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Surface #35

Text By William H. Gass | Photographs by Michael Eastman

Editor’s Note: This project originated as a collaboration between longtime friends William Gass and Michael Eastman. With their permission, I published the material as an iPad-only e-book in 2012, garnering a small bit of attention from head-scratching literary folks who knew Gass as a print man through and through. In summer 2016, I removed the e-book from Apple’s bookstore and published it here on Medium. I’m pleased that many more readers, including several living abroad who emailed me to say they wished they could read it but could not, can now take it in.

1. The Concrete Seeks the Abstract — Where It Has Always Been Most at Home

It was an age of triumph. It was an age of shame. It was an age of anxiety. It was an age of blame. It was an age of rebirth and rebuilding, of wars rekindling. It was an age of mistrust and suspicion, of faith in decline. It was an age of innocence. It was an age of sin without redeemer or redemption. It was an age of insanity — craze succeeding craze. It was an age of returning normalcy. It was an age of accelerating change: things coming — in a wink — into being, things passing — with the swiftness of a sneeze — quite away. It was, in short, much like every other age. …


Published as “Sentenced to Depth” in Rain Taxi, 2013

In Fiction and the Figures of Life, William H. Gass offers the fledgling writer—or any writer, period—numerous insights toward the construction of meaningful, emotionally resonant, and culturally significant fiction, or, as Gass writes, “objects which are especially worthy of love.” Throughout the book, Gass elucidates the disparities between fiction and philosophy, while also revealing how philosophers and novelists share numerous techniques, strategies, and obsessions. Language, identity reinvention, creating worlds, and playing “divine games” are the domains of both. …


— Stephen Schenkenberg, May 2014

I have published this project for two kinds of readers: those who have been reading William H. Gass over his long and decorated career; and those now rightly catching up.

For both, the next 90,000-plus words provide a uniquely rich exploration of Gass’ oeuvre and synthesis of his philosophy. A lengthy essay-introduction here would not only cover that same ground prematurely, it would delay the playing of the voice you’ve come to hear. …


May 2014

I extend my thanks to the interviewers and editors who worked with me to secure permissions and other material for this project:

  • Jessie Ahn of The New Republic
  • Fred van der Zee, representing the defunct Dutch Quarterly Review
  • John O’Brien of Dalkey Archive Press and its Review of Contemporary Fiction
  • Michael Silverblatt of “Bookworm”
  • Jo Chapman of the Lannan Foundation
  • Rebecca Soares of The University of Wisconsin Press and its Contemporary Literature
  • Eric Day, contributor to Hayden’s Ferry Review, and its managing editor, Beth Staples
  • Andrew Leland of The Believer
  • Paul Maliszewski, contributor to Vice, and its managing editor Amy…


Published in the Dutch Quarterly Review, 1979

William Gass was appointed to a distinguished professorship at Washington University, St. Louis, on 1 June 1979, the day this interview was conducted. He had just returned to St. Louis from New York City where he had received the Award of Merit for the Novel from the National Academy and Institute of Letters. Shortly before, The First Winter of My Married Life, a section from his novel in progress, The Tunnel, had been brought out in a limited edition by the Lord John Press.

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The editor’s copy of this limited-edition volume

G. A. M. Janssens: The modern interview takes many shapes. Nabokov made it almost into an essay form, polishing and rewriting. Do you see any virtue in the off-the-cuff character of the interview? …


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Gass with Stanley Elkin. Courtesy of Catherine Gass.

Published in The New Republic, 1979, as “William Gass and John Gardner: A Debate on Fiction”

This discussion between William Gass and John Gardner took place on October 24, 1978, during a Fiction Festival sponsored by the University of Cincinnati and the National Endowment for the Arts. The discussion was moderated by Thomas LeClair, who teaches at Cincinnati. John Gardner is the author of On Moral Fiction and many novels. William Gass, novelist and teacher of philosophy, is the author most recently of The World Within the Word, a volume of literary criticism.

Thomas LeClair: Is there a use of language in fiction which is inherently moral?

John Gardner: When I wrote On Moral Fiction, I was talking about a particular kind of fiction which I think is consciously moral, fiction which tries to understand important matters by means of the best tool human beings have. Many of the most academically popular writers of our time are completely uninterested in understanding these matters. They are more interested in understanding juxtapositions than in understanding how we should live. They are concerned with making beautiful or interesting or ornate or curious objects. As for language—when I talk to you, I speak English and try to choose words, from all the possible words in the world, which seem most likely to say what I mean. If I am writing and find that one of the words that I choose is wrong, I put in a better word for my precise meaning. While English is just noises that we make with our mouths, teeth, throat, lungs and so on, fiction is an enormously complicated language. It has much more discreet, much more delicate ways of communicating. When I create a character, I want to make a lifelike human being, a virtual human being. Maybe by using the right kind of weather, I can give you a hint of what this person is. By comparing him to a bear or a rhinoceros or a spider, I can give you another hint. In other words, everything I choose in writing a piece of fiction is aimed at communication. I think that beauty in fiction is finally elegant communication, where the very form of the work helps to say what I’m trying to say. If I’m writing about an ordered universe, I write an ordered novel. If I’m talking about a tension between order and disorder, I write a novel in which the form expresses that tension. But always I’m using the tool of language to dig a hole. Other people sometimes use the tool of language to chew on. …


Published as “Language and Conscience” in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, Fall 1991

Arthur M. Saltzman: I want to begin by asking you about Salman Rushdie. I am specifically interested in how his plight may correlate to some of the things you say in essays like “The Artist and Society,” in which you contend that the artist’s true impact upon society is that he helps to engineer a revolution of consciousness. How does the “reception” of The Satanic Verses coincide with, or possibly undermine, that contention?

William H. Gass: Well, I hadn’t thought of it in those terms, but I have written a few things about the controversy. Not about taking sides with or against the Ayatollah, of course, but about the response of people in our own society to the action—in particular, the very lukewarm (pusillanimous, really) response of the churches, the absence of any sustained outrage by commercial writers or other media, the confinement of the situation to a few, and the kind of excuses and apologies in its wake. I think these things do impinge upon what I was talking about in that essay, as I remember it, because the self-imposed restrictions of the bookstores indicate a sympathy not for the Ayatollah’s extremism but for the anger and affront felt by the Islamic communities here and abroad. The issue is raised all over again that we can’t in this society go to the extreme of killing him off, but really we would like to shut him up. Rushdie’s situation is an extreme version of the artist’s position in general. The Ayatollah represents a fixed, fanatical point of view which runs through all cultures and which is inimical to artistic characterization. I was addressing how this instance is a reiteration of this constant problem and what shape it would take were it to have occurred in America. Rushdie’s ridicule of religious value . . . even though the Christians don’t like Islam, religion’s religion, and the question has to do with orthodoxies of all sorts—particularly the old tradition of being uncontaminated. They are in the position of condemning something they have not and cannot read. Our own cardinal here said of course it is a terrible thing to have put a hit out on Rushdie, but neither should Catholics read that terrible book. The Chinese have demonstrated the same sad ethics that jeopardize all of the people we met over there who were so enthusiastic over the new world that is opening up. …


Conducted by Michael Silverblatt, 1995; Broadcast on “Bookworm,” 1995

The following interview was recorded in March 1995 in the studios of KCRW, in Santa Monica, California. The program’s description of the show was as follows: “Author William H. Gass discusses the evolution and style of his thirty-years-in-the-making new novel, finally published this month.” You can listen to the audio here.

Michael Silverblatt: Today my guest is William H. Gass, the author of The Tunnel, published by Alfred Knopf. This book is a 653-page book, composed over a period of 30 years. It’s been being written since I was eight years old, and I feel like I’ve been reading it virtually since then. The narrator of this book, William Kohler, is a professor of history. He has studied modern Germany and sees in the rise of the Reich a model that is replicated in the arguments he’s been having with his wife and his family. Now he comes to understand what is referred to in the novel as “the fascism of the heart.” The book is a kind of domestic epic. And what we see is a kind of symbolic replication of the multiplication of angry selves, in a way. How does one go about structuring such a book? …


Broadcast as the “Lannan Readings & Conversations: William Gass”

The following interview was recorded in front of a live audience in November 1998 at the Lannan Foundation in Santa Fe, New Mexico as part of its Readings & Conversations series. In the first part of the program, Gass read from what he calls the “invocation to the Muse” section of The Tunnel, as well as a portion of his “Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop’s.” That novella had recently been published in the collection Cartesian Sonata.

Video of the reading: https://vimeo.com/12812717
Video of the interview: https://vimeo.com/12812721

Michael Silverblatt: This is a completely unrehearsed conversation. It will be a combination of questions I’ve dreamed of asking William Gass since I last saw him several years ago and questions that I want to ask for people who may not yet know his work. I wanted to begin with that musical structure, since we heard “A Fugue,” and you read from Cartesian Sonata. You mentioned the Arnold Schoenberg system of notation in reference to The Tunnel—I had no idea of this. Could you talk about the music of your work? …


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One shelf of the Gass library. Photographed by Frank Di Piazza.

Published in Contemporary Literature, 2002

William H. Gass and I met at the Society for the Study of Narrative Literature’s annual conference, in East Lansing, on the campus of Michigan State University, in April 2002. We made arrangements to meet in the morning for breakfast, at a cafe next to a bar. The owner was kind enough to open the bar to let us conduct the interview there, which we were able to do once we figured out how to use the tape recorder. Gass thoughtfully considered each of his answers to often demanding questions, and I was impressed by his capacity to move compellingly among the disciplines of philosophy, philosophy of science, history, and literature, as much of his fiction does. …

About

Stephen Schenkenberg

Live in St. Louis. Married to @tschenkenberg. Editor, www.readinggass.org. More, www.stephenschenkenberg.com.

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