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.”
“No story is ever told just once… We will return to it an hour later and re-tell the story with additions and this time a few judgments thrown in. In this way history is organized.”In 1978, and again two years later, Michael Ondaatje left his Toronto home and embarked on an ancestral odyssey – destination Ceylon. Now Sri Lanka, it was Ceylon in his youth. It was his childhood. It was the courtship of his parents, the setting for endless hours of family stories, in all their re-tellings. Ceylon was his history, and echoes of it are captured in his 1982 memoir Running in the Family.Asia. An ancient whisper of a word. Wrapped around the island of Ceylon, the seducer of all of Europe. Dutch, English, Portuguese have all fallen for its charms. Ceylon has been “the wife of many marriages, courted by invaders who stepped ashore and claimed everything with the power of their sword, or bible, or language.”More than traveling from Canada to this storied land, Ondaatje journeyed back through time, through generations. It was a journey to 1970s Sri Lanka, but also to his childhood in the 40s and 50s, and back further still to the land of his parents in the 20s and 30s.To Jaffna in the north he traveled, to the Dutch-built 18th century fortressed home of his Aunt Phyllis and his improbably named Uncle Ned. Phyllis was the keeper of the family stories and she held court telling and re-telling tales of eccentrics long gone. “We are still recovering from her gleeful resume of the life and death of one foul Ondaatje who was ‘savaged to pieces by his own horse.'”In Nuwara Eliya in the 20s and 30s everyone “was vaguely related and had Sinhalese, Tamil, Dutch, British and Burgher blood in them going back many generations.” There was Francis, who once attacked his wife in an alcoholic haze. Riddled with guilt, he tried to drown himself in a lake. And he might have succeeded if that part of the lake had more than one foot of water. Francis was the social pivot around which Ondaatje’s father’s society swirled. He hosted parties on the rubber estate where he worked, and lived on a steady diet of Gin and Tonic. Around him, the charmed group was part of a lost world. And when he died, the party was over. “What seemed to follow was a rash of marriages.”Ondaatje’s father Mervyn had a thing about trains. There was the drunken occasion when he stripped naked and leapt from a moving train as it entered a tunnel. And another time when he stopped a moving train by threatening to kill the driver with his army pistol if he didn’t wait for his friend who was stranded in Colombo. But none of his train escapades matches the tale of Mervyn’s ongoing feud with someone through the pages of “comment/complaint” books at a succession of roadside rest-houses.Ondaatje’s mother Doris, whose patience with Mervyn eventually reached an end, could take the smallest incident or reaction and explode it into a myth-making epic. With a husky, wheezing laugh, she could turn one into a footnote to one’s own action. But this kept their generation alive, this oral mythologizing.Running in the Family is storytelling from all angles. There are Ondaatje’s narrative accounts of his visits. There are tales told by his aunts sifted through Ondaatje’s narrative pen. There are direct first person accounts from friends and family who remember the events in question, told in their voices, sometimes vying for the reader’s attention. There are poems and photos to flesh out the picture. But at its heart, this is oral family history. Its focus is small, direct. It’s not meant to be an expansive travelogue of a foreign land, though so strong is Ondaatje’s narration that your senses will be filled with the heat. With the breezes and monsoons. With the luxurious wafting aromas from the kitchens. But it’s the people that linger the most, and we fully understand the effect that all these voices, conjuring up all these ghosts, have on Ondaatje.”During waking hours, at certain times in our lives, we see ourselves as remnants from earlier generations that were destroyed.”See Also: A new novel from Ondaatje, Divisadero, has just been published.
Worrying has never finished a paragraph or fixed a slow opening. You can worry away your writing life, or you can catch yourself the next time you start to worry, go for a walk, and replace those worries with work.
Though I’ve heard great things about Paul Theroux, Dark Star Safari was the first by him that I’ve read – well, listened to actually. Thanks to our current location in Chicago and the locations of our respective families, the holidays involve a lot of driving for Mrs. Millions and me – 36 hours worth this year if my math is correct. One of the best ways to pass the time is with audiobooks and even though Mrs. Millions got me XM Radio this year, Dark Star Safari was so engaging that we spent a lot of our trip listening to it. It’s a shame that the audio version appears to be unavailable (we got ours from the library) because it was very well done. Norman Deitz, as narrator, is very much in character as Theroux, and he gamely contorts his voice when relating the dialog of the many men and women of various nationalities that Theroux meets on his way from Cairo to Capetown. Though Africa is the centerpiece of this book, Theroux shares top billing. As he explains, this trip, very much a solo journey, was a return to the continent where he lived 40 years ago as a young Peace Corps volunteer and teacher. He soon finds that a lot of Africa has changed and not for the better. Much of the book is devoted to finding out why. We learn a lot about Africa’s history and geography and we meet dozens of fascinating people along the way from Nobel Laureates to prostitutes. But Theroux, writing in his 60s and having earned the right to hold forth on such things, dwells most upon his likes and dislikes. He does not like most of the aid workers in Africa and he explains, rather convincingly, why the aid system is broken. He does not like proselytizing missionaries, with whom he gleefully argues theology. He does not like Africa’s sprawling, destitute, dangerous cities. Theroux, however, likes the “bush,” the great trackless stretches of Africa where people still live simply, uncorrupted by foreign aid and oppressive governments. Of the people he meets, Theroux likes the straight-talkers, the honest people who care about Africa and aren’t trying to get something from him. Though Theroux spends a lot of time analyzing the current state of Africa in his own engaging, non-technical way, the enormity of his journey was what made the book so enjoyable for me. He travels by every method imaginable in a meandering path from Egypt to South Africa. Along the way he is shot at by bandits, harassed by border guards and harangued by Africa’s urban predators. Theroux acknowledges the similarities of his travels with those of many Westerners before him, but he does not slip into romanticism or despair. He loves Africa for its chaos.