Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts

In 'Life Sentences,' author and critic William H. Gass entrances the reader with his lilting prose and skilled literary criticism.

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    Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts
    By William Gass
    Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
    368 pp.
    View Caption

William H. Gass’s Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts is a remarkable work of criticism on several levels. Gass, who is the author of both fiction and literary criticism, is the master of his subject matter, and in the course of the book’s 350 pages, he engages the reader both through his delight in the poetry and prose of his favorite writers and his scorn for the propagandizing and sophistry of those who have earned his enmity. But where Gass’s work really sparkles is in his ability to distill to its essence both the writing process and its devices – to understand how ideas are conveyed most elementally and powerfully.   

The book opens with Gass receiving the 2007 Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism. In his address, he emphasizes how, in great writing, the subtleties of sentence structure can perform “miracles”: “To adorn nature with a new thing: that is the miracle that matters. Most prose flows into an ocean of undifferentiated words. To objectify through language a created consciousness, provide it with the treasured particularity we hope for for each human being – that is the cherished aim of the art.” Gass asserts that a few inspired lines can “turn a sonnet into a masterpiece," but that the critic must also be keenly aware of those writings that “merely mimic greatness through grandeur’s empty gestures.” In other words, critics of writing, as with other art forms, must retain a safe distance from imitators’ grandiose pretenses.

In “Retrospection,” Gass offers a cynicism – and skepticism – about the human condition that could make Diogenes of Sinope look like a Las Vegas comic. He confesses that his own novel “The Tunnel” arose out of his belief that no race or nation is better or worse than any other; but also that the evil man does far outweighs the good. And, emphasizing Socratic and Platonic teachings, he equates evil directly with ignorance, in the process declaring D.H. Lawrence a “fascist chowderhead”; T.S. Eliot an “anti-Semitic snob”; William Butler Yeats “fatuous”; William Blake “mad”; Robert Frost “a pious fake”; and Rainer Maria Rilke “wrong more often than not.” Henry James, faring somewhat better, “might have made a misstep once alighting from a carriage.”

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As an octogenarian, Gass begins on a note of personal reflection, by recalling the “good, sweet” days of his youth in Fargo, N.D., and, in particular, his affection for his father, a former minor-league baseball player in the St. Louis Browns organization whose exhortation for players to “spit in the mitt” after an error – to warn a player to get ready or simply to encourage concentration – could double as one’s philosophy of life.

Gass’s musings on America on the Fourth of July following the September 11 attacks, as complemented by his greater “Retrospections”, suggest the melancholy fragility not only of our own existence, but also of our cherished institutions, freedom of expression being particularly vulnerable. Here, his description of latent tyrannical elements in our society is exquisitely ominous: “The tyrant ties tongues in knots. Speech is so easy it takes more than snow to slow its course. The tyrant must frighten people from their freedom; beat the soles of their feet till they mince their step in time to his goose-wide stride.”

But his tone is very much lighter when he discusses how he haunted the libraries at both the University of Illinois and Cornell University (the latter being where he completed his doctoral degree). At Cornell, “the building resembled a ship in some ways and bore me off smoothly,” which well-suited this World War II navy veteran. These experiences instilled in him a life-long love of libraries; his own library presently consists of “nearly twenty thousand books, few of them rare, many unread, none of them neglected.”

James makes a number of appearances in this book, though he is rivaled by Rilke, whose poetry Gass spent decades translating. Gass also writes reverently of the enduring accomplishments – seemingly against all odds – of Gertrude Stein, the “Mother Goose of Montparnasse”; of Marcel Proust, whose “society lives like snow in a paperweight, inside the novel’s structural imagery”; and Friedrich Nietzche, for whom – in defiance of advice against “extreme physical and intellectual exertion" – "writing was [his] breathing and had to be done, no matter the pain and damage.”

In Gass’s pantheon, great writers are highly perceptive observers of the human condition, though their faults are often as outstanding as their literary accomplishments. John Gardner was a reckless, yet brilliant novelist who sadly had a tendency to race his motorcycle while impaired. Gass’s essay on him commences with a telephone call from The Los Angeles Times asking if he might contribute an obituary of Gardner – a motorcycle accident had just claimed his life. Gass affectionately recalled that Gardner had “Falstaff’s gift for talk and revelry”, and an intensity and warmth in his writing reminiscent of Dickens and Thackeray.

Katherine Anne Porter’s gift for “sensuous yet hard-edged prose” was matched by a powerful revulsion away from her small-town Texas upbringing with “a Calvinist’s morally severe self-righteous hand.” In part, this caused her to construct a life “made of myths, most of them planted there by Porter herself, and many meant to improve her humble beginnings, refigure the course of her early years and conceal the existence of her numerous marriages or frequent affairs.”

Gass’s tribute to Malcolm Lowry is a highly stylized piece, written in the manner of a screenplay, which is a perfect vessel in which to pour Lowry’s own complex and dramatic background – his life in Vancouver, Canada; his travels in South America; and his novels, works such as “Under the Volcano” and “Through The Panama,” which feature protagonists who are restless, besotted, and always questing. Eventually, Lowry became thoroughly enmeshed with the lives of his characters, who became passengers on a ship of “hungover self-consciousness ... Malcolm Lowry at the helm, unsteady as she goes.”

Gass’s evisceration of Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun, obscure legacy notwithstanding, is necessary and proper, and is bookended by a chilling discussion of books chronicling the Holocaust. Gass initially focuses his ire on Hamsun, and throughout the essay, you feel – almost taste – the disgust Gass feels for this literary Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Gass notes “no one will be able to display the gold medal the Nobel hung around the [Hamsun’s] neck, because Hamsun disgraced the prize by regifting it to Joseph Goebbels, himself a great creator of fictions.”

Gass delivers his most powerful essay in “Kinds of Killing,” which, in its graphic depiction of horrific acts perpetrated by man upon man during World War II, is matched only – if not surpassed by – Gass’s luminous narrative. A primary reference he cites is a monumental three-volume work by historian Richard Evans which offers, in excruciating detail, the horrors of the Holocaust as perpetrated from the earliest days of the Third Reich. Of the advent of the war in 1939, Gass remarks that “like a monstrous babe born from the brow of Rabelais, this war was only a few months old and already it had become a major crime against humanity.”

Evans, whom Gass returns to frequently in the course of his essay, not only writes with the unjaundiced eye (and pen) of an experienced and sober historian, he also has actively sought out and discredited Holocaust deniers, often in courts of law. As to this unfortunate yet persistent phenomenon, Gass quotes New York Times writer Jacob Heilbrunn, who writes: “The further the Holocaust recedes into the past, the more it’s being exploited to create a narrative of redemption.”

Gass’s writing here is arguably his most vivid – poignant similes and imagery abound and only serve to exacerbate the vile inhumanity of Nazidom. If there can be such a thing as “beautiful” writing about undistilled evil, Gass has most definitely accomplished this.

In the latter fourth of the book, Gass demonstrates how his immersion in and affection for the classics has mightily informed his own elaborate prose. In parsing such concepts as Eidos (form), Mimesis (replication) and Metaphor, Gass clearly reveals his mastery of the written word. For him a masterfully written sentence “provokes a flight of fancy ... it’s like a journey of discovery; it’s like a coil of rope; a triumphal column; it’s like a hallway or a chapel ... a spiral stair.” For Gass, the fundamental elements of literary expression are a revelry, and this volume is more than adequate evidence of that.

With “Life Sentences” Gass makes a major contribution to the understanding and appreciation of great writing – the power of words to move a reader or even mountains. Lilting, rhapsodic narrative is Gass’s trademark, and one can learn much from the beauty and subtlety of his rhetoric.

Chris Hartman is a Monitor contributor.

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