Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘William H. Gass

Burrowing into The Tunnel

with 3 comments

Last fall, it occurred to me that someone should write an essay on the parallels between the novel The Tunnel by William H. Gass, which was published in 1995, and the contemporary situation in America. Since nobody else seemed to be doing it, I figured that it might as well be me, although it was a daunting project even to contemplate—Gass’s novel is over six hundred pages long and famously impenetrable, and I knew that doing it justice would take at least three weeks of work. Yet it seemed like something that had to exist, so I wrote it up at the end of last year. For various reasons, it took a long time to see print, but it’s finally out now in the New York Times Book Review. It isn’t the kind of thing that I normally do, but it felt like a necessary piece, and I’m pretty proud of how it turned out. And if the intervening seven months don’t seem to have dated it at all, it only puts me in mind of what the radio host on The Simpsons once said about the DJ 3000 computer: “How does it keep up with the news like that?”

Written by nevalalee

July 12, 2019 at 2:35 pm

The dark side of the limerick

with 3 comments

“As almost nothing that has been written about the limerick can be taken seriously—which is perhaps only fitting—a few words may not be out of place here,” the scholar Gershon Legman writes in his introduction to the definitive work on the subject. Legman was one of the first critics to see erotic and obscene folk forms, including the dirty joke, as a serious object of study, and The Limerick puts his singular intelligence—which is worthy of a good biography—on full display:

The limerick is, and was originally, an indecent verse form. The “clean” sort of limerick is an obvious palliation, its content insipid, its rhyming artificially ingenious, its whole pervaded with a frustrated nonsense that vents itself typically in explosive and aggressive violence. There are, certainly, aggressive bawdy limericks too, but they are not in the majority. Except as the maidenly delight and silly delectation of a few elderly gentlemen, such as the late Langford Reed, and several still living who might as well remain nameless, the clean limerick has never been of the slightest real interest to anyone, since the end of its brief fad in the 1860s.

Legman describes the work of Edward Lear, the supposed master of the form, as “very tepidly humorous,” which seems about right, and he apologizes in advance for the vast collection of dirty limericks that he has prepared for the reader’s edification: “The prejudices, cruelty, and humorless quality of many of the limericks included are deeply regretted.”

But a metrical form typified by prejudice, cruelty, and humorlessness may end up being perfectly suited for the modern age. Legman claims that “viable folk poetry and folk poetic forms,” aren’t easy to duplicate by design, but it isn’t an accident that two of the major American novels of the twentieth century indulge in limericks at length. One is Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, which includes a remarkable sequence of limericks in which young men have sexual relations with the various parts of a rocket, such as the vane servomotor. The other is William H. Gass’s The Tunnel, which prints numerous limericks that all begin with the opening line “I once went to bed with a nun.” In his hands, the limerick becomes the ideal vehicle for his despairing notion of history, as a character in the novel explains:

The limerick is the unrefiner’s fire. It is as false and lifeless, as anonymous, as a rubber snake, a Dixie cup…No one ever found a thought in one. No one ever found a helpful hint concerning life, a consoling sense. The feelings it harbors are the cold, the bitter, dry ones: scorn, contempt, disdain, disgust. Yes. Yet for that reason. nothing is more civilized than this simple form. In that—in cultural sophistication—it is the equal of the heroic couplet…That’s the lesson of the limerick. You never know when a salacious meaning will break out of a trouser. It is all surface—a truly modern shape, a model’s body. There’s no inside however long or far you travel on it, no within, no deep.

Both authors seem to have been drawn to the form for this very reason. And while Gass’s notion of writing “a limrickal history of the human race” may have seemed like a joke twenty years ago, the form seems entirely appropriate to the era in which we’re all living now.

Another prolific author of limericks was Isaac Asimov, who clearly didn’t view the form as problematic. In his memoir In Memory Yet Green, with typical precision, he writes that his first attempt took place on July 13, 1953. A friend challenged him to compose a limerick with the opening line “A priest with a prick of obsidian,” and after some thought, Asimov recited the following:

A priest with a prick of obsidian
Was a foe to the hosts of all Midian,
Instead of immersion
Within a young virgin
’Twas used as a bookmark in Gideon.

“I explained that the ‘hosts of Midian’ was a biblical synonym for evil and that ‘Gideon’ was a reference to a Gideon Bible, but no one thought much of it,” Asimov writes. “However, when I challenged anyone present to do better, no one could.” Asimov was encouraged by the experience, however, and he soon got into the habit of constructing limericks in his head “whenever I was trapped in company and bored.” Not surprisingly, it occurred to him that it would be a shame to let them go to waste, and he convinced the publishing house Walker & Company to let him put together a collection. Asimov continued to write limericks with “amazing speed,” and Lecherous Limericks appeared in 1975. It was followed by six more installments, including two collaborations with none other than the poet and translator John Ciardi.

And the uncomfortable fact about Asimov’s limericks is that most of them frankly aren’t very good, funny, or technically impressive. This isn’t a knock on Asimov himself, but really a reflection of the way in which the limerick resists being produced in such a casual fashion, despite what thousands of practitioners think to the contrary. (“Amateurs amble over everything like cows,” Gass writes in The Tunnel. “The A which follows so many limericks stands for Amateur, not for Anonymous.”) Asimov was drawn to the form for the same reason that so many others are—it’s apparently easy, superficially forgiving of laziness, and can be composed and retained without difficulty in one’s head. And it’s no surprise that he embraced it. Asimov didn’t become the most prolific author in American history by throwing anything away, and just as he sent the very first story that he ever wrote as a teenager to John W. Campbell, who rejected it, he didn’t have any compunction about sending his first batch of limericks to his publisher, who accepted the result. “One good limerick out of every ten written is a better average than most poets hit,” Legman accurately writes, and Asimov never would have dreamed of discarding even half of his attempts. He also wasn’t likely to appreciate the underlying darkness and nihilism, not to mention the misogyny, of the form in which women “generally figure both as villain and victim,” as Legman notes, while also calling it “the only kind of newly composed poetry in English, or song, which has the slightest chance whatever of survival.” Gass, and presumably Pynchon, understood this all too well, and the author of The Tunnel deserves the last word: “Language has to contain…emotions. It’s not enough just to arouse them. In a perverse way that’s why I use a lot of limericks, because the limerick is a flatterer, the limerick destroys emotion, perhaps it produces giggles, but it is a downer. It’s an interesting form for that reason.” And it might end up being the defining poetry of our time.

Written by nevalalee

December 10, 2018 at 8:26 am

The tunnel and the labyrinth

leave a comment »

Last week, the publisher Alfred A. Knopf released The William H. Gass Reader, a dense, beautiful volume of almost nine hundred pages devoted to one of the strangest, most serious, and most uncompromising writers of our time. (As I’ve noted here before, Gass’s The Tunnel may have more to say about our era than any other novel.) I hope to discuss it in detail soon, but today, I want to focus on the essay “Imaginary Borges and His Books,” in which Gass takes on my favorite author, whom he admires, but only with strong reservations. After quoting a line in which Borges hints at his fondness for Ralph Waldo Emerson, Gass writes acidly:

Emerson? Many of Borges’s other enthusiasms are equally dismaying, like the Russians’ for Jack London, or the symbolist poets’ for Poe; on the whole they tend to be directed toward obscure or marginal figures, to stand for somewhat cranky, wayward, even decadent choices: works at once immature or exotic, thin though mannered, clever rather than profound, neat instead of daring, too often the products of learning, fancy, and contrivance to make us comfortable; they exhibit a taste that is still in its teens, one becalmed in backwater, and a mind that is seriously intrigued by certain dubious or jejune forms, forms which have to be overcome, not simply exploited: fantastic tales and wild romances, science fiction, detective stories, and other similar modes which, with a terrible theological energy and zeal, impose upon implausible premises a rigorous gamelike reasoning.

For now, I’ll pass over the disparaging reference to science fiction—because Gass isn’t quite finished yet. He disapprovingly continues: “Thus for this minutely careful essayist and poet it’s not Aristotle, but Zeno, it’s not Kant, but Schopenhauer; it’s not even Hobbes, but Berkley, not Mill or Bradley, but—may philosophy forgive him—Spencer; it’s Dunne, Beckford, Bloy, the Cabalists; it’s Stevenson, Chesterton, Kipling, Wells and William Morris, Browne and De Quincey Borges turns and returns to, while admitting no such similar debt to James, Melville, Joyce, and so on.”

At this point, I could point out that Borges is also one of our most fascinating modern interpreters of such authors as Shakespeare, Cervantes, and especially Dante—but that would simply be playing Gass’s own game, which he’s amply qualified to win. It’s better, I think, to consider what Borges does in practice with these writers, which Gass declines to specify. Take this passage, for instance, which Borges liked so much that he used it in two different essays:

Stevenson (“A Chapter on Dreams”) tells of being pursued in the dreams of his childhood by a certain abominable “hue” of the color brown; Chesterton (The Man Who Was Thursday) imagines that at the western borders of the world there is perhaps a tree that is more or less than a tree; and that at the eastern borders, there is something, perhaps a tower, whose very shape is wicked. Poe, in his “MS Found in a Bottle,” speaks of a southern sea where the ship itself will grow in bulk like the living body of the seaman; Melville devotes many pages of Moby-Dick to an elucidation of the horror of the unbearable whiteness of the whale.

Borges is using these examples to explain the idea of the unheimlich, but along the way, he does much more. These lines appear in a passage in which Borges suggests that William Beckford, author of the novel Vathek, conjures up a more frightening hell than Dante, and the collage of supporting images that he provides here implies that there’s something fundamental in life—its uneasiness, its uncanniness—that we find more clearly in Poe and Chesterton than in any of the supposedly greater writers that Gass would evidently prefer to read. And I suspect that Borges is right.

In fact, nearly all of Gass’s objections can be refuted by looking at the use to which Borges actually puts his materials. While discussing The Book of Imaginary Beings, in which Borges defines mythical creatures from Bahamut to the Simurgh, Gass writes: “Most of these beasts are mechanically made—insufficiently imaginary to be real, insufficiently original to be wonderful or menacing…There’s no longer a world left for these creatures to inhabit—even our own world has expelled them—so that they seem like pieces from a game we’ve forgotten how to play.” I could reply by saying that I’ve been thinking of Bahamut—the gigantic fish that holds up the world in Islamic cosmology—for most of my life. But it would be even better to respond with a few lines from an essay that Borges wrote shortly after the Nazis entered Paris:

Nazism suffers from unreality, like Erigena’s hell. It is uninhabitable; men can only die for it, lie for it, wound and kill for it. No one, in the intimate depths of his being, can wish it to triumph. I shall risk this conjecture: Hitler wants to be defeated. Hitler is blindly collaborating with the inevitable armies that will annihilate him, as the metal vultures and the dragon (which must have known that they were monsters) collaborated, mysteriously, with Hercules.

This is an unforgettable passage, and it depends enormously on Borges’s intuitive ability to zero in on the “metal vultures,” rather than, say, the Erymanthian Boar, which serve as a more effective symbol than any realistic image ever could. As Borges writes elsewhere of another imaginative writer: “How can these fantasies move me, and in such an intimate manner? All literature (I would dare to answer) is symbolic; there are a few fundamental experiences, and it is unimportant whether a writer, in transmitting them, makes use of the ‘fantastic’ or the ‘real,’ Macbeth or Raskolnikov, the invasion of Belgium in August 1914 or an invasion of Mars.”

Borges is speaking here of The Martian Chronicles, of which he continues: “In this outwardly fantastic book, Bradbury has set out the long empty Sundays, the American tedium, and his own solitude.” This comes very close to what Borges notes of his own achievement in his lecture “The Argentine Writer and Tradition”:

For many years, in books now fortunately forgotten, I tried to compose the flavor, the essence, of the outskirts of Buenos Aires; naturally I abounded in local words…Then, about a year ago, I wrote a story called “Death and the Compass,” which is a kind of nightmare, a nightmare in which elements of Buenos Aires appear, deformed by the horror of the nightmare…After the story was published, my friends told me that at last they had found the flavor of the outskirts of Buenos Aires in my writing. Precisely because I had not abandoned myself to the dream, I was able to achieve, after so many years, what I once sought in vain.

Borges’s greatness lies precisely in his ability to find the deeper psychological truth in those very genres, like detective stories or speculative fiction, that Gass thinks should be “overcome.” And part of that gift lies in his genius—which he shares with Proust, an author with whom he might seem to have little else in common—to integrate his mature talents with the mood of the fantasy stories that he read as a child. (Gass dismisses his taste as “still in its teens,” but it would be more accurate to call them the tastes of a boy of twelve, or the golden age, which is something very different.) Gass asks incredulously: “And what about those stories which snap together at the end like a cheap lock? with a gun shot? Is this impish dilettante the same man who leaves us so often uneasily amazed?” He doesn’t name any titles, but any list of such works has to include “Death and the Compass,” one of the most essential short stories of the century, and perhaps also “The Garden of Forking Paths,” which was first translated into English by Anthony Boucher for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. These qualities aren’t incidental to Borges’s work, as Gass seems to believe, but the indispensable building blocks of his labyrinth. And if this is the dream, or nightmare, in which we’ve all found ourselves, Borges is still the best guide that we have.

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

If you want to think about something really funny, kiddo, consider the fact that our favorite modern bad guys became villains by serving as heroes first—to millions. It is now a necessary apprenticeship…But if you want to think about something really funny, consider how the titles of tyrants change. We shall suffer no more Emperors, Kings, Czars, Shahs, or Caesars…the masses make such appointments now; the masses love tyranny; they demand it; they dance to it; they feel that their hand is forming the First Citizen’s Fist; so we shall murder more modestly in future: beneath the banners of Il Duce, Der Führer, the General Secretary or the Party Chairman, the CEO of something. I suspect that the first dictator of this country will be called Coach.

William H. Gass, The Tunnel

Written by nevalalee

November 6, 2018 at 7:30 am

A lump of darkness

leave a comment »

I’ve spent the last few days leafing with interest through the new second volume of the collected work of the graphic artist Chip Kidd, whose portfolio includes iconic covers for such books as Jurassic Park, The Secret History, and seemingly half of the prestige titles of the last thirty years. Kidd is the closest thing that we have to a celebrity book designer—he’s certainly the only one whom even a fraction of readers would be able to name—and his credit on the inside flap of a dust jacket remains one of three surefire indications that an author has made it. (The others are a headshot taken by Marion Ettlinger and an interview with The Paris Review.) He’s undeniably a major talent, even if the covers from the back half of his career don’t stand out as strongly from the pack as his earlier work, in part because his innovations and style have been absorbed into what people expect from a particular kind of hardcover. Kidd’s fondness for vintage art, his use of miniature photography, and his knack for visual paradox have all turned into shorthand signifiers of a certain level of class, and you could make a similar case for Kidd himself, who, not coincidentally, worked with Lisa Birnbach on a new edition of The Official Preppy Handbook. I don’t know how much he earns these days for an average commission, but I doubt that it’s dramatically higher in absolute terms than it is for many other designers, and it can’t be more than a modest fraction of the overall cost of producing a book. Kidd’s imprimatur has become an economical way for publishers to assure authors that they’re special, without having to spend a lot of money on the advance or the marketing budget, even if they’re positively correlated in practice. There’s also a feedback cycle at work, as Kidd is associated with the best books because of his longtime association with top authors, and he remains the first name likely to come to mind when a publisher is trying to project confidence in a title.

Which doesn’t mean that all of his ideas are automatically accepted. Browsing through Chip Kidd: Book Two, one of the first things that you notice is how many of his designs were rejected, sometimes on the way to a successful solution, but occasionally ending in a kill fee. A note of regret often slips through, as with it does with Elmore Leonard’s Djibouti: “My role in the project pretty much ended there; sad, because we had done so much great work in the past on his previous titles.” He sometimes pointedly employs the passive voice: “It was decided in-house that we should follow the design scheme of the previous book.” “It was determined that we needed [Obama’s] face.” “It was taken out of my hands and further abstracted.” “The approach, sadly, was nipped in the bud.” Kidd’s favorite clients are mentioned warmly by name, while a writer who didn’t like his cover designs becomes “the author.” He has a poor track record with HarperCollins, which nixed his initial designs for The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and the paperback reissue of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Even John Updike, with whom Kidd had a long and productive relationship, killed the original cover—with lettering by Chris Ware—for My Father’s Tears: “Doesn’t this jacket strike you as, well, kind of wimpy?” Perhaps Kidd’s harshest words are reserved for the cover of You Better Not Cry by Augusten Burroughs, of which he recalls of a few failed attempts:

The answer was either to start over or bail. I couldn’t bear the thought of the latter…Somehow even this [last] image wasn’t blowing everyone’s dress up, and the plug was pulled. The dreaded kill fee. Adding insult to injury was what they finally came up with. You’ll have to google it, and you won’t believe it.

My point here is that even Chip Kidd, of all people, doesn’t have final say over how a book will eventually appear, and that’s doubly true of authors. Kidd hints that “third-rate writers are the hardest to work with because they subconsciously want the jacket to make up for the mediocrity of their work,” but it can be difficult for even a writer at the top of his craft to force through a difficult cover. The Tunnel by the late William H. Gass, for instance, might well be the least commercial novel ever put out by a major publishing house, and it required a huge leap of faith from Knopf. Gass, who died last week, wrote up a memo with his specifications for its design, and it makes for fascinating reading. Here’s a short section:

The book should be bound in rough black cloth. The spine should be broad and flat the way Viking Press’s edition of James Joyce’s Letters is, or Finnegans Wake. The title of the book, THE TUNNEL, should appear at the top left edge of the spine, indented, in silver…My name may have to go on the jacket and if so it should appear on the bottom of the spine up and down like the title and on the opposite or inner side of the spine panel. Otherwise there should be nothing on the book’s cover or dust jacket. It should be completely empty and dark like outer space or the inside of a cave. The reader should be holding a heavy really richly textured lump of darkness. The book’s size should be larger than normal. Again, the size of Finnegans Wake seems about right. It is important that my name appear nowhere on dust jacket or cover, and that nothing else be put on the jacket—no bio, picture, blurb, etc. The publisher will no doubt want their name on the book so it might be embossed at the bottom of the spine (but left black) and printed in silver at the bottom of the spine of the jacket.

This went over about as well as you might expect, and the result doesn’t look much like what Gass wanted. The interior of the book, by contrast, is beautifully designed and faithful to his vision, which implies that Knopf’s uneasiness about the cover was more about not totally crippling a novel that was already going to be a hard sell to most readers. It didn’t exactly work, as we read in Gass’s obituary in the New York Times: “Mr. Gass was one of the most respected authors never to write a bestseller.” But perhaps the lesson here is that the cover of a book, which is one of the few places where something like control seems like it ought to be possible, is just as much the product of compromise as anything else in publishing. (One of Kidd’s most memorable anecdotes involves the cover of Haruki Murakami’s novel 1Q84, which the printer initially refused even to produce, since it couldn’t guarantee that all of the elements would properly line up. They eventually negotiated a slippage factor of a quarter of an inch, and the book’s design was robust enough to look good even when the alignment was off—which feels like a metaphor for something.) And it may simply be that The Tunnel came out twenty years too soon. As I tweeted yesterday, it certainly seems like the novel of our time, as when its narrator writes of Hitler, whom he calls a “twerp”:

What I wonder about are all of those who weren’t twerps who willed what Hitler wished…they, who idolized a loud doll, who loved the twerps-truths, who carried out the wishes of a murderous fool, an ignoble nobody, a failure so unimportant that failure seems a fulsome description of him.

He concludes: “I would have followed him just to get even.” It might be time for a new edition. And Kidd would probably be the one to design it.

Written by nevalalee

December 11, 2017 at 8:36 am

The rock that flies

leave a comment »

William H. Gass: There is a fundamental divergence about what literature is. I don’t want to subordinate beauty to truth and goodness. John and others have values which they think more important. Beauty, after all, is not very vital for most people. I think it is very important, in the cleanliness of the mind, to know why a particular thing is good. A lot of people judge, to use a crude example, the dinner good because of the amount of calories it has. Well, that is important if you don’t want to gain weight, but what has that got to do with the quality of the food? Moral judgments on art constantly confuse the quality of the food. I would also claim that my view is more catholic. It will allow in as good writers more than this other view will; John lets hardly anybody in the door.

John Gardner: I love Bill’s writing, and I honestly think that Bill is the only writer in America that I would let in the door. For twenty-four years I have been screaming at him, sometimes literally screaming at him, saying, “Bill, you are wasting the greatest genius ever given to America by fiddling around when you could be doing big, important things.” What he can do with language is magnificent, but then he turns it against itself. Our definitions of beauty are different. I think language exists to make a beautiful and powerful apparition. He thinks you can make pretty colored walls with it. That’s unfair. But what I think is beautiful, he would think is not yet sufficiently ornate. The difference is that my 707 will fly and his is too encrusted with gold to get off the ground.

Gass: There is always that danger. But what I really want is to have it sit there solid as a rock and have everybody think it is flying.

Conversations with John Gardner

Written by nevalalee

December 9, 2017 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

William H. Gass

Story is what can be taken out of the fiction and made into a movie. Story is what you tell people when they embarrass you by asking what your novel is about…History is often written as a story so that it can seem to have a purpose, to be on its way somewhere; because stories deny that life is no more than an endlessly muddled middle; they beg each length of it to have a beginning and end like a ballgame or a banquet. Stories are sneaky justifications. You can buy stories at the store, where they are a dime a dozen. Stories are interesting only when they are floors in buildings. Stories are a bore.

William H. Gass, Finding a Form

Written by nevalalee

January 5, 2017 at 7:30 am

%d bloggers like this: