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.”
Published posthumously, Ryszard Kapuscinski’sTravels with Herodotus is very self consciously a final book. In it Kapuscinski reflects on his life as a writer, rarely delving much into the details of his travels with which his readers have become familiar, but instead dwelling more upon writing itself. But more so, his focus is on Herodotus, the historian from ancient Greece, who Kapuscinski counts as a great historian and whose books were a near constant companion of Kapuscinski’s on his travels.Indeed Travels more than anything else reads like a companion text to Herodotus’ book The Histories – a footnote early on refers readers to the Oxford University Press edition for those who want to follow along at home.And that may be a good idea because, for the most part, Travels is Herodotus seen through Kapuscinski’s lens. He tells us that the book was given to him by an editor before his first journey abroad and he took it with him on nearly all of his assignments during his long career. In looking at Herodotus, Kapuscinski suggests to the reader the origins of journalism as well as its purpose while also marveling at the fantastical stories and bizarre cultures described by the Greek. Kapuscinski is a true fan.But this book is also a memoir of sorts, and Kapuscinski parcels out little nuggets of the Kapuscinski philosophy, a way of looking at the world that will be familiar to his readers.Describing his very first trip, to India, Kapuscinski describes devouring books about the country and about the power of the written word to transport and teach:With each new title I read, I felt as if I were taking a new journey to India, recalling places I had visited and discovering new depths and aspects, fresh meanings, of things which earlier I had assumed I knew. These journeys were much more multidimensional than my original one. I discovered also that these expeditions could be further prolonged, repeated, augmented by reading more books, studying maps, looking at paintings and photographs. What is more, they had a certain advantage over the actual trip – in an iconographic journey such as this one, one could stop at any point, calmly observe, rewind to the previous image, etc., something for which on a real journey there is neither the time nor the chance.And of course, I’m sure there are many readers, like myself, for whom Kapuscinski’s books have had “a certain advantage over the actual trip.” With Kapuscinski as a guide, his books offer more of an escape and more excitement than most of us can hope for from our planned excursions to non-threatening locales.In Herodotus, Kapuscinski undoubtedly sees his foundation, without whom Kapuscinski and many other journalists, historians, and travel writers wouldn’t be possible. As Kapuscinski shows us, the world of the Greek nearly 2,500 years ago isn’t all that far removed from what Kapuscinski has spent his career doing. At the same time, we wouldn’t consider Herodotus a journalist in the modern sense, one who is beholden to proper sourcing, fact checking, and objectivity. Herodotus gathered up tales of mysterious faraway lands, relating even the ones that sound far-fetched, crafted narratives to suit his efforts, and passed judgment when it struck him to do so. Following his death, Kapuscinski was accused of just such things by Jack Shafer at Slate. Defending Kapuscinski, I wrote “To define [Kapuscinski’s] books as journalism (or memoir, or “truth”) exclusively does a disservice to journalism – offering a context within which this work fits, or even a disclaimer, is more appropriate – but to suggest that there isn’t a place for writing and books like these does a disservice to readers.” In speculating about Herodotus’ way of life, Kapuscinski defends the writer’s right to embellish in the service of both making a living and entertaining readers (two goals that often go hand in hand)It is possible… that the rhythm of Herodotus’s life and work was as follows: he made a long journey, and upon his return traveled to various Greek cities and organized something akin to literary evenings, in the course of which he recounted the experiences, impressions, and observations he had gathered during his peregrinations. It is entirely likely that he made his living from such gatherings, and that he also financed his subsequent trips in this way, and so it was important to him to have the largest auditorium possible, to draw a crowd. It would be to his advantage, therefore, to begin with something that would rivet attention, arouse curiosity – something a tad sensational. Story plots meant to move, amaze, astonish, pop up throughout his entire opus; without such stimuli, his audience would have dispersed early, bored, leaving him with an empty purse.Perhaps it was a similar motivation that pushed Kapuscinski to not just send back terse wire service missives on the conflicts and battles he observed but also to keep a separate notebook of observations that he would craft into his books. But to suggest that Kapsucinski’s motives were craven and profit-driven alone would be to ignore the profound empathy with which he treats his subjects and the care with which he observes the foreign lands he visits.In Travels, Kapuscinski describes being lured to Algiers in 1965 by a vague tip from a source. Upon his arrival he discovers that indeed a coup has occurred, but he is dismayed to find that it has been bloodless and so there are no scenes of battle and mayhem to describe to hungry readers back home. Then Kapuscinski realizes how misguided this attitude is:It was here in Algiers, several years after I had begun working as a reporter, that it slowly began to dawn on me that I had set myself on an erroneous path back then. Until that awakening, I had been searching for spectacular imagery, laboring under the illusion that it was compelling, observable tableaux that somehow justified my presence, absolving me of responsibility to understand the events at hand. It was the fallacy that one can interpret the world only by means of what it chooses to show us in the hours of its convulsions, when it is rocked by shots and explosions, engulfed in flames and smoke, choked in dust and the stench of burning, when everything collapses into rubble on which people sit despairing over the remains of their loved ones.If there is a philosophy that encapsulates Kapuscinski, that is it. Body counts and “colorful” descriptions of chaos and violence offer us no insight into our world. Only with time and effort come empathy and understanding. This holds true of all of our best journalism (cf.George Packer).But Kapuscinski does not romanticize this noble cause. He instead sees it as a symptom of his loneliness. He is not the swashbuckling hero journalist that some portray him as but a wandering lost soul imprisoned by his travels. Near the end of this odd little memoir, travelogue, and homage to Herodotus, Kapuscinski, as if knowing that this is his goodbye, lays himself bare to his readers:Such people, while useful, even agreeable, to others, are, if truth be told, frequently unhappy – lonely in fact. Yes, they seek out others, and it may even seem to them that in a certain country or city they have managed to find true kinship and fellowship, having come to know and learn about a people; but they wake up one day and suddenly feel that nothing actually binds them to these people, that they can leave here at once. They realize that another country, some other people, have now beguiled them, and that yesterday’s most riveting event now pales and loses all meaning and significance.For all intents and purposes, they do not grow attached to anything, do not put down deep roots. Their empathy is sincere, but superficial.Kapuscinski’s admission is stark and sad, but one must think that it was his lack of joy, of hubris, of a sense of heroism that underpinned the singular tone of his work and made it such a revelation to read.See Also:The Reporter: Ryszard Kapuscinski
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