On Heroes and Tombs

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In person and on the page, the two men are as different as Laurel and Hardy: the one orotund, a gourmand, filling his mouth with the language of his forebears, digesting ideas with gustatory (sometimes dyspeptic) relish; the other lean, a scientific mind, cerebral, attenuated, his most pronounced feature a high forehead given to wrinkling in bemusement. I’ve been a student of both William H. Gass and E.L. Doctorow, and somehow have only now thought to compare them. But when I do, I see yin and yang, Epicurius and Zeno. (DeVito and Schwarzenegger?) Truly, the contrast here, in temperament and physiognomy, is like something out of a novel.Upon reflection, however, I’m discovering affinities. Gass and Doctorow are roughly coevals, celebrated novelists and essayists. Both attended Kenyon College as undergrads and finished in the Ivy League. More substantively, both go about their work – choleric or platonic – with a heroic seriousness that marks them as the product of the bygone moment of modernism. Both, that is, are unreconstructed believers in the religion of art. Notwithstanding reviewers’ declarations that they are in the “twilight” of their careers, each has continued to produce vital work in his seventies.This year, each offers us a nonfictional map of his personal (and idiosyncratic) canon. If Gass’ A Temple of Texts and Doctorow’s Creationists diverge in temperament and taste, together they comprise a rich walking tour of world literature – and more importantly, an object lesson in committed reading.A Temple of Texts is by far the chunkier of the two books. Over 418 pages of dense, erudite, poetic prose, Gass covers American classics (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, William Gaddis, Gertrude Stein) and nominees for classic status (Stanley Elkin and Ernesto Sabato) and returns, again and again, to his beloved Europeans.The foundation of the book is the title essay, which accompanied an exhibition of Gass’ “Fifty Literary Pillars” at Washington University’s Olin Library. Here, we are treated to a highly personal take on the writer’s favorite books; the net result has the compulsive fascination of one of those “Best 37 Novels of the Last 37 Months” lists, but is deeper, more varied, and in weird way more democratic. Gass makes no claim that Collette or Cortazar should be among everybody’s literary pillars, but summarizes his relationship to their books with such gusto that we may be persuaded, at least, to add them to our reading lists, and to think about our own literary pillars. Along with “To A Young Friend Charged With Possession of the Classics” – Gass’ Solomonic solution to the academy’s “canon wars” – “A Temple of Texts” is the strongest thing here.The title essay also lends the book its canny structure: most of the other pieces here are pegged to a specific author. To sit and read the collection straight through is to subject oneself to a lot of Gass, which is to say a lot of philosophy, a lot of alliteration, a lot of wordplay. Characteristic Gass productions like the peevish “Influence” or “The Sentence Seeks Its Form” (the distillation of at least a dozen other essays from other books) may slow the reader down (as Gass no doubt means to do) or even trip her up (which can seem bellicose.) But those new to Gass can just as easily treat A Temple of Texts as a reference work, can dip into disquisitions on Rilke and Rabelais at will, and be rewarded. The accessibility of form, and the richness of thought, make A Temple of Texts a wonderful and unusually gentle introduction to Gass’ extraordinary mind and, as importantly, to the works that formed it.Comparatively, Creationists is slender – 176 pages for $25, or 14 cents per page – and makes few claims for itself. Doctorow intends, he tells us, to stay close to the works he’s writing about, rather than rising above them to make sweeping assertions. The word “modest” appears in the book’s first sentence. But in its keen, almost surgical intelligence, in the sly insights smuggled into its readings, Creationists is a fraternal twin to A Temple of Texts. Where Gass’ sensibility is European, Doctorow’s is distinctly American – he is most convincing when discussing Twain, Melville, Fitzgerald, and Arthur Miller. Especially in the Melville essay, we see the way a life of reading has informed Doctorow’s own fiction.”It is indisputable in my mind that excess in literature is its own justification,” Doctorow writes of Moby-Dick. Perhaps it is this dictum that leads him to the book’s many feats of restoration; Doctorow’s attempts to rehabilitate the reputations of Poe (a “genius hack”) and Stowe make Creationists more than a simple top-ten list. As do his literary analyses of Harpo Marx, Albert Einstein, and the Atomic Bomb. As does the peculiar tension between analytic coolness and immoderate passion; in this way, Creationists is of a piece with Doctorow’s best novels.In the past, both Gass and Doctorow have invoked Elkin, quoting someone else: there are two kinds of writers, putter-inners and taker-outers. If Gass is the former, Doctorow’s the latter, and many of his ideas – about the creative temperament, the value of writing, the fruitful democracy of contemporary culture – emerge only through implication. The subtlety and brevity of Creationists don’t make it any less valuable, though. It may be far from novel for novelists to reflect on the works that influenced them. But the complementary traits of these American masters – their uncommon intelligence and reverence for literature – make A Temple of Texts and Creationists gifts for the reading public.Sidebar: Books these books made me want to check out: Man’s Hope by Andre Malraux, Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis, Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katharine Anne Porter, On Heroes and Tombs by Ernesto Sabato

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