David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

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Birthday Notes on William Gass and The Tunnel

The original and best cover of The Tunnel.

Big Other’s Birthday Tribute to William Gass got me to thinking back on The Tunnel, which I read at a fairly formative time in my life. (Also at a time of total psychic collapse, for which it turned out to be the perfect companion.)

I had already loved In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. I had been introduced to Gass through John Gardner’s repeated recommendations, and Gardner’s professions of Gass’s utter superiority to Pynchon, Gaddis, Barth, and pretty much every other mid-century American writer made me feel obligated to track down Omensetter’s Luck, then out of print, and read it.

The Tunnel came out shortly after that, and having not known the history of its long genesis, and not knowing too much of Gass’s quasi-Wittgensteinian ideas about fiction and language (Gardner had mentioned them only to say that Gass’s actual fiction belied his theories), I had no idea what it was going to contain. And, well, it was different.

The book didn’t make much of a splash at the time. I got the sense that it was lumped in with Harold Brodkey’s wretched The Runaway Soul and perhaps even Pynchon’s fine Mason and Dixon as long-awaited Big Books that didn’t meet expectations.

Don DeLillo’s Underworld and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, in contrast, exploded into big events. Both certainly had a certain knowing hipness that was lacking in Pynchon, Brodkey, and Gass. (Pynchon might have had it had he not chosen to write about the 19th century.) But of those five books, there’s no question to me that Gass’s is by far the greatest.

It still retains a devoted set of fans (Stephen Schenkenberg has a representative enthusiasm) and detractors. Stochatic Bookmark’s expression of utter annoyance is a very legitimate response to The Tunnel. There is much in it that is intentionally and unintentionally off-putting. And the book’s hidden organizational structure, which Gass has only mentioned after the fact, is exceedingly abstruse.

In the best essay in Dalkey’s online casebook, Melanie Eckford-Prossor says the irony and metafictional gimmicks make the novel ethically repugnant. This is probably a compelling conclusion unless you see the novel as utterly pessimistic, which I did, in which case the mixture of moral and textual relativism with incessant brutality on all levels has a grim, forceful honesty to it.

But Schenkenberg quotes Robert Kelly’s review, which I still think was about the only thoughtful thing written about The Tunnel when it was published. Kelly is far from adulatory, but he took the novel very seriously and did not stop at surfaces. It was also well-written, one of the best reviews I read in the New York Times Book Review.

So I quote the parts that still resonate for me, even if I don’t agree with them:

“The Tunnel” is maddening, enthralling, appalling, coarse, romantic, sprawling, bawling. It is driven by language and all the gloriously phony precisions the dictionary makes available. It is not a nice book. It will have enemies, and I am not sure after one reading (forgive me, it’s a big book) that I am not one of them. Let me tell you what I can.

There was a little boy, an only child, raised in a bleak Midwestern town by an alcoholic mother and a verbally brutal father. It would not take a Dickens to borrow the reader’s sympathy and show us the little boy’s suffering, his slow escape from that abusive milieu, and to delicately sketch the paths of liberty the boy might find, or the hopeless mire into which he might, reader sighing, fall back.

But that is not William Gass’s way. Instead, he leaps ahead half a century and gives us the sex-besotted, verbally brutal professor the boy becomes, a gross character with fascist views and a taste for sly affairs with his students. He gives us the thick of the man, the dirt to tunnel through. To get, if we get, at last to the truth of him. In fact, it is not till more than 600 pages into the book that we learn anything like the full particulars of the boy’s youth. And when we get there, it is only to doubt that history is any more meaningful when it reveals origins than when it displays the blood and ordure of results.

But here the typographical games seem (unlike those in the novella) playful rather than evocative. And while Mr. Gass uses some devices Georges Perec or Harry Mathews might wield as strategies of composition, or grids of meaning, here the devices seem decorative, not so much claims on the reader’s puzzle-solving faculties as rewards to the writer for going on, allowing himself some smutty doggerel after a night’s hard noveling. [I strongly disagree.]

For the first few hundred pages not one of the few characters says anything at all except about the narrator. They have no selves except what they say about Willie young or old. The narrator has engulfed their reality, made their words his own. [I strongly agree.]

But when in the course of his endless bitter reflections on his failed marriage, Kohler exclaims “I’ve been in bedrooms as bad as Belsen,” we recognize only iniquitous nonsense. There is no bedroom as bad as Belsen, and to say so is to signal that you do not know what Belsen is.

While it is impressive that a novelist can pull off the tricks of creating such a sexist, bigoted, hate-filled character and of making the reader accept his vision of the real, there is a risk, one that every satirist takes. The risk is being believed, taken literally. To this day, we tend to think Jonathan Swift loathed humankind on the strength of Gulliver’s aversion. William Gass takes the risk, and it is no small achievement to make us take our bearings from Swift and Wyndham Lewis and those magniloquent sourpusses Louis-Ferdinand Celine and Samuel Beckett, ghosts who seem to hover, as James Joyce does too, over this novel. But it is not much comfort to lay aside this infuriating and offensive masterpiece and call it a satire, as if a genre could heal the wounds it so delights to display. It will be years before we know what to make of it.

That bit 600 pages in, the birthday party scene, is one of the most conventionally appealing (if pathetic) sections of the novel. It is held back for a very good reason. It’s only by being placed at that very late point that such a sympathetic story can register as an indictment rather than as a comforting avowal of humanity. That questioning of what we take to be our most human qualities is one of the core strengths of The Tunnel: trying to figure out what evil there is lurking in the good.

Why Write? by William Gass

Getting even is one great reason for writing. The precise statement of the motive is tricky, but the clearest expression of my of my unwholesome nature and my mean motives (apart from trying to write well) appears in a line I like in “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” The character says, “I want to rise so high that when I shit I won’t miss anybody.” But maybe I say it’s a motive because I like the line. Anyway, my work proceeds almost always from a sense of aggression. And usually I am in my best working mood when I am, on the page, very combative, very hostile. That’s true even when I write to praise, as is often the case. If I write about Colette, as I am now, my appreciation will be shaped by the sap-tongued idiots who don’t perceive her excellence. I also take considerable pleasure in giving obnoxious ideas the best expression I can. But getting even isn’t necessarily vicious. There are two ways of getting even: one is destructive and the other is restorative. It depends on how the scales are weighted. Justice, I think, is the word I want.

William Gass, Interview with Paris Review

Perhaps unfortunately, I feel least like this and most magnanimous when writing, similar to how Salinger supposedly loved his Glass family more than anyone in real life.

Samuel Beckett: How It Is & Ping

These two, because they were picked as personal favorites by William Gass in a little chapbook he wrote for Washington University in St. Louis in 1990. I read it a few years later in a bookstore and picked up on the wild South American writers I’d never heard of (Lezama Lima and Cabrera Infante, mainly). I knew he’d picked How It Is, which is also for me the absolute extreme of my favorite aspects of Beckett’s, but I’d forgotten about “Ping.” And I read it and I tried to figure out where, amongst all the exquisite text, all the magic had gone.

I’ve always preferred Beckett’s prose to his plays. Waiting for Godot is a trifle next to the great weight of Molloy. His late writing is so rarefied that confining it to dialogue (or monologue), as in Worstward Ho, leaves it hobbled and weakened. Even the mighty Ham of Endgame, probably my favorite of the plays, seems small in comparison to the titular Unnameable. Now I see this distinction as less important than a turn that happened somewhere in the four years between How It Is and “Ping.”

More precisely, it came between the more conventional “Enough” and “Ping.” One year apart, “Enough” is downright conventional and narrative, while “Ping” is one of the earliest flowerings of Beckett’s final disconnection from anything resembling a recognizeable consciousness. But since How It Is is a greater and more radical work than “Enough,” I’ll stick with it.

The pathos of How It Is and its story of people and sacks and mud is in its first line:

how it was I quote before Pim with Pim after Pim how it is three parts I say it as I hear it

In all the permutations of the phrase, Beckett is attached to this temporal sequence, and the three parts of the book are literally before, with, and after. The narrator does battle with this sequence as he is imprisoned in it, but the phenomenal reality of it is everpresent.

The slow reveal of “Ping,” in contrast, ends up as nothing but a scene. There have been attempts made to construct a narrative, but I think these are fundamentally flawed. From the first sentence on, the text presents a frozen situation:

All known all white bare white body fixed one yard legs joined like sewn. Light heat white floor one square yard never seen. White walls one yard by two white ceiling one square yard never seen. Bare white body fixed only the eyes only just.

Particularly with regard to color, the narrator’s perceptions change, but any hint of a sequence collapses back into the “shining white infinite” by the end of the piece. That infinite is as timeless as it is senseless, and Beckett enacts an erasure of time over the four pages of text. Beckett’s earlier work ran in circles, but from “Ping” on, it runs in place.

The effect is obsessively refined, but with the elimination of time, if only a before/during/after sequence, the text loses some very dear things: memory, anticipation, unknowing, speculation, forgetfulness. What remains is hopelessly precise, but misses the first principles of fiction; this is where I draw the line between fiction and pure, amorphous prose.

Sentiment and Kitsch

Writers are seldom recognized as empiricists, idealists, skeptics, or stoics, though they ought–I mean, now, in terms of the principles of their constructions, for Sartre is everywhere recognized as an existentialist leaning left, but few have noticed that the construction of his novels is utterly bourgeois. No search is made for first principles, none for rules, and in fact all capacity for thought in the face of fiction is so regularly abandoned as to reduce it to another form of passive and mechanical amusement. The novelist has, by this ineptitude, been driven out of healthy contact with his audience, and the supreme values of fiction sentimentalized.

William Gass, “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction”

In a somewhat less propitious time, the poet X would have become a popular hack on a family magazine. He would then have presupposed that the heart always responds to certain situations with the same set feelings. Noble-mindedness would always have been recognizably noble, the abandoned child lamentable, and the summer landscape stirring. Notice that in this way, a firm, clearcut, and immutable relationship would have been established between the feelings and the words, true to the nature of the term kitsch. Thus kitsch, which prides itself so much on sentiment, turns sentiment into concepts. As a function of the times, however, X, instead of being a good family magazine hack, has become a bad Expressionist.

Robert Musil, “Black Magic”

Kaddish for a Child Not Born, Imre Kertesz

I spoke of Imre Kertesz’s Fateless earlier, and my issues with its pretense towards portraying an adolescent’s immediate experience of the Holocaust. Now I’ve read Kertesz’s other commonly available translated book, Kaddish for a Child Not Born, and it goes a great ways towards explaining the other book. (Supposedly far better translations are coming out soon….)

Kertesz is, of course, far more opinionated than his adolescent stand-in of Fateless, and this interview with Gunter Grass and Kertesz gives a good idea of where Kertesz stands. The Reading Experience excerpts the most salient bits, but for me Kertesz’s words boil down to this one sentence:

Around the time when Mr Grass was beavering away on political commitment, I was beavering away on why a writer should not commit himself politically.

That rejectionist stance, in brief, is what Kaddish is about, except it is about how a Holocaust survivor, who happens to be a writer, cannot commit, period. He cannot commit to having a child, and he cannot commit to a relationship with his wife. Other writers have used the Holocaust as grounds for political action of certain stripes, or as a mark of disgrace against all or part of humanity, or as cause for fatalism. But Kertesz uses it to reject abstraction. And this comes out of anger at what he sees as more trivial representations of the Holocaust:

By way of that wretched sentence “Auschwitz cannot be explained” is the wretched author explaining that we should be silent concerning Auschwitz, that Auschwitz doesn’t exist, or, rather, that it didn’t, for the only facts that cannot be explained are those that don’t or didn’t exist…Consequently, Auschwitz must have been hanging in the air for a long, long time, centuries, perhaps like a dark fruit slowly ripening in the sparkling rays of innumerable ignominious deeds, waiting to finally drop on one’s head…I could have said about Auschwitz that the explanation is contained in individual lives and exclusively in individual lives, nowhere else. Accordingly, Auschwitz is the image and deeds of individual lives in my opinion, seen under the emblem of a particular organization. If all of mankind commences to dream, Moosbrugger is bound to be born, that attractive lust-murderer we read of in Musil’s The Man Without Qualities.

The paradox here is that while organized genocide requires the auspices of a state or a large functioning body, it is still individuals, and their individual dreams that grow, unknowably, to produce a single totality. Part of Moosbrugger’s role in Musil’s work is as a character who resists explanation, who may be a product of society, but not a conceptualized product of society. Likewise, Kertesz seems to say, Auschwitz is a consequence of such-and-such in the lives of millions of people over hundreds of years, and that irreducibly serves as its explanation. What is not possible is to generalize the mechanism of its creation. Debates over “Is art possible after the Holocaust?” are not just meaningless, they’re offensive.

He mentions a story he wrote about a Christian man who, due to Jewish blood, is sent off to the camps. This man is estranged from all concepts of heritage and culture:

But how can one fundamentally like an abstract concept as, for example, Jewishness? How can one like an unknown mass stuffed into this abstract concept?…Now he had rid himself of this pain of his assumed responsibility. Now he can, in good conscience, reject those whom he rejects and he no longer has to like those he doesn’t like. He is liberated because he no longer has a homeland. All that is left to decide now is the state of his death. Should he die as Jew, as Christian, as hero or as victim, perhaps even as a metaphysical absurdity, the victim of a neo-chaos of the demiurge? Since none of these concepts means anything to him, he decides not to taint the positive purity of his death by a lie.

And here is what Kertesz was getting at in Fateless: the attempted presentation of unmediated experience as unvarnished truth, bereft of theory, ideology, meaning or meaninglessness. Throughout Kaddish, the main character rejects role after role: father, friend, husband, and writer. The last is most significant for the reader, and it gives the implication that Kertesz believes that Fateless was destined to be a failure and is a failure, because even in writing he takes on an abstract role that he does not wish for himself.

This makes for frustrating but brutally honest reading: if Fateless was the unsuccessful product of a concept (which it surely was), then Kaddish is the breakdown of conceptualization and Kertesz’s rejection of it. As an exercise in self-abnegation it has entirely different qualities from Beckett, and maybe a little in common with Ingeborg Bachmann. But the agonized image of a man for whom every written word is a lie is far stronger in Kertesz, and it puts me in mind of, ironically, William Gass’s The Tunnel, in which literary use of the Holocaust was pushed to intentionally distasteful and trivial ends. (See this review for further details.)

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