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
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The editor’s copy of this limited-edition volume

“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.

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

Edited by Stephen Schenkenberg, 2014 | Cover photographs by…

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