William H. Gass: Interviewed by Stephen Schenkenberg, 2005

Published in The Believer, 2005

Stephen Schenkenberg
May 4, 2014 · 20 min read

“I have a much better reputation in Europe than I have here”

Schenkenberg: In a recent issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction that was a celebration of your work, Michael Silverblatt revisited his review of The Tunnel, which he had called “the most beautiful, most complex, most disturbing novel to be published in my lifetime.” Nearly ten years after his review, Silverblatt now writes that “our culture has descended to the level of its narrator, William Kohler.” Silverblatt goes on: “Wherever you look you see the fascism of the heart, ingrained racism perpetuated by childhood habits; everywhere the consequences of the activities of the Party of the Disappointed People.” I was interested in your thoughts on his comments.

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This translation by Nikolaus Stingl would appear in 2011. He would later be awarded the 2013 Straelen Translation Award, in particular for his work on this novel.

“Hobbes — He writes some of the best prose ever.”

Schenkenberg: How much, if at all, do you concern yourself with entertaining the reader? It seems to me that even when The Tunnel is in tremendously dark territory, or when On Being Blue is entering a heady philosophical patch, the texts are still enormously entertaining—lively, daring, playful. Is entertaining the reader something you address consciously?

“Philosophers were quite proud of being of no use to anybody.”

Schenkenberg: You’ve mentioned being taught by M. H. Abrams and Wittgenstein, and I know there are writers now who recall their own class time with you. What were your primary goals as a teacher? And as the years continued, what did you learn about the practice of teaching?

“Being away from the literary centers is a great help.”

Schenkenberg: In the introduction to the book The Writer in Politics, you wrote: “Putting writers in prison is preferable to putting them upon a pedestal. Giving an author influence is like giving him poison. His pen begins to froth at the nib. He not only continues to manufacture baloney, he begins to eat it himself.” Has the life you’ve led here—what seems like a fairly low-key Midwestern life—been connected to your concern for pedestals or status?

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

Edited by Stephen Schenkenberg, 2014 | Cover photographs by…

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