William Gaddis Gaddis, William (Vol. 3) - Essay

Gaddis, William (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gaddis, William 1922–

Gaddis, an American novelist, is the author of The Recognitions, one of the most brilliant (and unappreciated) novels of our time. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20.)

[William Gaddis' The Recognitions], like all serious novels, present[s] an imaginative view of the truly contemporary world, while the mass of the public and most of the reviewers have never grown beyond the view which was fashionable in the 1920's. But whatever the reason, it is difficult to understand how the reward of reputation can ever come to the author …, for there exists at present no agency able or willing to keep [his name] alive in the public consciousness until [his next book is published]. There is no assurance, furthermore, that when that time comes, [he] will fare any differently, except that the chances are excellent [that he] will run afoul of the prevailing hostility to second novels and be obliterated once and for all.

John W. Aldridge, "The Function of the Book Critic," in his In Search of Heresy, McGraw-Hill, 1956.

With James Joyce … the twentieth century … produced its most consummate literary artist, and it is to William Gaddis's credit that he has sought and found in Joyce both a direction toward the future and a definite delineation of what has been accomplished, so that The Recognitions at once acknowledges its debt and proclaims its individuality. Gaddis is able to do this because the basic element of his work is the delicate balance between originality and imitation, and the book itself as such is able to be a living example of what it means. The Stephen Dedalus who goes "to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race" … is the William Gaddis who goes forth in The Recognitions for the million-and-first time; the Penman Shem who "scrabbled and scratched and scriobbled and skrevened nameless shamelessness about everybody ever he met" … and who "did but study with stolen fruit how cutely to copy all their various styles of signature so as one day to utter an epical forged cheque on the public for his own private profit" … is the Wyatt Gwyon of The Recognitions whose originality as an artist depends upon the faithfulness with which he copies the great Flemish Old Masters, duplicating with a fanaticism beyond the capacity of the non-epical forger the state of mind, soul, and social conditions which determined their work. In order to create his own work of art, Gaddis found it first necessary to exorcise the spectre of James Joyce hovering over the contemporary novel, and like his protagonist Wyatt, Gaddis knew that he could not free himself of the infernal spirit until he first sold himself without qualifications to that demon. The Recognitions is one of the most singularly original novels of recent years, and it manages to become just that only when Gaddis pays his full debt to James Joyce….

If The Recognitions as a work of literary art points in any direction it seems to point toward the many-faceted novel which pits its protagonist, a cerebral, visceral, and introspective center, against a vast backdrop which reflects him, parodies him, and complements him especially if that complement is comic and ironic. But even if it does not indicate any new direction, The Recognitions nonetheless leaves William Gaddis in the position of having created a rare and unusual book which in its imitation of the master achieves a unique originality for its creator, and in exploring a new terrain still pays respectful homage to James Joyce.

Bernard Benstock, "William Gaddis: In Recognition of James Joyce," in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, (© 1965 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. 6, No. 2, Summer, 1965, pp. 177-89.

The notion that the ordinary individual and the artist alike may be living their lives within an intricate system or pattern of fictions, and the related search for some recognition of non-fictional reality, form a recurrent American theme which no one has explored at greater length than William Gaddis in his novel The Recognitions. This amazing one-thousand-page work was written during the late 'forties and early 'fifties (finally published in 1955), and it could be taken as inaugurating a new period of American fiction in which the theme of fictions/recognitions has come to occupy the forefront of the American writer's consciousness….

William Gaddis's book remains very underrated. I am not suggesting that it had a direct influence on many writers of the period (with the possible exception of Thomas Pynchon, whose V. seems to me to owe quite a lot to Gaddis); but, while the book in many ways looks back to older writers such as Joyce and Hawthorne, it probes into so many ideas and states of mind and stylistic possibilities which are peculiarly relevant to the decades which followed it, that it seems surprising more notice was not taken of it. Perhaps one incidental reason is that the book bears the marks of post-war expatriation and prolonged European experience. More recent American writers may indeed be living in exile, but they are exiled within America.

Gaddis takes as his subject one of the oldest aesthetic problems in the world—imitation. The main figure, Wyatt Gwyon, gives up ideas of the priesthood to become an artist, and then gives up attempting to do his own original work to become a fanatical and dedicated copier of Flemish Old Masters. His skill almost inevitably involves him with more mercenary forgers, and the theme of counterfeit creations is explored on all levels. The book is inhabited by every kind of faker and fakery—religious, aesthetic, sexual, social; every sort of fraudulence and façade-making is shown to be at work in the world the book reveals. 'Mask', 'masquerade' and 'reality' are three words which occur in the first sentence, and they form a motif on which variations are to be played for the following one thousand pages….

The artist as counterfeiter is not of course a new notion—Gide, Mann and Joyce all availed themselves of the idea. But Gaddis's hero is a confessed copyist, and so too Gaddis avows his debt to Joyce by some very intricate borrowings or 'copyings'…. It is as though only through a scrupulous imitation and even parody of the Old Master of modern fiction could Gaddis discover the freedom to register his own personal vision. Like Joyce's Stephen, Wyatt is engaged in a search for his father (human and divine). In fact his intended name was Stephen, but then he was given the name of Wyatt. However, late in the book when he encounters the counterfeiter Sinisterra in Spain, he is given a false Swiss passport bearing the name Stephen Asche. Sinisterra insists on calling him Stephen, and by the end Gaddis also does so. The counterfeit has become the real; Gaddis's 'imitation' of Joyce has resulted in a profoundly 'original' work….

The book is really a long religio-aesthetic debate, conducted through the generations of Wyatt's New England family, and across modern America and Europe…. [Some] of the ideas about the relationship between recognition and invention are worth examining…. The word 'recognition' occurs well over twenty times in differing contexts, so it is far from being a simple notion. But there is a growing feeling that a true act of recognition is more profound than any act of invention, and that the greatest achievement of any invention or art work is when it frees you into a recognition of reality….

Defending his forgeries, Wyatt maintains that he does much more than simulate a surface likeness: 'the recognitions go much deeper, much further back;' while copying he becomes one with the master painters in ancient Flanders, not only using the same pure materials but re-experiencing the reverence with which they painted…. Against these ideas we may set the observation of the perceptive Basil Valentine that, 'Most original people are forced to devote all their time to plagiarizing.' The general feeling seems to be that in their quest for originality, contemporary artists merely synthesize products to vaunt their own egos. Such art works obscure reality. Great art forgets self altogether and contains a recognition of reality. Copying such works to re-experience that recognition may thus become an authentic, selfless mode of access to reality. Gaddis's book keeps returning to the difference between the fictions or fabrications which hinder, and those which facilitate, that recognition of reality which, truly understood, is the most original act of which man is capable….

It is, I think, because Wyatt/Stephen is an American artist that he seems to envisage a further step in his pilgrimage towards reality. Notions of originality give way to copying; by the end this in turn seems as though it is giving way to a desire to get beyond art and artefacts altogether. The last episode concerning Stephen (as he is by now called) takes place in a Spanish monastery where he is staying as a sort of penitent. The monastery is visited by an hilariously phoney American novelist called Ludy, in search of original material and a religious experience. One day he comes across Stephen carefully scraping the paint off one of the great old monastery paintings. Appalled, Ludy asks if he is 'restoring' the paintings, and Stephen ironically agrees that he is. It is quite possible that we are meant to feel that Stephen is living in a mental world all his own by now—alcoholism, inanition and a series of extraordinary adventures having taken their toll. Nevertheless I think there are enough signs in this final episode to indicate that he is pushing on to a more comprehensive idea of restoration—namely, the restoring of reality to itself, symbolized by his erasing of the interpositions of art, and all the filterings and fixities which a work of art involves….

Gaddis shows a world in which people cling to their own separateness, sharing only one thing, 'the fear of belonging to one another'. People 'exchange forgeries of what the heart dare not surrender', hence the proliferation of counterfeit images and tokens on every level. As a man imprisoned for forgery comes to realize, although 'counterfeiting and forging aren't crimes of violence … they sort of mean something's wrong somewhere.' What is wrong is the widespread anxious holding on to the apartness of single identity. The prevailing narcissism indicated by the wealth of mirror-gazing which goes on in the book reveals a world of people who find it all but impossible to transcend their preoccupation with self. 'How little of us ever meets how little of another,' writes one character….

[There is also the] recurring intimation of the ephemerality of all kinds of structure. There is an entropic sense of things wearing out, running down, losing definition and shape. There is, too, an increasing sense of the insubstantiality of the life most of the characters are living…. In the very last paragraph, Stanley, who has at last completed his composition, comes to a small Italian church to play it on the organ there. The reverberations from the first bass notes he strikes bring the ancient walls crashing down on top of him. It is, in little, as though the structures and façades erected by European art and society and religion have finally collapsed, leaving a silence beyond structuring which William Gaddis himself has not since broken….

The residual suggestion that the ultimate act of recognition may in fact be death gives a sombre tone to the conclusion of Gaddis's remarkable work. We may recall Borges's reminder that man is sustained by his fictions. Nevertheless, the problems Gaddis raises and the themes he explores seem to me to be at the heart of American literature, and in looking back to Hawthorne while it looks forward to Pynchon, his novel reminds us of continuities which we might otherwise, perhaps, overlook.

Tony Tanner, in his City of Words: American Fiction 1950–1970 (copyright © 1971 by Tony Tanner; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1971, pp. 393-400.