UPDATE: Appearing yesterday on The Paris Review Web site was “Mistaken Identity,” an essay by Jenny Hendrix about Fire the Bastards!, a book concerning the critical reception of The Recognitions by a mysterious “jack green.” The Dalkey Archive Press will also be republishing this most unusual book in February. Gaddis scholar Steven Moore provides an introduction.
With the official republication of William Gaddis‘ The Recognitions and J R next month by the Dalkey Archive Press (available now at amazon.com), all of the novelist’s books are back in print again. I take this opportunity to republish the below post on Gaddis, which first appeared here on 28 September 2010. I also recently posted this 30-minute conversation with Gaddis and critic Malcolm Bradbury.
Those seeking an additional introduction to Gaddis’ work can be referred to Cynthia Ozick’s fine review of Carpenter’s Gothic, his third novel, which appeared in the 7 July 1985 issue of the New York Times.
One of the pleasures of The Paris Review‘s new online archive of their author interviews is the availability of Zoltán Abádi-Negi’s 1987 talk with American novelist William Gaddis (1922-1998).
It would be nice to say that Gaddis’ first novel, The Recognitions (1955), “burst onto the scene,” but its appearance was greeted with a polite silence in most corners. The novel is among those monumental works of American modernism, like Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, Mark Rothko’s paintings and Morton Feldman’s Triadic Memories, that beggar easy description: nearly 1,000 pages in its hardcover edition and not much less in the paperback, The Recognitions, along with Gaddis’ next book J R (1975), are essential to an understanding of the United States in the postwar period. More than this, though, as Sven Birkets wrote in his New York Times Book Review notice of Agapē Agape, Gaddis’ novels constitute in all their brilliance “the idea of the sacred rootedness of true art.”
And Gaddis was, quite explicitly, a modernist writer. “Speaking of influences, I think mine are more likely to be found going from Eliot back rather than forward to my contemporaries,” Gaddis told Abádi-Negi shortly after the publication of Carpenter’s Gothic (1985); in the interview Gaddis demonstrates little enthusiasm for either postmodern fiction or criticism. In form, style and content, Gaddis’ five novels are largely composed of Americans talking: J R is set out almost entirely in dialogue, and A Frolic of His Own (1994) incorporates most of Gaddis’ only (unproduced) play, Once at Antietam.
Gaddis is, on the surface, a satirist, but like Horace, Swift and Kraus he is far more than that. All of his novels painfully and often hilariously tear the scabs from the American experience, the Puritan ethic and Western capitalism, but underlying all of it is a firm faith in the redemptive qualities of aesthetic creation, always under siege from the administered society from which it rather wondrously and paradoxically emerges. He begins broadly — the locales of The Recognitions circle the globe — but as time goes on his focus becomes narrower. J R is set largely in Long Island and New York City; Carpenter’s Gothic in an isolated New England house (constantly barraged from within by television stories and telephone messages from far-off African lands); A Frolic of His Own, his satire of the legal system (and therefore the administered American culture), in a home on Eastern Long Island; and finally, in his brilliant short novel explicitly influenced by Thomas Bernhard, Agapē Agape (published posthumously in 2002), in the room and the mind of a dying man (also suggesting that other master of the rooms and minds of dying men, Samuel Beckett).
There is a development in Gaddis’ work from the monumental to the concise, stripping down to the core the essence of Gaddis’ satiric vision: that of opportunities lost, of humanity unable to achieve its hopes, in either art or life. As he writes in the very last pages of Agapē Agape:
Age withering arrogant youth and worse, the works of arrogant youth and the book I wrote then, my first book, it’s become my enemy, o Dio, odium, the rage and energy and boundless excitement the only reality where the work that’s become my enemy got done and the only refuge from the hallucination that’s everything out there is the greater one that transforms you good God, Pozdnyshev [a character in Tolstoy's The Kreutzer Sonata], those words that Levochka gave you to transform the whole thing when “music carries you off into another state of being that’s not your own, of feeling things you don’t really feel, of understanding things you don’t really understand, of being able to do things you aren’t really able to do” yes, that transforms that transfigures you yourself into the self who can do more! That was Youth with its reckless exuberance when all things were possible pursued by Age where we are now, looking back at what we destroyed, what we tore away from that self who could do more, and its work that’s become my enemy because that’s what I can tell you about, that Youth who could do anything.
The satirist’s vision is hung between the tragic and the ecstatic; it’s to Gaddis’ great talent that we can owe its brilliant containment in comic form (the events of A Frolic of His Own, for example, begin when the main character, novelist and Gaddis-double Oscar Crease, manages to run himself over with his own car); and though these last words are the cry of a dying man, Gaddis was a great one for first sentences, too:
Even Camilla had enjoyed masquerades, of the safe sort where the mask may be dropped at the critical moment it presumes itself as reality. (The Recognitions)
– Money … ? in a voice that rustled. (J R)
Justice? — You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law. (A Frolic of His Own)
Gaddis’ work has been eclipsed by that of many of his contemporaries — among those living, Thomas Pynchon and Philip Roth; among those dead, Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer — but it is heartening to see that, in 2010, his satiric vision hasn’t been entirely fulfilled, despite the notorious “Mr. Difficult” essay by Oprah’s Book Club favorite Jonathan Franzen, which in all its condescending and moronic glory appeared in a 2002 issue of The New Yorker. All of Gaddis’ novels, as well as his book of essays The Rush for Second Place (2002), remain in print. Though one shudders to think what Gaddis would think of the Internet after the cacophony of J R, the Internet has been kind to him. There is an excellent Web site devoted to his novels here; it includes the full text of Stephen Moore’s groundbreaking 1989 full-length study of the novelist. There is another excellent collection of Gaddis pages at The Modern Word‘s “Scriptorium” here. I was fortunate enough to take a class with William Gaddis at Bard College on “The Literature of Failure” in 1979, which I wrote about several years ago here (my contribution begins about halfway down the page).