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.”
Scott of Conversational Reading invited me to participate in his “Reading the World” series this month. My contribution was reading and posting about Per Petterson’sIn the Wake.I don’t read enough fiction in translation, maybe a couple of books per year. When I do the experience elicits one of two reactions. Either the book is so rooted in its place and culture that I can’t imagine it being written in another language, or the book, despite its overseas origins, shows that there are universals in literature, no matter the language in which a book was conceived. Norwegian Per Petterson’s In the Wake falls mostly into the latter camp, as it draws from the grand tradition of books about ruminating, somewhat pathetic male protagonists who appear to live their lives mostly in their heads.Saul Bellow’sSeize the Day comes to mind, and Richard Ford has made a career out of this type of book. But my favorite example from this crowded genre is Walker Percy’s pitch perfect The Moviegoer.Read the rest of the review at Conversational reading.Also of Note: Petterson just won the 2007 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his book Out Stealing Horses. We took a look at the IMPAC shortlist in April.
Death arrives in the first sentence of Ann Patchett’s sixth novel, State of Wonder. Deep in the farthest reaches of the Amazonian rainforest, a middle-aged drug researcher who was sent there on business but has no business being there succumbs to fever, and the secretive field scientists he’s with dash off a quick note to the States. It arrives “a breath of tissue so insubstantial that only the stamp seemed to anchor it to this world.” How terrible a weight these things still carry. Someone must tell his young family. Someone must pack up his office. And someone must be sent back up the river to recover his body and find out what the hell is going on.
When the Company in Joseph Conrad’sHeart of Darkness goes after its rogue and raging ivory trader, Mr. Kurtz, it sends Marlow, a veteran boat captain; his mission is the river. When Vogel, Patchett’s invented pharmaceutical giant, goes after its rogue drug researcher, Annick Swenson, a brilliant doctor who has disappeared into the jungle with millions of Vogel’s dollars while developing a radical fertility drug, it sends Marina Singh, a mid-level lab scientist and former Swenson student; her mission is the body, the drug, and the aging Swenson herself. It’s no vacation, but Singh desperately needs a dose of something exotic. “She was forty-two. She was in love with a man”—Vogel’s CEO, twenty years her senior—“she did not leave the building with,” and April in Minnesota is bleak. “The crocuses she had seen only that morning, their yellow and purple heads straight up from the dirt, were now frozen as solid as carp in the lake.”
Patchett does not trade in weak women. (It’s the men, like Singh’s father, an Indian graduate student so absorbed in his studies that the family ate dinners on the floor, so as not to disturb his stacks of papers piled in the dining room, who are little more than shadows in Patchett’s work.) She subjects her women to terrible losses, and then lends them the strength to march forward in ways that are as heroic as they are practical. Singh is a winning narrator. Life has muddled her plans and substituted its own realities. An early marriage fizzled two years into her medical residency, so at thirty, she and her husband “bought their own divorce kit at an office supply store and amicably filled out the paperwork at the kitchen table.” A tragic accident at the hospital drove her from clinical medicine and sidelined her into a pharmacology PhD program. Having arrived, without intending to, alone at middle age, she might be permitted some bitterness. Instead, she wears her quiet self-composure like a charm, and if she suffers long nights of indecision about her mission to the Amazon, she doesn’t betray it. Feeling needed, she goes. Her boss and lover packs her off with a bundle of GPS technology and extra anti-malarials. He’s doesn’t want to stay in touch so much as he wants to keep her healthy and on a short digital leash. To borrow Wilde, to lose one employee is tragic—to lose two smacks of carelessness.
Minnesota bookends the novel, but Patchett has written a Brazilian adventure tale. When she arrives, Singh’s passport is a “booklet filled with empty pages,” and she’s welcomed to the country by the disappearance of her luggage. Suddenly, luxury is a toothbrush and shopping in the market is an obstacle course of language and custom. By the time she leaves, months later, she’ll be wearing entirely new skin. Patchett captures well the essential loneliness and boredom of traveling solo; the foreign becomes exhausting, the heat devastating. Dr. Swenson stays in the field for months on end, and her gatekeepers in the port town where Singh is waiting are a pair of blithe young bohemians—house sitters who collect the doctor’s mail, smoke dope in her apartment, and stonewall inquisitive journalists. (“She was such a pretty girl. It must be hard, Marina imagined, for her to have no place to go.”) There is little to do but wait. As the pages pass, and the odd trio go on one field trip after another, we begin to forget why Singh has come in the first place. Then, like apparition, Dr. Swenson is back in town. Finally, we’re headed “down a river into the beating heart of nowhere,” the throttle on the boat—and on the novel—open full.
History and art provide some useful examples of how things turn out when the white folks rush headlong into the wilderness, brimming with ambition and delusion, and Patchett slyly pays her dues. “Dr. Singh, I presume,” Marina is greeted when she arrives at the upriver research station. Fitzcarraldo, Werner Herzog’s 1982 film about dragging a steamship over a small Peruvian mountain, makes an appearance, as does Lost Horizon, the 1933 novel that invented Shangri-La. Dr. Swenson has been living among the remote Lakashi tribe for more than a decade, unlocking the secret to their astounding fertility, which allows women to bear children into their seventies. “Their eggs aren’t aging, do you get that?” an excited researcher asks Singh. “This is the ovum in perpetuity, menstruation everlasting.” Now there’s an idea that only a male drug exec could love. And though the stakes—and potential profit margins—couldn’t be higher, we don’t feel the tension build until the human dramas begin to play out at the station.
Dr. Swenson is a tropical storm of genius and brio. She delights in adding exponents to the ethical equations at hand in the jungle. She preaches a gospel of absolute non-intervention— “They are an intractable race,” she lectures Singh on the Lakashi. “You might as well come down here to unbend the river”—even as she pricks their fingers, collects their spit, and swabs their vaginas. She issues demands, barks her thanks, and keeps her emotions stoppered in a test-tube. In perhaps their most tender moment, Singh visits an ailing Swenson in her quarters; the elder woman sends her away. “I know how to sleep, Dr. Singh. I don’t need you to watch me unless it is something you are trying to learn to do yourself.”
Patchett has set herself an ambitious task. She begins far from home—Nashville, where she lives and writes—and moves steadily away from the known world. Her prose, as she established with Bel Canto and earlier works, is full of tenderness and insight; she writes of sorrow and invasive medical procedures with equal ease. Her language shows devotion to how the sentence unfurls across the page. She has remarkable skill, as a storyteller, knowing precisely when to cut away from a scene. She doesn’t write dialogue; she writes conversations, full of human surprise, humor, and outrage, which act in service to the many Big Ideas she’s probing—about aging and fertility, children and careers, ethics and abuse. Heart of Darkness had a post-colonial mission, well ahead of its time, and Conrad was swinging for the fences. State of Wonder has some questions, none of them as urgent, but compelling still.
The jungle hides its secrets until the very last, threatening to swallow Singh altogether. The story is still roaring at full-throttle as she heads down the river, back to beautiful, mundane civilization and Minnesota’s summer raspberries. But escape is never so easy, and after what she’s seen, we doubt very much that her fevered dreams will leave her soon.
Pauline Kael argued about the movies as though her life depended on it. But that’s not what makes this an essential read for all the uninitiated, nor is it her depth of knowledge, her wit, or her ability to turn a line; it’s that she was so often right.
One possible implication of The Best European Fiction series is not only that Europe is going the way of America, but that the stories in it already represent the kind of writing that isn’t possible in America anymore.