“Basil Valentine, Last of the Alchemists, First of the Chemists” — James J. Walsh

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by

James J. Walsh, K.C.St.G., M.D. Ph.D., LL.D., Litt.D., Sc.D.

from

Old Time Makers of Medicine, 1911


“Fieri enim potest ut operator erret et a via regia deflectat, sed ut erret natura quando recte tractatur fieri non potest.”

“For it is quite possible that the physician should err and be turned aside from the straight (royal) road, but that nature when she is rightly treated should err is quite impossible.”

This is one of the preliminary maxims of a treatise on medicine written by a physician born not later than the first half of the fifteenth century, and who may have lived even somewhat earlier. We are so prone to think of the men of that time as utterly dependent on authority, not daring to follow their own observation, suspecting nature, and almost sure to be convinced that only by going counter to her could success in the treatment of disease be obtained, that it is a surprise to most people to find how completely the attitude of mind, that is supposed to be so typically modern in this regard, was anticipated full four centuries ago. There are other expressions of this same great physician and medical writer, Basil Valentine, which serve to show how faithfully he strove with the lights that he had to work out the treatment of patients, just as we do now, by trying to find out nature’s way, so as to imitate her beneficent processes and purposes. It is quite clear that he is but one of many faithful, patient observers and experimenters—true scientists in the best sense of the word—who lived in all the centuries of the Middle Ages.

Speculations and experiments with regard to the elixir of life, the philosopher’s stone, and the transmutation of metals, are presumed to have filled up all the serious interests of the alchemists, supposed to be almost the only scientists of those days. As a matter of fact, however, men were making original observations of profound significance, and these were considered so valuable by their contemporaries that, though printing had not yet been invented, even the immense labor involved in the manifold copying of large folio volumes by the slow hand process did not suffice to deter them from multiplying the writings of these men so numerously that they were preserved in many copies for future generations, until the printing press came to perpetuate them.

Of this there is abundant evidence in the preceding pages as regards medicine, and, above all, surgery, while a summary of accomplishments of workers in other departments will be found in Appendix II, “Science at the Medieval Universities.”

At the beginning of the twentieth century, with some of the supposed foundations of modern chemistry crumbling to pieces under the influence of the peculiarly active light thrown upon our nineteenth century chemical theories by the discovery of radium, and our observations on radio-active elements generally, there is a reawakening of interest in some of the old-time chemical observers, whose work used to be laughed at as so unscientific, or, at most, but a caricature of real science, and whose theory of the transmutation of elements into one another was considered so absurd. It is interesting in the light of this to recall that the idea that the elementary substances were essentially distinct from each other, and that it would be impossible under any circumstances to convert one element into another, belongs entirely to the nineteenth century. Even so deeply scientific a mind as that of Newton, in the preceding century, could not bring itself to acknowledge the tradition, that came to be accepted subsequent to his time, of the absurdity of metallic transformation. On the contrary, he believed quite formally in transmutation as a basic chemical principle, and declared that it might be expected to occur at any time. He had seen specimens of gold ores in connection with metallic copper, and concluded that this was a manifestation of the natural transformation of one of these yellow metals into the other.

With the discovery that radium transforms itself into helium, and that, indeed, all the so-called radioactivities of the heavy metals are probably due to a natural transmutation process constantly at work, the ideas of the older chemists cease entirely to be a subject for amusement. The physical chemists of the present day are very ready to admit that the old teaching of the absolute independence of something over seventy elements is no longer tenable, except as a working hypothesis. The doctrine of “matter and form,” taught for so many centuries by the scholastic philosophers, which proclaimed that all matter is composed of two principles, an underlying material substratum, and a dynamic or informing principle, has now more acknowledged verisimilitude, or lies at least closer to the generally accepted ideas of the most progressive scientists, than it has at any time for the last two or three centuries. Not only the great physicists, but also the great chemists, are speculating along lines that suggest the existence of but one form of matter, modified according to the energies that it possesses under a varying physical and chemical environment. This is, after all, only a restatement in modern times of the teaching of St. Thomas of Aquin, in the thirteenth century.

It is not surprising, then, that there should be a reawakening of interest in the lives of some of the men, who, dominated by some of the earlier scholastic ideas, by the tradition of the possibility of finding the philosopher’s stone, which would transmute the baser metals into the precious metals, devoted themselves with quite as much zeal as any modern chemist to the observation of chemical phenomena. One of the most interesting of these—indeed, he might well be said to be the greatest of the alchemists—is the man whose only name that we know is that which appears on a series of manuscripts written in the High German dialect of the end of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth century. That name is Basil Valentine, and the writer, according to the best historical traditions, was a Benedictine monk. The name Basil Valentine may only have been a pseudonym, for it has been impossible to trace it among the records of the monasteries of the time. That the writer was a monk, however, there seems to be no room for doubt, for his writings give abundant evidence of it, and, besides, in printed form they began to have their vogue at a time when there was little likelihood of their being attributed to a monastic source, unless an indubitable tradition connected them with some monastery. Continue reading ““Basil Valentine, Last of the Alchemists, First of the Chemists” — James J. Walsh”

John Barth’s brief description of Donald Barthelme’s so-called postmodernist dinners

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Photograph from “The Postmodernists Dinner,” 1983 by Jill Krementz (b. 1940)

In John Barth’s 1989 New York Times eulogy for Donald Barthelme, Barth gives a brief description of two so-called postmodernist dinners, both of which I’ve written on this blog before.

…though [Barthelme] tsked at the critical tendency to group certain writers against certain others ”as if we were football teams” – praising these as the true ”post-contemporaries” or whatever, and consigning those to some outer darkness of the passe – he freely acknowledged his admiration for such of his ”teammates,” in those critics’ view, as Robert Coover, Stanley Elkin, William Gaddis, William Gass, John Hawkes, Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut, among others. A few springs ago, he and his wife, Marion, presided over a memorable Greenwich Village dinner party for most of these and their companions (together with his agent, Lynn Nesbit, whom Donald called ”the mother of postmodernism”). In 1988, on the occasion of John Hawkes’s academic retirement, Robert Coover impresarioed a more formal reunion of that team, complete with readings and symposia, at Brown University. Donald’s throat cancer had by then already announced itself – another, elsewhere, would be the death of him – but he gave one more of his perfectly antitheatrical virtuoso readings.

More on the first dinner here.

More on the second dinner here.

Joy Williams on William Gaddis’s novel J R

The Paris Review has published Joy Williams’s introduction to NYRB’s forthcoming edition of William Gaddis’s masterpiece satire of American capitalism, J R. Williams’s review is heavy on citation from Gaddis’s letters, William Gass’s essay “Mr. Gaddis and His Goddamn Books,” and J R itself. I like this bit:

In 1956, nineteen years before the publication of this second novel, Mr. Gaddis wrote a registered letter to himself to protect his idea for it from copyright infringement:

In very brief it is this; a young boy, ten or eleven or so years of age ‘goes into business’ and makes a business fortune by developing and following through the basically very simple procedures needed to assemble extensive financial interests, to build a ‘big business’ in a system of comparative free enterprise employing the numerous (again basically simply encouragements (as tax benefits &c) which are so prominent in the business world of America today …

This boy (named here ‘J.R’) employs as a ‘front man’ to handle matters, the press &c, a young man innocent in matters of money and business whose name (which I got in a dream) is Bast. Other characters include Bast’s two aunts, the heads of companies which JR takes over, his board of directors, figures in a syndicate which fights his company for control in a stockholder’s battle, charity heads to whom his company gives money, &c.

This book is projected as essentially a satire on business and money matters as they occur and are handled here in America today; and on the people who handle them; it is also a morality study of a straightforward boy reared in our culture, of a young man with an artist’s conscience, and of the figures who surround them in such a competitive and material economy as ours. The book just now is provisionally entitled ‘SENSATION’ and ‘J.R.’

What a surprisingly unpromising précis!

I hope to have something forthcoming on this new edition of J R. In the meantime, here’s a link to the last thing I wrote about it, back in 2016, and this excerpt from that thing:

Only a handful of novels are so perfectly simultaneously comic and tragic. Moby-Dick? Yes. Gravity’s Rainbow? Absolutely. (G R and J R, a duo published two years apart, spiritual twins, massive American novels that maybe America hardly deserves (or, rather: theses novels were/are totally the critique America deserves). I guess maybe what I’m saying is J  R is the Great American Novel to Come (The Recognitions is perhaps overpraised and certainly not Gaddis’s best novel; J R is. The zeitgeist has been caught up to J R, the culture should (will) catch up).

And here is my favorite picture of Gaddis:

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Little more to say (William Gaddis)

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 Gass: The writer really doesn’t build the truth into the sentence, the reader does, especially if the sentence is well constructed.

Marc Chénetier: Wouldn’t you say that one of the reasons why the writer is of necessity very skeptical is that his or her trade consists of knowing how the idea of a truth can be built into a sentence? Therefore, the skepticism would derive from the awareness of the manipulations that are at work—

William Gass: The writer really doesn’t build the truth into the sentence, the reader does, especially if the sentence is well constructed. That was one of the things that Plato was worried about, because the poets were so persuasive, whereas the sentences of science, expressed in highly mathematical terms, are not the kind of soft bed that one wants to lie in. Rhetorical constructions have enormous seduction, but the writer doesn’t build the belief in it. What you build is something that has unity and emotional power that the reader, then, is liable to latch onto. A good writer should be able to make any point of view sound terrific. Shakespeare could do it, of course. Then that terrificness has nothing to do with the truth, it has to do with being terrific.

From a discussion on William Gaddis’s speech/essay “Old Foes with New Faces.”

Gaddis delivered the speech at the International Writers Center as part The Writer and Religion Conference at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, 23-26 Oct. 1994. The discussion held afterwards was moderated by Marc Chénetier and the panelists were Wayne Fields, William Gass, and Heide Ziegle (and Gaddis, of course).

The essay, discussion, as well as other essays and discussions are collected in  The Writer and Religion, ed. by William H. Gass and Lorin Cuoco.

Blog about “Authors’ Authors,” a 1976 round up of various authors’ favorite books that year

The New York Times published “Authors’ Authors” on 5 Dec. 1976. The piece “asked a number of authors, ranging from Vladimir Nabokov to John Dean, to tell us the three books they most enjoyed this year and to say, in a sentence or two, why.”

There’s of course something silly and even gossipy about such articles, which fall far from literary criticism, of course. But, simultaneously, these kinds not-really-lists are fun. I came across the article looking for something else, and ended up reading it all. There are plenty of my favorite authors as well as notable authors who contributed to the piece: Ishmael Reed, William H. Gass, Eudora Welty, Maurice Sendak, Henry Miller, Joan Didion, and loads more. What’s most interesting to me are the “new” books many books include—I mean books published in (or around) 1976. Some I’ve never heard of, others are classics (of one fashion or another) and many are long long forgotten.

John Cheever’s answer opens the list with an appropriate warning:

I’ve always thought the response to these questionnaires cranky and pretentious and associated them with the darkest hours of Sunday. I mention this only to make it clear that you are free to throw my reply away.

He selects the only book by John Updike I’ve retained, Picked-Up Pieces, cites Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate as an airplane read, and reflects on Daniel Deronda:

It may be a reflection on George Eliot’s refinement or my grossness but my most vivid recollection of this estimable classic is a scene where Deronda enthusiastically seizes the oar of a wherry. It seemed the only robust gesture in the book.

(I had to look up the word wherry.)

Cheever’s pick Updike is on the list, providing a bit of satire on the whole business:

I also found some of Nabokov’s response amusing, although I don’t think it was his intention. He gives us “the three books I read during the three summer months of 1976 while hospitalized in Lausanne”: Dante’s Inferno (“in Singleton’s splendid translation”, The Butterflies of North America by William H. Howe (natch), and his own book, The Original of Laura. Nabokov describes it as

The not quite finished manuscript of a novel which I had begun writing and reworking before my illness and which was completed in my mind: I must have gone through it some 50 times and in my diurnal delirium kept reading it aloud to a small dream audience in a walled garden. My audience consisted of peacocks, pigeons, my long dead parents, two cypresses, several young nurses crouching around, and a family doctor so old as to be almost invisible. Perhaps because of my stumblings and fits of coughing the story of my poor Laura had less success with my listeners than it will have, I hope, with intelligent reviewers when properly published.

Nabokov never finished The Original of Laura. A version of it was published in 2009.

Conservative commentator William F. Buckley picked books by John McPhee, Hugh Kenner,  and Malcolm Muggeridge. Joyce Carol Oates liked Ted Hughes’s Season Songs. Despite having “has no taste for contemporary fiction,” Maurice Sendak recommends Leonard Michaels’ collection I Would Have Saved Them If I Could. Maxine Hong Kingston breaks the rule of three, adding Nabokov’s Ada to her trio. Philip Roth includes Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles, which was part of a series of translations Roth “edited.” Robert Coles liked Walker Percy’s The Message in the Bottle. Lois Gould lists Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, possibly one of the most enduringly popular books of 1976. Saul Bellow enjoyed Richard Yates’s The Easter Parade. Richard Yates enjoyed Larry McMurty’s Terms of Endearment. Nora Ephron loved Joan Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer. Joan Didion loved Renata Adler’s Speedboat. Cynthia Ozick gives only one title, Leon Edel’s biography of Henry James.

Henry Miller kept it short and sweet:

James Dickey loved something called Dreamthorp by Alexander Smith:

A book of gentle meditations on death in the remote English village: the quietest book of essays I know. To read it is like sinking under the leaves and views and grass of a gentle and caring cemetery and being profoundly glad to be there.

Eudora Welty sticks mostly to Virginia Woolf, recommending the second volume of Woolf’s letters (“Nothing in this book to get between the reader and the writer: Virginia Woolf in her own words, her own mind, speaking for herself”) as well as Mrs Dalloway’s Party. Welty also references Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, which I now must track down.

William H. Gass cites two bona fide postmodern classics and an oddity I’ve never heard of:

J R by William Gaddis. Perhaps the supreme masterpiece of acoustical collage. A real contribution to the art of fiction.

The Geek by Craig Nova. A hard, brilliantly visual novel which is equal in quality to early Hawkes. Few American writers have such a sensuous yet masterfully controlled style.

The Franchiser by Stanley Elkin. Elkin is a genius. I am happy he is also a friend. There are paragraphs in this book in which the language leaps from the page and flies away. The critics owe Elkin much bowing and scraping.

Ishmael Reed describes a book called Dangerous Music by by Jessica Tarahata Hagedorn, a writer I’d never heard of until now:

While the boys were drawing graffiti what were the girls doing? They were writing “Ditty Bop” books, black and white speckled composition books usually, full of gossip, desire, fashion, recipes, proverbs and boyfriends. Written in fire-engine red lipstick “Ditty Bop” books spell “cause” c-u‐z. Nikki Giovanni (“Gemini”) and Alison Mills (“Francisco”) have written classics of the genre. Now Jessica Hagedorn, who makes the S.F. rounds with her West Coast Gangster Choir, has penned the Latino‐Filipino version of the “Ditty Bop.” Reviewers describe “Ditty Bop” books as “sultry”; this one is that. It is a joyous, mean, mambo book blessed by the patron Saint of Latino‐Filipino Ditty Bops, Carmen Miranda.

He also recommends Shouting by by Joyce Carol Thomas, who, thankfully, is not Joyce Carol Oates.

Two authors picked up John Updike’s Picked-Up Pieces (Joyce Carol Oates and John Cheever).

Gabriel Garcia Marquez is cited three times on the list: twice for Autumn of the Patriarch (Lewis Thomas and Bernard Malamud) and once for One Hundred Years of Solitude (John Dean).

John Dean’s Blind Ambition shows up three times (Ishmael Reed, Bob Woodward, and Nikki Giovanni).

Somehow, Nikki Giovanni is the only writer to include Alex Haley’s Roots in a list.

Two 1955 ads for William Gaddis’s novel The Recognitions

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:

Recognizing Gaddis

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Blooms (William Gaddis)

Harold Bloom. Is he the one who wrote about the schools? The point is that there are two Blooms, and one of them is dead. [He is told he is confusing Harold with Allan.] Good—if he were the other one, I would like to flee. He’s very welcome to his opinion, especially this one; it sounds like very good company to be in. You can say I’m embarrassed not to know his work. And that I’m glad he’s not Allan Bloom.

From a sidebar in “The Next Big Lit-Crit Snit” by Rebecca Mead in New York Magazine (15 Aug. 1994). The article is about the publication of Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon. Bloom included Gaddis in his silly canon for The Recognitions.

Blog about book browsing on a Friday afternoon (and mostly looking at covers)

I’ve made a habit of prowling around my own shelves each week, trying to build a small stack of books I can part with. I then head up the street to trade the books in. Lately, I’ve done a decent job of leaving with far fewer books than I brought in to trade—hell, last Friday I came back with no books.

I always have a little mental checklist of books I’m hoping to come across. It mutates and swells, and I get lucky a lot of times. Sometimes I grab stuff at near-random. And other week’s are stale. Increasingly, I search for first editions and interesting mass market paperbacks, a reversal of a previous version of myself who found hardbacks clunky and mass market paperbacks cheap. Mass market editions tend to have wilder art, more interesting designs, and generally take more risks than contemporary, respectable trade paperbacks, as do older hardbacks. I ended up with three first editions. I was not especially looking for any of the books I acquired.

I was looking for certain books of course. Here are some interesting book covers I saw while looking for what I did not find.

I was looking for Walker Percy’s second novel Love Among the Ruins. I’d found a copy at this same book store last year—a first edition in beautiful condition with a really cool cover. I almost bought it (I think it was seven bucks) and now regret not having done so. I’m sure I’ll regret skipping on both of these Percy books, both of which have cover designs by Janet Halverson.

I wasn’t looking for anything in particular when I saw this hardback copy of Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, but the font on the spine attracted me. Love the cover painting, which is by Richard Powers (I assume this is a different Richard Powers than the American novelist).

I wasn’t looking for anything in particular when I picked up this Bantam collection of Mark Twain stories, which has a very cool uncredited Giuseppe Arcimboldoesque cover. Not sure why I picked it out. But I love the cover.

I was hoping to score a cheap paperback copy of one of David Marskon’s early novels when I came across this edition of Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks with a cover by Ben Shahn.

I was looking for anything by Gerald Murnane when I found this beautiful edition of Robert Musil’s Young Torless.

The bookshop I frequent separates “Classic Fiction” from “General Fiction” (with some somewhat arbitrary distinctions, in my opinion)—so I checked under the “PE” section in general fiction for a stray Walker Percy (no luck). Never heard of J.Abner Peddiwell’s The Saber-Tooth Curriculum but I love the simple expressive cover.

Walking past “PE,” “PI,” “PL” etc. I stopped at section on James Purdy to check out this edition of The Nephew. I’ve never been able to get into Purdy—seems so sad—but I love this cover.

I was looking for an original edition of Charles Wright’s 1973 novel Absolutely Nothing to Get Alarmed About; I have it in an omnibus, but I’d love a stand alone if I could find one. I did see this edition of The Messenger. The cover is terrible and boring and has way too much text on it. I found a copy of The Messenger a few months ago with a far more interesting cover.

I was looking for one of the William Melvin Kelley novels I don’t have. I found a bunch of mass market copy paperback versions of his first novel, A Different Drummer. The copy on the left has a cool cover. I think I like my new reissue better though.

I always look for a copy of David Ohle’s cult novel Motorman and I never find it. I do like this vibrant cover for Chad Oliver’s The Shores of Another Sea.

While I was in the sci-fi section, I passed by the Gene Wolfe area, and spied a complete hardback set of his seminal The Book of the New Sun tetralogy. I couldn’t pass up on a first hardback edition of the first in the series, The Shadow of the Torturer:

I also picked up a pristine first edition hardback copy of William Gaddis’s 1994 novel A Frolic of His Own. It’s the only Gaddis novel I’ve yet to read and buying a second copy seems like a good motivation to finally dig in.

I also came across a first edition hardback copy of Padgett Powell’s first novel Edisto. I’ve always felt ambivalent about Powell. He was the writer in residence at the University of Florida when I was an undergrad there in the late nineties. He’d taken the post over from Harry Crews, and I always resented that for some reason, brought that resentment to the few readings I attended, never made it through anything but a few stories. But this copy of Edisto was only four bucks. And check out the blurbs on the back:

There’s my guy Barthelme. And then Percy, who brought me to the store today. I’ll give it a shot.

 

 

 

Too late to be any of the things I never wanted to be | William Gaddis

From “How Writers Live Today,” and article curated by Tom Jenks in the August, 1985 “Summer Reading” issue of Esquire.

The article also features Joy Williams, Gordon Lish, Tom Wolfe, Annie Dillard, Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, and many, many other writers. Gaddis got the last word though.

William Gaddis: In J R someone is repeatedly saying “This is what America is all about”  

Brigitte Felix: If I may ask the same question, phrasing it differently:  Jack Gibbs says at one point “Most god damned readers rather be at the movies because when you walk in to the movies you walk in empty-handed and leave much the same way.”  What do you think your readers walk out with, after reading J R, for example?

 William Gaddis: [after a long pause]  I suppose . . . here’s the heart of the matter, he’s drawn a picture of . . . In J R someone is repeatedly saying “This is what America is all about.”  It’s buried usually under paragraphs, but this is what America is all about.  I suppose that one wants the reader to put the book down finally, having finished it — not after starting it, which is the case, frequently — and say, Yes, that’s what America is all about: it is a paper empire, it’s Gresham’s Law, the bad drives out the good, and so forth . . .

From William Gaddis’s 1993 interview in with Brigitte Félix and Marc Chénetier  in La Quinzaine littéraire.

William Gaddis, Joseph Heller, John Updike and other writers on book dedications

Bobbie Ann Mason: “Book dedications are…a private message in a public place… They’re like reading the personals.”

Joseph Heller: “I have not the slightest understanding of what they mean…none of my books except the first one have any.”

Richard Ford: “All of my books are dedicated to my wife.”

Ward Just: “My last seven books were all dedicated to my wife.”

Kaye Gibbons: “In the new printings of A Virtuous Woman, I’m deleting my ex-husband’s name and replacing it with my second and final husband’s Frank Ward.”

Christopher Buckley: “I was finishing The White House Mess just as I was about to be married. I asked Lucy to put a sheet of paper in the typewriter, and I said, ‘Now type, “For my wife, with love.”‘ And she cried. I dedicated my first book, Steaming to Bamboola, to John Lennon. It was about the merchant marine, and he was the son of a merchant seaman, and he died while I was writing it, and I was very sad, so I just dedicated it to him.”

Nicholson Baker: “I hope to dedicate several more books to my wife although not every one. You don’t want to be like Nabokov. Every book was to Vera, to Vera, to Vera.”

Susanna Moore: “My favorite dedication is by Gregor von Rezzori. In one of his books, he just says, For whom else but you!'”

William Gaddis: “You never dedicate a book to another writer. You’d worry that he wouldn’t like it.”

John Updike: “You worry with another writer, that he won’t like the book, that you’re like the cat who’s bringing a dead mouse to the back door.”

From “Dedicated Lines,” an article by Jamie Malanowski in the 25 Dec. 1995 issue of The New Yorker.

Another Postmodernists Dinner

I’ve written about the so-called “Postmodernist Dinner” on this blog before. The 1983 dinner was organized and hosted by Donald Barthelme, and attended by John Barth, William Gaddis, Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Coover, and John Hawkes, among others (Thomas Pynchon politely declined).

This morning, searching for something other than what I ended up finding, I came across a 1988 New York Times describing another Postmodernists Dinner. This particular dinner was organized by Robert Coover in honor of his friend John Hawkes’s retirement form Brown University. Well, I’ve written dinner here, but really the dinner was the celebration at the end of a conference at Brown. From Caryn James’s article “The Avant-Garde Ex Post Facto”:

When the novelist Robert Coover organized a conference called ”Unspeakable Practices: A Three-Day Celebration of Iconoclastic American Fiction,” he invited some old friends to Brown University. There would be panel discussions that might define literary post-modernism once and for all, Mr. Coover said, but mostly it would be ”a family gathering” to mark John Hawkes’s retirement as a teacher of writing at Brown.

The poster above, signed by many of the panelists, is part of Washington University in St. Louis’s Modern Literature Collection. Here is the collections description of the event:

“Unspeakable Practices: A Three-Day Celebration of Iconoclastic American Fiction” sponsored by Brown University as part of the 1988 Brown University Reading and Lecture Series on April 4-6, 1988. Notable writers include Donald Barthelme, Walter Abish, Robert Kelly, Robert Coover, Stanley Elkin, Jonathan Baumbach, Toby Olson, John Hawkes, Meredith Steinbach, William Gass, William Gaddis, Marilynne Robinson, Geoffrey Wolff, Leslie Fiedler, Marc Chenetier, Maurice Couturier, Geoffrey Green, Donald Greiner, Sinda Gregory, Tom LeClair, Richard Martin, and Larry McCaffery.

In her article “The Avant-Garde Ex Post Facto,” James describes the group as “almost all the major novelists sometimes called post-modernist . . . sometimes simply called difficult.” She continues:

They assaulted realism in the 1960’s, turning language inside out, crossing paths and forming friendships along the way. Twenty years later, here they all were, a group the critic Leslie Fiedler called ”iconoclasts with tenure” – the writers the current minimalists reacted against, an avant-garde no longer ahead of its time.

James then goes on to describe some “family friction” between the group during the panel called ”Traditional Values and Iconoclastic Fiction,” moderated by Leslie Fiedler:

The author of the classic study Love and Death in the American Novel and recent works on popular culture posed questions one writer later described as the sort you fear getting from little old ladies in tennis shoes. Why do you write? Who is your audience? The panelists floundered, told anecdotes, skated – sometimes charmingly – on the surface of the questions. “I know exactly who I’m writing for,” said Mr. Barthelme. “They are extremely intelligent and physically attractive.” Mr. Gaddis, whose fiction includes the two immense novels The Recognitions and J. R., said he wrote ”to avoid boredom, which is probably why I came up here today.”

At this point, I knew I’d read about this particular panel before, but I couldn’t remember where—possibly in Tracy Daughtery’s Barthelme biography, Hiding Man? Anyway, Fiedler continued to piss off some of the postmodernists:

When Mr. Fiedler concluded by saying, “None of us will be remembered as long or revered as deeply as our contemporary Stephen King,” many writers became furious and insulted.

I’m pretty sure Fiedler meant the comment from a place of deep contempt for contemporary culture, but whatever; James notes that

Some were so incensed they threatened to stay away from Tuesday night’s big dinner, the event Mr. Coover was playing as the centerpiece of the celebration.

She continues by describing the postmodernists dinner;

The main event was worthy of a post-modern novel, a dreamlike scene in which people from one life wander into a room where they don’t belong. Mr. Coover had discovered a modest Portuguese restaurant in East Providence, to which he often brought colleagues from Brown, where he teaches. Some became regulars; some never returned.

That was the sight of Mr. Hawkes’s retirement party, and between the fried calamari and roast pig, the lights went down and the audience was captive at its long narrow tables for the entertainment – traditional Latin fado songs to guitar accompaniment.

The host raconteur and main singer was named Manny. He wore a maroon jacket, told corny jokes and sang songs reminiscent of a discount Julio Iglesias (though he reminded Mr. Elkin of the nightclub singer in ”Broadway Danny Rose”). He stood at the head of the writers’ table, now and then glancing at Mr. Hawkes or Mr. Gaddis while shouting, “You’re lookin’ good!” Some people squirmed; some clapped along; Mr. Coover loved it. There were three sets in all.

And like a good postmodern comedy, there’s a happy ending:

Late in the night, Mr. Coover joked that he had not thrown this party for Mr. King, and Mr. Fiedler took his chance to make amends. “Whatever I said, I said with irony and with real affection for you,” he told Mr. Hawkes. “I hope it’s taken in that spirit.” Some family members held a grudge, but Mr. Hawkes hugged Mr. Fiedler and gave him the ultimate Hawkesian compliment. “Leslie,” he said, “you’re the most erotic critic here.”

Here’s a clipping of the event, again from Washington University’s invaluable Modern Literature Collection:

J R J R J R | Three Books

J R by William Gaddis. 2020 trade paperback edition by NYRB. Cover design by Katy Homans. Introduction by Joy Williams (xi pages). 770 pages.

J R by William Gaddis. 1993 trade paperback edition by Penguin. Cover art is a detail of an Associated Gas and Electric Company stock certificate “Courtesy of William Gaddis.” No designer credited. Introduction by Frederick R. Karl (xxi pages). 726 pages.

J R by William Gaddis. 1975 trade paperback edition by Borzoi/Knopf. Cover design by Janet Halverson. 726 pages.

“I’m quite flattered but if I were Pynchon I think I’d be quite annoyed” | William Gaddis annotates a review of Gravity’s Rainbow

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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:

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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.

 

Photograph from “The Postmodernists Dinner” — Jill Krementz

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Photograph from “The Postmodernists Dinner,” 1983 by Jill Krementz (b. 1940)

From the University of Houston’s collection of Barthelme’s papers. The entry’s description:

Left to right: unidentified, unidentified, Donald Barthelme, John Barth, Robert Coover (turned), unidentified, Kurt Vonnegut, Walter Abish (with patch), William Gaddis (squatting), unidentified, William Gass, unidentified, unidentified. In 1983, Barthelme arranged a “Postmodernists Dinner” for the group of writers who were often lumped together under the “postmodernist” label. The reclusive Thomas Pynchon declined the invitation.

It would be swell if anyone could identify the women in the photograph. [Ed. note–the woman to Walter Abish’s left (behind Gass) is the artist Cecile Abish, Walter’s wife. Thanks to Terry in the comments.]

In his 2009 Barthelme biography  Hiding Man, Tracy Daugherty offers the following recollection of the “Postmodernist Dinner” from novelist Walter Abish:

Around this time — in the spring of 1983 — “Donald had this idea to make a dinner in SoHo,” says Water Abish. “A major dinner for a group of writers, and he planned it very, very carefully. It was a strange event. Amusing and intriguing. He invited…well, that was the thing of it. The list. I was astounded that he consulted me but he called and said, ‘Should we invite so-and-so?’ Naturally, I did the only decent thing and said ‘Absolutely’ to everyone he mentioned. I pushed for Gaddis. Gass was there, and Coover and Hawkes, Vonnegut and his wife, Jill Krementz, who took photographs, I think. Don’s agent, Lynn Nesbit, was there. She was always very friendly. Susan Sontag was the only woman writer invited.

Daugherty continues:

Pynchon couldn’t make it. He wrote Don to apologize. He said he was ‘between coasts, Arkansas or Lubbock or someplace like ‘at.”

Abish recollects that the meal was at a very expensive restaurant, prefix, and the writers had to pay their own way. There were about 21 attendees, and Barthelme was “Very, very dour.”

Here is Pynchon’s letter declining the invite (via Jessamyn West, both on Twitter and her wonderful Donald Barthelme appreciation page):

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I had never seen the photograph until today when Ethelmer shared it with me on Twitter. Thanks!