The Word According to Gass

William Gass '47 waxes philosophical on the question of how to write

T ry describing a hat in such a way that the reader will realize its wearer has just had her dog run over."

In a 1994 essay about experimental fiction, William H. Gass '47 offered exercises for aspiring writers: "Do dialogue--let's say--between a hobo and a high-class hooker, then between an ambulance chaser and a guy who sells scorecards at the ball park--let's say--about the meaning of money." And so on, raising the bar whenever the sentences start to come too easily. "Do dialogue in dialect: a Welshman and a Scot arguing about an onion."

Good writing is hard work. A book can take thirty years, as the critics repeatedly pointed out when The Tunnel saw the light of day in 1995. A Los Angeles Times reviewer called Gass's thick new book "the most beautiful, most complex, most disturbing novel to be published in my lifetime." In The New York Times, Robert Kelly found The Tunnel "maddening, enthralling, appalling, coarse, romantic, sprawling, bawling."

"It is not a nice book," he declared. "It will have enemies, and I am not sure after one reading . . . that I am not one of them."

To write a book that makes enemies is no small matter. Salman Rushdie did it with The Satanic Verses, but The Tunnel inspired a different kind of alarm--literary, not religious. Who was Gass to upend the apple cart of American literature, which had bid goodbye twenty years ago to the giant novel of thematic, structural, and stylistic complexity? Even Thomas Pynchon and William Gaddis--whose masterpieces were like cathedrals in their weight and intricacy--had recently produced manageable books. Why was Gass moving so contrariwise? And why must his new book be so unpleasant--nothing but the lingering meditation of an aging academic, steeped in his obsession with Nazism.

In The Atlantic Monthly, Sven Birkerts also had trouble evaluating The Tunnel, describing his task as "the most vexing reviewing assignment I've ever undertaken." Frustrated by the novel's absence of conventional narrative and character development, he railed at the author: "Don't do this to yourself."

"But," the reviewer concluded, "far more often, surely at least once per page, I leaned back in my chair and felt that opiated dilation of the senses, that vicarious surplus, that glowworm flash of being that I can get only from language affixed to the page, and then only when a master has affixed it there."

To many, it is the music of Gass's prose, his mastery of the sentence and paragraph, that best shows off his genius. As a stylist he works his words until they move without friction. "A writer without rhythm," Gass has declared, "is surely a wretched writer, for woeful is he who cannot give some music to hismeanings."

At Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, where Gass has taught philosophy since 1969, he talked about his approach to fiction in an interview for the Bulletin. His goal, he said, is to "demolish" the notion that novels have to proceed according to conventional standards of logic. "I want a multidimensional, nonlinear approach," he insisted. "I delay exposition and I delay narrative. . . . That's what's in the air. The new development in logic is nonlinear."

No more Point A to Point B. Instead, Gass's writing is fractal. Take a piece of any size and it resembles the whole. "Gass is a philosopher," the literary critic Alfred Kazin wrote twenty-five years ago, "who literally reconstructs the world in every sentence." In conversation ad in his critical writing, Gass draws the metaphor of flowers. If the writer allows it, a book can open up like a blossom out of a bud out of a seed. The process is organic. Gass describes it as a natural unfolding that requires no sense of audience. "There's no exchange outside myself and the text," he declares. "It's constantly what the text wants; you're satisfying the demands of the text."

Not only flowers, but buildings. Lately he has been diagramming sentences "architecturally." "The idea," explains Gass, who has taught the philosophy of architecture at Washington University, "is to get the aesthetic quality, not just the syntactical. Sentences construct space. They tend to be very conscious of what they're up to."

He describes his style as "baroque." "It varies," he explains, "but by and large it's latter-day metaphysical prose from Donne and Sir Thomas Browne. It's very conscious of its structure."

Gass learned to write, he says, "by making stabs at it." And by thinking about words and structure. In his twenty-five-page essay on the word "and," or in his book on meanings of the word "blue," he shows the twisting track he'll travel in order to understand and use language.

As models, he's chosen writers "of the second rank." "The best writers swamp you, overwhelm you," he explains. "It's easier for me to learn from Gertrude Stein than Faulkner or James or Joyce. Stein knew the problems of the sentence better than anyone else. She had an enormously good theoretical mind."

"I spend years just trying to write a sentence," Gass says, as if justifying his twenty-six-year labor at The Tunnel. In fact, the book was no single grand obsession that locked him away but one project among many, written when he found the time within his teaching schedule and other work. His bibliography for those years includes another novel, Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife, shorter pieces of fiction, and dozens of essays on language and literature. His Habitations of the Word, one of four nonfiction volumes, won the 1985 award for criticism from the National Book Critics Circle. Another book of essays, Finding a Form, was published just after The Tunnel.

He began The Tunnel in the late 1960s, soon after the publication of In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, a group of novellas and short stories--a book, said the Minneapolis Star,that Sherwood Anderson might have written instead of Winesburg, Ohio if he'd attended Kenyon College. That book followed Gass's first published novel, Omensetter's Luck, described in The New Republic as "the most important work of fiction by an American in this literary generation." The critics were setting up challenges for the next novel.

W illiam Gass enrolled at Kenyon the first time in 1942. "I wasn't a writer then," he recalls. "Of course I wanted to be. There were three hundred twenty-five boys . . . and a literary reputation because of the Review and John Crowe Ransom. A lot of those interested in literature and writing were much, much better than me."

After a year at Kenyon, Gass took some courses at Ohio Wesleyan University, then left for the U.S. Navy and World War II, returning to Gambier in 1946, where the College had grown to six hundred students. "I was trying to catch up on philosophy"--intent, he says, on getting ready for graduate school in one year. Though not enlisted in the fabled Kenyon School of English, Gass thrived in the general literary atmosphere of the campus.

"As soon as I got to Kenyon, I plugged into Eliot, Yeats, and Pound. Frost could be seen on campus, with Lowell passing through. The poet Tony Hecht was teaching. I played bridge with Ransom; he was a superb bridge player. I never took a course from him, but I sat in on classes. He was a deceptive teacher, would tell you important things in such an indirect way." In teaching Wordsworth, Gass recalls, Ransom would solemnly ask, "Why do you suppose this line ends with this word?" Because, he would finally explain, it rhymes. "It was obvious," Gass says, "but it wasn't obvious; it was very important."

At Kenyon, he was given a fundamental approach to literature: the New Criticism, as developed and championed by Ransom. This theoretical framework, as Gass explains, "emphasized close reading of the text in which the text does the talking as if the author were anonymous." Under that influence "so totally," admits Gass, "I was one of these nasty little fanatics, but it was marvelous discipline. I still think it's the only real way to read." Gass and many fellow students turned their backs on old favorites, such as Shelley and other Romantics. "Going to a school like that, I simply couldn't like Tchaikovsky. Bach, it had to be Bach. Now that was snobbishness, of course, but it was also educational. It took me a while to get back so I could enjoy Tchaikovsky again.

"I loved Kenyon as a student. This was a school isolated. Back then people didn't have cars. There were no girls. There were a few women around, but so few that nobody wore clothes in the swimming pool."

He thrived in the independence of the residence halls--the freedom to decorate, cook on hot plates, and misbehave. "If you threw a beer bottle through a window, the penalty was to pay for the window; all they did was bill us." Gass points out that he threw beer bottles only through the open windows of Middle Kenyon.

The work, though, was serious--as in a philosophy class of four or five students with Philip Blair Rice, "who was brilliant." History professor Richard G. Salomon, he says, "was wonderful."

Born in North Dakota, raised and educated in Ohio, Gass traveled east to Cornell University to seek his Ph.D. He earned the degree in 1954, completing his dissertation, "A Philosophical Investigation of Metaphor," while teaching philosophy at the College of Wooster. The next year he was hired by Purdue University, where he taught for fifteen years. In 1968, he earned an award from the Chicago Tribune as one of the ten best teachers in the Big Ten.

In 1979, Gass was lured to Washington University, where he continues to serve as David May Distinguished University Professor in the Humanities, teaching philosophy and directing the International Writers Center (IWC). Housed in the university's College of Arts and Sciences, the IWC presents a major reading series, produces a biennial international literary conference, publishes a St. Louis literary calendar, and participates in many other programs--among them a Bloomsday (June 16) marathon reading of James Joyce's Ulysses, poetry in bars and on buses, a Writers Harvest reading for hunger relief, and Literama!, a reading to benefit literacy programs.

Although colleagues inhabit philosophy and English departments, Gass prefers his office in the IWC because, he explains, "writing is international. One problem with writing schools is that they write only conventional American." Before the interview, he had just begun reading the novel Sozaboy, written in pidgin English by Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was hanged in 1995 by Nigeria's military government after a dubious murder conviction. The IWC organized a reading of Saro-Wiwa's works, with remembrances from his former colleagues, to draw attention to the plight of outspoken writers under threat from their own governments.

Gass reads and teaches many European novelists, mentioning the Austrian Thomas Bernhard and the Italians Emilio Gadda and Italo Calvino. And, he says, "the Latin Americans are so instructive. These are the people who are doing something. It's what Carlos Fuentes is doing that matters." Canadians who have recently given IWC readings include the poet Anne Carson and the novelist Michael Ondaatje, a Sri Lankan immigrant, whose best known book is The English Patient.

"American literature," Gass says, turning homeward, "has always been based on immigration. Immigrants renew literature constantly; they're doing the best things now--lots of young Chinese- and Japanese-Americans."

The IWC has also brought in Americans of longer U.S. residence, such as the poet Lynn Emanuel and the novelist David Bradley, author of The Chaneysville Incident. Among other American writers who have visited the reading series, Steven Millhauser, whose novel Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize, is one whom Gass particularly admires. "He's wonderful, one of the best in the country; his new collection of novellas is pure delight."

I n his own fiction, it is the novella that comes most readily to Gass. "I have a natural breath of about thirty or forty pages," he says. "Even an essay runs about that." Gass's next book, soon to be complete, is a collection of five novellas, about a hundred pages each.

At 653 pages, The Tunnel was a labor of discipline, especially for a novelist who experiments continually with form--who writes, as Gass describes his technique, "by trying to exfoliate." The book also took an emotional toll, requiring him to re-inhabit his narrator, Kohler, at every sitting--and, as Gass explains, Kohler is "a fascist bastard."

"I usually have a book I'm busy avoiding," Gass says. For almost thirty years, that book was The Tunnel. It was only with a residency at the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities in California that he was able to finish the novel--writing the second half of the book in only a year.

A long, experimental--Gass uses the term "explorational"--novel like The Tunnel is hard to write and, in today's market, hard to sell. But a few novelists still tackle the form. "I think it's a matter of the romantic ambition that wants the big book," says Gass, "the great work of art, the Great American Novel, the idea that you're trying to do something important."

The best writers, he says, such as John Hawkes and William Gaddis, are continually working with the novel's form. "Someone like Gaddis is there to try to enlarge the possibilities of the art," Gass says. "All writers I like are engaged in this, one way or another."

The prevailing trend today, he finds, is "down with genius, down with the individual. Ambition has changed a great deal."

Most young novelists, says Gass, don't aspire to creating whole worlds, as Trollope and Faulkner did. "They don't see how they can do that. So they confine themselves to a certain lack of ambition, but a certain genuine modesty. They're going to confine themselves to a smaller thing, usually their own lives. The world they see, they can get their hands around."

Some novelists still look for worlds not laid out so neatly. Instead of writing what they already know, they write for the purpose of discovery. "The explorer," Gass wrote in his essay on experimental fiction, "sees in front of him an unknown territory, an unmapped terrain, or he imagines there must be somewhere a new route to the Indies, another polar star, gorgons alive and well amid jungle-covered ruins, mountain views and river sources grander than the Nile's, lost tribes, treasure, or another, better, way of life."

There are worlds in words to discover, writes William Gass, where "the idea begins to unfold like a flower."

Michael Matros, a member of the Bulletin's Contributing Writers Group and a former Kenyon news director, now lives in Keene, New Hampshire.

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