Conversations with William H. Gass

16 Mar

Gass doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing, he once told Michael Silverblatt. Everything he does is ‘totally intuitive.’

He has Rilke, his favorite writer, to blame for this. Rilke waited years for some inspiration for the Duino Elegies to arrive, ready to fit into the pre-conceived structure he had in mind. Similar in its conception, Gass completed The Tunnel after thirty years of work—A book about a fat guy writing an introduction to a book called Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany, who instead ends up writing the novel wilst digging a tunnel from his basement and who, admittedly, farts a lot. Why so long, critics kept asking? ‘I write slowly because I write badly,’ he said. ‘I have to rewrite everything many, many times just to achieve mediocrity.’

One wouldn’t be able to tell of a man who turns out passages like this:

‘Bracket Omensetter was a wide and happy man. He could whistle like the cardinal whistles in the deep snow, or whirr like the shy white rising from its cover, or be the lark a-chuckle at the sky. He knew the earth. He put his hands in water. He smelled the clean fir smell. He listened to the bees. And he laughed his deep loud, wide and happy laugh whenever he could—which was often, long, and joyfully.’ (Omensetter’s Luck)

Or his description of a Boy Scout leader in The Tunnel

‘From a distance, Culp seems presentable and reasonable and normal enough. Approach, however, and you’ll hear whirs and clicks, rhymes and puns, jocularities in dialect, jingles in dirty high-schoolese, gibberish he says is pure Sioux.’

Never using the phrase ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ all that much, he concedes to falling into that category time and time again with his interviewers as he feels that his only obligation as an artist is to language. In fact, he was good friends with John Gardner, of the opposite camp, who kept a long, heated dialogue with him up until Gardner’s death in 1992.

Unlike Gardner, who spoke incessantly about philosophy when discussing his work, Gass, who claims not to be a philosopher but just might qualify anyway, is always very pretty concise when discussing his own work. There’s nothing in his book that’s going to ‘get by him.’ No critic will notice a fault he didn’t notice already or a thread or theme which he didn’t intend.

Gass’s junk-food and vice is metaphor, on which he wrote his dissertation. Architecture serves as a great metaphor for the way he views fiction. For Gass, a book is an artifact. It creates a space. It is like a house one can inhabit and move around inside, open up various doors, return to different places. This gives Gass a playground of metaphysics which he can’t entertain. He explains to one interviewer how he considers himself a Platonist on the page but non-platonic when considering the world.

What this amounts to, according to Gass, is that a piece of work can have an intrinsic morality that is wrapped up entirely in the language and the world of that language within the work. Many critics missed this when they read The Tunnel, which was a fascist work from ‘within,’ written by a man suffering from a ‘fascism of the heart.’ It is only from outside the text that one can see the machinery at work.

For a man who claims with disturbingly little reserve that he writes ‘to get even,’ and because he ‘hates very much, very strongly,’ Gass is very generous in his answers to interviewers, even with the most cliché questions that most pious writers brush away, or insist on not being asked, like ‘How do you write?’ ‘Do you keep a schedule?’ or ‘What do you write with?’

Gass even makes room to appreciate writers in the camp opposite to him. He has no problem with certain moral books, he just doesn’t go to them for that and will never write like them. In this, he allows himself to coexist peacefully enjoying the art of others by his own aesthetic standard.

Whether you’re an ‘Art For Art’s Sake’ kind of person or an ‘Art For Goodness’ Sake’ kind of person, Anyone interested in Gass, or even just a very aesthetic side of the argument concerning writing, will find this rewarding.


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