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“Gass [is] a first-rate essayist and something of a classicist . . . a major talent [and] an intrepid critic . . . Life Sentences is a roaming collection . . . incisive . . . elegant.”
—Larry McMurtry, Harper’s Magazine
“Life Sentences is much more than occasion to regrind old axes…It’s a moving testimony that, for all his abstract theorizing, Gass, now 87, still knows his way to the heart of a story.”
—Larry Hardesty, The Boston Globe
“Let’s just get it out of the way: William H. Gass can write. I know: That’s not breaking news. Over the course of a half-century, Gass’ beautifully constructed prose has drawn raves, earning him an American Book award, a PEN / Nabokov Lifetime Achievement award and three National Book Critics Circle awards for criticism . . . Gass’ skills haven’t waned with age, either. His new collection of essays written over the past decade, Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts is so agile and well-written it seems to demand a round of appreciative applause every few pages, as if he were a leotard-clad acrobat swinging high overhead.”
—Doug Childers, Richmond Times-Dispatch
“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.”
—Troy Jollimore, The Barnes & Noble Review
“Mr. Gass is an ironist of the highest caliber, a metafictional novelist of the Coover, Barth, Pynchon and Gaddis school. At 87, he is an improbable éminence grise of American letters, festooned with accolades; if there is any justice in the world he will one day get his Nobel prize. When he is not deathly serious with his sly, avuncular delivery of 3-in-the-morning-crisis existential epiphanies, he is hilariously subversive . . . Though he is also a masterful novelist—Omensetter’s Luck (1966) is widely considered a classic—his reputation rests on his criticism and essays . . . As an essayist, his prose is gorgeously musical, ticking along smoothly as if measured out by metronome. He composes miniature fugues and conducts cadenzas while meandering around his subjects . . . [Life Sentences] is a literary miracle.”
—Vladislav Davidzon, The New York Observer
“The pleasures in Gass’ new powerhouse essay collection are heady, varied, and many . . . the philosopher-writer is more frolicsome than ever in his fathoms-deep erudition and purring, stalking, and fencing prose. Gass writes so cogently, robustly, and puckishly about literary, metaphysical, and moral matters because he knows his subjects down to their subatomic particles . . . The brainy, ethical, artistic, and ebullient fun Gass has in this brimming volume will exalt every ardent reader.”
—Donna Seaman, Booklist, starred
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 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.
Reviewer: Troy Jollimore
Excerpted from Life Sentences by William H Gass Copyright © 2012 by William H Gass. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.
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Posted May 10, 2014
Posted May 10, 2014