William H. Gass: Interviewed by G. A. M. Janssens, 1978

Published in the Dutch Quarterly Review, 1979

Stephen Schenkenberg
May 4, 2014 · 28 min read

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.

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?

William H. Gass: I think there may be. What is interesting, almost more interesting than the words written down, is the preserved tapes; that is, I would like to hear Henry James composing those elaborate sentences. The tone of voice more than any answers one might get. That can be done just as well by writing, and a great many interviews are polished and they are no longer off-the-cuff. I mean, Nabokov did not allow himself to be off the cuff. I don’t like to correct too much in an interview because then it ceases to be an interview. One can tell, of course, reading the Paris Review interviews, which ones are really all written. But to hear the voice and the exchange would be for me very interesting.

Janssens: Have you written all your life; have you felt yourself to be a writer from a very early age, or was it a later discovery?

Gass: It is odd because there was no literary background in my family at all. My parents were both educated in an ordinary sense; my father was a teacher of mechanical drawing in high school. I was not precocious in any sense, and it would be hard to say exactly what year I wanted to be a writer, but eight or nine or whatever, and it is hard to even know what that meant to somebody that age and why. Certainly by the time I was in junior high school it was absolutely settled in my mind to be a writer. It was not clear exactly what, except that prose was fairly obviously the thing I wanted to do, even though I would have liked to have been a poet. I wrote all the way through high school, journalism and so on, had a column, and wrote enormously, enormous amounts of stuff. It flowed out easily. I liked everything I wrote in those good old days.

Janssens: You were an undergraduate at Kenyon College, and then one thinks of the heydey of John Crowe Ransom, the early Kenyon Review, and the New Criticism; but I gather all that has not been a great influence?

Gass: I went there in ignorance of the fact that it was such a center. As a matter of fact, I didn’t take any course in English when I was at Kenyon, when I was there in the first year; and the war interrupted and I came back, but I didn’t take any courses in English. I sat in on Ransom’s classes but I never took anything from him. I missed Lowell when he was there; that is, I saw him at a distance, but we never overlapped really. I never met Robert Frost when he was in residence. My college career was only two years really at Kenyon; the other part was just a mess—Navy stuff—and I found quickly that I didn’t take English classes well; I fought the professor, I was too smart to be taught, I thought I knew it all. I took some English courses later in graduate school—also had a little bit at Ohio Wesleyan when I was in the Navy, but mostly in graduate school in Cornell.

Janssens: Was Nabokov there while you were there?

Gass: Yes, and I was stupid enough not to go and find out what was going on in his courses. I knew he was—not a great writer, I didn’t know that—I knew he was well-known as a campus curiosity. And then I started to read Nabokov just about the time I left. I had not read him before, but as soon as I started to read him I was of course absolutely knocked over. So I only met him once, didn’t really know him at all. If I had started to read him sooner, I would have camped in his classes. I was quick to see that he was an incredible writer. It is part, I think, of his own American experience: people at Cornell didn’t know how good he was, and he was very very bitter about it, understandably.

Janssens: This week’s New York Times Book Review asks the usual question—‘Which hundred books do you recommend?’, etc.—and they asked you, so let me quote you back at you: “Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, his most perverse and brilliant book, yet not like Lolita which is cute.” Could you clarify that a little bit?

“Rilke, I suppose my favorite writer, is full of shit. I mean his ideas are nonsensical. As philosophical notions I have no respect for them at all, but as poetic notions they are absolutely beautiful.”

Gass: I think the problem I find with Nabokov’s work is that at certain points his own great skills and his desire just to do tricks overcome him, and he plays with the reader. You feel sort of like a cat that has been forced to chase a rubber ball, as if . . . Well, you are too tired, you don’t want to do this, but, you know, you tease the cat and the cat has to respond. I have always found that about his work as the major flaw in it, but there are moments too, I think, when it doesn’t hinder it; for one, when he is really deep into a kind of nostalgia trip. There his technical skills and his sardonic and ironic view of his whole art protect him from sentimentality—in a book like The Defense or in Speak, Memory, beautiful works in which he is really open to the emotion and he does not come around and say: Ha, Ha, I caught you crying in this passage, you dumb so and so. In Pale Fire, the opposite, where the technique, the problems of the craft become the object of his skill, and he has found a way to put that attitude to work within the work. But I think in Lolita, though, there are many, many marvelous things in it. He leads the reader on a kind of paper chase; he plants some clues, he teases and so forth, and I keep falling out of the book watching him do these things too often. I think with someone like Nabokov you have the same problem as, say, with another incredible technician, Donald Barthelme. Especially when you have Nabokov’s incredible skills, he has constantly to think up ways to push himself; otherwise, what is the point? And one can understand that.

Janssens: Yes, he does set himself these problems that he may or may not be able to resolve, and in the resolution is the pleasure. To what extent is that true of your own work also?

Gass: I have to set myself artificial problems or hazards in order to give myself shape, to shape the work. After a certain point, if the thing is going well, then it becomes the real problem and it is not a series of artificial barriers set up in advance. But at the beginning there usually is a hurdle. The idea, I think, is to get around that somehow so it’s digested and disappears. My tendency is to create little problems, because I cannot see the whole so very easily in the work I’m doing, but let’s say just in the paragraph. As the paragraph begins to develop, and I am having trouble with it, my resolution of that is to see the possibility of a certain shape to it and then impose very artificial conceptions upon it to give it form; and then you hope you can make it seem as if that’s the way it should have gone. Otherwise, it sprawls. And that technical interest surfaces, say, in a story like “The Pedersen Kid.” When people say, ‘What were you thinking about when you were writing that?’, I say, ‘Well, I have this technical problem of the alternation of long and short sentences and a limited vocabulary.’ And then they say, ‘But what about the story?’ Well, you know, it is not up there in consciousness, it was all technical problems. When I am writing it is almost invariably a series of technical problems that immediately face you.

Janssens: You said recently that the medium makes discoveries for you. I think that is a notion one finds in a number of contemporary authors whom one would not readily associate with you. I am thinking, for instance, of Philip Roth, who turned his back on the tyranny of ideas in the sixties and said that he only really knew things after he had “sent everything down through the blades of the fiction-making machine,” as he put it. Or Norman Mailer, who writes journalism but keeps talking about the big novel. Or Saul Bellow’s irritation with the knowingness of the contemporary world and the “noise” of ideas. All these writers think of fiction as a more delicate instrument to explore reality than any other mode. Now you can of course say, “I tackle certain problems, ideas, as a philosopher,” but your notion that “You have to trick your medium into doing far better than you” intrigues me. I have a sense, though, that you mean something different from the other writers I mentioned.

Gass: I do, I think. For me, the only thing that the writer can discover is things about the art itself. If I discover anything at all, which I generally doubt, it would be something about the art, and the aim of writing for me is to advance the art of writing, and that is what, for example, it seems to me, Nabokov is all about, what Beckett is all about, too. The themes, the obsessions that writers have, are absolutely essential to the long process of writing novels. It is such a long-term job, it involves such an enormous commitment of energy, that the whole person has to be bound up with it, so that there’s got to be all kinds of personal idiosyncratic motives. These, however, don’t really supply the fuel; they don’t make the books good or interesting or anything else. What you indeed discover in reading a book, I think, is basically what the art is, what the art can do about itself. Now I find my students constantly telling me that by reading such and such a book they learn something they had not known before. I am always amazed by this, as if they had not paid any attention to existence. But for myself, I have both more, I think, and less skepticism about ideas than most writers. I guess one can say that Roth’s present skepticism about ideas is due to the fact that he was not skeptical enough at the beginning. I was always skeptical of ideas in that sense, and as a philosopher, as a person who teaches philosophy, I am comparatively skeptical that you’d find a lot of truth in philosophy.

Janssens: Why did you differentiate just now between philosopher and teacher of philosophy?

Gass: Oh well, I am not a philosopher at all; I just teach philosophy. I have this feeling about all the arts: unless you are among the best you are nothing. Second is last in this business, and that is particularly true of philosophers. Second-rate philosophers are dreary, really dreary beyond belief, and how many great philosophers are there? You get six or seven in a century, you call it the Age of Enlightenment. I have always felt that philosophy departments were pretentious beyond bearing, because they kept talking about turning out philosophers. It is like having a school of painting who believe that they are turning out artists—they are turning out people who paint; so what we in philosophy do is turn out people who teach philosophy. I met a philosopher once, Wittgenstein, and I know what a philosopher is. I have a distrust—not so much from Wittgenstein as a natural bent of mind—a very Wittgensteinian distrust of philosophical pronouncements, the difficulty of getting anywhere in the subject, so that that suspicion about ideas is very great. But the notion that literature was going to give them to me I never really had. For example, Rilke, I suppose my favorite writer, is full of shit. I mean his ideas are nonsensical. As philosophical notions I have no respect for them at all, but as poetic notions they are absolutely beautiful. This is one of the reasons I am really a Heidegger hater, because Heidegger gets most of his ideas from Rilke and does not have the sense to see that this is great poetry. He projects it into religion, and I have an immense distrust of that.

Janssens: I suppose that all fits in with the literary quarrel you and some others have been carrying on, for some time now with the literary establishment; a quarrel which people sometimes sum up rather sketchily by saying that you object to the linearity of traditional fiction.

Gass: I don’t object to it on critical grounds, in the sense that I find the linear novel perfectly acceptable. In other words, I am not saying there is something wrong with this; not at all. It is one way of organizing material, and it is natural to aspects of the material, to the medium itself at a certain level, and, therefore, one would normally suppose that the lean towards linearity in prose would be a very justifiable one. I think that the linear element in fiction is inescapable and must be dealt with, used just as it is in music, but there are other elements, too, equally important. So I have a kind of view of a work as being layered: certain layers, or certain aspects of it, are non-linear and certain aspects are linear. Then what becomes interesting is the tension, the contrasts, contradictions between the layers, and I think it is true of many of the writers I admire that they are in a sense said to be breaking down—spatializing and breaking down—the linear, and that in many ways is true, but they are pointing to something. Barth, for example, is probably as great a sheer narrator as there has been.

Janssens: That’s interesting, because he seems to make a virtue out of linearity.

Gass: Yes, he is playing with that very notion. He is doing two things. His forms are spatial— incredibly spatial organizations. Even the notion, of course, of the frame-tale, whether it is the Decameron or the Thousand and One Nights or whatever, is a spatial, inclusion thing. So what Barth is seeing is that a sentence even is in fact a linear process of enclosure—phrases, clauses, meanings enclosed inside of others, and logicians have always thought of logical processes in extensional terms, in spatial terms. So that what you have in Barth, I think, is this masterful narrator who is seeing, however, that narration is fundamentally conceptualized in spatial terms; so you have this beautiful tension which he sets up in things like “The Menelaiad,” or in the stories in Chimera. And it looks to me that Letters is another where you are starting out with a form that is not only linear in just an ordinary sense but linear in temporal correspondence. It is obvious: letters are dated and are sent in temporal order and you have all that, and of course what he is going to do with that obviously is dissolve it into an architecture. So both are very present. I think that the notion that contemporary fiction is anti-linear is too simple. Hawkes, for instance, has always worked in terms of linear forms, and in traditional ones like the detective story. What I mean is that the linearity is not just allowed to be a kind of naively accepted straightforward thing. My interest is to do similar kinds of things with what is parallel, the essay, because I don’t think I have anything new to contribute to the spatial organizations and rearrangements much in fiction; enormous things have been done, and we are sort of digesting it all. But in the essay, you see, the expository development is a parallel to the narrative development, and I am very interested in seeing what can be done with that.

Janssens: Do you see strict lines of division between the genres?

Gass: No. I think that the genres are mixed up again, broken down, interpenetrated, but of course you have to have the genres in order to play that game. What is interesting, I think, is the increasing perception that the genre forms originally may have developed for certain very sensible purposes. To take a simple example: a railroad time-table. The very tabular way in which it is put down on paper reflects the kind of thing it is. Well, then pretty soon you begin to wonder to what degree the formal property is merely an expression of this need for communicating certain kinds of data and to what degree that formal property is changing the data. And then you start inventing timetables, and fictionalizing, and when you start doing this you begin to play with the very notion of what form does, what structures are all about, and you can lift them out and move them around. I think in doing that, again it is too simple to say you are attacking the form. Let’s suppose you start using a railroad timetable as a fictionalized form. You are not saying: Time-tables is no way to list times for trains. It is a splendid way. Again, I think it is a failure of a sense of what is going on in people like the New Journalists, because what they are really saying is: journalism would be better off if we mixed a little fictional techniques in with it. Now that is not true at all. It is worse off. Journalism is corrupted by that; but the sense of being able to take the forms and devices and move them around, to play with them without then supposing that you are improving on journalism, that’s different altogether. I think you don’t improve on history by incorporating a lot of fictional techniques; you just make history sloppy, careless…

Janssens: What about Robert Coover? In The Public Burning he takes, as a sort of nonfiction novelist, a historical event and fictionalizes it, but what comes out is, I think, very different from, say, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

Gass: Coover is really concerned to transform the reality of the event. Here you have the Rosenberg case which is so dismaying in its reality, so it provides an immediate challenge. It is a challenge to the art to take a journalistic event and treat it in terms of the jargon of the time, all the cliches, all the monkey business, transform it into an event in the book which will then manage to digest this into the work of art. Whereas with somebody like Truman Capote you are just using artistic tricks, fictional devices to jazz up and make your account more journalistically exciting, chilling, and so forth; perfectly standard devices and certainly not reprehensible, but it is not, I think, a desire to transform those events into art, and I think Mailer does the same thing. It is a very daring and huge—it is not a risk; I hate the word risk—but it is an artistic challenge to do what Coover was after in that book, particularly when you are working with striking public affairs about which of course the artist feels very strongly.

Janssens: Would you hold with John Barth, who argues: Okay, you have the genre of the novel as a recognizable form, a document, and you can devise means of making it more real by being more precise in your description of the world around you. But you can also say: as a genre the novel is artificial and let’s make the most of the very artificiality of the genre; you are then exploiting the unique features of the genre, rather than introducing elements from the outside in an effort to make fiction more real than it can ever be.

Gass: Yes, I think there is a competition, and an interesting one, in any book. There is the reality of the external world which the book may be in a sense pointing to, making references to, or pretending to make reference to, and the reality of the book itself; and the best books, I think, always supplant and are more real. The problem is—and I think that is one of the things that Borges teaches, if literature teaches anything—that in many respects symbols are more real than the things they signify, and that what a novelist does when he is successful, is he invests his own work with a reality that is its own, and which it need not then constantly be borrowing from. It is like being born from parents: You come by resources in something which go on to be something yourself, and I think, again, art in general tends to take off from the world, but ends up being a thing in itself, which then becomes part of the world again.

Janssens: What is your definition of the ideal reader?

Gass: He is somebody trained. Let’s say the reader of Nabokov has to be the kind of person who immediately grasps without labor the kind of things Nabokov’s art has put into it so that it comes out immediately. Then you don’t get these questions about: “Gee, it wasn’t very complex the way he did all these things.” The reader immediately grasps it.

Janssens: With Nabokov you also have the delaying effect; rereading you find new things…

Gass: Yes, indeed. But, you know, as a reader you enter into a text. For a good reader the first reading is the preparation for reading the book. People say, “Yes, I have read Moby Dick,” when they have read it the first time. Well, they haven’t read Moby Dick: They are getting ready to read Moby Dick. An ideal reader has, I think, a grasp of that very fact about the depth and the complexity. You don’t get it all at once, but you get a sense of what is going on. If you are reading the opening pages of, say, Malte Laurids Brigge, which is an incredibly good book, you don’t know what it is about. All the symbols have to be worked out, but you know that the power of the page is already there implicitly. It is like meeting somebody whom you know almost at once would be an inexhaustible person. When I was in high school I started on Joyce’s Ulysses. I ploughed my way through that book, but I knew I was in the presence of a great work. And I think that that hits you especially in poetry. You can read a poem for the first time, and it is too complex. I remember reading “Sunday Morning,” Wallace Stevens’ poem, for the first time, and I knew: a great poem. But could I have said what it was about? I hadn’t the slightest idea. But of course you have to be a trained reader to recognize that. Something has to hit.

Janssens: Would you say something about your “work in progress”? What is in the making and what are your plans for the future?

Gass: I have a very clear program, so to speak. I have a small book which I am trying to finish that is a parallel, a companion to On Being Blue, called The Soul Inside the Sentence. It is on the nature of creativity and the nature of sentences themselves. It is a kind of pseudo-critical work on what gives sentences their character and their power, and what constitutes a sentence that is artistically powerful.

Janssens: Is it an extension of your work on Gertrude Stein?

Gass: Yes. I want to develop first of all a theory about the motivation for writing sentences. Of course, your natural examples then come not from fiction but from essayists and writers like Sir Thomas Browne, because this language is not telling a story; nobody believes any of the facts. Similarly, with, say, The Anatomy of Melancholy, there is no intrusion of, Is this true? There is no intrusion of, Where is the story? And Donne’s sermons—okay, Donne meant what he was saying, he was talking about God and all the rest, but we don’t have to worry about that. It is in fact the watching of the development, poetically, of ideas. Well, anyway, that book I hope to finish this summer. I am well under way. It involves also the new conceptions of aesthetic form in a sentence, how it differs from syntactical and grammatical forms, logical forms, from indeed a number of other kinds of forms which might and have been attributed to sentences by linguists. So it will involve a certain amount of technical stuff. Then I want to finish the novel; that’s next on the list.

Janssens: You once said that your natural scope in whatever genre—fiction or essay—was about 40 pages.

Gass: Yes. It has in fact turned out that the sections of the novel will run 40 to 50 pages. You may recall in a story I wrote, “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” there were these sections. In the novel the sections are all about the same length: 40-page sections, and they have little titles which both refer to the old-fashioned way of putting little titles to chapters—you know: “Jack discovers his money his gone,” or something—but also then orchestrate the whole text in these sections in a way somewhat like in “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.”

Janssens: Will it be the sort of novel, as you sometimes put it, you read in rather than read through?

Gass: Yes, but it is also of course meant to be read through. I really want to orchestrate it, so that there is a build-up, a tension; so going through will be important to the experience of the book, if you are going to get the thing as I am hoping to do it. On the other hand, because of the complexity of it, it is going to be for the reader, as it is designed in the structure of the work, like digging a tunnel. There will be lots of times when the reader says, “To hell with it” and stops digging. There are going to be cave-ins, you know, and points at which the tunnel, which the narrator wants to keep hidden, is discovered and you have to start somewhere else. In other words, the tunnel is also the metaphor for the book.

Janssens: You are very interested in architecture. For some time now you have been working in close association with the New York architect Peter Eisenman. First, do you see any relation between your interest in architecture and in literature?

Gass: A close one, I think. What one does often when one is constructing a story is to have a kind of metaphorical model for the story which may have a great to do with the structure of it. For instance, a story that I have gone over very carefully recently, Katherine Anne Porter’s “The Grave,” is a story that has a clear metaphorical model. The story is also a grave. The title of the story is a headstone. The grave in the story is discovered by two children who enter it and discover objects in it and so on. It stands for the unconscious memory suddenly coming back, and there is an epiphany at the end. It is clear, then, that the story has a model which is governing the story itself, a metaphor outside itself in a way. And, as I said before, my novel, The Tunnel, is a tunnel in a certain metaphorical sense. But then there is a whole notion of the metaphor for a book that is not just some particular story but the idea of all books, or all kinds of texts, and for me that is very much architectural. James made the same kind of discrimination, for his metaphors were often painting metaphors—he painted a scene and rendered a character in a sense of portraits. But when he went to talk about the overall structure, it was always architecture; it shifted the image. Now, the idea of a book as fundamentally or conceptually a structure in which you are being taken on a tour by the author—I think a lot of modern works are constructed this way. Joyce, for instance, makes Ulysses in such a way that it is not possible for you to conceive the book and hold it in your head at the same time; you have to go back and forth in it. He takes you through the first time; you may jump around in it later as you wish. And Finnegans Wake is certainly constructed that way. For me a book tends to exist in a metaphorical relationship to a building. For me architecture represents best the basic metaphorical image of the way a text exists, say, metaphysically or philosophically. I have to read a house the way I read a book, because I cannot get it all at once. It is linear, because this house exists all at once, but cannot be perceived by me or experienced by me all at once.

Janssens: Do you use the world linear here in the same sense as you used it earlier?

Gass: I experience it linearly in the sense that I can only experience one thing after the other; I experience it serially. Then I hold things in my mind. I remember what is alike when I am in one part of the building, but there are other parts, just as I remember a part of Tom Jones in a later part of Tom Jones. The difference, of course, in a book is that presumably I am driven in one direction only made by the text going along. But you can also construct a work on the idea that although you can go through it, in a certain fashion you can look back and go back and forth and have a spatial relationship to it, although you experience it in a linear fashion. So what I like about that aspect is that it encompasses some of the levels of existence of a literary work—one of which is the temporal, serial order of experiencing it—but then there is the whole notion of the remembering of the work, going back, rereading and establishing different kinds of relationships of that sort, and ultimately the notion, of course, that the whole book exists all at once. It is not like a piece of music in one sense; that is, if I am listening to a piece of music I cannot just jump ahead and catch the end—of course a tape recorder is something else—but I can with a book; I can just flip ahead, I can go back.

Janssens: Yes, certain books make you do this, but Tom Jones, for instance, is constructed differently. At the end Fielding gives you blank chapter headings because he wants to keep all the clues to himself and wants all the fun and excitement to be in the telling.

Gass: That’s true. All texts exist in this way for Fielding, or for Richardson, and you are not even expected to have a complete and total memory. They don’t expect you to remember at page 500 everything that happened on page one, whereas Joyce does. That is, Joyce demands a total recall, an ideal total reader, so there is a conceptual notion of the way the text exists in Joyce that is fundamentally different from Fielding. But in reading I don’t go continuously. I break off, I take up the book a week later, I go back and forth. I am like I would be when I went through a building: I am putting the pieces together to compose the building which exists ontologically all at the same time, and which I can only know experientially one at a time, and therefore I can only conceive or conceptualize the way it actually exists; I can have an idea of how this house exists.

Now in Peter Eisenman’s work, what he wants to do often is to make one experientially aware of other parts of the house at the same time. So in one of his houses, called House VI, there is, for instance, in the second-floor bedroom a strip of glass that goes across the floor, from which you can perceive the living room below and vice versa. Similarly, there are holes in various parts, openings which allow you—the way in which I can look, say, through a house through a stairwell—to look through the house. So I am always aware of in that house of other parts. Well now, in “The Menelaiad,” when Barth opens up cuts in the story through the fact that something is said, let us say, in one of the many layers of the story, suddenly there’ll be an opening; something is said in one story which is also said in all the others, and it’s just as if you were seeing right through all of the floors, the stories; and it is, of course, constructed this way. So Eisenman realizes that although the ontological way in which a building exists is simultaneous, the experiential character of a building is always temporal. Furthermore, he gets interested in a play between the way the building came into being as a building in the development of its logic and the way in which the experiencer of the building comes to grasp it. So for me the architecture analogy—it is only an analogy—is a very, very strong one.

Janssens: Would you say something about your joint ventures with Peter Eisenman. The first, I gather, is now at the printer?

Gass: Yes, that’s done. Peter is now in the process of designing the book, and Godine has already accepted it. The text is done, and it’ll be a Godine spring book. And it is going to be the most outrageous book ever put together: Peter will make sure of that. And it’ll be wonderful. He does crazy things in one sense, but he is really a serious artist, first rank, I think. He is not just doing things to shock people, or surprise them or be different. And then there is this latest thing that we are considering. He came to me and said: You know, after this present thing is done, I’d like to design a house for you, and of course, it would be an imaginary house in the sense that it would not be built—but it would be a house. So I said: It might be interesting, instead of designing a house for me, as it is going to be an imaginary house in a way, why not design the house for a character in a story? I’ll write the story and you design the house for the character. I think my story will be more directive, because in a sense it is the program, and then his house is designed to the program. But there will be an interchange; just as if I take my ideas to an architect and he starts making plans, I’m going to start changing my ideas. I think it is an interesting notion even if nothing comes of it. I am all set to write this thing.

Janssens: Have you always been so conscious of the execution of your design in your stories and essays, or has the writing been more of a process where you have felt your way…

Gass: I know that dimly I want to get something of a certain sort, but I don’t know what the hell it is. I mean, it takes me a long time to find out, and that is the critical thing. Once you get that sense of the kind of thing that you are making, it really becomes a making. I think the Greek derivation for poetry is just right: it is a making, really constructing something. One of the critical problems, I think, for writers is the abstractness of the medium, just as for an architect it is the opposite. Except in Eisenman’s sort of work, which is almost purely conceptual. For him the material is almost irrelevant; all it needs to do is to express the architectural ideas, so that is why I call it card-board architecture, like these cardboard things you make a house out of; it is the model. When I started to think seriously about architecture in the last couple of years, I came to realize that an enormous amount of architecture is done at a conceptual, graphic level, and not at the building level at all. There are enormously influential designs which have never been put up, never will be put up, and indeed a great deal of architecture consists of that. I just had not been conscious of this sufficiently. And this of course then means that architecture is almost immediately an art of inscription, of signs—a score.

Now, in Eisenman’s case, who is going to put up his buildings? But even with Wright, some of his most astounding designs were never built. The mile-high skyscraper, for example. He designed a mile-high skyscraper for Chicago built like a tree with roots going very deep down, and it is a mile in the air; and this was designed, what, two decades ago, something like that, an enormously influential work. Or the glass skyscraper that Mies suggested in his youth that never got built—an enormous influence on his later work and on that of all kinds of other people.

Janssens: How do you visualize The Tunnel?

Gass: It is going to be really difficult to set. One of the problems in that book is the problem of new inscriptional devices. That is one of the things that gets neglected, I think. In the book I am doing on the structure of the sentence a great problem is finding a way to symbolize the structures. That will almost be the same as discovery: giving the right symbolization, the right notion. Well, one gets a new musical notation and that revolutionizes music; they get an accurate dance notation and that will do the same for dance, and so forth. There are revolutions in architecture because of xeroxing processes that allow you new ways of symbolizing your architectural conceptions. Now for The Tunnel I want a very complex physical structure, and there all all kinds of things I want to have happening. I want to have one word repeating—like a drum or a beat or a ground bass or something—all through a whole page. You can of course say to the reader, “That’s what I want,” but that won’t do. You have got to get something that immediately gets the reader to hear it, not just say: Oh, Gass wants this to be repeated all the time. It is a great problem. Suppose what you want to do is to get the reader to pause. Instead the reader replaces conceptual notions of the pause, he does not perform the rest, goes full tilt. You’ve got to have them perform it. That means the notation must do more than convey the idea.

Janssens: Could you give an example of what would be successful inscriptional devices or graphic arrangements?

Gass: Well, you take an ordinary passage which you write—a nice little sweet thing—and then you throw it into German print, you know that old Gothic. It changes the tone of the passage. In Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife most of that stuff did not work very well, but I thought that one of the things that worked best was where I put a piece of dialogue, which I took from a Walter Scott novel, in a balloon, like a cartoon, and it just fits so perfectly that it becomes a critical commentary on Scott’s dialogue. It is just fit for the comic strip—well, at least that bit was. I’ve got a whole series of limericks in The Tunnel, 50 limericks of nuns, all beginning with the first line, “I once went to bed with a nun.” One of these limericks shows all the positions that you went through when you went to bed with a nun, and the last position means that the last line of the limerick has to be a circle. Well, you try to figure out how different things will work, and you don’t want it to be a gimmick.

Janssens: When do you think you will be done with The Tunnel?

Gass: A couple more years. I keep saying that, but I think now I have got a very clear idea of the structure of the thing, what I want to do with it: the conception that just as the character is digging the tunnel and faces the problem of disposing of the dirt, so on the metaphorical level the reader collects material, dirt—and I like saying it is dirt—that is taken out of the language when he tunnels through the book.

Janssens: Is there a question you would have liked me to have asked?

Gass: I don’t really think so. It is strange, I guess. People get confused about this. I have nothing I want to tell anybody. But when one is teaching or lecturing, or offering opposing views—as with my arguments with John Gardner, the impression you are distinctly getting is that I want to persuade people of something, that I have some message. But the views that I have and formulate are mainly called for. I am constantly amazed by certain authors who feel that they must tell the world something, when what they have to tell the world is, you know, as old-fashioned and confused as, “The sky is falling,” or, “Gee, life is hard…” I have really no interest in persuading anybody. I have no sense of having something to tell somebody, and I suppose that is what I want to tell people.

Originally published in defunct Dutch Quarterly Review (1979). Republished with permission.

The Ear’s Mouth Must Move — Essential Interviews of William H. Gass

Edited by Stephen Schenkenberg, 2014 | Cover photographs by…

The Ear’s Mouth Must Move — Essential Interviews of William H. Gass

Edited by Stephen Schenkenberg, 2014 | Cover photographs by Michael Eastman

Stephen Schenkenberg

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

The Ear’s Mouth Must Move — Essential Interviews of William H. Gass

Edited by Stephen Schenkenberg, 2014 | Cover photographs by Michael Eastman