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The Tunnel (1995)

by William H. Gass

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7391022,874 (4.09)77
Thirty years in the making, William Gass's second novel first appeared on the literary scene in 1995, at which time it was promptly hailed as an indisputable masterpiece. The story of a middle aged professor who, upon completion of his massive historical study, "Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's Germany," finds himself writing a novel about his own life instead of the introduction to his magnum opus. "The Tunnel" meditates on history, hatred, unhappiness, and, above all, language.… (more)
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English (9)  German (1)  All languages (10)
Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
After twenty-four days of finally working my way through William H. Gass's masterpiece, I can say that my nails feel as besmirched as Herr I'm-Not-German Kohler's. Gass, in his highly entertaining notes to the editors of the book, states that "[t]he reader is to feel, as he or she doubtless will, as if they are crawling through an unpleasant and narrow darkness." Quite right. And in his interview with Michael Silverblatt (whose blurb adorns the cover of my Dalkey Archive paperback), Gass makes no qualms about the aspirations and demands of his book. Silverblatt, an avid and insightful reader if there ever was one, even confesses to swaying--yet not faltering--under the heft of the first 90 pages. The Tunnel is deliberately large, complex, and difficult. How else shall we, as readers, grow?

The novel is meant to present the interleaving of William Frederick Kohler's massive academic study, Guilt & Innocence in Hitler's Germany, and his diverting attempts to write the study's introduction. But Kohler does not like introductions; he likes endings; so his stops and statrts end up churning out a heap of pages about his own life. To say that it is confessional literature is an understatement--Kohler's level of baring it all puts Dostoyevsky to shame. So searing and intimate are the pages he turns out that he takes to hiding them within the pages of his historical study. What we, the readers, then have is the stack of interleaved pages. But although, to the reader who has not yet read The Tunnel, this could sound like something akin to Burroughs's cut-ups, I found the text fairly linear and readable. Perhaps, though, this is indicative of the warping I've undergone from the ilk of books I invite into my mind.

Without a doubt William Kohler is the most embittered, angriest, loneliest man in all of literature. As much as I stay away from such superlative statements--for I haven't, of course, read all of literature--I feel confident in my assertion. Kohler will upset you if you have at least a paucity of a moral code. He resents everyone and everything around him and holds nothing back in his telling us so. A principal target of his bitterness and resentment is the female, especially his wife Martha. This is a bold move on Gass's part, delivering a novel in 1995 while the women's lib movement of the 70s and 80s was still targeting WASP writers (or what David Foster Wallace called "Great Male Narcissists") for their base misogyny. But Gass has a trick up his sleeve. Kohler, in his monumental attacks against the feminine, is not very...endowed. Yes, and it consumes him, as the reader will find. What is interesting here it that, one of the invectives against WASP mega-novels is that it is a way of asserting the phallus on the world. We are thus forced to look for something beyond this easy way out; and, in the end, Gass will begin to bring us to an understanding and, just possibly, to sympathize with Kohler.

In the midst of all this anger, all this loneliness, however, is a deeply poetic language. Indeed, Kohler states many times that he gave up poetry and took on history. So we know he has poetic tendencies. Gass, of course, is a master of the metaphor. The style and language used throughout The Tunnel will singe even the densest eyebrows. Your toes will curl at some of the sentences he pulls off. Yes, this incongruity of pulchritude and grotesquerie is what causes the reader to latch onto the text both against and out of the will. It is hard to stave off my inclination to list out all of the sentences I highlighted in orange (my designated color for passages that stylistically dazzle me), but to do so would be to reprint the book and invite copyright trouble.

The book is not a direct meditation on Hitler's Germany; it is not Kohler's scholarly thesis. It is, rather, the confessions of a brilliant yet embittered madman, struggling to make some sense of life. His myriad propositions about what history is are sometimes profound and sometimes bathetic. For me, the most striking meditation concerns what Kohler phrases "life in a chair." For anyone with an academic, bookish, intellectual bent, Gass perfectly captures the pleasures and the pains of such a life. But, make no mistake, this is a sprawling, dense book that requires more than just the bedtime reader. It is a project that invites you to explore your own self, to examine the soft, vulnerable underbelly of life that we'd rather keep hidden. ( )
  chrisvia | Apr 30, 2021 |
Some attempts to explain William Gass:

i) I put him in the same category as Burton, Shakespeare and Joyce. If you disagree now, wait until I'm done, when you'll disagree even more: these four men, extraordinary geniuses in their own way, are the ultimate specialists. None of them have any imagination whatsoever. Their books either lack or steal plot and their ideas are predominantly dull or second-hand. Burton got around this problem by writing a medical treatise. Shakespeare stole almost everything he needed from others. Joyce wrote some stories, then a book about himself, which he burned, and turned into a different book about some one very slightly different from himself, then a book about two guys walking around Dublin for a day, then a book which is more or less as close as you can get to pure linguistic play. Gass is exactly the same: he has no imagination whatsoever, his characters are nothings, his ideas are too often boring and/or borrowed from the 'big' thinkers of his time.

You'll note that, despite these flaws, of the three people I've read who are most like Gass, two are considered the greatest writers of their time. These men were the Mozarts of language. I imagine that, when five years old, they could have knocked out a novel or play or book length essay on phlegm in a week.

ii) This linguistic brilliance led me to think, after a couple of chapters, that this was *the* novel to read from the '90s, if only for this sentence (putting the newly sincere on notice): "Yet Hitler--the dissembler, the liar, the hypocrite, the mountebank, the deluder, the con man, the sophist, the manipulator, the dreamer, the stage manager, and the ultimate ham--he was probably history's single most sincere man."

iii) But this linguistic brilliance also leads him to inflate cliches into chapters (the horrors of a small town childhood! the traumas of late male sexuality!). No matter how brilliant the prose, it still needs to hang on something. It's not coincidence that the most entertaining parts of the book are Kohler's rants about ideas or philistines; Gass's words match those situations. Long passages about ye olde homestead and one's upbringing, on the other hand, deserve only half a paragraph of bog-standard Eggersism.

iv) The book has a few different strands: Kohler's memories of childhood (dull); Kohler's memories of school in Germany during the Nazi rise to power (intermittently interesting); Kohler's penis (dull); Kohler's marriage (entertaining because his wife gets the better of him so reliably); Kohler and his history department colleagues (slightly more interesting, except when we get long descriptions of said colleagues); Kohler's reflections on his book about Nazi Germany (fairly interesting); Kohler digs a tunnel (I do not care); Kohler's misanthropic rants (great fun, except when mixed in with his penis or childhood). What do these strands add up to? Not much. I wonder if a book of straight ranting would be readable?

v) The only thing that changed between the end of the first couple of chapters, when I was in love with the book, and the end of the book: my opinion of the book. There was no plot, fine, that's Gass's theory about literature, there's something wrong with stories.* There was no character development, fine, people don't develop. But there should be some movement to justify 650 pages (probably more like 800 in an ordinary sized book). And there is none.

vi) This makes me think of Gass's essays. I read an essay, I love it, I get excited, I move on, and then by the fourth or fifth essay in a collection I'm bored. I'm irritated by his self-righteousness. Same thing happened here.

vii) But the Tunnel is better than the essays for one very simple reason: here, the ridiculous claims that Gass makes in his more metaphysical essays are countered by other characters (Herschel is such a pleasant schmuck; Kohler's wife is gloriously impassive) and other ideas. The nihilism is ironized just enough to make it bearable.

ix) But at the end of the day, Gass is, as Kohler suggests, hoisted by his own prose. It's often breathtaking, I read whole pages without caring about what the words were just for the sound, but I can't do that for a whole book.

xi) A few decades ago there was a real vogue for 'The X Reader.' Steinbeck had one, Joyce had one, Faulkner had one. Gass is *made* for a reader. You could take his best essays, his best short fiction, a few select chapters from The Tunnel and one of the other novels, and throw in the full text of either Middle C or Omensetter's Luck. That might be one of the best books of the twenty-first century.

xii) On the release of that reader, Gass could become the Gertrude Stein of his generation--some new Hemingway will pilfer from and popularize him, except instead of Hemingway and his epigones taking Stein's 'style,' dumbing it down to high school English levels and inflicting it on untold millions of readers, Gass's popularizer will be doing us a favor, bringing life and vigor back to American prose. I think William would be happy with that result.

xiii) If you only read one of the big, fat late twentieth century American classics, make it Gaddis's JR, and not this.

PS: Is there some relation between this book and the Sabato novel? Has anyone read them both?

*: how likely is it that an author's theory about literature is tied directly to his or her abilities? E.g., an author who just isn't very good at coming up with plots argues that plot isn't important; an author who isn't very good at descriptions argues that description is juvenile... very likely, I think. ( )
  stillatim | Oct 23, 2020 |
I only got 450 pages in but i'm saying that counts. I had to stop at a long description of the narrator's childhood foreskin problems. This book is insanely brutal. One part was pretty good though
  theodoram | Apr 7, 2020 |
This took me a while to read. Really, it's the first 300 pages that are the hardest. This book has no 'plot', per say, at least nothing linear. The first 300 pages are erratic and essentially assume you already know all of the characters and events that Kholer will reference, which makes it super hard to disentangle what-exactly-the-fuck-is-going-on.
This link is insanely useful. I would actually recommend reading it before reading the book, to make it more like a re-reading, than a first time re-through.
The actual experience of reading this book is difficult and at times boring. Yes there are moments of clarity and beauty, but more often than not disgust and bigotry. I think it is supposed to be that way, but it still doesn't make it a joy to read. The book is possibly a masterpiece, 5/5, but reading it feels more like a 3/5. So I'm averaging for my rating.
The most I took away from this book was the connection of Kholer and his resentment with other people throughout history that have felt resentment and enacted revenge. Except Kholer only goes as far as killing his wife's cat and filling her antique drawers with dirt (he loves his double entendres here. Kholer reminds me of the the angry people of 4chan (gamergate), white rural U.S., Trump supports, etc. It's terrifying, being in Kholer's mind.
I think I have more to add... but... can't seem to put it together right now. What a ride. Good luck to you if you choose to read this. ( )
1 vote weberam2 | Nov 24, 2017 |
Amazing. It takes the arc of modern history and the tip of the holocaust to see if we can still offer context and meaning to the traumas of our childhood. ( )
  DavidCLDriedger | Apr 22, 2015 |
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Thirty years in the making, William Gass's second novel first appeared on the literary scene in 1995, at which time it was promptly hailed as an indisputable masterpiece. The story of a middle aged professor who, upon completion of his massive historical study, "Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's Germany," finds himself writing a novel about his own life instead of the introduction to his magnum opus. "The Tunnel" meditates on history, hatred, unhappiness, and, above all, language.

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