Living Letters: On Gass’s Life Sentences and Theroux’s Estonia

April 19, 2012 | 2 books mentioned 1 4 min read

What is a sentence? That just was. There are simple and complex sentences. Some hold words remote, some ideas off key. Some lightly kiss your cheek like a European friend and some incense with their grandeur or insouciance.

coverRecently, two elderly statesmen of letters released books of non-fiction, though some of their best known works are novels and novellas penned decades earlier. William H. Gass, now 87, has written his most personal book, Life Sentences, with essays touching on his father’s minor league baseball career, his early days as a PhD student, the first Fourth of July following 9/11 as compared to the first following Pearl Harbor, and the crown jewel of the book’s opening section, “Retrospection.” No one has written a better introduction to Gass’s fiction than he does here, laying out why he wrote his magnum opus in one stark sentence: “I wrote The Tunnel out of the conviction that no race or nation is better than any other, and no nation or race is worse…”

Gass, a former philosophy professor, but more appropriately a philosopher of the word and an esthete, concludes the book with the short section “Theoretic.” In recent years he has taken to developing spindle diagrams of sentences, diagrams that he first debuted when speaking of the work of Gertrude Stein in the 1970s. In the essay “Narrative Sentences,” Gass examines a dozen sentences from some of the greatest English prose writers, including Henry James, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett. As Gass lays out some of these sentences in diagrams, scrolls, and bullet points, one sees their structure, harmonics, and meaning much better. His project is to notate sentences like a composer writing music, but notating in reverse — the music is already evident as Gass leads the reader from the balcony into opening of the oboe in the orchestra pit. In a lifetime of showing how the world is within the word and how a sentence is its own story, the final essay, “The Aesthetic Structure of the Sentence,” is both valedictory and a commanding compliment to his parsing of language, in which he recalls an English teacher who “regarded [him] with scornful indifference [his] claim the news, “David slew Goliath,” was seriously not the same as, “Goliath was slain by David,” but that each registered joy or woe depending on whose side you are on.”

In “Kafka: Half a Man, Half a Metaphor,” Gass’s review of a recent biography of the famous man turned adjective, Gass fictionalizes Kafka’s voice by starting in a familiar enough first-person, a nod to what in Prague the famous recluse once created, “I awoke one morning to find myself transformed.” The reverence imbibes its own subject and Gass creates a book review like few others — a creative non-fiction fictionalization of a real person’s artistic creation. Here Kafka/Gass muses on the over 100 passionate letters written to Felice Bauer in 1912 — letters “requir[ing] that postal distance the letters can then complain of. Their words make love of the kind the mind makes when the mind fears its body may not measure up.” The music of the last sentence, the “kind” against the “minds,” the m-consonance mid-stream to be doubly compounded in its last beats — thrusts its measuring synecdoche of separation forward with the panache of a Renaissance sonneteer.

coverLike Gass, Alexander Theroux is also a celebrator of fine words and creator of ornate sentences, but with a few more inches of fury to his hat size. Estonia is as much about Theroux and his own country as that “collapsing tiny box-set of a republic that is dark as a cave in winter, shit-cold for most of the year, a strange ignored dorp with no ice-free ports, a queer language, curious laws, rummy food, eccentric people, funny money, and a veritable forest of unreadable signs.”

The subtitle, A Ramble Through the Periphery, especially seems to speak not so much of boundary lines, but the bumptious, vertiginous, and at times vengeful mind of its littérateur. His periscope is many-focaled and what one gets in Estonia, along with a wonderful working knowledge of the country, is his many years of erudite commentaries and factoids (Cervantes began writing Don Quixote in a debtor’s prison; Estonians created Skype) on civilizations, culture, and arts, but especially literature and the shortcomings, politics, and pock marks of the superpower currently occupying the world. Such an approach is apropos — don’t we see foreign lands through the lens of our own experiences and our own homeland?

Sometimes his literary and pop immersions are expertly placed, as when Theroux, lonely and left cold by a foreign land and people, finds solace in Judy Garland’s “Lose that Long Face” — reportedly singing it to himself and providing the reader with the lyrics. Yet the divagations into marginalia and widespread panic (the amount of annual U.S. aid to Israel) both crystallize and corrode this “travel” book. The episodes with less than kind people he met in his time there — many being Fulbright scholars (as was his painter wife) enjoying or enduring their research year — are still hot on the surface of his skin, continually stinging like some Inferno-like torment, and at times they override the richly wrought compendia of such a learned soul. The relentless use of “smug” to describe people Theroux viewed less than sympathetically stains the enterprise. How could so many appear smug? I’m not calling Theroux’s veracity into question but I am calling foul. As much as I admire his writing, it is hard to stay in his stream of sentences that might soon spit another spiteful judgment at someone who has crossed him — sometimes the water is magical and sometimes the pen goes awry, squid-mad, and suddenly one is afloat in toxins.

's fiction and non-fiction has appeared in Tin House, The Kenyon Review Online, and Film Quarterly. He's the author of a collection of stories, My Brooklyn Writer Friend. More at

One comment:

  1. I constantly return to “The Tunnel”, a book dog-eared and stuffed with post-it notes, highlighted sections and folded pages. I’ve never finished the book and don’t intend to. I return to “The Tunnel” fpurely or the sentences: pages upon pages of brilliant sentences. There are four of five pages riffs that still blow my mind; the vitriol, the alliteration! I consider “The Tunnel” much like Burton’s “Anatomy of Melancholy” (a book Gass adores and has written an introduction to). A book meant to be referred to, borrowed from, inspired by, left perhaps on the nightstand or somewhere easy to find.

    I know I haven’t mentioned Gass’ shorter works or criticism but “The Tunnel” to me is a testament to the man’s peerless talent and love of the sentence.

    I intend to purchase “Life Sentences”. Thanks for the great article

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.