Gass, William H(oward) (Vol. 8)

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Gass, William H(oward) 1924–

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Gass is an American novelist, short story writer, philosopher, and essayist. An experimentalist, Gass works out his philosophical and literary theories in both the formal and thematic aspects of his prose. It is often said that his novels and short stories read like poetry rather than prose. He is probably best known for Omensetter's Luck. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

It was [easy] for the novelist William Gass, a brilliant but exhaustingly self-conscious theoretician of the novel, to get attention with a showy construction, Omensetter's Luck, a book that showed every sign of great personal intelligence, curiosity, mimicry, but was brilliantly unconvincing—an act. Gass was a restlessly inventive, loquacious writer whose sharp critical writing showed that he knew as much about different minds operating in fiction as a philosopher is likely to know. But as a fiction writer Gass could stimulate many other critics without conveying any honest necessity about the relationships he described. He was like the man Kafka described who walked just above the ground. Everything was there in Omensetter's Luck to persuade the knowing reader of fiction that here was a great step forward: the verve, the bursting sense of possibility, the gravely significant atmosphere of contradiction, complexity of issue at every step. But it was all in the head, another hypothesis to dazzle the laity with. Gass had a way of dazzling himself under the storm of his style. In a book of essays, "Fiction and the Figures of Life," Gass called for a fiction in which his characters, "freed from existence, can shine in essence and purely Be." Perhaps Gass was, then, a mystic or absolutist of the novel? To have one's characters "freed from existence" is not a sensible wish for a novelist. The seeming unlimitedness of the novel as a form does tempt extraordinarily bright people into identifying their many "figures" for life with life itself on the page.

Gass was an event in the boggy history of the postwar novel. The overpowering classroom demonstrativeness of his skill at "construction"—of argument, of situation with voices—showed insight into the human mind and its fictions, in the current style that so much stressed the secret compartments of the mind, the counterfeit, the duplicity. But Gass's own fiction was make-believe fiction, not the real confidence game which takes in, to his supreme delight, the confidence man himself. (pp. 293-94)

Alfred Kazin, in his Bright Book of Life: American Novelists & Storytellers from Hemingway to Mailer (copyright © 1971, 1973 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co. in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1973.

William H. Gass is both a novelist and a professor of philosophy, and the two vocations seem to wage a kind of lover's quarrel in his fiction. They do, indeed, have much in common, [as Gass wrote in Fiction and the Figures of Life]: "Novelist and philosopher are both obsessed with language and make themselves up out of concepts. Both, in a way, create worlds." The novelist creates a world of people and things, while the philosopher creates a world of abstractions. On the one hand, Gass points out that theology, for instance, "is one-half fiction, one-half literary criticism" …; on the other, a successfully created, living fictional world will imply the philosophy or theology ordering that world. Yet for Gass, "Fiction and philosophy often make most acrimonious companions," because philosophy too often demands that fiction philosophize—that is, present ideas rather than people and life…. In Omensetter's Luck , his first novel, Gass creates a world in which the lover's quarrel can perhaps be resolved. In his fictional world, however, the quarrel between philosophy and fiction...

(The entire section contains 8022 words.)

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Gass, William H(oward) (Vol. 2)


Gass, William H.