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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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.”Skip to next paragraph
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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.