William H. Gass Gass, William H(oward) (Vol. 11) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gass, William H(oward) 1924–

An American novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, and philosopher, Gass considers his work to continue the tradition of the Symbolist poets. His is an intense and experimental fiction, which gives close attention to novelistic style and structure as well as to the words themselves. The use of typographical devices and inventive metaphors together with an often philosophical tone colors Gass's work with a marked poetic quality. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

Gore Vidal

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gass's essays are often eerily good. At his best, he can inhabit a subject in a way that no other critic now writing can do (see, in particular, his commentaries on Gertrude Stein). (p. 108)

Like many good books, Omensetter's Luck is not easy to describe. What one comes away with is the agreeable memory of a flow of language that ranges from demotic Midwest … to incantatory…. (p. 109)

The stories in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country seem to me to be more adventurous and often more successful than the novel. "The Pedersen Kid" is beautiful work. In a curious way the look of those short sentences on pages uncluttered with quotation marks gives the text a visual purity and coldness that perfectly complements the subject of the story, and compels the reader to know the icy winter at the country's heart. In most of these stories the prevailing image is winter…. At actual zero degree, Gass, perversely, blazes with energy.

The title story is the most interesting of the collection. Despite a sign or two that the French virus may have struck: "as I write this page, it is eleven days since I have seen the sun," the whole of the story (told in fragments) is a satisfying description of the world the narrator finds himself in, and he makes art of the quotidian…. (p. 110)

Gass's problem as an artist is not so much his inability to come up with some brand-new Henry Ford-type invention that will prove to be a breakthrough in world fiction (this is never going to happen) as what he calls his weak point—a lack of dramatic gift—which is nothing more than low or rather intermittent energy. He can write a dozen passages in which the words pile up without effect. Then, suddenly, the current, as it were, turns on again and the text comes to beautiful life (in a manner of speaking of course … who does not like a living novel? particularly one that is literate). (pp. 110-11)

Gore Vidal, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1974 Nyrev, Inc.), July 15, 1974 (and reprinted in his Matters of Fact and of Fiction: Essays 1973–1976, Random House, 1977).

Jeffrey Maitland

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In [On Being Blue] poetics and philosophy pull apart, emerge from, and re-enter each other in eros—primordial blueness. Poetry at its best, at its bluest, does not paint images of sexual acts, but with reverential attentiveness to the being of language, makes language present as lovers make themselves present to each other. Philosophical thinking at its best, blue reason, attains concepts in the same way. The erotic logos of lived-through-thought reaches its conclusions and insights not through the constipated step-by-step-premise-to-conclusion-thinking represented by academic philosophy but with the multifaceted and multi-directional vitality of life lived to its fullest.

Blue is not simply a word or symbol that designates the color blue or some interior mental state; it is a mode of being in and of that which is. It is a mode of being around which Gass hopes "to wind my Quink-stained mouth" thereby aiming at making flesh word. The site of On Being Blue is primordial blueness. On Being Blue is at once the poetic performance and display of the very site into which it inquires philosophically. To be read at all, this book calls for our return to its site, that we become blue readers. This return provides for reaching deeper than a sexual response to sexual imagery and for a thinking that doesn't lose but yet goes further than a mere philosophical critique of a theory of color. On Being Blue asks us to yield ourselves in loving attentiveness to the being of language, poetic word, and concept, as it unfolds and speaks through us. As blue readers, we participate in the very performance of that which this work seeks to articulate.

The attempt to perform primordial blueness is the attempt to touch and be touched, not merely by sexuality, but by eros. On Being Blue is a witty, brilliant, and finely wrought work which ought to be read by all lovers of language. And yet for all its cleverness, beauty, and brilliance, it forgets to touch the heart. (pp. 709-10)

Jeffrey Maitland, in Modern Fiction Studies (© copyright 1977, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana), Winter, 1977–78.

Paul West

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Gass's] brow is high, his taste learned and eclectic; his responses to books and their authors are both delicate and earthy, and sometimes orchestrated in their own right as complex fugues of unapologetic, wry inventiveness. This professor of philosophy and novelist (Omensetter's Luck) is as far from your run-of-the-mill reviewer as Cockaigne from Kalamazoo….

Who … is Gass? And what? The Phantom of the Opus? The Satrap of Succulence? He is the poetic essayist doubling as critic, but also, through some agile feats of mnemonic possession, being Proust, Valery, Colette, Malcolm Lowry and Gertrude Stein (as all of whom he is superb), and Freud, Sartre, Henry Miller and Faulkner (as all of whom he is very good). As if hypnotized. As if ravished. As if, thanks to a book-review editor who gives him lots of space, driven to disgorge an ectoplasm that, while being superprose, is also one form of interference with the soul, the belly, the very chemicals that transmit thought. Uncanny stuff, out of Walter Pater by American Gothic, his essays are a series of autos-da-fe staged in the central nervous systems of the writers he likes, He tells how it feels to be Proust, and the others, and how it feels to be them in the act of being creative. If a tag be needed, [The World within the Word] is biotic criticism….

Every essay he writes has a tonic undertow of backsides and blatant vulgarities, not to titillate or...

(The entire section is 466 words.)

Denis Donoghue

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In "Fiction and the Figures of Life" Mr. Gass said that "the esthetic aim of any fiction is the creation of a verbal world, or a significant part of such a world, alive through every order of its Being." The only difference I can find between this and the argument of "The World Within the Word" is that the autonomy of that world within the word is declared more insistently than before….

If you say that a poem is a world, or makes a world, you merely ascribe to the poet the powers of God or the ambition of Absolute Idealism. There is little harm in talking about a poem as a well-wrought urn, because you're not claiming that the whole world has been consigned to the urn, without remainder….

My only quarrel with Mr. Gass is that he hasn't really examined the problems raised by referring to the world within the word. If he wanted to go the whole way, into Pure Poetry or even Absolute Fiction, that would be fine, though impossible in practice. It would be clear, charming, touching, especially when its program would find itself refuted by Language itself. But he doesn't want to go the whole way, he still wants to cry "Purity and Purification" while enjoying the fleshpots.

He speaks of "creating and defending a connection between what William James called the buzzing, blooming confusion of normal consciousness—of daily life with its unstimulating bumps, its ceaseless, enervating grinds—and the clear and...

(The entire section is 603 words.)

Ross Feld

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Employing in The World Within the Word] a prose style equivalent to the Slinky toy, Gass lands always on this: that writers have only language, language has them—and though the domestic relation may at times chafe and bite, it remains irrefutably monogamous. To slight the sentence—launched with a capital letter, tied off at the end with a period's pip—is to commit a basic error. Sentences make reality, not vice versa….

As readers, we're conned, is Gass's basic and delighted message; and the illusion, the misunderstanding, is the very crux of the game….

Gass has remarkable metamorphic talents when dealing with a writer he likes—Malcolm Lowry, Colette, Valéry: he seems to wrap his own very much alive grip around their ghostly pencils—but no one more engages his brilliance, and to greater effect, than Stein. Succumbing happily to her famous opacity—"intricacy no objection, patience a demand, unreadable plans a pleasure"—Gass proceeds, inch by inch, to lift Miss Stein's formidable skirts, then with scrupulous care reset them exactly. And what's revealed is not only the subtle racket her thing-language makes—the sharp breaks, caroms, and kisses—but also a very convincing thesis: that out of her hard-shelled and formally beautiful paragraphs emerges a courageous and absolutely sexual story—lesbian self-sufficiency objectified into art. Stein didn't merely provide aliases for the love that dare not speak its name: she condensed it in language, where it was safe from clarity while secure in candor. Gass's detective work is splendid, his analysis keen, his attention breathtaking; at these temperatures, literary criticism turns into gold. (p. 90)

Ross Feld, in Harper's (copyright © 1978 by Ross Feld; all rights reserved; excerpted from the October, 1978 issue by special permission), October, 1978.