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A Temple of Texts by William H. Gass
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A Temple of Texts

by William H. Gass

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My first experience of Gass was his introduction to Gaddis' The Recognitions, back when I just liked buying and reading immensely long books which were proclaimed under-rated masterpieces or had been discussed in David Foster Wallace's essay on pomo fiction (I can't remember which camp Gaddis fell into). I was charmed, and found a copy of Omensetter's Luck. I can remember literally nothing about it. The Recognitions is my favorite novel. I decided to give Gass another chance.

And for the first quarter of this book I was not only charmed, but thrilled. Gass defends literature as more or less what makes life worth living, despite the fact that it's not necessarily morally edifying. "If you do not admire the writings of Thomas Hobbes," he argues, "it is not Hobbes whose ghost now has to feel uneasy." Excellent.

This leads into a group of essays in chronological order: a funny review of 'The Book of Prefaces' (early in the series, I guess, because it includes Chaucer), then praise of Erasmus, 1001 Nights, Rabelais and Burton. I approve of these authors, although not for the same reasons that Gass approves of them. At this point of my reading, I was very, very happy.

The next more or less chronologically ordered essay is on Gertrude Stein. Now Gass mentions 17th century authors often and with approbation, so it's not as if he doesn't read anything written before Rilke. But he certainly appears to have read nothing with any great seriousness written between Burton and Rilke, other than, perversely, Dickens (I'm overstating for effect; I know he's read a lot). This irritates me, because I love the 18th century, and think that people who really love literature should love the 18th century.

Then I noticed that Gass has very little to actually *say* about anyone. His essays on Gaddis are about how nobody likes him enough and how they once went to Russia together. When he really wants to praise someone, he'll quote a paragraph, then point out how many sounds the words in that paragraph have in common. You can do that with this paragraph. It is not enjoyable, nor enlightening, nor a good way to judge prose. Once he starts doing it with Dickens, you know you're in trouble.

Gass' formalism isn't something to be thrown away without thought. It's great that he pays attention to prose rather than, as with James Wood and his ilk, 'character' and vague liberal platitudes. But it's hard to see what, if any, criteria he has for his very strong formal judgements. If you ignore the formalism, though, the criteria become very clear. You're good if you're a friend of William Gass, and/or have excruciatingly dull anti-clerical sentiments, and/or were read by Gass when he was young (at least two authors receive the highest Gassian praise--he read them twice, back to back, even though the first time he didn't really get it, but the second time he read it straight through without stopping).

If you should believe in something, anything, other than James Wood's vague liberal platitudes, and are not a friend of William Gass, you're basically a nazi and should be denied access to any scrivening implements whatsoever; no computers, no pens, no chisels. That's because we're alone in the universe which is a cruel and dark place that doesn't matter anyway and fashionable nihilism fashionable nihilism fashionable nihilism.

How anyone who can write so well, has achieved such genuine (i.e., artistic) success, and has known people who have, I dare say, achieved even greater success, can really think what Gass seems to think is beyond me.

On the upside, he's convinced me to give Elkin and Coover a chance, so if they turn out to be good, I will have used my time reading this book very well. ( )
  stillatim | Dec 29, 2013 |
This book, by the estimable critic and novelist William Gass, is a worthy companion to its author’s several prize-winning essay collections (such as The World Within the Word and Tests of Time). The introductory essay is almost perfect as Gass sings the praises of multiplicity, contradiction and polyphony in literature, urging readers to become, above all else, omnivorous (“The healthy mind goes everywhere”). “Influence” rambles engagingly about the title phenomenon’s central relationship to artistic creation, meanwhile tossing off witty aphorisms with imperturbable ease. “Fifty Literary Pillars” then offers concise tributes to literary and philosophical works that have influenced Gass, acknowledging consensus classics but also including more arcane selections. He celebrates some of my favorites, including Renaissance masters Erasmus and Rabelais, and unique antiquarian Robert Burton (whose Anatomy of Melancholy is a vast treasure-trove of beguiling eccentricities). There are also the Latin American magical realists, Gertrude Stein’s innovative prose experiments and Robert Coover’s abrasive political novel The Public Burning. Gass loves Dickens’s verbal energy, Henry James’s stentorian complexity, postmodernist intellectuals and philosophical clowns. Unfortunately, for this reader, he scorns hypertext (“The information highway has no destination, and the sense of travel it provides is pure illusion”). Three very different masters receive special attention: manic rhetorician Stanley Elkin, underrated satirist William Gaddis (Gass writes amusingly about being persistently mistaken for him) and the great German poet Rilke (evidently Gass’s favorite writer). Of the last three I revere only Rilke, but will try in the future to explore the prose of Elkin and Gaddis. This is a heavy tome with worthwhile inspiration for the dedicated and intrepid reader. ( )
  jwhenderson | Dec 27, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0307262863, Hardcover)

From one of the most admired essayists and novelists at work today: a new collection of essays—his first since Tests of Time, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism.

These twenty-five essays speak to the nature and value of writing and to the books that result from a deep commitment to the word. Here is Gass on Rilke and Gertrude Stein; on friends such as Stanley Elkin, Robert Coover, and William Gaddis; and on a company of “healthy dissidents,” among them Rabelais, Elias Canetti, John Hawkes, and Gabriel García Márquez.

In the title essay, Gass offers an annotated list of the fifty books that have most influenced his thinking and his work and writes about his first reaction to reading each. Among the books: Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (“A lightning bolt,” Gass writes. “Philosophy was not dead after all. Philosophical ambitions were not extinguished. Philosophical beauty had not fled prose.”) . . . Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist (“A man after my own heart. He is capable of the simplest lyrical stroke, as bold and direct as a line by Matisse, but he can be complex in a manner that could cast Nabokov in the shade . . . Shakespeare may have been smarter, but he did not know as much.”) . . . Gustave Flaubert’s letters (“Here I learned—and learned—and learned.”) And after reading Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, Gass writes “I began to eat books like an alien worm.”

In the concluding essay, “Evil,” Gass enlarges upon the themes of artistic quality and cultural values that are central to the books he has considered, many of which seek to reveal the worst in people while admiring what they do best.
As Gass writes, “The true alchemists do not change lead into gold, they change the world into words.”

A Temple of Texts is Gass at his most alchemical.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:34 -0400)

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