William H. Gass loved words. “A word is a wanderer,” he wrote in “Carrots, Noses, Snow, Rose, Roses.” “Except in the most general syntactical sense, it has no home.”
Gass longed to make worthy homes for words. He often chose lists.
Lists were his secular litanies. Lists allowed Gass, who always longed to be a poet, to ladle his words into natural meter.
We are lucky if we find a sentence or paragraph to hold onto—as a reader, as a writer. We write them on index cards and impale them into cork board. We let them collect dust under a lamp. We are strangely blessed if we can find a writer who can carry us even further—through a book, through a life.
I return to Gass like a pilgrimage. His final offering, The William H. Gass Reader, is a gift. Nearly a thousand pages of his essays about writers and artists, his theories about fiction, and selections from his novellas and novels.
When I say Gass loved words, I mean he genuinely, audaciously, absolutely loved words. Language seemed an infinite gift that he grasped. A typographic deity.
“I am an octogenarian now and should know better, but I recently let a sentence reach print so embarrassingly bad its metaphors seemed frightened into scattered flight like quail.” He was not afraid to fail.
“Skepticism was my rod, my staff, my exercise.” Gass was pessimistic. He was clothed in doubt.
Yet that skepticism, as it does with the best critics, gave foundation and significance to his celebrations. You cannot love words without also loving writers. Gass loved writers.
He loved Gertrude Stein. Her play, her power. “There are texts,” he writes in “Fifty Literary Pillars,” “and there are times, and sometimes both are right and ring together like Easter changes.” He thought Stein “did more with sentences, and understood them better, than any writer ever has. Not all her manipulations are successful, but even at their worst, most boring, most mechanical, they’re wonderfully informative. And constantly she thought of them as things in space, as long and wiggling and physical as worms.”
We need critics who can admire. We need critics who can feel awe.
Gass loved: Plato (“His dialogues are among the world’s most magical texts”). Virginia Woolf (Her diary “alters your attitude toward life”). James Joyce (“Finnegans Wake is the high-water mark of modernism, and not to have been fundamentally influenced by it as a writer is not to have lived in your time”). Samuel Beckett (“Beckett wishes to save our souls by purging us—impossibly—of matter”). Katherine Anne Porter (“From her first tale to her last, she was in complete command of her manner—a prose straightforward and shining as a prairie road, yet gently undulating, too”).
Gass makes us want to read more, and to read better. He believed reading was an athletic act.
He was not an athlete. But as a boy, he was a member of a speed reading team, and in “On Reading to Oneself,” in his typical self-deprecating form, he writes of how he learned to read as an act of love. He writes of how the “speeding reader drops diagonally down across the page, on a slant like a skier; cuts across the text the way a butcher prefers to slice sausage, so that a small round can be made to yield a misleadingly larger, oval piece.”
His vision of the world was always slightly bent. He turned us toward his curves.
He thought we were a mess. “Evil,” he wrote, “is as man-made as the motorcar.” He didn’t have much faith in us—our track record has not been particularly splendid—and concluded, “we shall probably be eaten by our own greed, and live on only in our ruins, middens, and the fossil record.”
He knew what we are capable of, and it scared him.
In an essay on Ezra Pound, Gass wrote of how Pound, in his later years, apologized for his anti-Semitism, calling it a “mistake” and some “suburban prejudice.” Gass’s rebuke is powerful: “The tone of that repentance is all wrong, suggesting that Pound had made some error in arithmetic on his tax forms which turned out to have unpleasant consequences. Anti-Semitism is not a ‘mistake’ or even a flaw, as if it left the rest of its victim okay and in good working order. As with racism, a little does more than go a long way; it goes all the way.”
Peel aside his play and Gass, truly, was one to trust.
What can a Catholic learn from an agnostic Protestant? More than I could ever imagine when I discovered Gass as an undergraduate—I devoured (to use his word) “The Pedersen Kid,” which is rightfully included in full within this Reader. I would never be the same. We both have an affinity for the word soul, and let me not parse our differing theologies: I appreciate the contours of his unbelief, for they live within a state of wonder.
What a wonder it is to make a world of words.
“Words are with us everywhere. In our erotic secrecies, in our sleep. We’re often no more aware of them than our own spit, although we use them oftener than legs.” Words “lift our spirits—these poor weak words. They guide and they coerce. They settle fights, initiate disputes, compound errors, elicit truth. How long have we known it? They gather dust, too, and spoil in jokes which draw our laughter like the flies.”
While a graduate student at Cornell, where he studied philosophy, Gass took a course with the legendary M. H. Abrams, a seminar course on Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The students read not only the Biographia Literaria—but also “every book it quotes from, mentions, alludes to.”
Gass said the method “taught me how to read, how to reread, even how to overread.” He learned “never to rely on secondary sources, but to trust only primary ones—a teaching that leads directly to this ideal: write so as to become primary.”
Back in March after hearing about Robert Boynton’s book of interviews with journalists called The New New Journalism, I put together a post that listed some of the books by this select group of writers. At the time, my friend Garth was taking a class at NYU taught by Lawrence Weschler (himself a “New New Journalist”), and felt that we had only scratched the surface. Weschler had introduced Garth and his fellow students to a wealth of “creative nonfiction.” Garth wrote to share his experience with the class and the marvelous list of books that was at its heart. This is long, but it’s worth it.As alluded to earlier, here’s a slightly more in-depth summary of the Weschler Literary Nonfiction Class. This was a ridiculous class, in the best sense of the word. The reading list was incredible, handouts of poems were constantly circulating, and every five minutes we were treated to a “you’ve got to read this” digression. Highly recommended; for a quick summation of the ideas treated in the class, check out the Weschler interview in Robert Boynton’s new The New New Journalism.I kept careful notes on what was being mentioned and read, and in the end, I probably had twice this many names on my list. In order not to divulge Weschler’s trade secrets, I cut a lot of stuff out, but I wanted to share with you some of my amazing discoveries from this class. The top 10 list is my actual top 10 list, though, in general, I tried to omit what we actually read, because with some of these guys – [Joseph] Mitchell, [Ryszard] Kapuscinski, [John] McPhee – it’s all amazing. What’s in parentheses may be stuff on the syllabus, or may be something that was mentioned in class that sounded fantastic, or excerpted on a handout – stuff definitely to check out. We also read maybe 25 others, but many of them ([Susan] Orlean, etc.), you’ll be familiar with. I included the four Of Note because they were relatively new to me, except for [Christopher] Hitchens, whom I loathe, but who apparently used to write pretty compelling essays. The second part of this list compiles allusions that came up in class and handouts that we received. Again, this is less than half of what we got in class, but I’ve included only stuff I couldn’t bear not to share, or stuff I had never heard of before. Divided up by genre. Hopefully, to the degree that syllabi and course materials are the instructor’s intellectual property, I’ve managed to obscure what the actual syllabus looked like, while still managing to convey a fraction of the stimulating panoply of material we were exposed to. I never knew I liked journalism so much.I. Top 10 Writers We Read, In My Humble Opinion:Joseph Mitchell (Everything This Man Ever Wrote. My Ears Are Bent (recently republished), Up in the Old Hotel)Ian Frazier (see esp. “Canal Street” (New Yorker, April 30, 1990), and the book Family)Ryszard KapuscinskiSusan Sheehan (Is There No Place On Earth for Me?)George Orwell (“Reflections on Ghandi“)David Foster WallaceJohn McPhee (Oranges, Annals of the Former World)William Finnegan (see esp. “Playing Doc’s Games,” (New Yorker, Aug. 24 and 31, 1992)Jamaica Kincaid (A Small Place)Lawrence Weschler (I especially like Calamities of Exile, Boggs, Vermeer in Bosnia)Other Writers of Note Whom We Read:Christopher Hitchens (before he became a right-winger, e.g. Prepared for the Worst)Alastair Reid (Oases)Jane Kramer (someone in class mentioned The Last Cowboy)Diane AckermanGo Look This Up:Columbia Journalism Review symposium, July 1989Transom.org (resources for radio journalists)Omnivore prototype issue at mjt.orgII. Mentioned in Passing, Piqued My InterestA. Nonfiction (Roughly in order of Interest)A.J. LieblingWalter Murch (In The Blink of An Eye, The Conversations (w/ Michael Ondaatje))John Berger (Ways of Seeing)Jonathan Schell (Observing the Nixon Years)Rebecca Solnit (River of Shadows)Susan Sontag (on Abu Ghraib in NY Times Magazine)Wendy Lesser (Nothing Remains The Same)Curzio Malaparte (Kaputt)Vijay Seshadri (essays in The Long Meadow)Norman Mailer (Executioner’s Song)Neil Sheehan (A Bright Shining Lie)Dave Hickey (Air Guitar)Jonathan Raban (Passage to Juneau)Mark Salzman (True Notebooks)Adam Menendes (80s reportage on Central America)Adam Michnik (Letters from Prison and Other Essays)B. PhilosophyNicholas of Cusa (Of Learned Ignorance)H. Vaihinger (The Philosophy of As If)C. Poetry[The Poles:]Wislawa SzymborskaCzeslaw MiloszStanislaw BaranczakeZbigniaw Herbert (Mr. Cogito)Tadeusz Rosewicz[The Rest:]Nazim HikmetChristopher Logue (translations of Homer)III. Drama/Film:Harold Pinter (A Kind of Alaska)Wallace Shawn (The Fever)Roberto Rossellini (The Rise of Louis XIV)IV. Fiction:Grace PaleyNorman MacLean (A River Runs Through It)Jose Saramago (Blindness)Barry Unsworth (Sacred Hunger)Thornton Wilder (The Bridge of San Luis Rey)Joseph Heller (Something Happened)Nicholas Mosely (Hopeful Monsters)Stanislaw Lem (A Perfect Vacuum)Bruce Duffy (The World As I Found It)Wow, a tremendous list. There’s a lot to mine here.
We don’t have to read much of Gabriel Josipovici’sWhat Ever Happened to Modernism?, a measured and accessible polemic against (primarily English and American) contemporary culture, to realize that “Modernism” is perhaps not the best term for what he is describing. A reader looking for a neat history of early twentieth century literature, or an analysis of the usual Modernist suspects, will be either disappointed or pleasantly surprised. What we have instead is a richer, broader and more exciting book than is signaled by the title.
Josipovici’s book is not bound by time. To him, a literary form like the novel is inherently “modernist,” and from its origins it has always “pretended or pretended to pretend to be something else.” Cervantes knew that “the novel is precisely the form that emerges when genres no longer seem viable” and because of this, Josipovici argues,Don Quixote is a more cutting edge novel than, say, the latest Booker or Pulitzer prize-winner. This seems like a bold claim, but it is well argued. His analysis of Don Quixote does what the best criticism should: it produces an itch to read the chosen novel or poem.
Contrary to the more comfortable notion of progress through the ages, Josipovici’s argument states that since the sixteenth century, secularism and revolution have eroded authority and undermined tradition, so that the artist is left only with his or her imagination and individuality to fall back on. To our ears this may sound like a blessing — a liberation — but it is apparently a curse, and not just in Josipovici’s mind. Samuel Beckett is quoted as saying that art is reduced to “The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.” Spontaneous creation is drained, the Muse is vanquished, and the soul is absent. Art now has everything to explain, just when the tools and the desire to do so have disappeared.
One doesn’t have to take on Beckett’s bleak philosophy entirely, but its kernel of truth remains. Josipovici presents the example of Hadyn and Beethoven; the former composed a hundred symphonies, yet Beethoven, “no less gifted, no less industrious… could only write nine.” Why is this? “The answer, quite simply, is that Hadyn didn’t feel he needed to start from scratch every time” [my italics]. This is important, and the central point of the book. How many authors do we read who really seem to start from scratch every time, to wrench the book from within, ignorant of the market, uninfluenced by the clichés of contemporary literature? Where we used to have the comfort of tradition and the “sacramental universe,” we now have the ephemeral trends of popular culture, which could also be defined as a devious evasion of the difficult questions with which Modernism has left us.
Philip Roth, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan — they are all avoiding the responsibility of their art, its functions and its implications. To Josipovici, novels are “machines that secrete spurious meaning into the world,” not reflective mirrors or objects designed for middlebrow comfort. To confront this idea and take it seriously is all that is needed to dramatically affect the art. Josipovici gives us many examples of artists who have realized precisely that: from Beethoven to Picasso, Duchamp to Kafka. He finds modernism in unexpected places: especially striking is his reading of Wordsworth, which sits alongside the more predictable, and marginally less interesting, readings of T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens. Wordsworth helps us to get away from the “clichés that everywhere impede a proper understanding of modernism.”
To write a book about this subject at this particular time takes a certain amount of bravery. England is the inheritor of Larkin’s and Waugh’s cynicism in the face of what they saw as artistic pretension. America, while perhaps more comfortable with its experimental side, still contains a climate of literary confidence, rather than self-doubt; certainty and realist narrative, instead of ambiguity.
A long time ago Philip Roth said that there are around 60,000 serious readers in the United States. That is 60,000 who would buy a Philip Roth book, maybe, but realistically there are much fewer serious readers. The kind of readers who sit up late with Ulysses, or who consider Kierkegaard’sEither/Orto be beach reading. What’s more, of these readers I would guess that a significant percentage of them have a go at writing fiction or poetry. Even if they were all lucky enough to be published, a single popular novel would be enough to sap all the media attention away from them (even in the age of the internet, which, by the way, is conspicuously absent as a force in this book. I’m not complaining; it was actually a serene delight to read a new non-fiction book that did not pour on the dreaded “e” prefix remorselessly.) The fault is not with the authors, as such, but with the culture and the criticism surrounding them. It is this that Josipovici wants to change.
And it is a gargantuan task. If contemporary culture has taught us anything it’s that a worldwide web, a few dragging steps towards equality, and a more inclusive attitude in general have almost no impact on public taste. Most people just don’t care enough about the arts to do anything other than lie supine and wait to be entertained, and one wonders if this book can have any traction in a culture that resists elitism so stubbornly. And yet I can’t help but feel that this book is so alive because the world is turned the other way. Even with insurmountable resistance, What Ever Happened to Modernism? is an inspiring, sometimes electrifying, call to arms; a serious book for serious readers.
What is clear from reading these interviews is that, while the 20th century has not be kind to Iran, it has been particularly difficult for Iranian poets, writers, and intellectuals looking to articulate the problems of their homeland.
1. The non-fictional part
My father returned to British Columbia last week. He’d been in New York City for three years, the only three years of my adult life when I’d had a blood relative within three thousand miles; there’s absolutely no reason, in other words, why I shouldn’t be accustomed to living on the other side of a continent and across an international border from my family by now, but it’s hard to describe the wistfulness that overcame me when he left. Words scrawled in a notebook on the subway last week: All my family’s by the opposite ocean tonight. I love New York so deeply, but I am so far away.
Immigration has been on my mind lately. A grandmother’s family is of aristocratic lineage, which means absolutely nothing except that it makes genealogical research really easy; our ancestors can be traced back to the year 800, a Viking king, but that was four countries ago now. From Denmark to France, a sea crossing to England at the time of the conquest, several centuries of lives and deaths and high-stakes political maneuverings before a magnificently-named great-grandfather set out for the New World: Newell St. Andrew St. John, eighteen years old, the recipient of a beautiful classical education, known all his life for his warmth and kindness, boards a ship out of England and boldly notes his occupation as Farmer on the manifest.
It’s less than certain that he’d ever wielded a shovel before he wrote that word. The prairie farm that followed was of course a disaster. But what spirit, what evidence of the will for self-creation, of the possibilities the new continent offered! It was possible, at least on paper, to come here and be an entirely new person. I wish I could have known him. I imagine him on the Canadian prairies, gazing out at the bafflingly endless land, thinking Now what?
There were a number of slow journeys over oceans in my great-grandparents’ generation, but their children had the sense to stay put. My grandparents’ lives were played out in Canada (my mother’s side) and the United States (my father’s); Victoria and the Canadian prairies, small California towns. But my father moved from California to Canada as a young man and has switched countries three or four times since. I moved from Toronto to New York City, back up to Montreal, back to New York. I acquired a second passport.
It occurred to me, arriving in New York City by train for the second time in a year, that it would be perfectly possible to go on like this forever. City to city, country to country, endless mundane interchangeable jobs, a permanently unsettled life. I got a novel out of this realization, but the thought gave me a chill.
Migration in its various forms is at the heart of a great many of my favorite plots in fiction. But beyond that it seems to me that migration, as an idea of motion, is inextricable from good fiction. Your characters must change—they must move, psychically at least, from point A to point B—and the plot must move forward.
Drowning in Darkness, by Peter Oliva: I found this slim paperback in my grandparents’ living room when I was fourteen or so, and have carried it with me ever since. An exquisitely-written novel that takes place mostly in a grim little mining town in Canada’s Crowsnest Pass. A coalminer named Pep Rogolino imported a bride, Sera, from southern Italy; she came dreaming of a spectacular new life, sank under the weight of the life she found in Canada, and eventually disappeared. Did she flee the town? Did she walk into the coalmine, where deadly gasses move silently through the dark? The narrative cuts back and forth between Pep and Sera’s lives, together and apart, and a single night in the coal mine: a young miner, trapped by an explosion, tells stories to someone who may or may not be there with him in the absolute darkness while he waits to Pep to arrive with the morning shift.
The Mistress of Nothing, by Kate Pullinger: Sally Naldrett is a maid at the service of Lady Duff Gordon, an effervescent (and consumptive) member of Victorian-era British high society. When Lady Duff Gordon’s worsening health forces her to flee damp England for hotter, drier climes, Sally travels with her, into a new life in Egypt that she never could have imagined. I rarely read historical fiction, but found this book absolutely captivating.
Haunted Traveller by Barry Yourgrau: Haunted Traveller is billed as a fictional memoir. It’s made up of episodic little sections, connected loosely or not at all, concerning travels in countries that might almost be real. The elements are fantastical, but the underlying theme—the disconnection and alienation of solo travel—rings absolutely true.
The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier: Death is another country, or in Brockmeier’s novel, another city. The City is populated by the recently deceased; its origins and exact nature are unclear, but it’s clear to the inhabitants that it’s something akin to a way station. The last migration you take is to The City, where you remain for weeks or years or decades, until the death of the last person on earth who remembers you. But the living world has become increasingly chaotic, with warfare and plagues spreading over the continents; new arrivals in the city bring ever more desperate accounts of a new and unstoppable virus. As the human race nears extinction, The City begins to empty out. Back on earth, a lone researcher named Laura Byrd is trapped by bad weather in an Antarctic research station. As her supplies dwindle and she struggles for survival, the citizens of the shrinking City realize that Laura Byrd, the one person they all seem to have in common, is very likely the last person alive on earth.