The true alchemists do not change lead into gold; they change the world into words.
- William H. Gass
I think of myself as a writer of prose rather than a novelist, critic, or storyteller, and I am principally interested in the problems of style. My fictions are, by and large, experimental constructions; that is, I try to make things out of words the way a sculptor might make a statue out of stone.
- William H. Gass
One of my favorite writers, William H. Gass, died last week at age 93. Since discovering his work a few years ago, I'd actually found it surprising that he was still alive. A figure such as he, tirelessly devoted to the primacy of the aesthetic experience of literature, seemed entirely incongruent living within our current times besotted with screen-addiction and momentary attention spans.
Gass made his living as a philosophy professor in St. Louis, Missouri of all places, while carving out a career as a prolific author and literary critic. His novels sit high atop the postmodern pedestal, but it was the delicious prose of his award-winning essays that led me to prostrate before the master in awe. Gass was a prose stylist extraordinaire, a devoted sentence sculptor who sought the perfect arrangement of sound and syllable in everything he wrote. I'll never forget the initial jolt of excitement upon experiencing his writing for the first time. It struck me that I now had all my life to devour everything this magnificent author had written. I was on vacation in Denver, staying at an Airbnb in a refurbished old gas station when I cracked open the book of essays A Temple of Texts and was entranced at the erudition and passion Gass delivered through a prose that was alive, popping, rhythmic, serious yet fun. I've never encountered anyone who can so perfectly communicate the rapturous pleasure of reading books, actual physical texts. I encountered his incredible essay "A Defense of the Book" and nearly stayed up all night reading it; only Gass could turn lit crit into a page-turner. Observe his argument for owning books and keeping a library:
Should we put these feelings for the object and its vicissitudes down to simple sentimental nostalgia? to our commonly assumed resistance to change? I think not; but even as a stimulus for reminiscence, a treasured book is more important than a dance card, or the photo that freezes you in mid-teeter at the edge of the Grand Canyon, because such a book can be a significant event in the history of your reading, and your reading (provided you are Significant) should be an essential segment of your character and your life. Unlike the love we've made or meals we've eaten, books congregate to form a record around us of what they've fed our stomachs or our brains. These are not a hunter's trophies but the living animals themselves.It was my friend Charlie, a fellow book fiend whose knowledge bank is substantial with 20th century scribes, who pointed me towards William Gass. A few years ago I had asked him to recommend some modern authors who specialize in exquisite prose style. He'd already led me to Pynchon's novels and now he recommended the likes of William Gaddis and William Gass. I soon read Gaddis' A Frolic of His Own and sought out Gass, zipping through his short story collection and the monograph On Being Blue with mixed feelings about both. Once I found my way into the Temple of Texts, though, there was no escaping. I picked up another essay collection, Finding a Form, and marveled at pieces like "The Book as Container of Consciousness" and "The Vicissitudes of the Avant-Garde" and then slowly devoured Life Sentences whose most striking piece was a lengthy, sober meditation on the unfathomable, sublime quantity of people slaughtered by the Nazi regime. Since learning of his passing, I've summoned copies of the other essay collections produced by Mr. Gass from all corners of the globe to converge in my library.
The recommendation from Charlie came on the strength of the novel The Tunnel, Gass's masterpiece that he labored on for 30 years. I've been distantly circulating around that cinderblock-sized meganovel for a little while now, reluctant to get too close to it but intending to read it eventually. Book critic Steven Moore called it "truly one of the great books of our time" and observed, "The sheer beauty and bravura of Gass's sentences are overwhelming, breathtaking; the novel is a pharaoh's tomb of linguistic treasures."
I had actually written up my thoughts about William Gass last weekend upon hearing the news of his death, only to have that piece suddenly disappear into the ether. It was a rare and infuriating experience, but I soon accepted Joyce's dictum that mistakes are portals of discovery. It dawned on me that William Gass had nearly finished composing his first novel, Omensetter's Luck, when the manuscript was stolen off his desk, forcing him to devote six months to rewriting it all from scratch. (The resulting novel was hailed by The New Republic as "the most important work of fiction by an American in this literary generation" and listed among David Foster Wallace's "direly underappreciated" novels of the latter half of the 20th century.) This kind of devotion and determination exemplifies Gass's standing as a writer's writer. He was a fiercely passionate celebrant of the artfully written word, a prolific composer of ornate prose, and his penchant for luxuriating on the love of letters has served to exponentially amplify my own enjoyment of literature.
In the wake of his passing, a number of thoughtful obits have popped up. Here are links to those with some choice chunks from each as well as links to some Gass interviews.
LitHub gathered some of Gass's advice for writers, taken from his interviews and essays:
We must take our sentences seriously, which means we must understand them philosophically, and the odd thing is that the few who do, who take them with utter sober seriousness, the utter sober seriousness of right-wing parsons and political saviors, the owners of Pomeranians, are the liars who want to be believed, the novelists and poets, who know that the creatures they imagine have no other being than the sounding syllables which the reader will speak into his own weary and distracted head. There are no magic words. To say the words is magic enough.
From the New York Times obituary:
His writing reflected his knowledge of philosophy and his academic background, but it also included irreverent and often bawdy limericks. He used ordinary words to great effect, as when he described a character as having “a dab of the dizzies,” but it was his metaphors (which he said came to him in “squadrons”), his rhythms and the effort he put into each sentence that made him the object of other writers’ admiration.
Sentences have souls, he explained in an essay, and if they were good enough “it would be a crime on the world’s part to let them die.” In an ideal sentence, he said, the words choose to be there. Sometimes more than 300 words chose to be in a Gass sentence, in which clauses, connected by semicolons, were strung out like railroad cars.
The author's local St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
“I have a hard time thinking there is another intellectual figure who married a deep connection with literature with a bottomless interest in philosophy … and music and photography and architecture,” said a friend, Stephen Schenkenberg, editor of the website Reading William Gass.
“His seemed like a landmark mind.”
(Schenkenberg also shared the story of his first meeting with Gass in a separate blog post.)
Some timely words in the Washington Post obit:
“Try to remember that artists in these catastrophic times, along with the serious scientists, are the only salvation for us, if there is to be any,” Mr. Gass told Publishers Weekly in 2015, offering advice to aspiring writers. “Be happy because no one is seeing what you do, no one is listening to you, no one really cares what may be achieved, but sometimes accidents happen and beauty is born.”
The LA Times touched on his background and development:
Gass was born in Fargo, N.D., in 1924, a Depression baby whose unhappy childhood with an abusive father and alcoholic mother scarred him so deeply that he would later say he wrote to "get even."
Influenced by philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gass was taken by the aesthetics of language, how a word looked and sounded as opposed to what it meant. Gass was also a great admirer of Gertrude Stein, who treated plot and grammar as contrivances rather than natural components of literature.
"My stories are malevolently anti-narrative, and my essays are maliciously anti-expository," Gass once wrote. "I do not pretend to be in the possession of any secrets; I have no cause I espouse; I do not presume to reform my readers, or attempt to flatter their egos either."
The New Yorker focused on Gass's literary criticism:
The charge of a writer, he maintained, was not to relate a world but to create one—a world of sound, of the rhythm and melody made when syllables collide. “No prose can pretend to greatness if its music is not also great,” he wrote.
This piece (The World According to William Gass) posted on the Kenyon College website captures the complicated reactions of critics to The Tunnel:
In The Atlantic Monthly, Sven Birkerts also had trouble evaluating “The Tunnel,” describing his task as “the most vexing reviewing assignment I’ve ever undertaken.” Frustrated by the novel’s absence of conventional narrative and character development, he railed at the author: “Don’t do this to yourself.”
“But,” the reviewer concluded, “far more often, surely at least once per page, I leaned back in my chair and felt that opiated dilation of the senses, that vicarious surplus, that glowworm flash of being that I can get only from language affixed to the page, and then only when a master has affixed it there.”
And The Sacramento Bee shared Gass's view of the miracle of artistic creation:
"I have always been interested in miracles — not just the one we are presently celebrating, but especially in the secular kinds," he said in his acceptance speech for the Capote award. "A miracle is something that cannot happen, and shouldn't, and won't again, but has occurred all the same, despite laws, odds, expectations. "To adorn nature with a new thing: that is the miracle that matters."
Frequent publisher of Gass essays, Harper's Magazine just published the essay "The Art of Self: Autobiography in the Age of Narcissim":
I know of nothing more difficult than knowing who you are, and then having the courage to share the reasons for the catastrophe of your character with the world. Anyone honestly happy with himself is a fool. (It is not a good idea to be terminally miserable about yourself either.)
William Gass was an excellent interview subject. There's a nice collection of Gass interviews collected here---The Ear's Mouth Must Move: Essential Interviews of William H. Gass.
Lastly, I want to share this video interview of Michael Silverblatt discussing The Tunnel with Gass. There are some profound points made here, including towards the end, a prescient warning from Gass about how fascism lies just beneath the surface in America, even mentioning the KKK and Nazis (this interview is from the mid-90s):