Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘William H. Gass

The tunnel and the labyrinth

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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January 5, 2017 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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William H. Gass

I believe that the artist’s fundamental loyalty must be to form, and his energy employed in the activity of making…The poet, every artist, is a maker, a maker whose aim is to make something supremely worthwhile, to make something inherently valuable in itself. I am happy this is an old-fashioned view. I am happy it is Greek.

William H. Gass

Written by nevalalee

January 13, 2015 at 7:30 am

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Disrupting the printed page

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A page from House of Leaves

Robert Louis Stevenson says somewhere—although I haven’t been able to find the exact reference—that all the words on a well-written page should look more or less the same. Stevenson’s advice is generally taken as a warning against the use of ornate vocabulary that doesn’t fit the style of the rest of the line, but in my own work, I’ve also applied it to the level of paragraphs and chapters. Not every chapter should read the same way, of course: a climactic moment should feel different from a chapter primarily devoted to setting up information for a coming run of scenes, and a novel that was written in the same tone throughout would soon grow dull. When you glance quickly over the text without reading it, though, every page of my fiction looks pretty much like any other. Along with the many other arbitrary rules I follow, I’ve never used narrative devices like found documents or diagrams, I stick to one typeface, and I’ve done what I can to make the surface of the book look as seamless as possible, presumably on the theory that any visual device that calls attention to itself can only distract the reader from the story.

This may seem like something other than a matter of style, since it’s primarily visual, but I don’t know what else to call it: it affects the balance between dialogue and description, helps determine paragraph length, and has a subtle but very real influence on the narrative register of my stories. A book that alternates between many different tones often reflects this on the page: the stylistic shifts in a novel like Ulysses are visible at a glance. This is also true of popular fiction, which can alternate between long passages of rapid dialogue, extended sections of description, and strings of short paragraphs and sentence fragments for action scenes. Part of the reason I’ve tried to keep my novels visually consistent is a desire to see if I can get the same effect through the writing alone. In a way, it’s another constraint I’ve laid down for myself: I try to make the story’s events as colorful and interesting as I can while remaining within the same narrow visual range. It limits my range of options while forcing me to develop other skills to compensate, and thus far, I’ve been pleased by the result.

A page from The Tunnel

All the same, I sometimes get a little jealous of novelists who seem comfortable with radical typographical or visual experimentation. I’ve never managed to get through all of William H. Gass’s The Tunnel, for example, but it still occupies a treasured place in my home library: every few months, I’ll leaf through it, my eye caught by its oddly sinister flags, shifting fonts, and stretches of comic strip narrative, each of which stands like an island in the middle of the sea of Gass’s prose. The same is true of the works of such authors as John Barth and Georges Perec, not to mention House of Leaves. When I flip through a novel in a bookstore and come across a diagram or unexpected illustration, I’m always a little tickled, as if I’ve stumbled on a bonbon for browsers. Indeed, a striking typographic trick will often make me more likely to buy a book, or at least remember it: they’re like advertisements within the text for the author’s ingenuity, or cleverness, which may be one reason why I resist them in my own work, at least in the absence of any overwhelming reason to the contrary.

And while I wouldn’t rule out using graphic elements in my fiction in the future, I have a feeling that their presence would be as systematic as their absence has been so far. I’m most comfortable when operating within clearly defined rules, even if they’re only obvious to me, so any attempt at formal experimentation I’d make would probably be closer to something like Dictionary of the Khazars, my favorite novel of this kind, which embeds considerable typographic and visual invention within an attractively uniform surface. It’s a choice that can have unexpected consequences these days, when it’s likely that many of my books will be read on Kindle or a similar format over which I have less control: few, if any, of the novels I’ve mentioned above would survive that transition. When all of your sentences look more or less the same, you don’t need to worry about how they’ll appear in print, and I’ve been glad to leave that aspect of my novels to professionals who know what they’re doing. That way, I can focus on trying to put variety into the story itself, regardless of how it’s laid out on the page—which is more than hard enough as it is.

Written by nevalalee

June 27, 2013 at 8:43 am

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