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William Gaddis and the World System
THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS
Copyright © 2007 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.
An Interview with William Gaddis, circa 1980 Tom LeClair
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After some resistance, William Gaddis agreed to do an interview with me in 1980, perhaps because of my review of J R in Commonweal, maybe because his publisher at the time was going to publish a collection of interviews with American novelists that Larry McCaffery and I were doing. The interview was taped at Gaddis's apartment on the Upper East Side of New York. When I arrived, dressed casually, I was greeted by a small man dressed-it's been more than twenty-five years-quite elegantly, certainly in a jacket, possibly with an ascot. I wasn't in his apartment more than a minute when Gaddis showed me by the door a large cardboard box of letters and, perhaps, essays-what he said were requests for or demands on his time. This did not put me at ease, but when we started talking Gaddis seemed to be quite pleased to be speaking about his work, particularly the influence of T. S. Eliot, which he felt was unrecognized. That's when I realized that interviewing this patrician-dressed novelist was probably like interviewing the old banker-poet. As the interview went on, Gaddis unexpectedly became garrulous, switching from thought to thought as his novels do. Therefore the interview had to be rather severely edited to get the best of our talk. Because the edited transcript came out a bit shorter than what I needed for publication, I sent some follow-up questions to Gaddis. They went into that box by the door.
In later correspondence, Gaddis said he might some day have time to get around to improving the transcript I sent him. I used several quotes in a Horizon essay called "Missing Writers," his short interview with Moore and Kuehl came out in Review of Contemporary Fiction, the Paris Review talked with him, and Gaddis never did edit the transcript. He knew I was not pleased, but when I saw him at a gathering of writers at Brown University ten or more years later, we had a good talk, not recorded this time. Those are the only two times I ever saw William Gaddis, but the image I have of him-distant, recalcitrant-has been a good reminder over the years that the novelist should have better things to do than talk to young academics, no matter how much they admire his work. And that young academics might have better things to do than travel around the country recording the talk of novelists. Although my collaborator, Larry McCaffery, went on to do more books of interviews, useful all, my experience with Gaddis helped turn me toward my own writing, including fiction about waste, what I think is Gaddis's central theme.
The transcript has not been touched since I sent it to Gaddis in 1980. Perhaps it is the first interview of this man who hated to be interviewed.
Tom LeClair: Does some of the energy of your work come from outrage? William Gaddis: One is dismayed and disturbed as one grows up by the difference between the anticipated actuality and the actuality. Indignation can take a writer a long way, but it can be indignation at anything: Sinclair Lewis's outrage at American hypocrisy in Babbitt; the inequity between blacks and whites in the South; or outrage at the gods, the human condition. A central theme in The Recognitions is the absence of love, the withholding of love, the withdrawal of love. When it came out, reviewers said my outrage at what seemed to me to be the prevailing false values painted a black picture of the world. Now some of them could probably read it and be comforted. TL: Was The Recognitions written out of indignation that there were no "origins of design," to quote a repeated phrase from the novel? WG: No, because in that book there is still hope that there are "origins of design." There is nostalgia for order in both The Recognitions and J R, but more in the first novel. TL: How far back does this nostalgia for order and absolutes take one? Wyatt's father returns to Mithraism.... WG: Well, I don't know. That's the problem. Solzhenitsyn would be happy in Spain with Phillip the Second. That's his idea of order. One sees in his work a man hysterically clinging to a world in which absolutes prevail, a man who cannot tolerate a world of relativism. But the human nightmare of relativism is nearer to the point than Solzhenitsyn's ideas. TL: Are there writers who were particularly important for you in your early years? WG: I remember being amazed, when The Recognitions first came out, by the number of reviewers who found it drawn from or an imitation of Joyce's Ulysses, which I had not read and have still not. I just haven't. Very few mentioned The Waste Land. I read that in college and it has never left me. Keats talks about poetry as being the finest wording of one's highest feelings. But to find in a poem perfectly articulated your vision of the world is remarkable. I was just beginning to draw together my own view of the world and here it was. It was a juxtaposition of exchequer bonds and the South Seas and Doris on the stairs. Now, for me, it is Yeats's "The Second Coming," with its impending apocalypse. It's hard to believe, but where we live now is all there in Yeats's poem. TL: The writer "Willie" in The Recognitions says he's doing for writing what Bruckner did for music. Did you have nonliterary models for your works? WG: I saw a parallel with Bruckner in the use of repetition, variation, and the whole volume getting bigger and bigger, so I tossed that in. While I do think music is the highest of the arts, totally abstract and ungraspable, why must we assume that writing is or needs to be derivative of other forms? A writer could set out to write a novel in the form of a fugue, but there is likely to be trouble with the technique overpowering the life in the book. TL: Critics often read The Recognitions as an attack on modernism in art. WG: That was not my purpose. I don't have much sympathy with some modern art, abstract expressionism for example, because it seems part of the disorder. But perhaps my concepts of order are becoming passé. TL: There are many failed artists in your work. Are they victims of commercialism? WG: In both books there is the old idea of the artist as a confidence man: both artist and con man ask for a willing suspension of disbelief. But the artists in my books also con themselves. The young composer Bast in J R is taken in by J R's confidence scheme and then goes along with it. He's writing commercial music-zebra music-instead of creating what he is supposed to be creating. Wyatt in The Recognitions knows what he is doing when he paints his forgeries. Anyone who reads both books carefully sees the artists digging their own graves all the time, often calling in the commercial world to help them. The suggestion that I write about business destroying the innocent artist is simplistic. The novels suggest the artist's job is a hard one, but.... TL: Are any of the artists at least partial successes? What about Stanley, the composer in The Recognitions? WG: I suppose I'm most sympathetic to him. But he has a framework -the Church-that allows him to bring his work to completion. TL: Is Stanley's framework of faith one that you share? WG: Good heavens, no. Twenty-five years ago I both envied him and despised him for this framework. But there are alternative frameworks. The tangible framework of forgery presents Wyatt a context for accomplishment, a tradition of delimited and delineated perfection in painting. Forgery makes him feel safe, and confident, and able to accomplish his work. The difference is that Stanley is not taking a risk. With the writer Gibbs in J R, there's no framework whatsoever. He takes the risks, but is destroyed because he has not pursued his work to the end. He is not able to sustain his belief that what he wants to do-his book-is worth doing. Once he saw solutions, the accomplishment didn't interest him. He was just too bored. That, if you like, is tragedy. Mrs. Joubert's love for him is not quite enough to get him through, as Esme's love was not enough in The Recognitions. TL: Is it important for you to take risks? WG: This question calls for the kind of theorizing I don't like. It assumes that a writer has something to say, that you learn more about his writing by hearing him talk about it than from the writing itself. The cult of personality insists on putting the man in place of the work, on turning the creative artist into a performing artist. Writers talking about their own work is dangerous second-guessing, not trusting the work enough to let it carry its own weight. Another danger is for the writer to believe his own myth created by talk; that myth is just not there when one sits down to write. J. R. slips into the myth he has created and it takes over him at the end of the novel when he reads a press release describing him as a shrewd executive. The writer should avoid the possibility of being taken over by his own fiction. When I sit down to work, none of these theoretical intentions-am I taking a risk, am I creating beauty-exists. One doesn't say, "I'm going to take a risk and write a 700-page book in a technique that I may not be able to bring off." What I am trying to do is achieve what a specific scene requires, what the work as a whole demands. TL: How do the novels get to be so long, if they don't start out with mass in mind? WG: If one is involved with a complicated idea, and spends every day with it, takes notes, and reads selectively with it in mind, ramifications proliferate. If one has what could be called an obsessional wish to exhaust an idea, understand it on six, seven, or eight levels, the book gets longer and longer. In The Recognitions I became interested in giving order to layers of ideas I saw relationships among. For example, perfection in painting, perfection in the godhead, finite attempts to create beauty and Christianity on earth, alchemy as an expression of turning base metals into gold. When the novel was already in page proofs, I found something else that had to go in: an item about a person finding a fake Tintoretto, under which was an English landscape, under which was a real Tintoretto. TL: Is bulk necessary to make a ripple? WG: I don't think an 800-page book is twice as good as a 400-page book. The question is: how long does the book have to be to accomplish what it comes to need to be? I was pleased when one reviewer of J R said that in this 726-page novel there was not one wasted word. TL: Do reviewers prefer 250-page masterpieces? WG: This is not a joke. It is a very serious problem. I found reviewers for several New York periodicals who had clearly not read J R, who did not have the facts straight. I also was delighted to find that a number of reviewers in provincial newspapers, reviewers who did not have any pretensions, took their jobs seriously and read the book. TL: A common criticism of very long books, such as yours, is self-indulgence, as though the writers had written at such length only to amuse themselves. WG: In J R, Gibbs complains about Schepperman's having to sell blood to buy paints and about Van Gogh's cutting off his ear. Hyde says, "Who asked him to paint?" That's a central question. If you're going to write a book, who asked you to? It is, in fact, quite an act of ego to sit down in a room, while others are getting on trains and subways, and put one's vision on paper, and then ask others to pay to read it. Not only to pay but to say, "Isn't he brilliant." It's an act of audacity. I have no sympathy with the complaint that writing is a lonely profession. I suppose one could charge my work with self-indulgence in its style and technique. Perhaps it is, but I did what I had tried to do and I'm not complaining if it doesn't sell like Judith Krantz's latest. TL: You're not embittered then? WG: I showed you my last royalty check ($_____). Aside from that, it is immensely gratifying to remember the books that were best sellers when The Recognitions came out. Where are they now? The work continues its own existence. Young people still find it pertinent; that is awfully gratifying. TL: You have someone say to "Willie" in The Recognitions, "You're writing for a very small audience." Did you realize ...? WG: I may have feared it. When writers such as Harold Robbins or Sidney Sheldon say they write for a certain audience, they mean it and they do. When I explore an idea in fiction, I am concerned with characters and their actions, making action spring from character yet giving it spontaneity. Forster said, "Character must be consistent but plot should cause surprise." That's what I'm trying to manage when I'm working. That evening I might look back over what I've written that morning and say to myself, "Won't they howl over this," or, "How they'll weep" [laughter], or, "What crap." TL: Did you ever have any doubts about using the economic and political materials of J R? WG: No, except as any writer may have days or weeks or months of doubt about whether or not what he is doing is worth doing. That is a central concern of mine in both books: the question of what is worth doing. Gibbs says in J R, "There's never been a time in the world when there were so many opportunities to do so many things that were not worth doing." A corollary is: there's nothing more miserable than failing at something that wasn't worth doing in the first place. In our time, that's a real problem, for so many people fail in just this way. Because of the Protestant ethic, free enterprise, democracy, and all of the high-sounding-and profoundly marvelous-concepts we started out with, everyone is supposed to have the chance to succeed. If you fail, it is your fault that you fail, with no notice of advantages or disadvantages. One sees here the influence of social Darwinism. When John D. Rockefeller talked about plucking buds off a rose to get one perfect rose, he considered himself the perfect rose. God had him in mind in this process of natural selection; he was the fittest. In J R I was pursuing the many meanings of communication breakdown in a system that is not under control. There is entropy, but there is also the turning upside down of what I see as the great system of private capitalism because of abuses. I would still like to think that the problems are not inherent to the capitalist system and that they could be corrected. TL: How did you decide upon the technique of J R? WG: One way to combat the threat of becoming bored with a piece one is working on is to set oneself problems to solve. In J R I wanted to remove the author, thereby having the characters bring themselves and each other to life by what they say and do. This was a temperamental revolt against what Forster described as "characters climbing up and down the ladders of their own insides." Instead of a phony elicitation of information-a character saying to another character, "Tell me more about yourself"-I tried the opposite. I have Bast resist J R's speeches. Bast is the reader's surrogate: "I don't want to hear any more about it." And J R is this insistent little voice saying, "Just one more thing." What one is always trying to do in writing is get information across. In order to make the intricate corporate manipulation and the events of the plot possible, if not altogether plausible or real, a lot of information was required. I let this information come through dialogue, through fast-talkers like the PR man Davidoff. Not providing the information myself took a great deal of work-paring down, concentrating, arranging each bit where it would fit. I wanted the whole thing in dialogue, in real time.
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