A Year in Reading: William H. Gass

December 7, 2009 | 1 book mentioned 2 3 min read

coverI do not read much for pleasure these days: a splendid but frightful book on the Holocaust or a bunch of pretentious ones by a Norwegian Nazi I am reviewing for Harper’s, frightful in a different sense. I miss the leisure that let me read just for fun, not to critique, or pronounce, or even to put on a list, but simply to savor. I do, from time to time, pick up old friends who never disappoint but will promise me a page or two of pleasure between art and ordinary life, like Rose Macaulay‘s Pleasure of Ruins. I know it will be a good book because I have read in it often, but she immediately tells me something by removing “The” from her title. I am sure it was never there. But the difference is present nevertheless, and so is the absence of the plural. Not “The Pleasure of Ruins” and not “Pleasures of Ruins.”

Macaulay does everything well, but scarcely does one of her pages pass than she has quoted from another and let those words fall into her own concoction like just the right addition to the dish. This quality – to let her work make way for another writer’s beauty – she manifests as early as page one. She has mentioned that among the pleasures of ruins must be some vindictive ones. I still remember the kid in kindergarten who kicked over my house of blocks, and his glee at my distress and his accomplishment. In the sentence and the quotation that follows she reveals her own love of lists, but I also have to marvel at the lovely dance of ideas, of past time elevating the present, that takes place upon the floor of her prose. Hear how she makes way for Second Isaiah:

The vengeance of the Lord, the fall of the proud, the desolation of the rich and powerful: but, beyond all these, surely a profound, passionate, poetic pleasure in ruin as such. Out come the screech-owls, the dragons, the satyrs, the bitterns, the serpents, the jackals, the bats, even the moles, all the familiar creatures of ruin that haunt demolished cities and blooming fancy; the vineyards are trodden down and laid waste, the briars and thorns spring up, houses, now great and fair, shall stand desolate, the Lord shall hiss for flies from Egypt and bees from Assyria, and they shall come and stay. As for Babylon… “wild beasts of the desert shall lie there, and their houses shall be full of doleful creatures, and owls shall dwell there, and satyrs shall dance there, and the wild beasts of the islands shall cry in their desolate houses, and dragons in their pleasant palaces: and her time is near to come… Thy pomp is brought down to the graves, and the noise of thy viols: the worm is spread under thee and the worms cover thee. How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground… I will also make it a possession for the bittern, and pools of water: and I will sweep it with the besom of destruction, saith the Lord of hosts.”

In this book the best minds speak to the best minds. Sorry. In this book better minds speak to one another. I overhear them, as I listen in to all the books I love. They have the secret (it is probably for a cookie) and I mean to pry it out of them. [I already know what it is. It is the music.]

More from A Year in Reading

is the author of seven essay collections and six books of fiction, including the novel The Tunnel. He has received the PEN/Nabokov Award, the PEN/Spielvogel-Diamondstein Award for the Art of the Essay, three National Book Critic Circle Awards for Criticism, a Lannan Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award, the Award for Fiction and the Medal of Merit for Fiction from the Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He lives in St. Louis.