Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Life Sentences by William H. Gass

The other day in the library I decided my brain needed a workout, so I checked out William H. Gass's Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts, published in 2011 when Gass was 87. He published a well-received new novel, Middle C, last year, so he's an inspiration to older writers everywhere. Born in Fargo, North Dakota, he taught philosophy for fifty years at Washington University in St. Louis, so he's not one of your East Coast pointy-headed professors. But professor or no, he's probably best known for Omensetter's Luck and In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. He's known I think as a writer's writer, someone the rest of us read to steal as much as we can.

The Life Sentences essays are gathered under four headings: "The Personal Column," "Old Favorites and Fresh Enemies," "The Biggs Lectures in the Classics" (which cover form, mimesis, and metaphor), and "Theoretics." The final two Theoretics essays discuss the sentence, which Gass has obviously thought about much longer and harder than most wordsmiths. Here, for example, are  examples:

"The finer works of art are miracles in the sense that they are so unlikely to have emerged from the ignoble and bloody hands of man that we stand in awe of them, and that they have been written or built or composed at the behest of superstitions so blatantly foolish as to embarrass reason and cause common sense to snicker, is itself wondrous and beyond ordinary comprehension. However, the fact that a gay guy painted the Sistine ceiling is not nearly as dumbfounding as the papacy's protection of pederasts in spite of their official attitude toward such 'objectionable' practices—one of which ought to be the ceiling itself, for if anything is unnatural, for them, genius is."

All these essays are interesting (some more than others, which is inevitable), and I could spend considerable space considering Gass's comments on Kafka, Nietzsche, Henry James, John Gardner, Gertrude Stein, Malcolm Lowry, and Katherine Ann Porter. Rather, let me touch on Knut Hamsun, the Norwegian Nobel Prize winner. He was, Gass writes, "the perfect Nordic Nazi, a self-man man who came out of the back-mountain farms of northern Norway seeking to be recognized and praised; who ruthlessly achieved his goals,...yet a success who was fated to have most of the people he appreciably affected eager to forget him: a wish that was, until recently, largely realized in Allied countries."

Hamsun was a great hater; he hated intellectuals, Americans (he wrote, "Instead of founding an intellectual elite, America has established a mulatto stud-farm"), Lapps, tourists, rivals, women, the working class and clerks, and more. He supported the German occupation of Norway, "even when it begins its reign of terror there, arresting gentiles as well as Jews." He regifted his Nobel Prize to Joseph Goebbels. He lived to 92; his collected works number 27.

You don't have to be a good person to be a good writer. But I believe your world view—what you think of people generally, how you think the world works, what is moral and what is not—colors your writing. You cannot, finally, escape who you are. Hamsun sounds like a toad and his books like a nasty child's. Someone, thanks to Gass, I won't have to read.

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