William H. Gass: Interviewed by Eric Day, 2004

Published as “Structures that Sing: An Interview with William H. Gass” in Hayden’s Ferry Review, 2004


William H. Gass is a prose writer whose many books demonstrate the primacy of language over commercial concerns. His work, never yielding to compromise, consistently strives toward the artist’s purest imagination. He has been the recipient of grants from the Rockefeller, Lannan, and Guggenheim foundations. He has won the Pushcart Prize (1976, 1983, 1987, 1992), and his work has appeared four times in Best American Short Stories. He won the PEN American Nabokov Award for Reading Rilke, and in 2003 his book Tests of Time won the National Book Critics Circle award for Criticism, the third time he has received that prize. In fall 2004, a compendium of voices celebrating his particular and long-standing genius, William H. Gass at 80: a Special Issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction, was published, co-edited by Sally Ball and Heide Ziegler. This e-mail interview was conducted in February 2004.

Eric Day: You’ve said your fictions are, by and large, experimental constructions with little character or story in the conventional sense.The Library of Congress indexes you as a metafictionist, as do many critics, lumping you with Gaddis, Calvino, Barth, and other so-called postmodern writers. Do you set out to write experimentally? If so, why? Is it merely to demonstrate a particular prowess? To display a distrust of traditional narrative? Or is there something more?

William H. Gass: Libraries and critics like lumps. It helps them ignore differences. Barth, Gaddis, Coover, Elkin, Hawkes, Gass, Calvino, Abish—all of them write quite differently and they all have different obsessions. I have been accused of inventing the term “metafiction.” I have used it, but I don’t know if I did for the first time. In any case, I understand “metafiction” to refer to fictions whose subject matter is largely the art of fiction itself, the way Jane Austen is about marriage. They are not necessarily self-reflexive or narcissistic, for in that case they would lack generality. At Swim-two-birds is sometimes about itself but often also about Irish literature or literature in general. Much of Calvino’s work fits the category, but not all of it. Metafiction had a moment of emphasis and then its techniques passed over into those of fiction generally. Barth and I started writing metafictions independently about the same time. But Gaddis is not a metafictionist, nor is much of my own work. Willie Masters’ is a clear case of metafiction as is “Emma Enters a Line of Elizabeth Bishop’s.” “Bed and Breakfast” exploits the rhetorical device of ekphrasis to a faretheewell and so might squeeze in, although not a single critic noticed it, which is like missing the trunk of the elephant.

I reject the label “post-modernist” completely as do most of my colleagues. I am a decayed or degenerate modernist. An experiment is not a destination.

I am interested in exploration, not experimentation. What passes for experimental (when so-called experimental fiction was in vogue) is often just rejection of the 19th century bourgeois world view that their fiction depicted. If Dickens depicts the real world, I am Humpty Dumpty. Narration, characterization, scene omnipotence—these techniques were regarded as essences, and the result was to be “the way it is.” Middle-class novels wallow in these comforting illusions. Most of my crowd were heartily sick of it—not that we didn’t admire the great 19th century writers. It was the claims made for their work we rejected. Traditional narration is OK with me—it is one chosen device among many—but it is as artificial as pie crust. You don’t have to be a “realist,” but if you want to be you have to write The Tunnel not Vanity Fair. The real world is mean, confused, chancy, as ill-ordered as ordered, evil oftener than good, and as pointless as a broken pencil. The serious writer should not feed readers who are smug and lazy, reactionary yet faddy, leering but unobservant. Nor satisfy the critics who pander to their tastes.

Day: Your past fiction has been called difficult and inaccessible, recursive and dense. Still others call it beautiful, enchantingly lyrical, rich with rhythmic language and striking imagery. How do you account for such disparity regarding the reception of your work? And what do you see as the primary purpose of the writer in society?

Gass: There are those purposes society assigns—its expectations—and the purposes private to the person who is writing. There are also different kinds of writing—a review, for instance, will be expected to meet the requirements of an editor who will have his or her own aims, while the writer will have others. Our society is wholly indifferent to what serious writers do. So they are not blamed for failing to charm or amuse or shock or outrage. Amuse and/or inform would be society’s customary hopes, I suppose, for any book it might pick up. Poets might also be expected to inspire, but in our society only individuals read poetry, society can hardly be said to. Since society expects nothing of me, I expect nothing from it. The censorship of indifference is to be preferred to the other kinds.

My loyalty is to what might be grandly called “the art.” As a scientist might be devoted to his work. The scientist hopes to add to the knowledge in his field. I would like to expand the possibilities of prose.

There is really no reception of my work in the general sense; there are individual readers. Some of those readers are critics, but it would be quite foolish to imagine critics managing the opinions of more than a handful of others. Who don’t matter anyway because their opinions are being managed. Serious work asks to be read with care. Some novels have surfaces that glide by like smooth water—Colette’s, for instance, but so does Flaubert’s. The careless reader can drift along as on a summer’s day. But they will miss the work. Novels that have obdurate surfaces won’t allow the lazy to say: I’ve read Madame Bovary or Daisy Miller or Cherie. They won’t have “read” The Golden Bowl or A Man Without Qualities or Malone Dies.

I am gratified if some find my work beautiful. I try to make it so. But failure is the rule where excellence is the goal. I don’t try to be dense or difficult or easy either. I try to realize the demands of the piece as it emerges. When I want to know what to do, I ask the text. If things are going well, it will tell me.

We court the happy few, as Stendhal said. Trust the art not the audience.

Day: In “The Abandonment of the Family,” the opening of your forthcoming novel Middle C, diners dine on dreams at the dinner table, a wife’s heart beats in the chest of her disappeared husband, and a woman’s accent is so thick it can hold down papers in a wind. Among the above magical notions, one sees the looming of yet another beautiful, and difficult, digressive, Gass construction. Yet the piece contains more traditional narrative techniques as well, at least for Gass: detectable story line, characterization, scene setting; and one early paragraph houses seven semicolons, all flexing under the weight of exposition, furthering the action and plot along. Will this new work prove to be a kinder, gentler William Gass? And when can we expect the novel to arrive?

Gass: Yes, Middle C is supposed to be simpler in sentence and story because of its subject. “The Apocalypse Museum,” another section, has also come out in Conjunctions. Earlier I had published two other pieces there—“In Camera” and “Charity”—these novellas were to have been joined by another, in their midst, called “Middle C.” However, the latter has grown to such an extent it threatens to destroy the idea entirely and now should be called Big Belly. Middle C was designed to be the soft center between two more daunting exercises. Certain parts of it require simplicity and directness. Other parts, however, do not. It will not be kinder or gentler if I can help it. It is about man’s inhumanity, man’s irrationality, cruelty, and greed. But in a nice way of course.

After my experience with The Tunnel, when for years, when asked “when,” I said a couple of years, until nearly thirty of them had elapsed, I no longer make predictions. But, I would guess it should be done in a couple of years.

“I’ve always thought that Aristotle was right about the nature of the good life—that it was a process of self-realization, and that it was tied to the pursuit of excellence, whether as a craftsman, artist, scientist, or statesman.”

Day: The Tunnel, your last novel, is about a reprehensible man of history who is in love with tunnels. So much so, he is digging one in the basement of his house in order to get away from all sorts of constructs in his life, and perhaps into new ones. Throughout, the book contains typographical experimentation. There are colorful pennants, bold script, a page reproduced from a paper sack that once held a bag of oranges shared by lovers, and more. Long before the book came out, you planned on not making any compromises to it, yet, because of financial reasons, all you’d hoped to accomplish would not be done by the publisher. In a perfect world, how would its design differ from its original widely-published form? And what would you say to unknown writers who wish to be uncompromising, but find the publishing world accommodating mainly to those who prune this tendency from their aesthetic, or to those whose agented fiction or cover letters shine with commercial appeal?

Gass: I first dreamed a book when I was composing Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife. It looked, at first, like a scrap book. There were many marginal notations describing what should be done at this point—the skew or size of the type, its font, its placement, and so on. Since the lonesome wife was, among other things, language, I wanted all the quotes (and there were many) rendered in the typeface of the sources first edition (bad idea, visually). The front cover was to be a nude, overblown—well past it—woman’s front, while the rear was, of course, a photo of her rear. A bookmark was to be inserted. Since this was to be an “unclean” book, the bookmark was to be a condom for safe entry on which would be printed the slogan: a dirty book is a clean lay, and so on. The book was to be as rowdy, bawdy and irreverent as the wife was. Irreverence is a habit with me and it has been held against me by a good many.

Well, The Tunnel was to be an antinovel, antibook. A ream box would hold its loose leaves. There would be doodles all over it, as well as its narrator’s dreams. One page would be a grocery sack, another a silver tray, another a crumpled, stomped-on sheet. The book required the composition of decomposition and was to be the opposite of a work of history in every way possible. That’s why the reader shouldn’t be too certain about any assertion including the tunnel itself.

Of course impracticalities were enormous and endless. Costs were prohibitive. My box-book was to have a swastika-like band about it bearing the emblem of the Party of the Disappointed People. Which would be torn off in book stores. It would not bear my name on its title page. It was a book by Kohler. The pop up concrete poem penis I wanted would be yanked out. And many ideas I noted down for both Tunnel and Willie were just that—ideas. Ideas aren’t literature. Or they were bad ideas which designers helpfully pointed out to me. In both cases, the publishers did the best they could, better than anyone else was ready to do, and better than I (and the text) probably deserved.

I regret most agreeing to show a good looking woman on Willie’s cover. No one-thousand-year old language whore, she.

Now I content myself with the idea of an augmented book: a copy of The Tunnel that will be manipulated by me, with much pasted-in extraneous stuff. This I will inflict on no one else. But for me it will be what I have done.

To others of like mind, I would say: be uncompromising. That way you will have to compromise a lot less.

Day: Like John Hawkes, your prose often moves as though patterned by sound. You’ve said you write by the mouth, for the ear, and that you would like your reader to read you as though listening to music. Can you expand on that? And do you adopt musical modes merely to impose a formal constraint, a frame in which to work, or has it served to liberate? And, finally, how has music helped shape you as a writer?

Gass: I believe that Paul West listens to music, earphoned for the night through which he writes, so that the rhythms will get into his blood, and for the energy he can draw from sounds that at the same time block out everything of the world but art. Not my means of employment. I am fascinated by relationships, and music is nothing if not relational. I love the way a piece will create its own space after only a few notes, the intervals full of stress, departure, anticipation. I want meaning to move the reader the way runs and chords and pauses do. Whether visual or auditory, the physicality of prose is very important to me. Beckett reminds me of Bach. Musical forms give me ideas for comparable organizations. They allow me to arrange connections between meanings outside of those ordered by syntax. That is why rhetoric is an essential aspect of what I try to do. Rhetorical forms extend over paragraphs and pages sometimes. I see alliteration, assonance, consonance, rhyme, etc., as devices for relating meanings, again independent of syntactical requirements. Word order is purely musical—the note, the tone, arrives, and it is immediately assimilated to everything that has gone before, and to everything that is yet to come. Prose that does not sing is not alive.

The master of us all in this is Henry James (or before him Sir Thomas Browne and his baroque friends). One of my Bibles (useful books for a change) is Saintsbury’s wonderful History of English Prose Rhythm. The music (sound and forms) often lead the mind, run ahead of what is being said and beckon. Prose goes most smoothly when drawn toward a culmination rather than when pushed from behind. And when the music invents the meaning you may really have something. For instance, when a position opened in a cathedral church, Burton wrote: “The carcase scarce cold, many suitors were up in an instant.” Death, marriage, and church position are not only metaphorically connected, Burton anagrams “carcase” and “scarce” so that the latter rises from the corpse (and position) in question like an odor, “cold” closes the phrase like a door’s slam. I also admire “in an in-stant.” The sentence reeks of scorn. Without the music the sentence wouldn’t reek. I have already gone on at length about this in “A Defense of the Book” and Ben Jonson’s sentence that ends “making a little winter-love in a darke corner.” Also in “The Melodies of Melanctha7’ and “The Music of Prose.”

My genes did not permit me to be a mathematician, an architect, or a musician. I was left with language, and the ambition to build a structure that would sing.


Day: “Order of Insects,” your story from your collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, was recently included in the anthology Extreme Fiction. A while ago you said this may be the best fiction you’ve written. Do you still believe that? What about it did you get right?

Gass: “Order of Insects” is hardly extreme, though, is it? Pretty tame. It is difficult for me to remember why I might have looked with such favor on it. It had the advantage of being short, so mistakes were likely to be fewer, even though, when a piece is short, any error is catastrophic.

It was, for me, a feminist gesture, but I wanted it to be made by a prose that was particularly muscular. It represented a freed mind, if not a freed body. And what the housewife realizes is something esthetic—a Kantian position actually—that the judgment of taste is not mediated by concepts. She finally gets past “cockroach” to see the insect as it really is. Moreover what she sees, when she sees that, is the creature’s form. So I (fairly obviously) smuggled into the story a couple of my dearest beliefs. Maybe I thought the style measured up to the message. The bug was my bit of sand through which I might view the world.

Day: You began publishing fiction some forty years ago, at a time when M.F.A. writing programs were in their infancy. Though you’ve cited a variety of writers who came before you as influential, I understand that you did not have a significant direct mentor in your writing life. However, in 1990 you started the International Writers Center at Washington University in St. Louis, a focal point for writing excellence in all disciplines and cultures. What are your feelings about the possibilities of the mentor/student relationships now so often sought by young writers in universities?

Gass: In Europe where the mentor system is traditional (though for scholars not writers), these seniors are sought largely for the influence they wield in their fields and therefore as levers of power, and only secondarily (though this would not be admitted) as teachers whose wisdom is to be taken to heart and whose practice imitated. In the U.S., as it appears to me, writing students look for mentors who are networkers and will have good connections to NewYork publishers. It’s who you know on both continents.

The ideal that the mentor system once served was admirable enough, and is perhaps best exemplified in China and Japan, but it perpetuated tradition and encouraged imitation. It called for a wise mentor indeed, one who would free his student and help him find his own way. However, there are too many “teachers” who feast on the false intimacy writing programs encourage, and too many “writing students” whose ambitions are mainly social and commercial, to make such a system a sound one.

If a young writer wants a mentor, let him or her read. That way the work that will allow learning without dictation may be found, work that will be more suitable for the writer’s time and skill and place. And the first thing the young writer should learn is how many ways there are to be excellent, and how difficult each of them is. The International Writers Center tried to make new and different work available, but we did not teach writing, and we avoided academics. Had we done either we would have appeared more useful to the university and therefore might still exist, but then we would have had less reason to.


“Difficult? Hard to read? Is the light bad?”

Day: I’m interested to know what you think of Jonathan Franzen’s recent New Yorker article, “Mr. Difficult: William Gaddis and the Problem of Hard-to-Read Books.” Franzen calls the authors of difficult fiction angry showoffs whose aversion to compromise make their books unreadable. In addition to Gaddis’ The Recognitions and J R, he groups in Remembrance of Things Past, Naked Lunch, and, a bit bafflingly, Moby-Dick and Don Quixote. He goes on to say that the characters in difficult fiction are little more than cardboard cutouts intended to stand in for the “satirical judgments and intellectual obsessions” of their authors, and that their stylistic trickery serves only to “discourage intimacy” with the reader. He suggests that Gaddis, in this sense, betrayed him. That he’s performed a kind of violation of pact by not producing the contractual, entertainment-based model of fiction that Franzen seems to be in favor of here. What do you see as the writer’s duty to the reader, and why should we take the time to read The Recognitions? Why should we take the time to read hard books at all?

Gass: Difficult? Hard to read? Is the light bad? “Mr. Hackett turned the corner and saw, in the failing light, at some little distance, his seat.” Is this opening sentence of Watt, difficult? To be sure, the light is failing. But a grade past Dick and Jane can do it. “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.” Even an American high school kid should have no trouble with this. Of course, in our innocence, we will almost certainly slide by the ritualistic mock Christian symbolism secreted in the sentence like some spy’s cipher. Later, we shall realize the level of care at which the text has been composed, and we shall have to think back to the passage and reunderstand it. “A yellow dressing gown, ungirded, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned: lntroibo ad altare Dei.” That’s how far forward—one line—we have to go before we realize we’ve got to go back to the foaming bowl and razor. If we don’t know Latin—well, yes, that passage will be difficult to read. But gee—which is the letter that should awaken us to this masterpiece—gee will not waken us until we’ve had a bit of training, a little course in the close read. A few more lines with Mr. Hackett will do the same because Beckett is a great contrapuntist. Lack of knowledge, lack of training, attention deficiencies, lack of tantalizing sex or scandal in the text, lack of time and energy in the reader (has turned many a one from Proust and Musil), dire courses of events, gloomy prognostications, put others down in dumps they were reading to escape from: conditions of this sort made the reader “unwilling” or “unable” to continue. None of them make the work “difficult.”

And the simply gorgeous music of “a yellow dressing gown (pause) ungirded . . .” etc, the slow long ohs of “he held the bowl aloft and intoned—introibo . . . ” etc. These do satisfy the souls of some poor saps to such a degree they are willing to earn an advanced one in order to experience the thrill. Odd, indeed, but not ominous, not mean.

Why should I be able to read every book I pick up? As a matter of fact, I can’t. Why shouldn’t I be uninterested in some things and interested in others? So about canoes, I am passionate, but about schooners, I am blasé or bored. But there is a rumor going around in certain quarters that if you don’t swoon over Joyce and Henry James, if you turn a deaf ear to Schoenberg, if you find Ashbery too convex and Chaucer too ancient, if Kandinsky is a mess, and Rothko unmoving, then you ain’t got any god damn culture. Most people don’t care if they don’t enjoy Monteverdi and prefer hippity-hop to the cabbage plot. Nor should they care. But there are those unfortunate others who are angry they aren’t applauded by the Handelites or praised by Proustians. They have high taste, too. In fact, their level of happy mediocrity is the level at which all life should be lived. It is a tendency we all share to think our ways are the ways.

So writers owe these readers the courtesy of soliciting their praise. But for a moment Mr. Franzen feared the praise of the dark lady would damage his reputation among the literati—Never fear, sir, your reputation among the literati is safe. What basically bothers Gore Vidal, Tom Wolfe, and other journalists is that news ages badly while many of these damn difficult books get better, stronger, more beautiful, and even easier, as the years pass. That’s just how it is.

between sessions sometimes a sprat a prawn that could happen it goes on in the past ah if only all past all in the past Born come I gone and Born on our life in common we had good moments they were good moments drivel drivel no matter a sprat a prawn.

I can understand how annoying it might be to be told that this gibberish is good stuff. But I won’t tell a soul.

I owe readers nothing whatever. I owe my art (such as it is) everything. I also do what I can to warn readers who may prove to be the wrong ones away from my work . Gaddis does the same. The Recognitions never pretends to be a paid-for whore who must deliver her pleasures like Playboy page by page. Only trash tries to be compelling. You are always free to leave Musil in Vienna. There are plenty of books that will amuse the mind for a pair of hours, though a movie would be less demanding and you can sleep while it moves.

A bunch of us tricksters answered Mr. Franzen (I thought it unwise to take any notice) in Conjunctions recently. The responses turned out to be tributes to Gaddis who apparently hasn’t disappointed everybody. I made my answer, indirect enough, there.

Day: You have remarked on the droopiness of Rilke’s mustache, and how this was one accessory of his being a “dandified prig” whose pants you “wanted to pull down” as a youth to get to his stuffing. The pose of The Poet involved, historically, reflective shoes and jilted patronesses. Yet Rilke received The Elegies. What do you see as present-day poses and are they or aren’t they obstacles to the kind of pure reception Rilke suffered?

Gass: By penning up poets in the Academy a lot of posing has been eliminated. Alcohol intake and adulteries are also down. Writing can pretend to little romance in a world where scholars surround it, and are writing, too. The Beats were the last poets to stir up a public fuss unless you include rap in the genre which I do not. Poets are so marginalized the public has forgotten to tease them and young ladies are no longer read to by long-haired dudes. Even the word ‘dude’ has been corrupted. There is some posturing, I gather, on the Internet. This secularization of literary types is nearly all to the good, but I have noticed quite a decline in the poets’ and novelists’ ambitions that may be connected to academic sponsorship. Workshops encourage people to prepare for a job, a career, and not a calling. Inspiration does not sit in on courses. Perfection does not meet deadlines.

Rilke’s experiences were rare indeed. Such deliverances come maybe once a century, only to poets already gifted, and to those whose spiritual and intellectual focus is obsessive and singular. The road to Xanadu has been closed. Of course for novels one needs different virtues: steadfastness, patience, commitment.

Claude Rains, to cite a case, had no better than a second grade education, but he posed as better than he was for so long he became better than he’d been. Rilke eventually did the same. Religious leaders often perform this trick. It’s called believing in your own lies. I could pose as a mathematician but it wouldn’t help my addition, and posing as a poet is no more effective. Better to be born a genius. Then when you pose, someone may take your picture.

Day: Why should fiction writers read Rilke? Why should Everyman read Rilke? Why should anyone read Rilke?

Gass: Writers should read. In my opinion, that is the only way to learn the business. Fiction writers should read Rilke because prose should never try to seal itself off from poetry (or vice versa). That is utter foolishness, for the poets can teach you how words work in narrow combinations, how to manage the referential scope of imagery, the importance of rhythm and word placement and a hundred other necessary things; moreover, fiction writers should read Rilke because he has written one of the finest novels in the canon. The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, and his letters are models of great prose in significant action. In addition, he is a master of the concretely encased idea (no ideas but in things). His literary esthetic is important whether you agree with it or not. His use of metaphor is amazing. He has the highest of ambitions and unshakeable principles.

The general educated public already reads him. He is “popular” as few great poets are. However, he is consequently the victim of “spiritualizers” who have made a religion out of his work, not only by misinterpreting it, but by believing that his poetic universe is the same as our everyday one. Poetry (Santayana somewhere said), “when it supervenes in life is called religion.”

Rilke knew how to register his own responses to art in an understandable and equally moving way; witness his essays on Rodin. If I may put in a plug, the reader might want to take a look at Archipelago Book’s recent new translation of Auguste Rodin with its stunning photographs of the sculptor’s work by Michael Eastman. These monographs help us see when we look. And if we look the way Eastman looks we shall see plenty.

Rilke raises all the right issues, as far as I’m concerned. He sustains me during everyday’s dark times by reminding me that the beautiful and the sublime is achievable. “Throw the emptiness out of our arms to broaden the spaces we breathe . . . “

And after Rilke the reader can turn to Hölderlin.

Then as soon as you have finished your Calvino, start on Musil and Bernhard. It is so much more fun than lifting weights. But it will also make you strong.

Day: You once said that the most interesting, progressive things that were being done with the novel were being done by the hands of Europeans. Then that innovative spirit switched in your eyes to Spain.Where do you see it most now? And what is indeed new? And if America is losing, what do you think is responsible for its lagging?

Gass: It is a strange and inexplicable phenomenon to me, but bursts of linguistic and often plastic energy, like sun flares, seem to occur in cultures, so that with a bewildering suddenness genius will appear, innovation will flourish, and remarkable work get done only to subside and disappear just as arbitrarily. The Irish are everywhere as if miracles were weeds and then it is the Greeks, Sefaris, Elytis, and company, or it is Vienna that’s the center of art after art, when boom! And all we can hear are Latins. True, for a while we had Goytisolo in Spain, Leiris in France, and Gadda and Calvino in Italy to bear beauty’s burden, but death has claimed so many. It may be my age—one does grow out of current affairs even if one struggles against it—however I don’t see any such hot spots anywhere at the moment. We had our time too, when both painting and poetry made us dominant. Now immigrants confound every issue. Some young energetic Americans seem to have confused self-indulgence with originality. It remains to be seen. The freshest stuff may be from hybrids :Asian or Indian or African Americans. Perhaps Latin Americans cannot get out from under the glory names that have given them pride while squashing them flat.

Our present culture seems to appeal to the needy and lazy in equal measure. We export our trash and import little if anything. And every writing program pretends to be the Left Bank, when in fact their timid novelists don’t know any painters and don’t speak to poets. That is merely my impression. When I was younger I tended to measure people by the artists they treasured and attended to: whether it was György Ligeti or Arnold Schoenberg, Rothko or Sigmar Polke, Arno Schmidt or Gadda, Celan or Primo Levi, and so on. Now I don’t measure people any more. Frank Rich wrote that Sinatra was the greatest singer of our time, and today I read that, according to Tony Bennett, it was Judy Garland. Idiocy is immeasurable.

Day: Over the years you’ve stated many motivations for writing: to construct and peel back a consciousness, to condemn humanity, to create language that seduces the reader, to establish legitimacy of a verbal source, to strive for the independent development of concepts, to deny the validity of genre, to tackle problems of style, and to hopefully reach a realm of purified and uncorrupted imagination. You also note a primary motive as anger, that you hate a lot. Do you still write out of anger? What makes William Gass write? What makes William Gass angry today?

Gass: Without comparing myself to Swift, I think my anger is of his sort. It is not the red-faced emotional heat of someone in a fury, nor is there anything feudal about it; it is not directed at individuals as such, but at human institutions and practices, human behavior as it shows itself in history and again in the daily papers. My new novel tries to channel some of my daily disgust into a character named Skizzen, who has established in the attic of his home what he calls the Inhumanity Museum. Erasmus pretended to be amused by human folly, and he, like Browne, Burton, and Montaigne, collected superstitions as examples. Hobbes has pithy paragraphs on human stupidity, too. I cannot help but think that it is morally outrageous how millions of children are allowed to have their minds destroyed by power-hungry puritanical old farts—parents, priests, politicians, and so on—that they will rush out and oppress or kill someone whose only crime is wanting to live a rewarding life. We are parasites consuming our host. The earth was the first creature we crucified.

I’ve always thought that Aristotle was right about the nature of the good life—that it was a process of self-realization, and that it was tied to the pursuit of excellence, whether as a craftsman, artist, scientist, or statesman. Society ought to be organized to maximize such efforts. This is, of course, crudely put. There are so many signs of success, yet they only serve to embitter the sight of our failures. Rilke’s plaintive question—Chartres was great wasn’t it?—put as he hunted for something to weigh in the balance against our wickedness—was no more than a despairing moan; for he knew what crimes had been committed under the flag of the church, the bloodbaths that stained the stained glass black, and he suffered the irony of such a remarkable collective effort expended for a vicious superstition. The Holocaust was a crime of the species—a species at war with itself. And our nation has once again brought a monstrous shame upon its citizens. Yes, it makes me mad. So I spoil another page.

Day: If you were to be stranded on a desert island with a limitless supply of typewriter ribbon and reams of paper, and an always-working Victrola, what authors’ work and 78rpm records would be essential to your sanity?

Gass: When you play this game you have to remember that you will, almost certainly, choose better-looking books and records for an imaginary marooning than you would for an actual one. I guess I would have to have my collection of Benjamino Gigli records, a bunch of Berlioz, especially Steber’s recordings of Les Nuits d’Ete, then Benvenuto Cellini, Les Troyans, and Beatrice and Benedict, Verdi’s Otello and Falstaff, a lot of late Lizst piano, late Beethoven Quartets, as well as those of Bartok, along with his Violin and Piano Concertos, and Strings, Percussion, and Celeste, the standard Mozart operas, some Monteverdi, and the Brahms Quintets, Bach’s Partitas for unaccompanied violin, and handfuls of Handel, it hardly matters what, a performance of Bartok’s 1926 piano sonata would be essential. I’m not sure what Berg, Webern, and Schoenberg I’d take, it would depend on the size of the sinking ship’s hold.

I would take all of the Henry James I could carry, especially the late novels and stories, because I regard them with wonder and awe. Mann, Proust, Musil, Joyce would be heavily represented. Hölderlin and Rilke in German and English (if I could bring Langenscheidts’ dictionary with me). Plato would have to come and no dialogue left behind. Hobbes’ Leviathan, too. The Tractatus. And thinking of style, Sir Thomas Browne, perhaps Montaigne. Mark Twain, for his sensible mind and great prose, and a few Faulkners, a complete Stevens and a complete Yeats, and all of Valery’s prose I could squeeze beneath my blouse. Erasmus for the sanity you mention, though Mark Twain is good for that, too. Hardy’s poems, and Hopkins. Emerson’s late essays, and hunks of Thoreau—more sanity. I do really believe in the no book left behind principle. Flaubert’s Letters. Three Lives. Invisible Cities. Under the Volcano. Some D.H. Lawrence travelogues. What prose is there! Middlemarch. 100 Years of Solitude. Terra Nosh. Nostromo. Some Frege. You see, no end is in sight. The ship has sailed and left me Theodore Dreiser. Pessoa wouldn’t take up a great deal of room. Shakespeare is the ultimate cliche, he and Dante. But you would have to have them.

Aristotle and Kant I would remember without needing to reread. That would be true for a lot of philosophers. But Frege would have to come because there is an unmatched beauty to his prose.

Thought has rarely ridden in so fine a vehicle.


Originally published in Hayden’s Ferry Review (Fall/Winter 2004-05). Republished with permission.