Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Bookplanet: interview with William H. Gass

Q & A with William H. Gass
The novelist and essayist talks about philosophy and fiction, Europe and America, and the value of words in a visual age.
By Kate Bolick

''IN THE OLD days, a writer would start an interview with a bunch of data. She would not say, 'Mr. Gass, when I approached him, was wearing a red bow tie and a blue suit and was lounging in his Park Avenue penthouse."' It was a late Sunday afternoon-the lounging hour-and William Gass was speaking on the phone from his home in St. Louis. He was referring to the scourge in newspaper writing of ''irrelevant coziness." I didn't dare ask about a bow tie.

That the 81-year-old novelist, critic, essayist, and retired philosophy professor was discussing the architecture of an interview while submitting to one seemed vintage Gass. As one of the gang of ''metafictionists" that dominated America's literary landscape during the 1960s with dense, sprawling novels that capsized fiction's conventions by self-consciously addressing them, he's spent a lifetime quarrying and experimenting with questions of form. The eminent British critic Frank Kermode put it nicely 20 years ago: ''As a writer of fiction he has strong opinions for which, as a philosopher, he finds reasons-reasons which, as an essayist, he adorns and fantasticates."

Yet it's his voracious, erudite literary criticism that has won Gass the most accolades (he's twice received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism) and, one presumes, a readership wider than his brilliant and occasionally exasperating novels might have garnered on their own. Not that Gass is concerned with an audience. ''The contract that is signed with a reader is a contract with the devil," he told me.

The 25 essays collected in his new book, ''A Temple of Texts" (Knopf), are also vintage Gass: pensive, wide-ranging, deeply informed inquires into old favorites like Gertrude Stein and Rilke, and such themes as the nature of influence. They're also quite often funny-and self-aware. ''I know that you expect decadent authors like myself to cite [Djuna Barnes's] 'Nightwood,"' he writes in an essay on the sentence, ''so I shall."

Retired since 2000 from a 30-year teaching career at Washington University, Gass is busier than ever, and currently at work on his sixth novel.

IDEAS: ''Temple of Texts" is an evocative title. I take it literally-that literature is your religion. Am I right to?

GASS: Well, not quite. I think of the temple as a Greek one, so it's a fairly pagan religion.

IDEAS: But you do have a rather unwavering faith in the written word that's increasingly rare in this hyper-visual age.

GASS: I wouldn't call it ''faith." I have a bad feeling about that word. I think the importance of the book is demonstrable, not only historically, but in the future. The world may be increasingly dominated by auditory suggestions and visual elements, but those are all things that need to be explained. We can experience a picture, for example, but the picture doesn't explain itself. For that you need language, and for language you need the mind, which I think is basically linguistic in its operations.

IDEAS: You've written that a good novel has its own rationale, is its own ''verbal world." Does it follow that every author has a unique philosophy?

GASS: A writer doesn't need to be as interested in philosophical theory as I am to have a philosophically organized point of view. That is, Jane Austen's view of the world is pretty much the same from book to book. Beckett's is pretty much the same from play to play, or book to book, even though that view gets researched, more deeply looked at, as time goes on. Same thing with Henry James. It took James a while to develop his position, largely an ethical one, about the world and people's relationship to one another in it. I think everyone who writes a novel is stuck with this problem.

IDEAS: You didn't publish your first novel, ''Omensetter's Luck," until 1966, when you were 41. Starting out, did you consider yourself a philosopher or writer first?

GASS: Well, I was never a philosopher. It's too hard. I'm a teacher of philosophy, which is quite different. Before I published my first book I'd been writing fiction and criticism-all sorts of things-for 10, 15 years, but nobody would print anything! I couldn't even get a letter to the editor published.

IDEAS: But you went on to help create a literary movement and watch it mature. Who do you see as the inheritors of the metafiction that you and people like Barth, Barthelme, and Gaddis were writing?

GASS: That movement is over, really. And it should be. As soon as it gets to be a movement-I'm done.

There was nothing new particularly about metafiction. It's been around since the beginning. These days it's become a kind of pseudo biography. Instead of the fiction turning upon itself, it turns upon another fiction. There are lots of novels based on other novels or other writers of novels. About Flaubert or James. These are metafictions in a different sense. Typical of the period, we were formalists interested in structure and philosophical implications, and now it's people who are interested in the personalities.

IDEAS: Your interest in structure extends to the sentence itself: Not only do you include sentence diagrams in some of your essays, you write extraordinarily long sentences-150 words a pop isn't uncommon...

GASS: People just don't notice my short ones! There are a lot more short ones.

But I do like lists. I've written an essay on the logic of lists and that's what I'm interested in: the structure of the list. The list is an important aspect of literature itself and has been since the ''Iliad."

IDEAS: You mean, a regular old list? ''I need milk, eggs, bacon..."

GASS: Yes, a list like that. It's the power and joy of utterance, of hyperbola and enthusiasms. When someone says, ''Do you like fruit?" and you say, ''Yes, I like apples, oranges, peaches,..." what you're saying is ''yes!" in a hyperbolic structure.

Rabelais was a great list maker. Whitman was a great list poet. The description of the armor of Achilles in the ''Iliad" is a list. The forces that are going to attack Troy is one of the greatest and earliest of lists.

IDEAS: Do you read criticism of your work?

GASS: Well, I skim it.

IDEAS: Are there people you think do a good job of critiquing you?

GASS: Yes, there are some. Mostly they live in Europe. European critics are much smarter. Some of the best critics of American literature are in Germany and France. They know what's going on. They keep up. They have a much better intellectual equipment, a firmer grasp of languages. When I go abroad I feel much more at home. It's that sense of all writing is in the same country, and that there's just one country now.

(Kate Bolick is senior editor at Domino magazine and teaches writing at New York University. Her interviews will appear regularly in Ideas. E-mail


Post a Comment

<< Home