The World Within the Word

William H. Gass’s The World Within the Word is a collection of book reviews, lectures, and essays by a novelist turned literary critic. Such a collection is usually heterogeneous and miscellaneous, but Gass ties together the various strands to create a book. His interests range from the great modern writers to Freud, suicide, and above all, sentences; but Gass’s style and a conception of the nature of literature hold the book together. Gass describes his prose style in the essay as “skids of tone and decorum associated formerly with silent films, jazz bands, and the slide trombone.” He uses the stylistic devices of the novel to enliven, even transform, the language of literary criticism. Even more important is Gass’s obsession (there is no other word for it) with the “ontological transformation” that takes place in the creation of art, an alteration of substance similar to transubstantiation. As the title suggests, the world in words transcends the cluttered, unshaped world of ordinary existence. Gass sees its presence, or its significant lack of presence, in every essay of the book. This obsessive “unity” seems dearly bought, since what seems a discovery on first reading becomes a method, a point of view, on reconsideration. The ontological, or contextualist existence of literature was proclaimed many years ago by such critics as Murray Krieger and John Crowe Ransom. The concept is hardly revolutionary these days; but whether such a rarefied concept is able to bear the weight demanded of it is a question provoked by an otherwise excellent book.

It is, perhaps, appropriate to begin discussing the parts of the book by looking at “Carrots, Snow Noses, Roses, Roses,” the fullest explication of the “ontological transformation.” Gass begins by contrasting some imitation sentences of Proust with the real thing; the imitation sentences are clearly lumps that cannot be transformed. He then makes his point by an analogy. He shows how the materials used in constructing a snowman abandon the functions they formerly had and create together a separate world. The snowman is “brought out of nature into culture.” Most readers will agree that the “language of the poet or novelist is not the language of everyday,” and many will accept the idea that some transformation takes place in the creation of art. But many will question whether such a transformation of language must lead to “pure” literature. The description of a work containing moral values as one that wears “ennobling morals on the end of its sleeves like paper cuffs” is gratuitous and limiting. Even Ransom recognized the existence of impure and didactic works as part of the full range of literature. There may be behind this theoretical discussion an implied defense of the modern novels of Barth, Barthelme, Pynchon—and Gass. The novel may transform some of its elements, but it is doubtful if it can purify them without some loss.

The most important part of the book is the section of essays on four great modern writers: Gertrude Stein, Valéry, Proust, and Colette. Gass seems to find in these French, or French influenced writers a relationship between life and art that is crucial to understanding the literature of this century. He gives brief biographical sketches of each writer and contrasts or links their lives to their works. The essay on Gertrude Stein is the fullest of the four. Gass reevaluates this quintessential modernist by showing how her art overcomes the failure of her life. He does a splendid job of re-creating her life and placing it into historical context. Gass is a potentially great biographer; he has the novelist’s eye for significant detail, and a style that envelops his subjects in language that is continually on the borderline between criticism and literature. Gass encompasses Stein’s situation in her early years with the metaphor of “making room.” Gertrude Stein’s sister, brother, the century itself, must make room for her. Gass evokes the nineteenth century with its accumulation of dusty antimacassars and bulky texts; this is the main obstacle, the glut that must move over, make room. Gass wisely quotes Stein on this subject: “I was there to begin to kill what was not dead, the nineteenth century which was so sure of evolution and prayers, and esperanto and their ideas.” The turning point in her life is, appropriately, the recognition that in Cezanne, “the reality of the model had been superseded by the reality of the composition.” She would, according to Gass, eliminate “the traditional novel’s endless, morally motivated, psychological analyses” with her movement from an “investigation of the relationships between people” to the creation of “pure song.”

The next section of the essay is a marvelously...

(The entire section is 1961 words.)


Book World. July 19, 1978, p. E8.

Christian Science Monitor. July 24, 1978, p. 18.

Harper’s Magazine. CCLVII, October, 1978, p. 89.

New Times. XI, July 24, 1978, p. 66.

New York Times Book Review. July 9, 1978, p. 7.

Times Literary Supplement. November 3, 1978, p. 1274.