William H. Gass: Interview with Michael Silverbatt, 1998

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?

William H. Gass: Well, I find since I don’t generally have a structure that vaguely even resembles plot or a story or something—there’s usually something there, of course; you can’t eliminate it all together—but what I prefer to work with are themes and symbols and moods and conditions. So I find, frequently, that a musical structure is much more amenable to kind of thing I want to do. Of course it has to be adapted—you can’t really do it. And the Schoenberg thing is a stretch. It’s a metaphor. Choosing Schoenberg means freeing the old notes from previous systems. For The Tunnel it meant having twelve chapters about the same length, and in each chapter having all twelve of my fundamental motifs—there are a lot of minor ones, but the fundamental motifs would be sounded—but in different arrangements. So that a certain aspect or meaning of the text would emerge more at the beginning, and then sink down and be relatively innocuous, or weak, at another point. All this is of course superimposed on a completely different kind of structure: the tunnel itself.

Silverblatt: That explains a lot to me. People who were listening carefully to that wedding list in the passage you read from may find in the back of their minds that they can hum along with it, since it comes in a sense in a minor and destructive key, from Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Whales.” You’ll remember all the hundreds of uncles and aunts, and the toys that they bring, and the general tone of jolliness. And in fact with that section—I used to read it over and over again; it came out first as a chapter called “We Have Not Lived the Right Life” in the New American Review way before, I mean 20 years before, the novel finally appeared. And I’d read it to people over and over again, and say, “You’ve got to hear this. This is astonishing.” That so much can be crammed into a space like this, that keeps opening out and out and out. And then one day I heard it—I heard Dylan Thomas there. So what you’re talking about is re-scoring, right?

Gass: That’s right. And in The Tunnel, in particular where I had a lot more freedom than in the novellas, I did sort of secret homages for different writers. There’s one little section that’s an homage to Donald Barthelme. Another of various sorts where certain ticks, certain little signatures of their style were used to kick off. My good friend William Gaddis, while I was working on this said, “Don’t you dare use me!”

Silverblatt: Can you do Gaddis?

WG: Uh, no. What I did to Gaddis once was read a section of J R —because he does some very similar things in J R —a section that forms a kind of—it’s not a fugue, but it’s patterned, repetitive; it’s sort of Stein filtered through the musical structure to Gaddis. He never reads, and he never hears himself read aloud much, so he’s always surprised to hear it. But I wouldn’t try, no.

Silverblatt: I want to situate this, to some extent. How to put it? When I first read William Gass, he was one of only five modern writers that I ever wanted to hear anything about. And I couldn’t hear enough. Those were John Barth, who happened to be a teacher at the State University of New York at Buffalo; John Hawkes; Donald Barthleme; William Gass; and preceding them a bit, William Gaddis. This was a mood in American literature that was making the impossible possible. We were having American voices, really remarkable innovations, in our literature. The novel for the first time, was coming new—as you suggest, unhinged from its conventional notes, subjected to new structures, new ideas. But of that group, you’ve remained always more connected to a particular part of the country. And to a particular reality that although the words may try to fly off the page, and into their own order, still pulling them backdown is the terror of the Midwest.

Gass: Yes, I guess. But I think Barth always ends up on board the ship. When I was younger, like everyone else who wants to leave home—the quicker the better—I always tried to get out of the Midwest, and disliked where I was living and all that. But it’s like a bad frog who tries to leap out of the pond—I always ended up back in the pond. I like it quite a lot. I realize it is the source. And it’s a source in many ways because—not just the people or the landscape, because that’s various and deep—but because of the weather. The Midwest has always fascinated me. Calamity is what it is. One calamity after another. Now I live, of course, right at the edge of calamity—the river, which they say is tamed, and then it floods like mad. I sit in St. Louis, and I think, “Aren’t I glad I’m not in Kansas City? It’s 10 degrees colder there!” But that is very much a part of my work, the weather.

Silverblatt: In The Tunnel, the kind of rhetorical majesty that you hear in that wedding section is characteristic of the book. You can’t believe it. Because at the same time, the work really is about, as the book puts it, “the fascism of the heart.” About a certain level of monstrosity. Now, Cartesian Sonata, the new book, seems to be willfully written in a frailer, broken-down form that will not erupt into those virtuoso credenzas. In fact, the person who’s listening carefully can recognize from previous books of Gass’ paragraphs that have been watered down, diluted, as if this is a world that’s getting more and more etiolated, less even able to raise its shoulders to give a good aria. Why, what’s the choice?

Gass: One reason is that the first novel took about ten, twelve years; the second one took nearly thirty. Considering at my age—I’m seventy-four—that I would embark on another novel…there are certain practical reasons. But I always loved the novella and always felt that it suited my breath, so to speak, even when I was composing longer works, or even working in an essay. I tended to have a series of breaths of about thirty pages, and there seems to be a kind of form that went with this, and so a short story might be a breath, or an essay might be a breath, and a novella—you stop almost before you start panting. It’s also something that restricts you. And I had been in a sense allowing myself in The Tunnel every resource. The first novella I ever wrote, The Pedersen Kid, was deliberately restrictive, because I knew that my very nature, my fundamental nature, was unbridled soggy romanticism. So I established rules, all kinds of rules that you couldn’t do this, you couldn’t do that, and I picked somebody and put it in his point of view who wouldn’t have a big vocabulary. With the novellas, I limited myself, not in terms of vocabulary, but in terms of their conception. In other words, I tried to give a larger vocabulary picture to a conception of things which is squeezed. But nevertheless, the novellas make you consider tighter connections, and deliberately lower your language. And then I wanted to re-discipline, I guess—reign myself in a little.

Silverblatt: But there seems to be as well, for instance, in The Tunnel, the narrator, the … hero… What do we call him? The anti-hero?

Gass: The monster.

Silverblatt: The monster is named William Kohler, and there was a chapter that was published as “Koh Whistles Up a Wind.” By the end of that chapter, he’s doing a tornado. It’s going across the page—it’s eating itself. Here, there’s a similar emptiness. It’s described as the emptiness inside a tin mailbox. Emma, in the novella you heard, says that “memory is the emptiness inside us.” And it seems as if, in this book, all of these characters deliberately are failures. She is a failure as a poet. The man in “Bed and Board” cooks books; he alters details so that people can lie on their taxes. And there’s almost as if built-in that something must now fail in these sentences. They’re enfeebled.

Gass: That’s true from the whole setup of the book, which isn’t recent in its conception—very old in conception—and that was to take the Cartesian problem of the three substances: the uncreated substance, God, which has always existed; and then the created substances, Mind and Matter. And then I did one section that’s God, but it wasn’t going to be ‘God the Great and Glorious,’ and it wasn’t ‘God the Dead and Gone.’ But it was ‘God the Incompetent.’ The real God, in my opinion. I modeled him, in a way, after a combination of sentimental romance novels and Ernest Hemingway. Because when I was starting to write that, there was a famous picture of Ernest Hemingway in Key West, stripped to the waist, with a rope around his waist, at a big trestle table. It was taken by a very famous photographer—it was in Life magazine, I think. Now, anyone who’s reading that now, they’re not going to get that reference, but there’s plenty of references to the Hemingway macho kind of writing, which I detest. I was picking out that kind of structure. So all the way through, when I wanted to take Mind and Matter, who in this conception are married—and they of course don’t get along. And of course that was the problem in Descartes metaphysics—How do you get Mind and Matter to interact? Because they have nothing to do with each other.

Silverblatt: So it’s a failure of God.

Gass: Yes. And I’m of course hedging my bets. And so then I decided to write three other novellas, each would be parallel to that initial sonata. So this is a sonata played this way, or this way. And then a sonata played that way, as each of these others lines up behind one of the sections. So “Emma Enters a Line of Elizabeth Bishop” lines up behind the section “Mind” in the first piece. And the piece that’s all about objects, “Bed and Breakfast,” lines up alongside Matter. And then the last one goes back to God again, but we don’t have God we have a tin-horn Lucifer. He’s no better at his job than God is. So that was the idea of the structure. And that meant, of course, that things had to be broken down. But it’s also true that I haven’t written anything about anybody who hasn’t been a colossal flop. Well, not even colossal. Just a floppy flop.

Silverblatt: As opposed to the Hemingway you abhor, there is the Gertrude Stein you adore. And I wanted to ask you—now, Gass has written the best essays on Gertrude Stein I’ve ever seen. I’m grateful that they are now in books; they used to be in introductions to things like The Geographic History of America, and they promptly went out of print. And now they’re in collections. But it seems to me that Gertrude Stein never stops writing. That now it’s a story, now a play, now an enormous novel, now a short poem, now a valentine. We have every kind of Stein, and we get the sense that she writes almost entirely by instinct. And the opposite pole of your structures are the instinctual uses of language. I wonder if over the years you’ve gotten to the point of that kind of density and complexity by instinct, that it’s just the way you’ve tuned the sentence.

Gass: It doesn’t seem to have gotten much better. You hope that your standards are higher, but what happens is the same that’s always happened—you start working on something, and you find you’re really writing something else. You thought you were going this way; in fact, the text is going another way. And I’m always very slow for that reason, because I don’t really know, in that sense, what I’m doing. The theorizing I do, which is fun, I keep very firmly set away from the table when I’m doing fiction. Except of course theory is fiction, too. I think that the whole problem that one faces in writing is constantly not getting anywhere, and constantly having to go back. Writing is difficult for me because it’s constantly saying, “Boy, you’re really bad. After all this time, you’re still doing this?!” And that goes on and on. Stein was important to me because she taught me, or I tried to learn from her, what the crucial thing was, which is the sentence. And she studied what a sentence was. And while she didn’t do it in some philosophical treatise, she did it by demonstration, by working. She knew the problem of the relationship between writing a sentence and reading a sentence. For example, she starts a piece with a sentence that she knows the reader’s going to think, “What in the world does that mean?” and read it again. Well, she anticipates the reader, so she repeats it. And then, of course, the reader says, “Why is she repeating these?”—so you have four of them. Now she knows at four, you’re not going to go back and read them again. She’s a very smart woman. So she does the phenomenology of reading quite brilliantly. I have encountered sentences written by her that have stayed in my head ever since, because they are keys to the very nature of language, but also the very nature of reality. One of my favorites is, “It looked like a garden, but he had hurt himself by accident.” That is just a treasure.

Silverblatt: In the descriptions of the hapless writers who variously populate your work are people who have sat at that desk, learning not only words but letters. I think that there is somewhere in the Gass Papers the learning of vowels, in the way that you’ve said Stein learned sentences.

Gass: I’m interested in all kinds of funny little things about words in music. Also, though, the visual side. I’m always amazed by words like the state I grew up in: Oh-hi-o. That’s just a little word here. And people recognize that—they say, “Round at the end, and high in the middle, that’s O-Hi-O.” Then, the difference between “pit” and “pot.” And all the dentals. And what happens when you’re reading properly, and even though you’re reading in your head, you’re reading the way our cat does, which is, “I’m gonna eat that sparrow alive!” And you’re doing that in your head when you’re reading, even when you’re reading silently. The reading is accompanied by a lot of muscular activity. I always wanted the words to be in the mouth. Not just in the eye, but in the mouth. To be chewed. I think always the great writers, at least the ones I admire most, are the ones that put things in your mouth. Rilke is wonderful at that—the juice. He does a sonnet to the orange, “Dance the orange”—a great line. And he talks about that, and all the “south” that “bursts forth” in the mouth. Of course, only in Rilke do women have this experience. I don’t know why that is. I’ve always wanted to feed the reader the words, somehow.

Silverblatt: I’ve always wondered because years ago there was a Paris Review interview with William Gass, and instead of a page of manuscript, there was a page of Kabbalistic symbols. There was a star, with letters at its various points. There were letters given numbers. And I’ve been curious about that aspect of your work, which seems to me to be about measure, about shape, about an inner portioning of sound.

Gass: Yes, that’s been an odd obsession. I think I understand it a little better now than when I was younger, because when I was younger I was interested, I thought, in that visual aspect. But words become, for me, very physical entities. And that is, in fact, the Cartesian problem again. Because they are the material—the sound and the sight, and they’re combined in some odd way. And they are carrying these concepts around. And the concepts never get themselves dirty. They always send these sounds and shapes out to do the work for them. And the sounds and shapes are the ones that are appearing in languages and sentences all the time all over the world, and in that way, adding on new meanings. Which the concepts sort of shear off, as if these poor words were sheep. I’ve always been fascinated by that interconnection. It seems to me that there’s an enormous tension in literature between the conceptual frame of neither space nor time—the very Cartesian notion of Mind, which concepts have, and which you’re fundamentally working with. Literature is fundamentally organizing conceptual schemes. And then this rather impoverished—compared to the painter and the musician—little squiggles and little sounds. And then to try to get these together so that it’s not just the old memory thing, to make them palpable. And then in Rilkean terms, to turn the poem into ein ding, a thing.

Silverblatt: In “Cartesian Sonata,” there’s a section about a clairvoyant to whom objects speak. This is her version of the relation between objects and the mind. It’s not just objects that speak, it’s patches of light, it’s gusts of wind; a room is a symphony for her, so when she’s in a three-dimensional space, as I was reading, it wasn’t just Gass feeding the mouths words, it was asking the reader, me, to imagine what it would be like if everything were capable of sentience. Of communication. If we were surrounded by endless sensorium. And that’s, I think, what your prose wants to do.

Gass: I’d like to think so. But it happens to us all the time. Things do speak; of course, we create things that speak. In the old days, when people smoked, you could express things through smoking. I remember you’d be in a faculty meeting, and you’d have your styrofoam cup you’re clutching, and you’d be smoking and burning holes in the styrofoam cup. No one yelped, even though they were meant to. You’d be doing this sort of thing, or you’d put the cigarette out with a Squash. When you put the cigarette out with the Squash, the cigarette’s still speaking there. It’s indicating. So if people were to leave the room—if it were Sherlock Holmes, because he was great at this, he’d pick up this cup and say, “This person didn’t like Amendment 2.”

In the old so-called “primitive” times, the world was full of life; everything had its own soul. There are marvelous passages about this in Spinoza, who believed of course that everything was always acting to preserve its equilibrium or existence. So if you had a limp, for instance, the limp would take on its own life, and it wants to live. I mean you want to get rid of this lovely limp, which you’ve had for some time. And so it strives to stay in existence. Everything is constantly doing this, so everything is sort of imaginary, has a life of its own. That’s a very primitive notion, but it’s a great way to see the world in a certain sense. Emotionally, we do it all the time. In fact, it’s very comforting as well as scary, because it’s what we mean by “being at home”—when everything that speaks to us, speaks to us of something pleasant. When the home no longer does, when the tablecloth that was thrown at you, along with the glass, reminding you of that. And I do have a few passages—this all comes from Rilke, who was ahead of everybody about all of this—where the air is still bruised from blows that have been struck by warring couples, and so on. That kind of thing—we all sense that. Bachelard, of course, is the great describer of spaces in that sense. And that’s the animistic. There’s a certain part of us that still likes to feel we’re living in a world that’s alive and has to be respected, and can be angry at us. And our car won’t start because it doesn’t like us for some reason.

Silverblatt: I want to describe one of the oddest days of my life. And I suppose in a Gassian sense, I want to make you jealous and envious of me. One day in the mail came an orange crate, and inside the orange crate was a manuscript, a copy of the manuscript of The Tunnel. It had, in addition to the color pages you see in the hardcover, it had all sorts of special stamps, doodads, things that in fact did not ultimately make it over the process of publishing, the confusions of book designers. The book was meant to have an armband around it—like a Nazi armband. It was meant to be printed in a print that looked like barbed wire—a kind of gothic print. The book we see in front of us is not the imagined book. I have a version of the imagined book, in an orange crate in my closet. Valery talks a good deal about the ideal book against which any actual book is merely a simulacrum, or an approximation. And it seems that only once, in the original version of Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife—which was published by a literary magazine, TriQuarterly, with three-color pages and then slip paper—was there an ideal book. That a publisher had produced the book you’d envisioned.

Cover for Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife by William H. Gass, Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1968 (TriQuarterly Supplement Number Two). (http://omeka.wustl.edu/omeka/exhibits/show/gass/fiction/item/3522)

Gass: Both of those—The Tunnel as well as the earlier one—were created by me almost as private things. Because I knew that what I was doing was no longer possible in print, in the ordinary sense. One of the things in The Tunnel, which I particularly liked, was the fact that one of the pages was to be printed on a grocery sack. “No double-bagging needed”—that kind of thing. This was to be the sack in which the lovers had been. This was to be the sack of oranges they carried around when they were mooning at one another during a walk around the lake. This was to be the sack she gives him eventually, when she gets rid of him. And so on. So there was going to be a piece of this sack there. The publishers did their best to imitate this, but ideally of course, they’d have a paper sack, taken from a local grocery store, with no double-bagging needed. I wanted that particular concreteness. But the ideal book really is a combination of a kind of Valeriean/Platonism and a Beckett mudslide. In How It Is, the character’s crawling around in the mud. And the ideal book, it seems to me, would be discovering the Platonic forms in the mud. They’re both all there at once.

Silverblatt: That’s magnificent.

Gass: No—it’s just muddy.

Silverblatt: Is there a possibility of such a book? For instance, this problem still goes on. One of these novellas was a printed in a literary magazine named Conjunctions. And it had some extraordinary photographs with it. Photographs that I’ve learned didn’t reproduce well. And they are not in the book. This verbal, visual, musical whole that you make—is there any hope for a reader encountering that? Can the ideal book be made?

Gass: Well, I don’t think so. Ideals are never realized, only tarnished. The photographer who did the work, Michael Eastman—whose work I admire immensely—happens to live across the street. And we’re doing a number of minor collaborations. I have finished a novella for the next collection called In Camera. And what we’re planning to do is a run a photo strip right through the middle of the text, all the way through the piece. He does marvelous things that are perfect for the kind of text I’m writing, or have written. But I’m hesitant about doing more of this, because the paper we can afford to use is simply too porous, and it simply doesn’t take the image well enough. So I hate to ask him—even though some of the images have great power. It’s like somebody saying, “I want you to write for this book, and maybe most people will see several letters of the text you write.’ He’s a very fine artist, and to have his work not presented as perfectly as possible, it’s hard for me to ask him to do that… although I might anyway.

Silverblatt: My final question is a nearly impossible one to answer, but it’s one I’ve always wanted to ask. And I’m astonished that to my mind it hasn’t been asked before. I wanted to ask about the relationship between the sophistication of aesthetics of the books and the monstrosity and terror and horror and failure that they’re about. It’s almost another version of the mind-object problem.

Gass: Yes, that’s another parallel. One of the problems that has bothered philosophers for a long time, especially Rationalists, is that sophistication doesn’t redeem. I’ve heard many a humanist say, “Well, the humanities make people better!” It makes them craftier, maybe. That was one of the reasons I was interested in the problem of Hitler’s Germany. It just raised to a higher level the problem that there wasn’t any redeeming profession. Or anything that you could say, “Well, because he was a druggist, he was OK….” People were, of course, resistant to the fascism of Germany. But you couldn’t find them anywhere. And then there were people who weren’t resistant, you could find them anywhere. We know, of course, there are many, many great artists who are awful people. Not just crude, bumbling, stupid, but really nasty people. And the connection between that has always fascinated me. Because these great creations of the human spirit, some of the highest forms of the things we’ve achieved, they sort of rise up as our great things. And yet the people who made them are in… hell. And deserve to be there. In the Tenth Elegy, Rilke says, desperately, “Chartres was great, wasn’t it? Didn’t we do something good?” The problem that this book Cartesian Sonata is about is salvation or redemption, because everybody is trying to get saved one way or another. So you have this inept deity who is ruining everything. And then you have all these characters who are in bad places. And the cookbook man—he finds his salvation, he thinks, through kitsch. He goes to a bed and breakfast and falls in love with all the objects he finds there.

Silverblatt: Stuffed birds.

Gass: Yeah, everything in the world. OK, that’s one way. Emma, that’s through matter—but it’s through matter that’s been molded by people. And even if it’s terrible sentimental stuff, it’s been put into those things with the greatest concern and often genuineness. Hand-made. As Gertrude Stein says. “Went into a house filled with dirty things made by hand.” Emma represents the spirit. She wants to get salvation through poetry. But poetry doesn’t save. And then of course, finally, we have the man who wants to get salvation by trying to create a new religion, in which he will become a famous deity. Eventually, worshipped. And it’s his idea of the most secret revenge: Found a new religion.

Silverblatt: Now this question has a sub-section, and I beg your indulgence because it’s one I need to have answered. Accompanying this dichotomy between the beautiful and the horrific—history—there’s been a need in your work to identify yourself with the monsters who narrate them. Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife has “Willie” there. The historian in The Tunnel is named “William Frederich Kohler.” And again and again, it’s as if there are counterfeit selves. Now I know you as a compassionate and insightful and perceptive man. But literary critics, who don’t know how to read, have assumed that the novel The Tunnel is about William Gass. And it’s kind of hard to imagine such an identification being made. And yet: You have provoked it.

Gass: Yeah.

Silverblatt: I wonder why.

Gass: Well partly just out of meanness to show that they don’t know how to read! But partly because we’re in a sense every man. To talk about Kohler and create this character without—something that has rarely been brought up, probably because nobody can connect me with Sinclair Lewis in any way, is that this is a It Can’t Happen Here book. And what I’m saying is, “Yes it can.” And it is happening. I’m terrified of the fascism that lies just below the surface. And in fact not very far below now. When I was growing up there was Fr. Coughlin, and there Nazi meetings and the Ku Klux Klan was all over Indiana, so it was not—it was something that I grew up with. Well, to say, “That’s those people” is to cop out. It’s us. One of the reasons for making those resemblances is the author’s just in the same suit everybody else is in. And in fact because you are an author and an artist, you are still not redeemed. It doesn’t do anything in that sense. No one can say, “Ah, Wagner—wonderful man!” “Celine! My darling.” You know. But there it is. Philosophers are notoriously mean-spirited, narrow-minded. You know, they go Schopenhauering all day.

And yet, out of it comes these wonderful things. And I think the answer in a certain sense is again, to go back to Rilke, as I do so often. In that great poem, he says, “What do you do, poet? How are you going to get by another day?” “I praise.” So you sit down and praise. And you praise even the most awful things. By trying to render them as eloquently, clearly, as perceptively as you’re capable of doing. Rilke says, “Why do things exist in this world? They exist to become invisible.” That is, to be seen by people and change from matter into mind. By being perceived properly. And in that sense, the whole world, which is constantly flowing, has to be perceived and saved and redeemed, even if it’s awful. And in fact especially. Because that’s what we want to forget. Rather than the other. And so the poem goes on. Because I praise. Praise is the thing, he says in the sonnets. I think that’s true, in a way. Celebration. When I’m reading a good book—a Beckett book, say—which is grim, grim, grim—I don’t come away thinking, “Oh, what an awful world.” I think, “My God it’s amazing this thing exists.” It’s about how awful the world is. But it isn’t awful. It transforms it. And I think that’s what we’re supposed to do.


Originally broadcast by the Lannan Foundation (November 1998). Republished with permission.