I have complicated feelings about William H. Gass, who died on December 6th at age ninety-three. Thirty or so years ago, when I first encountered his work, I was struck by some of the early books: On Being Blue, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife. Or no, struck is not the right word; let’s say, instead, provoked. At the time, I imagined Gass primarily as a fiction writer, even in regard to his nonfiction. Now, I’ve come to think, the opposite is true.
This is not only a reference to his bibliography (which includes seven works of fiction, including his 1995 magnum opus, The Tunnel, and nine volumes of essays) but also to his aesthetics, if you will. What I mean is that Gass’s fiction is often too schematic, reflective of the ideas put forth in his essays but lacking their exuberance and sense of artful play. “[F]or all sorts of reasons, some artistic if you like, but at bottom personal as bottoms are,” he told The Paris Review in 1976, “I became a formalist: I became detached; I emphasized technique; I practiced removal. I was a van. I took away things.” This, of course, is both true and not true; at 650 pages, The Tunnel is hardly about taking things away.
Gass is, however, spot-on about his formalism. “Every sentence,” he tells us in Cartesian Sonata, a 1998 collection of novellas, “is a passage. That’s real magic for you, not the merely manual kind. What is this art but the art of appearance? I make bright falsehoods to blind the eye.” Yes, yes, absolutely, that’s what fiction does, but Cartesian Sonata reads like the closed loop of a geometric proof. Compare it with the magnificent “Kafka: Half a Man, Half a Metaphor,” originally published in Harper’s in 2006 and included in his final book of criticism, Life Sentences (2012). There, he writes from the perspective of Gregor Samsa (“I awoke one morning to find myself transformed,” the essay begins, echoing the famous first line of “The Metamorphosis”) to make the case that the character’s degradation, his transformation, is merely the logical outcome of a process that had started long before. “I had been,” Samsa (or Gass) elaborates, “a man, but a man who was treated by my parents and my sister like a bug . . . And so one day I woke to find myself more than a metaphor . . . I was huge, monstrous, horrifying, all I always wanted to be, all I always dreamed.”
This blurring of lines, this sense of Gass as character and critic, is what I admire most in his work. He is both reader and writer, someone who exists most fully in the texts that he is explicating. “I was,” he closes the Kafka essay, “insufferable — yes — I climbed my walls — yet I was literature.” The line reverberates like an epitaph. In part, this is because Gass was motivated by language more than personality, more than plot. “I am not observant of persons,” he writes in the essay “Retrospection,” “so if I imagine someone whose skin is as smooth and pale as a grocery mushroom, it is the mushroom that did it.”
A similar sensibility marks On Being Blue, with its ruminations on color as a motif or set of symbols: “Blue pencils, blue noses, blue movies, laws, blue legs and stockings, the language of birds, bees, and flowers as sung by longshoremen, that lead-like look the skin has when affected by cold, contusion, sickness, fear; the rotten rum or gin they call blue ruin and the blue devils of its delirium; Russian cats and oysters, a withheld or imprisoned breath, the blue they say that diamonds have, deep holes in the ocean and the blazers which English athletes earn that gentlemen may wear; afflictions of the spirit — dumps, mopes, Mondays — all that’s dismal — low-down gloomy music, Nova Scotians, cyanosis, hair rinse, bluing, bleach.” This is the first sentence, and it continues for another dozen lines, language to make a point, to make an argument, but also language for its own sake, for the rhythm, for the music, of the words. It’s an intention he makes explicit in that Paris Review interview: “At college, in a single day I decided to change my handwriting . . . which meant, I realized later, a change in the making of the words which even then were all of me I cared to have admired. It was a really odd decision. Funny. Strange. I sat down with the greatest deliberation and thought how I would make each letter of the alphabet from that moment on.”
On the most fundamental level, we can read such a statement as an indication of the artifice of language, which was, in part, what Gass was getting at. But as with most conclusions, that’s too simple — or more accurately, not open-ended enough. “The writer,” he declares in “Finding a Form,” “by choosing to write rather than ride Beckett’s bike or Don Quixote’s nag is choosing to relate to the world through words. This is as true of a historian or philosopher as it is of a poet.” It’s no coincidence that the arrangement of letters in world and word are virtually the same. The idea is not so much that we see the world, or record it, as that we create it through the intercession of language — which becomes, in the process, a sort of clarifying lens. This is not to say that we can trust it, or not exactly; among the central arguments of Gass’s project is the rigor the use of language requires. And yet — again — how can we not respond to the dance of phrases, to “Beckett’s bike” and “Don Quixote’s nag”? Language may be a construction, in other words, but it is our construction, the only one we’ve got. And meaning is created by our use of language, which means we had better pay attention. Given the moment in which we are living, there could be no more essential takeaway.
In that regard, Gass was sneakily subversive, not least in his insistence that we read criticism as an art. The engaged mind is our sharpest tool or weapon; all we have to keep ourselves aware. “There are so many types of tyranny,” he observes in “Freedom of Expression in Times Like These.” “There is the tyranny of your own routines — your own habits — that rise up around you like the sides of your grave . . . It does not matter what the party motto is, what flag flies, what history pretends to teach, what rewards will be yours, what hurt feelings will follow; we need to be free to choose our own errors, our own myths, to furnish our souls as we see fit.” These sentiments come from a minor essay, and yet they speak with a profound authority. That, I want to say, is Gass’s legacy, not just his faith in language but also in thinking, which remakes the wor(l)d.