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Finding a Form, William H. Gass’ 1996 essay collection and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism places its faith in style and structure, in a virtuosic juggling act between the substance of his essays and his verbal and linguistic flights of fancy. What you’ll find contained in these essays is simultaneously a one-man show put on by a literary exhibitionist; a pessimistic dismissal of mankind as locusts with dulled wits; an enthusiastic recommendation of literature and its power; and also a mournful obituary for language itself, corrupted and taken for granted in the modern world. At once brilliant and overbearing, it’s a work of egomaniacal self-indulgence that happens to be totally justified in so being.

His egotism is the most objectionable part of this book, colouring every page with his self-satisfied preening. It is more noticeable by the tone of his language than by the words themselves. He’s the best in the field, he knows he’s the best and so he crows. A literary peacock. I should think he’d be an insufferable dinner-guest but his is not the voice of an academic. He comes across as more of a non-amateur enthusiast. A snob, no denying, and insanely well-read but his writing is infective. There are no common-place recommendations to be found here; rather he speaks with such knowledgable appreciation about those obscure and challenging writers (Danilo Kis, Robert Walser, Juan Goytisolo) that one can’t help but desire to seek them out at once. Pound was a pirate, and plundered selected texts as if they were captured ships. He embraced principles he rarely if ever practiced (like the vague admonishments of “Imagism”), maneuvered both behind the scenes and in front of the lights, always in support of “modernism,” a movement in his own case oddly made of pagan materials, medieval mannerisms, and Swinburnean swan song. If that paragraph didn’t make you want to seek out the famously difficult poet, I suggest your sense of adventure and irony need some work.

The pleasure he takes in words and the use of language is obsessive and the result of his effort is always a pure sentence. Some fill a paragraph; others are short and (perhaps) simple. His concepts can be abstruse but his manner is surprisingly concise despite the ornamentation he can’t resist to work with. His style goes over his substance like the sauce goes over the goose, the icing over the cake and the blanket over the bed. Always present are his impish humour and intellectual rigour. It’s a heavy read but it’s also a lot of fun.

Nineteen essays and there’s not a dud in the lot, though some are naturally weaker than others. They average between 13 and 23 pages a pop and my own preference is for those essays with a clearly defined center subject around which Gass pivots and which also serves to keep him in line – his biographical introductions to such men as Nietzsche and Wittgenstein are among his strongest work, conveying useful information whilst reveling in the pure pleasures of the form found. Meanwhile, the weakest essay is easily ‘Ford’s Impressionisms.’ He seeks to define impressionism but goes about it in so hopelessly long-winded a manner and with so little of the usual payoff that the result strikes me as vague and lackluster.

The volume begins audaciously with an attack on the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The Pulitzer has perceived an important truth about our complex culture: Serious literature is not important to it; however, the myth that it matters must be maintained. His attitude is a really delightful mix; one part is a literary blue-bloodedness which takes no prisoners: …if the award had really been given yearly to the best work, worse than repetition would have occurred. The Sot-Weed Factor would have acquired a crown in 1961, and JR would have won in ’76 and other horrors too dreadful to describe would have happened. A snooty condemnation of the award by a writer of the very experimental fiction he condemns it for not awarding. Gotta love that. At the same time he strives to be fair and ends up sounding even harsher in the attempt, as he kindly theorizes about how difficult it must be to work in a committee and points out how financial concerns tie into the decisions made – all of which only serve to highlight the Pulitzer’s frailty and make its stated intent the more ludicrous. He then cuts to the chase: The Pulitzer does not give glory to its choices; its choices give celebrity to it; and that is precisely why it is the best-known and, to the public, the most prestigious prize: It picks best-sellers, books already in the public eye, and if its judges insist on oddities like Gravity’s Rainbow, the Advisory Board will overrule them, as it did in 1974; and if the judges vote for some dim unknown like Norman Maclean, the board will simply leave the year blank again, as it did in 1977.

You could always accuse Gass of snobbery, here and elsewhere. I’ve read The Yearling and while it certainly had no avant-garde tendencies it did make for an emotionally impactful and extraordinarily affective coming-of-age novel. Should its Hemingway-esque simplicity of sentence structure and its technically undemanding form bar it from prize-winning consideration? As far as Gass is concerned, yes.

This attitude manifests elsewhere, in his referencing of Hamlet every time he approaches the ‘big topics’ and in his musical references – few and far between but always given to the snobs’ favorite: classical music. I dream of a critic whose artistic eclecticism allows him a span of reference from the mannerism of Debussy to the barbarity of Iggy but Gass isn’t it.

However, in one way his snobbery is deeply refreshing. It is elitist. It does not deign to spar (and rarely even to jeer) at those popular forms which are not worth the time an intelligent mind would take in attacking them. He saves his jabs for the populace at large, not their lowly entertainment. In the act of attacking their enemies, the avant-garde declared those enemies to be their equals… Can we nowadays imagine any self-respecting artistic movement turning upon the comic book, the blood flick, the gooey erotic romance, minimal moonshine or similar musics, painted photographs as large as small buildings, sideshow sensationalism and other vocal groups, TV’s endless inanities, as if these had betrayed some noble cause, or had lured us off the high road of art…? I would add any self-respecting critic to that statement.

And yet Gass suffers from a Spenglerian sense of defeat in the arts, as he believes that it is a better thing to remain silent than be saddled with marketing, of all things, and its inherent fakery. The true avant-garde must be defended and his strategy? …if painters refused to show, composers and poets to publish, and every dance were designed to be danced in the dark. Non serviam. That would be a worthy no. Make of that what you will.

Despite such odd moments, there’s not too much within that is pure hokum. He mostly provokes thought rather than argument. Earlier I mentioned that William Gass was not an academic. By this I mean he’s not a failed writer turned critic, but more importantly that he lacks the agenda and the joylessness which I associate (fairly or unfairly) with an academic mindset. Sometimes his prose is laborious but it never saps your energy – the payoff to his meditations on the Language Type, Finnegans Wake‘s cosmologies and The Perils of Pauline are always such as to make the journey worth the work. He puts up no plaques proclaiming “Look but do not touch;” he believes in interacting with the text, in fine-tuning your reading style to each individual book; he celebrates the sentence and encourages the idea that if you read for pleasure (which is not the same thing as entertainment), edification follows. Plainly, a meditative person will need the data his perception furnishes and the support which sound emotions lend; but he will, in addition to the disciplines of logic, mathematics, and the scientific method, need to possess a rich vocabulary, considerable command of it, and the fruit (in facts and their relations, in words and theirs) of much skilled and careful reading, because reading is the main way we discover what is going on in others; it is the knothole in the fence, your sight of my secrets, my look at what has been hidden behind your eyes, since our organs are never shared, cannot be lent or borrowed. In order to be known, we speak. Even to ourselves.

In his writing, Gass does not lean on the importance of the work he cites but upon their excellence, which is always that of prose. Dreiser is swiftly dismissed as ignorant in the ways of language while Cabrera Infante is singled out for an admiring quote and Jeremy Taylor is called “one of English prose’s greatest masters” (an epithet that I would unquestioningly apply to Mr. Gass himself). He tackles the perennial and thorny issue of morality in art separately, dedicating ‘The Baby or the Botticelli’ to an attempted resolution…basically by saying there isn’t one. He dares to call the controversial Celine a “moral writer” because hate, we mustn’t forget, is a thoroughly moralized feeling. His opinion is that the links between art and artist and art and audience are quite tenuous. If Wagner’s anti-semitism doesn’t fatally bleed into his operas and, like a bruise, discolor them, and if Balzac’s insufferable bourgeois dreams don’t irreparably damage his fictions, then why should we suppose the work itself, in so much less command of its readers than its author is of the text, will communicate its immoral implications like a virus to the innocents who open its covers? This may seem unlikely to some, but for someone who like me finds Shattuck as repulsive as Sade, the argument satisfies.

Finally, perhaps the most endearing essays herein are the ones where Gass indulges in his sense of play, attempting to define (like the least-practical dictionary) such concepts as exile or simplicity. He will wander from Shaker furniture to “Heming’s way” in search of the many forms of simplicity and the results can be delightful. His defining of Ezra Pound’s name is pure whimsy with a hint of profundity underneath. Then there was his allegedly Egyptian initial syllable, Ez, which he said meant “rising,” so that it could be followed by ra, which, of course, stood for the sun… Everybody else’s Ezra was Hebrew, a prophet’s name meaning “help” and designating a scribe of the Law of the Lord. The Biblical Ezra believed in racial purity too, and castigated the Israelites for spilling their holy seed among strangers – taking strange wives and adopting their ways. Pound’s alternative reading, “Rising Sun,” aside from the pun on his aspirations, sounded Sioux or Cheyenne rather than Egyptian… Sometimes his obsession with technicalities can be interminable but as I said, there is always a payoff.

Now the great question: Will the rigorous style that comprises so much of Gass’ talent and which take my breath away in the essay form translate into effective fiction? Beautiful sentences and impish intelligence won’t be enough in that scenario and so I’m keeping an eye out for his novels and stories.

Even if his fiction turns out to be a mess, this is all the proof I need of his brilliance in criticism. Finding a Form is a tough, muscular read – I worked through its densely packed pages for nearly a year, smiling a lot, mulling over every one, but if my mind wandered for a second I was lost and usually had to start over. It’s important to keep your wits about you. A tough read but also both rewarding and entertaining. Totally worth it. If criticism is your thing, check this one out.