and she found herself clutching their fragments, attempting again with this shabby equipment her raid on the inarticulate.
Esme is one of Gaddis’s heroes. Like Jack Gibbs in J R or McCandless in Carpenter’s Gothic or the narrator of Agapē Agape, she forces her will against an entropic dissolving world, and she does so to make art. And in her art she makes her self, or a version of her self, a self apart from the self-present self that might have to haggle and bustle in the tumult of the masscult midcentury metropolis. Esme strives for transcendence from language through language toward a place of pure recognition:
It was through this imposed accumulation of chaos that she struggled to move now: beyond it lay simplicity, unmeasurable, residence of perfection, where nothing was created, where originality did not exist: because it was origin; where once she was there work and thought in causal and stumbling sequence did not exist, but only transcription: where the poem she knew but could not write existed, ready-formed, awaiting recovery in that moment when the writing down of it was impossible: because she was the poem.
Earlier this week, continuing my audit of William Gaddis’s 1955 novel The Recogntions, I felt a tingling sense of recognition in the following lines from which Basil Valentine reads from “a copy of Thoreau” (this is at the very end of Part I, on page 265):
What you seek in vain for, half your life, one day you come full upon, all the family at dinner. You seek it like a dream, and as soon as you find it you become its prey.
I attributed this tingling recognition to having read The Recognitions before (and to having read Part I once before that)—but then I realized that I’d read the line far, far more recently: It’s the epigraph to Gaddis’s fourth novel A Frolic of His Own, which I’d opened up again just a few weeks ago (and subsequently put back down).
This recognition is nothing special and certainly uninteresting to longtime Gaddis fans, but it motivated me enough to look more into the remark, so I plugged it into Google and quickly found J. M. Tyree’s essay “Henry Thoreau, William Gaddis, and the Buried History of an Epigraph.” Tyree’s essay was originally published in New England Review but I found it, natch, on Steven Moore’s The Gaddis Annotations.
Tyree’s essay is a fascinating read, tracking the strange history of the line. Thoreau’s words, it turns out, are not exactly Thoreau’s words—rather, they are Emerson’s recollections of a conversation between the pair from a walk in the woods. Additionally, Emerson wrote and attributed these words after Thoreau’s death. The remark initially appeared in Emerson’s literary eulogy “Thoreau,” published in the August 1862 edition of Atlantic Monthly. As Tyree observes,
This detail, which seems highly trivial at first, in fact slyly reinforces the theme of original and copy supersaturating Gaddis’s novel. The very nature of authorship falls into question here, in a manner similar to the problem of Socrates and Plato: is Thoreau’s saying from Emerson or from Thoreau, or is it from both?
While issues of originality and authenticity of authorship clearly correlate to the themes of The Recognitions, Tyree’s essay is most interesting to me in the ways by which it situates Gaddis’s work with/against the American Renaissance tradition. Tyree gives us some of the flavor of that tradition, recontextualizing Gaddis’s epigraph in a full paragraph of Emerson’s. Here’s Emerson eulogizing his friend Thoreau:
It was a pleasure and a privilege to walk with him. He knew the country like a fox or a bird, and passed through it as freely by paths of his own. He knew every track in the snow or on the ground, and what creature had taken this path before him. One must submit abjectly to such a guide, and the reward was great . . . Presently he heard a note which he called that of the night-warbler, a bird he had never identified, had been in search of twelve years, which always, when he saw it, was in the act of diving down into a tree or bush, and which it was vain to seek; the only bird that sings indifferently by night and by day. I told him he must beware of finding and booking it, lest life should have nothing more to show him. He said, “What you seek in vain for, half your life, one day you come full upon, all the family at dinner. You seek it like a dream, and as soon as you find it you become its prey.”
Tyree situates the passage within the contrasting (and quickly diverging) philosophies of the old friends: “Emerson was essentially cosmic in his Transcendentalism, while Thoreau sought the divine in the actual empirical details of nature.”
Tyree’s essay becomes most interesting to me when he begins to interpret just what the hell the quote means. His analysis hovers around the word family, underlining an obsession of American literature: escape from domesticity. Here’s Tyree’s paraphrase of the Thoreau’s/Emerson’s line:
One finds the object of a long quest, quite suddenly, at the family dinner table. But in the moment of discovery, something seems to go wrong; rather than capturing the truth, one becomes its prey. Clearly, the conversation here has expanded beyond night-warblers. Thoreau is now speaking of truth and its relationship to the family dinner table.
Tyree then susses out Thoreau’s complicated relationship with Emerson’s family:
It is possible to make too much of the fact that Thoreau’s intellectual life, as both a thinker and a man, developed in Emerson’s shade, in the shelter of Emerson’s house and family. But it is clear that Thoreau was often of two minds about living with or near Emerson. In a September 1841 letter….Thoreau told a friend that he was “living with Mr. Emerson in very dangerous prosperity.”
That “dangerous prosperity” of domestic life echoes one of the grand themes of American literature—namely, civilization is a blockade to be surpassed on the trek into wild nature, individuality, and freedom. Domestic duty interferes with such adventures. Just ask Rip Van Winkle, Ishmael, or Huck Finn. (Or perhaps Hawthorne’s cautionary figure, Young Goodman Brown).
Tyree underlines the point (final emphasis mine):
In the exchange over the night-warbler, the family is again identified in terms of danger; the quest is a danger to the family, or the family is a danger to the quest. One might read this as Thoreau’s critique of what would now be called Emerson’s “lifestyle.” A man who is the prey to truth must leave the dinner table to find it, but Emerson, in the comfort of his household, among his family, will never book the night-warbler. Thoreau does not say that having “all the family at dinner” stops one’s seeking, only that one becomes the prey of a protracted, half-conscious quest at mealtime. Then, one must decide what to do about it—whether to search out the night-warbler or not, and how to do it. The question seems to be whether the truth can be found through the life of the family, or whether one must leave it behind in some sense.
In The Recognitions, Wyatt circumvents the danger to his quest by not only removing himself from family (in the form of his wife Esther), but from removing himself from society in general. In J R (1975), most of Gaddis’s heroes find themselves unable to reconcile to Wyatt’s solution; their seeking fumbled out in half measures, neatly figured in the 96th Street apartment apartment shared by Gibbs, Eigen, and Bast. This hellhole is a transitory space, an inbetweeness of domesticity and city wilderness. Carpenter’s Gothic (1985) offers a more thorough critique of the impulse in American literature to send its (generally masculine) characters out into the wild spaces where they can transcend all the trappings of domesticity that bog them down. Carpenter’s Gothic confines its heroine to one haunted house, the men in her life flitting in and out if like silly birds on foiled quests. That domestic confinement reaches a kind of apotheosis in Gaddis’s posthumous novel Agapē Agape (2002), the stifling uninterrupted monologue of a man in a room, fighting against entropy.
And what about A Frolic of His Own (1994)? Well I haven’t read it yet.
In Ch. VII of Part I of William Gaddis’s 1955 novel The Recognitions, the erstwhile hero of the novel, Wyatt Gwyon—who has by this point disappeared into an anonymous he—meets Basil Valentine, a somewhat ambiguous and priestly art-world contact for Recktall Brown, the arch-capitalist Mephistophelean villain of the novel. Brown uses Valentine to arrange the forgeries that Gwyon executes. Here, Valentine and Wyatt discuss Brown, who has left the room. (Brown is the initial He; Valentine speaks first):
—He would absolutely have to have Alexander Pope in a box, to enjoy him. He is beyond anything I’ve ever come upon. Honestly, I never in my life could have imagined that business could live so powerfully independent of every other faculty of the human intelligence. Basil Valentine rested his head back, blowing smoke toward the ceiling, and watching it rise there. —Earlier, you know, he mentioned to me the idea of a novel factory, a sort of assembly line of writers, each one with his own especial little job. Mass production, he said, and tailored to the public taste. But not so absurd, Basil Valentine said sitting forward suddenly.
—Yes, I … I know. I know.
—When I laughed . . . but it’s not so funny in his hands, you know. Just recently he started this business of submitting novels to a public opinion board, a cross-section of readers who give their opinions, and the author makes changes accordingly. Best sellers, of course.
—Yes, good God, imagine if … submitting paintings to them, to a cross section? You’d better take out . . . This color . . . These lines, and . . . He drew his hand down over his face, —You can change a line without even touching it. No, he went on after a pause, and Valentine watched him closely, —nothing is funny in his hands. Everything becomes very . . . real.
Do you like the passage? I do.
I continue to enjoy re-reading Gaddis’s debut novel, aided in large part by an audiobook version read by Nick Sullivan. I’ve also been reading The Recognitions with/against Letters of William Gaddis (ed. Steven Moore, Dalkey Archive, 2013), which I do not recommend doing (especially for first-time readers). Gaddis, paraphrasing his own novel, said that the artist was simply “the dregs of his [own] work,” and much of The Recognitions reads like Gaddis polishing the material from his own early life and travels and readings, and then forcing that material—the nuggets and the morsels (and, let us be honest, the occasional duds)—into an angry demanding sustained attack on the Modern condition. But the material is good ammunition in that oh-so self-conscious attack on Modernism—an attack that in many ways engenders postmodernism, or at least builds a bridge to it, or perhaps sunders links to Modernism—
—look, I have way too many stupid metaphors cooking here, forgive me: What I mean to say, in simpler terms, is that The Recognitions diagnoses the end of big-em Modernism, that it describes something yet-to-emerge, and that it also, significantly, performs that something yet-to-emerge. Gaddis’s letters show the frustrations of a young man trying to cook up adventures in a modern world: a world already explored, mapped, tagged, and written about by other folks. And not just written about im histories and novels, but also in cheap guide books and cheap glossy magazines. This is the world after the age of mechanical reproduction, the world in which Gaddis’s hero Wyatt strives to forge a legitimate forgery of a place for himself.
Gaddis’s novel’s emergent postmodernism—more fully realized in his follow-up, J R—also presciently points to the post-postmodernist storytelling world of late capitalism. Gaddis’s villain Recktall Brown is a brute, but this philistine is perceptive, and he understands the economy of middlebrow aesthetics. As erudite Valentine laments, “I never in my life could have imagined that business could live so powerfully independent of every other faculty of the human intelligence.” Valentine should imagine harder. But this is America, where people frequently mistake wealth and the power to create wealth with creative intelligence.
Maybe I’m too hard here on Valentine, who eventually realizes that an appeal to the lowest common denominator is “not so absurd,” after he reflects on Recktall’s business idea “of a novel factory, a sort of assembly line of writers, each one with his own especial little job. Mass production…tailored to the public taste.” And we then learn that Recktall has already capitalized on his vision of masscult writing: “Just recently he started this business of submitting novels to a public opinion board, a cross-section of readers who give their opinions, and the author makes changes accordingly. Best sellers, of course.”
Reading this, I mentally annotated: Ah, Netflix-—that’s the novel factory of 2018. And not just Netflix—I mean, clearly, not just Netflix, that’s simply a signal example—but rather the idea of the data-driven artefact, the non-artefact, the copy of a copy of a copy, the narrative entirely derived from atomizing the masscult nostalgia artefacts of 20, 30, 40 years ago, retrofitting them, repackaging them, and selling them as the real thing. Wyatt’s final observation in the passage laments that Recktall Brown, and the emerging late capitalism he represents, is winning a kind of war on culture and imagination. And nothing is funny in this devil’s busy hands: “Everything becomes very . . . real.” Even the fakes. Even the copies. Especially the copies.
—Taste changes, he went on in an irritating monotone. —Most forgeries last only a few generations, because they’re so carefully done in the taste of the period, a forged Rembrandt, for instance, confirms everything that that period sees in Rembrandt. Taste and style change, and the forgery is painfully obvious, dated, because the new period has discovered Rembrandt all over again, and of course discovered him to be quite different. That is the curse that any genuine article must endure.
From The Recognitions by William Gaddis.
For the past few days I’ve felt as if I would never put one word after another again, that I would never put together a sentence, string together clauses and sling them out into the world. This previous statement is hyperbole and I am silly—but even simple emails have seemed the acme of wretched futility to compose. Chalk it up to a mild head cold; chalk it up to too many essays to grade; chalk it up to anxiety of (fear of) writing. But I feel like I used to want to feel like I needed to write, right? On 1 Oct. 2018 I wrote a silly post on this weblog called “Blog about October reading (and blogging) goals,” in which I set a goal to blog “every day, even about nothing,” which I failed to achieve.
I did actually achieve some of the reading goals expressed in that October goals blog though: I finished George Eliot’s Silas Marner; I made a bigger dent in Moderan, David R. Bunch’s cult dystopian novel; I finally read William Gaddis’s novel Carpenter’s Gothic; I actually returned and did not keep forever a book I borrowed from a friend; I did not gobble up Paul Kirchner’s Hieronymus & Bosch but rather limited myself to one or two cartoon strips a day (or sometimes, like, five).
So for November—
I’ve read the first two stories in Chris Power’s debut collection Mothers and they are good (the collection is available in the US in January 2019; I should have a full review then).
Tristan Foster’s collection Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father is very much my weird cup of weird tea.
David Bunch’s Moderan deserves a big proper essay. I’ve suggested that our zeitgeist surpasses the parodic powers of postmodernism’s toolkit, but Moderan anticipates and slices up Our Bad Times.
Part of my anxiety about writing comes from having failed three times now to write a proper review of Conversations with Gordon Lish, which is the kind of self-deconstructing performance of writing about writing that is difficult to describe or analyze; it’s the sort of thing you simply want the reader to read.
I started the audiobook of William Gaddis’s novel The Recognitions, and have ended up not only reading my Penguin edition in tandem—a sort of re-rereading—but have also been flirting with The Gaddis Tapes1 and Letters of William Gaddis. (This summer I said I’d reread The Recognitions: is this that?). I don’t really know what I want from this material, and I certainly don’t suggest it as anything approaching ancillary or auxiliary “help” with Gaddis’s project—I mean, in his Paris Review interview Gaddis paraphrases his hero and explains why we shouldn’t look for keys to art in the artist:
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.
—but hey look I know what I just did—took my cue from the artist in explaining the artist’s art. So. Oh, hey, here’s a great little segment from a letter Gaddis to his mama (from Mexico City) in April, 1947:
Could you then do this?: Send, as soon as it is conveniently possible, to me at Wells-Fargo:
My high-heeled black boots.
a pair of “levis”—those blue denim pants, if you can find a whole pair
the good machete, with bone handle and wide blade—and scabbard—if
this doesn’t distend package too much.
Bible, and paper-bound Great Pyramid book from H—Street.
those two rather worn gabardine shirts, maroon and green.
Incidentally I hope you got my watch pawn ticket, so that won’t be lost.
PS My mustache is so white and successful I am starting a beard.
The same day I got The Labyrinth, a collection of mid-century cartooning by Saul Steinberg (new from NYRB, I read a passage in The Gaddis Tapes where Gaddis quotes his friend, Saul Steinberg. That same day my son, eight, went through the whole volume, and asked me what it was, how I was supposed to write about it, etc. Still not sure, but it’s great, heroic, etc. and I hope to post a review at The Comics Journal later this month. Here is Steinberg’s Quixote:
And I like to pretend this is his illustration of some Gaddis character at a party in The Recognitions (even if I recognize it is not):
Bottom of the stack is Paul Kirchner’s latest Hieronymus & Bosch, a sort of MAD Magazine take on eternal damnation that puts the scatology in eschatology. Great stuff.
Not pictured in the stack is Angela Carter’s 1972 novel The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, which is by my bed and which I keep falling asleep to. It deserves better from me; or maybe it’s a bit of evidence in the emerging truth that I can’t read before bed most of the time most of these days. (Separate blog post, perhaps—chalk it up to a head cold; chalk it up to too many essays to grade; chalk it up to two kids; chalk it up to too much read wine; chalk chalk chalk).
Hope to do better than this in the next 29 days.
1 Knight, Christopher J., William Gaddis, and Tom Smith. “The New York State Writers Institute Tapes: William Gaddis.” Contemporary Literature 42, no. 4 (2001): 667-93. doi:10.2307/1209049.
I downloaded the audiobook of version of William Gaddis’s first novel The Recognitions the other afternoon. The recording is 51 hours and 41 minutes long, and read by Nick Sullivan.
I am almost exactly six hours in, over halfway through the novel’s third chapter, an aural space that correlates to page 114 of my 956-page Penguin edition of the novel. In this particular moment, Wyatt Gwyon, the sorta-hero of The Recognitions, rants to his wife Esther about literary modernism. I stopped the book at that particular moment to find that particular passage in my copy of The Recognitions; it was particularly easy to find because I’d already dogeared that particular page.
I’m not sure if I dogeared that particular page when I first attempted The Recognitions in 2009 (I stalled out in the book’s second of three sections, somewhere around page 330 or so), or if I dogeared it on my second (and successful) reading in 2012. And while I’m tempted to focus on the passage I’ve just audited and then reread—a meta-moment where Wyatt raves about Modernism (even making a dig at Hemingway)—I’m more interested in making a few generalizations about the audiobook and the first chapter of The Recognitions.
So a few generalizations:
Nick Sullivan, who reads The Recognitions, is excellent. He’s expressive, and imbues the novel with a wonderful rhythm and vitality, differentiating the voices of each of the characters (no mean feat). I have audited Sullivan’s reading of Gaddis’s second novel JR, which is marvelous, and in many ways taught me to “read” that novel, which is told in almost entirely unattributed dialogue. I would strongly recommend anyone daunted by JR to read it in tandem with Sullivan’s audiobook version.
I would not, however, recommend using the audiobook of The Recognitions for a first go through (unless you intend to use the audiobook chapters after you’ve read the chapters yourself). The Recognitions simply contains a density of information unparalleled in almost any other novel I can think of). You’ll need to attend closely to it to parse the threads that matter in terms of the plot and the threads that are there to build the theme. And unless you’re a polyglot, hearing all the untranslated Latin, Spanish, Italian, and German read aloud does little for comprehension. No, I think The Recognitions is best read slowly, and ideally the reader should take the time to attend to its many allusions and motifs (Steven Moore’s online guide is invaluable here). This isn’t to say that readers need to get every damn little reference to enjoy and appreciate Gaddis’s novel—but it doesn’t hurt to try.
Still, there’ a lot in The Recognitions. The book is wonderful, a work of genius, and this is perhaps one of its faults—it suffers from First Novel Syndrome, the author cramming in all that he can, anxious that the audience Recognize Genius. Gaddis was young when it was published—just 34 (amazing). A much older Gaddis seemed to recognize this, saying the following in 1990:
So, in the work I’ve tried to do, in J R, especially the awful lot of description and narrative interference, as I see it now, in The Recognitions, where I am awfully pleased with information that I have come across and would like to share it with you-so I go on for two pages about, oh, I don’t know, the medieval Church,… the forgery, painting, theories of forgery and so forth, and descriptions, literally, of houses or landscapes. And when I got started on the second novel, which was J R, 726 pages, almost entirely my intention was to get the author out of there, to oblige the characters to create themselves and each other and their story, and all of it in dialogue
The first chapter of The Recognitions, the fruit of an author awfully pleased with information that he has come across, lays out an encyclopedic range of references to literature, art, religion, history, and every other manifestation of culture you might think of. The chapter is impossibly rich, and in some ways, the rest of the novel can never quite match it. Or rather, the rest of the novel teases out the material that Gaddis offers at its outset, threading the material into cables of plot and theme. Or maybe what I’m trying to say is, The first chapter of The Recognitions might be the best first chapter of any novel I can think of. At 62 pages, it’s almost a novella, and it can arguably stand on its own. Let me borrow my own summary of Chapter I from my 2009 write-up:
The first chapter is the best first chapter of any book I can remember reading in recent years. It tells the story of Rev. Gwyon looking for solace in the Catholic monasteries of Spain after his wife’s death at sea under the clumsy hands of a fugitive counterfeiter posing as a doctor (already, the book posits the inherent dangers of forgery, even as it complicates those dangers by asking who isn’t in some sense a phony). There’s a beautiful line Gaddis treads in the first chapter, between pain, despair, and melancholy and caustic humor, as Gwyon slowly realizes the false limits of his religion. The chapter continues to tell the story of young Wyatt, growing up under the stern care of his puritanical Aunt May, whose religious attitude is confounded by the increasingly erratic behavior of Wyatt’s often-absent father. While deathly ill, Wyatt teaches himself to paint by copying masterworks. He also attempts an original, a painting of his dead mother, but he cannot bear to finish it because, as he tells his father, “There’s something about . . . an unfinished piece of work . . . Where perfection is still possible. Because it’s there, it’s there all the time, all the time you work trying to uncover it.” This problem of originality, of Platonic perfection guides much of the novel’s critique on Modernism.
(The “novel’s critique on Modernism” — well, hey, that’s sort of how I came into this riff—stopping the audiobook six hours in to go track down pages 113-14, where Wyatt attacks Hemingway’s modern prose style). There’s more to the plot of Ch. 1, including a ritual sacrifice that’s easy to miss if you’re not paying close enough attention. There are also numerous references to pipe organs, planting the seeds of The Recognitions’ strange conclusion. But now of course is not the time to write about that conclusion; instead, I’ll conclude by remarking that I saw more of the novel’s form—including its conclusion—in its introduction than I had previously thought was there. And that’s the value in rereading a big novel—recognizing what we previously did not recognize.
So, in the work I’ve tried to do, in J R, especially the awful lot of description and narrative interference, as I see it now, in The Recognitions, where I am awfully pleased with information that I have come across and would like to share it with you-so I go on for two pages about, oh, I don’t know, the medieval Church,… the forgery, painting, theories of forgery and so forth, and descriptions, literally, of houses or landscapes. And when I got started on the second novel, which was J R, 726 pages, almost entirely my intention was to get the author out of there, to oblige the characters to create themselves and each other and their story, and all of it in dialogue.
An excerpt from William Gaddis’s New York State Writers Institute reading, April 4, 1990.