Tests of Time: Essays

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Tests of Time brings us fourteen witty and elegant essays by novelist and literary critic William H. Gass, "the finest prose stylist in America" (Steven Moore, Washington Post). Whether he's exploring the nature of narrative, the extent and cost of political influences on writers, or the relationships between the stories we tell and the moral judgments we make, Gass is always erudite, entertaining, and enlightening.

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2003 Paperback As New TRADE PAPERBACK AS NEW. A COLLECTION OF 'SPARKLING' ESSAYS. GASS CONTINUES HIS EXPLORATION INTO THE NATURE OF NARRATIVE, THE FLOWERING OF LITERARY ... EXCELLENCE, AND THE FATE OF LANGUAGE IN SOCIETY. THIS BOOK IS THE WINNER OF THE NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS. AND IT IS A BOOK CRITICS BOOK. WOW! WHAT ESSAYS. Read more Show Less

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Overview


Tests of Time brings us fourteen witty and elegant essays by novelist and literary critic William H. Gass, "the finest prose stylist in America" (Steven Moore, Washington Post). Whether he's exploring the nature of narrative, the extent and cost of political influences on writers, or the relationships between the stories we tell and the moral judgments we make, Gass is always erudite, entertaining, and enlightening.

Winner of the 2003 National Book Critics Circle Award, Criticism.

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Editorial Reviews

From The Critics
"We all love stories," writes Gass in this heady compilation of rants and ruminations. "It seems a harmless pleasure." But even a simple thing like the love of a good tale gets run through the manifold variations of Gass' musings on life and literature. The fourteen essays collected here are gathered into three sections: "Literary Matters," "Social and Political Contretemps" and "The Stuttgart Seminar Lectures." There's not a dull piece to be found in the volume, whether Gass is praising Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities or explaining why he thinks imprisonment has led to so much great writing. The best examples of Gass' work, however, are the pieces with no single obvious point. The obtusely humorous "Quotations from Chairman Flaubert" refuses any easy explanation, yet, like the rest of this enjoyable book, it remains immensely pleasing.
—Chris Barsanti
Publishers Weekly
These 14 essays from essayist, novelist and philosopher Gass (Finding a Form, etc.), which first appeared in a variety of other venues, are neatly divided into three sections, "Literary Matters," "Social and Political Contretemps" and "The Stuttgart Seminar Lectures," delivered to a cultural studies seminar. Ardent in his admirations, Gass, an emeritus professor in the humanities at Washington University in St. Louis who is nearing 80, produces remarkably succinct and well-thought-out criticism in a passionate and precise yet easy and vernacular-based language. Some essays start with deceptive lightness, like "I've Got a Little List," beginning with takeoffs on a famous Gilbert and Sullivan patter song, then developing into revealing literary observations: "The list is the fundamental rhetorical form for creating a sense of abundance, overflow, excess. We find it so used in writers with an appetite for life from Rabelais and Cervantes, or from Burton to Browne, to Barth and Elkin." On social and political matters, Gass employs a similarly tuned instrument, as he examines Algerian literary politics, and 1930s American fascism from the moment "I first heard my father refer to his president as `that rich Jew Rosenfeld'" to Father Coughlin and beyond. All the essays retain care and gusto; even a meditation on history and lies based around the O.J. Simpson trial feels fresh. If Gass finds the prose of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities "elevated to poetry without the least sign of strain," the same might be said for much of this collection. (Mar.) Forecast: Gass has won a National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism, Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundation fellowships, a Lannan Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award and many other honors. This book is not going to set any records at the register, but it will be well reviewed, particularly in terms of the newly invigorated search for a workable modern ethics la Richard Rorty. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
These 14 essays from essayist, novelist and philosopher Gass (Finding a Form, etc.), which first appeared in a variety of other venues, are neatly divided into three sections, "Literary Matters," "Social and Political Contretemps" and "The Stuttgart Seminar Lectures," delivered to a cultural studies seminar. Ardent in his admirations, Gass, an emeritus professor in the humanities at Washington University in St. Louis who is nearing 80, produces remarkably succinct and well-thought-out criticism in a passionate and precise yet easy and vernacular-based language. Some essays start with deceptive lightness, like "I've Got a Little List," beginning with takeoffs on a famous Gilbert and Sullivan patter song, then developing into revealing literary observations: "The list is the fundamental rhetorical form for creating a sense of abundance, overflow, excess. We find it so used in writers with an appetite for life from Rabelais and Cervantes, or from Burton to Browne, to Barth and Elkin." On social and political matters, Gass employs a similarly tuned instrument, as he examines Algerian literary politics, and 1930s American fascism from the moment "I first heard my father refer to his president as `that rich Jew Rosenfeld'" to Father Coughlin and beyond. All the essays retain care and gusto; even a meditation on history and lies based around the O.J. Simpson trial feels fresh. If Gass finds the prose of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities "elevated to poetry without the least sign of strain," the same might be said for much of this collection. (Mar.) Forecast: Gass has won a National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism, Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundation fellowships, a Lannan Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award and many other honors. This book is not going to set any records at the register, but it will be well reviewed, particularly in terms of the newly invigorated search for a workable modern ethics la Richard Rorty. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Divided into three sections, this collection of 14 essays from award-winning writer Gass (The Recognitions) is witty and erudite, frequently providing justification for Steven Moore's comment in the Washington Post that Gass is the "the finest prose stylist in America." In the first section, on literary matters, Gass says, "Stories have morals if men do not." He declares Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities "a work shaped by the mouth and meant for the ear," like one of its models, The Travels of Marco Polo. The second section, which deals with "social and political contretemps," begins with a historical litany of the many ways writers and politics have collided and includes essays on various aspects of censorship. "The fatwa was pronounced against us all," Gass writes. "It commanded the murder of a mouth, yet issued from the mouth of a murderer." The last section reprints Gass's lectures at the Stuttgart Seminar in Cultural Studies, where he celebrates another great prose stylist, Flaubert, and discusses the problems of writing history. Recommended for academic and large public libraries. Mary Paumier Jones, Westminster P.L., CO Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
New Yorker
In this collection of fourteen essays, Gass ranges widely across the cultural landscape, offering appreciations of Italo Calvino and Peter Handke, a keen interrogation of the idea of the masterpiece, and a whimsical look at the virtues and vices of lists. Throughout, he keeps returning to what has always been his main theme: the primacy of aesthetic experience. For him, literature matters not because it may be socially or politically valuable but because a well-made fiction is a good in and of itself: "Even a wasted bit of life is priceless when composed properly or hymned aright." The collection goes astray during its middle third, which is devoted to political essays featuring warmed-over tirades against the vulgarities of modern culture and the oppressiveness of censorship. Gass is more convincing when he writes about the things he loves, and shows us the way fiction fashions a realm where we recognize that "our longings are real, if what they long for isn't."
Kirkus Reviews
Essays on writers, writing, and contemporary culture by a master of the form. Preternaturally sensitive, at home in many languages and historical periods, Gass (Reading Rilke, 1999, etc.) only occasionally reminds his readers how much smarter he is than the average philosopher, novelist, or translator. (He is accomplished in all three areas.) These essays are most often amiable digressions into territory most people don't spend much time exploring: the meaning of the city in literature, say, with a nod to one of his favorite writers about cities, Italo Calvino; or the making of lists as an expression of consciousness and as a literary form (does a list, he wonders, "possess an isomorphic formality with elements outside itself?"); or the origin of true innovations in fiction, where innovations "are nearly always formal," meaning "the expression of style at the level of narrative structure and fictional strategy"; or-particularly timely-the chilling effects of Islamic fundamentalism on literature: "Fundamentalists will not rest, for to rest, as with a cyclist, is to fall; to rest may be to realize that their light comes from a faraway star, that their mode of life has been dead for a long time, and the world in which they are busy killing and constraining is already a bier into which they, with their miseries, have been born." Only infrequently in these essays, many born as occasional pieces or lectures, does Gass say the expected thing, as when, for instance, he reminds his readers that the craft of writing, like any other craft, requires lots of exercise. More often, he views the world idiosyncratically, spilling out fresh gems at every turn. Like a brainier Seinfeld, Gass can write aboutnothing in particular and about everything, in essays humorous and arch, complex and accessible-and always good fun.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226284064
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 6/28/2003
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 330
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author


William H. Gass has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the first PEN/Nabokov Award, a National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism, a Lannan Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Pushcart Prize. Among his many books are Omensetter's Luck: A Novel; The Tunnel; Finding a Form: Essays; In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories; and Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation. He lives in St. Louis.
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Read an Excerpt

The Nature of Narrative and Its Philosophical Implications

One: Telling Stories and Fashioning Fictions

—Polemical Introduction During Which the Field Is Previewed and a Distinction Is Endeavored

Stories are things that get told. They can exist outside of any particular medium or any particular method of narration. Last week, Little Freddie saw a cartoon of "Jack and the Beanstalk" on television. He especially liked the giant, who frothed angrily at the mouth and whose nose, when he smelled the blood of that Englishman, took on the shape of a hound. The beans Jack got in exchange for the cow had smart-alecky faces on them, and Freddie enjoyed watching those faces register dismay when they were hurled into the garden by Jack's angry and emaciated mother.

In the tale Grandpa prefers (and will recite if he's asked), "hound" and "ground" do not rhyme. The way Grandpa tells it, the seeds sprout immediately and have thirty meters of twigs almost before the stalk leaves the . . . earth. The way I tell it, however, each scape grows so slowly that only generations later may a greatgreatgrandkid named Jack put a leg up on a limb. Aunt Cecile, who is a feminist, puts all the action underground, and has Jack climb down roots into the womb of the world. Perhaps the most popular account right now is by the rap group Faerie Boat, with its hypnotic bean counter's beat. At some point, we may decide that the telling has betrayed the tale and is no longer properly a version. Is it a version if we adopt the bean's point of view, for instance? if we set the story in Brooklyn and have the plant, like kudzu, consume the entireborough?

Every recital will be a version, but no version is the tale itself, which has by now taken its seat in the realm of Forms. I called upon the story of Jack and the beanstalk because the giant is clearly a henchman of the Demiurge. The way I tell it, the stalk pierces the clouds only after several centuries have elapsed, the giant is jolly and green and says please, and his hoard is composed of stocks and bonds.

Freddie asks Grandpa for the story because Grandpa gets on with it, which is what stories want, and what Freddie, who is a kid and impatient, also wants. The way I tell it, we watch the cow's milk dry up as slowly and in the same detail as a spill on the kitchen counter. The funny little man Jack meets on his way to sell the spavined creature has a beard I take an hour to describe. Stories fly like arrows toward their morals. Remember the Biblical story about Jonah?

Now the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me." But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord, and went down to Joppa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish: so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.

God doesn't care a sweet Smyrna fig for anything but results, so when Jonah runs away instead of doing the Lord's bidding, the Lord has him swallowed. What sort of fish? who knows? How does Jonah survive? who cares? But when Guy Davenport redoes the story, Jonah is said to have

a fine black beard, round as a basket. Though his carpetbags were neatly strapped and his clothes showed that he was an experienced traveler, there was a furtiveness in his eyes, as if there might be someone about whom he did not care to meet.

And Davenport tells us that Jonah's "body was inside the fish for three days, but his face looked from the fish's mouth, and he held on to its back teeth."

To begin with, stories break up the natural continuum of life into events. Next, stories arrange these segments in a temporal sequence, in order to suggest that whatever happens earlier is responsible for what happens later. The miraculous is naturalized—it's as easy as dreaming—the way the beans, the stalk, and the giant are given residence in the world, or as the fish is, with its finicky appetite. In stories, all events tend to be given the same weight or value: the cow's milk dries up, the family starves, Jack goes to town to sell the creature, and so on. In a story, it won't do to say: after the battle of Waterloo I tied my shoe.

This linear movement always has an aim—save Mom from starvation, extend Israel's territories into Assyria—and when the story has a happy ending, aim and outcome are the same: Jack nabs the gold to pay for his mom's food habit, Jehovah acquires the treasures and devotion of a great city where six-score thousand persons live, and much cattle besides.

In stories, there are agents and actions; there are patterns; there is direction; most of all, there is meaning. Even when the consequences are tragic, there is a point; there is a message, a moral, a teaching. And that is a consolation. It is consoling to believe that our lives have a shape, a purpose and direction; that the white hats and the black hats have appropriate heads beneath them, and are borne about by bodies with the right souls inside; that there are historical entities, called events, which we can understand, periods which have cohesion and personalities all their own, causes we can espouse or oppose, forces we can employ, and so on.

Stories have to have a certain size. An arrow, to boast of flight, must fly awhile. Jonah is about as brief as one dare be. When Valery noted down an idea for a frightening story as "it is discovered that a cure for cancer is eating living human flesh: consequences," he knew he had only a germ, the seed of something which would probably grow past story into fiction; something we recognize as an idea for a Roger Corman movie. And when Tess Gallagher tells us Ray Carver took his copy of The Best American Short Stories to bed because he had a story in it, she has given us only an anecdotal sentence. Even here, the sort of anecdotal detail the sentence provides will depend upon the precise wording of its presentation, because, for example, taking a book to bed and taking a book into your bed don't point us in the same direction. How about: He took his book to bed and put it beneath his pillow, where, formerly, he kept a pistol? We are on our way at last.

But should we believe in the story's simple determinism, in its naive teleology, its easy judgments, its facile divisions of time, its Chutes and Ladders structure? especially when stories are morally devious. Their opening events are always an excuse, for the real aim of every story is a justification. Goldilocks is a teeny-trasher who wrecks the peaceful house of the three bears; Jack is a dim-witted and ungrateful thief who not only steals from the giant, who never did him any harm, but also chops down the vine which got him to the gold; God makes a fool of Jonah to satisfy His own greed for adulation and dominion. It was all Eve's fault, don't forget; the story of the Little Red Hen does not encourage Christian giving; Noah's ark discriminates against gays; and Clint Eastwood is allowed to kill all the redlegs he can catch after we've seen that opening sequence in which his wife, kids, and cat are raped, scalped, stolen, and murdered by them. But how about the story of the boy who cried "Wolf! Wolf!"? Well, it teaches us not to lie continuously to the same people. I've yet to meet a moral that really was.

Stories invent a world which isn't there. Stories are abstract and indifferent to detail. A story asks for the complicity of its readers, who share its ups and downs and tacitly approve the wickedness it wishes to justify. Histories do mostly the same thing: write up the past in a way that will authorize some present misbehavior. Stories try to keep us naive and trusting. Yes, indeed, they console us. They console us by shielding us from the truth. That is one reason the nineteenth-century novel was such a delight to the bourgeois. It was story glorified by fiction. These novels (many of them great as works of art) made lives dedicated to power and money, greed and oppression, when clothed in Christian morality and other pious superstitions, sincere and meaningful. Nobodies were made to feel like somebodies. There are those who would argue that that was a good thing, though nobodies they remained. These novels diligently described life as a lot of ladders to be climbed. Occasions like confirmations and schooling, engagements and marriage, children and promotions, raises and retirements, were simply rungs on the way to honor, ownership, and salvation, like Jack shinnying up his phallus—quite a feat in itself.

Fictions, on the other hand, pull flashbacks and other tricks, fill their pages and the stories they pretend to tell with data: descriptions, expositions, conversations, digressions, monologues. There are characters with fictitious psychologies and fabricated pasts. There are chapters on the history of magic beans, explanations of why cows cease to yield, pauses which ask us to admire the beard we didn't know Jonah had. In his story he is an abstract instrument of God; in his fiction he is a false prophet.

It might be plausible to suppose, as Hilary Putnam does, that if we turn the crank on a certain character, he will project his world on the tabula rasa of our reading, as if the world were an inference and the inference were useful to us in our own; but the world of Celine's novels creates the character who presumably experiences them; there is no separation, and therefore there is no inference. The data of any fiction, without the style and structure of that fiction, cannot guarantee any kind of real consequences. As soon as a so-called truth is removed from a literary text, as it must be if it is to be of further use, it loses its predictive power. Only in Henry James, only Henry in his final manner, only in The Golden Bowl, only in this or that particular scene, can a set of consequences confidently come into view and be felt as inevitable; because, in fiction, such connections are established by the writing as a whole, and only by the writing as a whole; no amount of data diddling and systematizing will make its mechanical motions turn a wheel or plow a field. Or reasonably suggest a course of life.

Alliteration does more than candor can to justify God's ways to man.

We do tell ourselves stories in order to live. That is just another one of our problems, and one wonders will we ever grow up. But we do not tell ourselves fictions. Fictions are too complicated; often they are nearly as long as life itself. And the good ones are frequently just as puzzling, so we don't know what to believe finally about Madame Bovary any more than we know what to think of Father Mulrooney, who has been accused of molesting the pipe organ.

Two: Lineage

—During Which a Genealogy of Narration Is Formally Begun

There is a good possibility that our fondness for narratives, as well as a great part of the structure of narratives themselves, derives from genealogy and the defining of kinship. Hesiod makes sense of the jumble of myths about the Greek gods by tracing their descent. Each beginning is a genesis, a begetting, and each such seedling later adopts precisely the shape of the tree of knowledge: the knowledge of whose kids are whose, and to whom they belong—boys as bearers of the name and guarantors of tribal continuance, girls for intermarriage and other forms of trade.

The family tree will eventually—it's hoped—descend like rain, each son establishing a new, though subordinate, beginning and each daughter connecting the family's fate with someone else's fortune. "I give you my daughter, you give me cows." The gods begin the same way their stories do—with the word.

This descent is therefore generational and linear, but the line, straight while contained within one life, and multiple—branching—as it expresses a family's spread, becomes cyclical the moment we allow our attention to shift from the father who has fathered to the son who will.

Myths of origin are the first genealogical narratives, and are laid out in a casual series. God is making man in His own image; the Demiurge is forming our world as a qualitative expression of quantitative law; dry lands are caused to emerge from the oceans as if they were models for swimsuit competitions; we make somehow, in our desperate imaginations, parents so we know where we came from, and we invent descents so we know what our history is: Gods, then heroes, then men—ages of gold are transmuted into those of bronze on their way to lead.

For Freud, illnesses are "fathered," often literally; everything important about a person originates within the family. The first disappointment becomes the model for all future disappointments; the first glimpse of something sensed to be sexual is tainted forever by the feelings it stirred; my stammer started, my vegetarianism has its roots, my preference for Republicans, as well as the day my heart first hardened—all are instigated in the family, tied to family figures, and are hence as tribal as the Sioux.

Time is thus the medium through which the first tales unfold, even if, as in Plato's Timaeus, Time itself (as the moving image of eternity) has to be created. Once . . . when? . . . upon a time.

Narrative is linear. It marches in moments from moment to moment. Although the telling of a tale may choose to begin at the ending and work back, as far as the story is concerned, there is a First Event, and this event is therefore privileged. The events which follow never follow at random, even though Goldilocks simply happens on the house of the three bears; Jack just bumps into the man who sells him his beans; Plato's shepherd, Gyges, rounding up his flock, fortuitously stumbles on the cleft where the strange corpse lies; Mary was merely resting by the window when the damage done by God's phallic light was announced.

The fact that Time can be envisioned only spatially, most often as an arrowed line, does not shake narration's faith in the string on which its episodes are strung.

If a story's strategy is based on seasonal cycles (plant propagation rather than the human kind), the time line is likely to be circular, time turning around on itself and its events repeating: the world is periodically consumed by fire, drowned by flood, or simply blown away in a wind, and everything then begins again.

Copyright 2002 by William H. Gass
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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments
LITERARY MATTERS
The Nature of Narrative and Its Philosophical Implications
Anywhere but Kansas
Invisible Cities
Sidelonging
I've Got a Little List
The Test of Time
SOCIAL AND POLITICAL CONTRETEMPS
The Writer and Politics: A Litany
Tribalism, Identity, and Ideology
The Shears of the Censor
Were There Anything in the World Worth Worship
How German Are We?
THE STUTTGART SEMINAR LECTURES
Quotations from Chairman Flaubert
There Was an Old Woman Who
Transformations
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