Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts

Life Sentences might well have been called Live Sentences: William Gass’s sentences are among the liveliest being written today. Let’s start with an example of one that occurs early in “The Literary Miracle,” the opening piece in this new collection. “The finer works of art are miracles in the sense that they are so unlikely to have emerged from the ignoble and bloody hands of man that we stand in awe of them, and that they have been written or built or composed at the behest of superstitions so blatantly foolish as to embarrass reason, and cause common sense to snicker, is itself wondrous and beyond ordinary comprehension.”

This is beautiful writing, an amalgam of music, syntax, and thought working in perfect concert to express a complex but unified idea. What such a sentence presents is a person, a mind on the page, a personality or, to borrow a word that has, sadly, fallen somewhat out of fashion, a sensibility. As Gass himself writes (and the trouble with reviewing Gass is that he is constantly preempting you by finding ways of putting the point you had planned to make more eloquently than you would have managed to), “What works of art testify to is the presence in this world of consciousness, consciousness of many extraordinary kinds…. For that is what fine writing does: it creates a unique verbal consciousness.”

As a novelist, literary critic, and philosophy professor (his previous books include the highly praised novels The Tunnel and Omensetter’s Luck, as well as several collections of essays and short fiction), Gass has spent much of his life thinking about how sentences are constructed and how they manage to express, capture, and construct this sort of verbal consciousness. Life Sentences ends with a pair of remarkable and challenging essays, “Narrative Sentences” and “The Aesthetic Structure of the Sentence,” either of which could probably keep any aspiring literary writer engaged and entertained for months. But Life Sentences is primarily for readers, not writers, and Gass is at his best when discussing other writers, particularly novelists. Here he is on Proust:

Reading Proust we are constantly sadly, guiltily, reminded of the paucity of our own recollections: life went on around us and we missed it; we might have pondered our place but we did not; we might have discerned connections, for they were there in Jamesian numbers, yet we failed to follow; we might have indulged an obsession, but we were too distracted by the trivial; we might have retained a fond touch, a glimmer of insight, a bit of wit; we might have; we might…have…

Gass is equally captivating on Katherine Anne Porter, John Gardner, Gertrude Stein, and (of course) Henry James. And there are pieces that conduct bold experiments with form. “Unsteady as She Goes: Malcolm Lowry’s Cinema Inferno” is presented as a series of notes in the language of cinema, while “Kafka: Half a Man, Half a Metaphor” seems to alternate confusingly but fascinatingly between Gass’s own point of view and two others, both of which seem to represent (various aspects or sub-personalities of) Franz Kafka.

His essay on Nietzsche, meanwhile, is surpassingly good: it moves with the suspense and excitement of good fiction, and manages to infuse the biographical with the philosophical in ways that capture both the intimacy of the connection between the two and the ironies that arise from the discrepancies between them. Once again I cannot resist quoting: “For this second enlistment — because of his eyes, his past experience, and his present citizenship — Nietzsche was forced to join a medical unit, even though he knew nothing about tending the sick beyond the attentions he had given himself….  Nietzsche soon came down with his patients’ infections, but coming down with an illness was something he had practiced until he was nearly perfect at it.”

It is great fun, too, to watch Gass write about those he does not admire. His devastating indictment of the Norwegian novelist, Nobel laureate, and Nazi sympathizer Knut Hamsun is both scathing and highly amusing: “In some later works, like the misnamed novel The Last Joy, Hamsun’s pedestrian style slows to the halt that follows a hike.”

Some of the most memorable pieces in Life Sentences are more personal. “Slices of Life in a Library” is probably the most charming book-related personal essay I’ve read since Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris. “The First Fourth Following 9/11″ and “What Freedom of Expression Means, Especially in Times like These” are moving political reflections on American life and society in the post-9/11 era. (I cannot mention “The First Fourth” without pausing to praise Gass’s sentential skills one more time, as the final paragraph of that piece is a real beauty, consisting almost entirely of a single and quite stunning 189-word sentence.)

Other than praising the book and urging people to read it — and quoting as many elegantly constructed passages as one can get away with — there isn’t much for a book reviewer to do. I can’t even resign myself to giving advice on where to start and what to skip, because Life Sentences is that rare book of essays that has no low points and can be read straight through. The only answer to “where to start?,” then, is, at the beginning, and don’t stop until you’re done (you won’t want to anyway). As for “what to skip?,” well, skip meals. Skip work. Get hold of this book and call in sick tomorrow to whatever your job might be. The economy will survive, as will the country, and you’ll be the richer for it.