Thursday, December 14, 2006

Music of Prose

The Summer 2006 issue of Rain Taxi included a very positive review (not online) by Scott Esposito of William H. Gass' latest collection of essays, A Temple of Texts. After praising Gass' prose and infectious enthusiasm for great literature and for writing, Scott writes:
Each essay is packed with an astonishing array of ornately wrapped information, yet this dense prose means that Gass's essays commonly feel more like a series of switchbacks than a well-defined path. Gass's strength is for orchestrating sentences and paragraphs, not entire essays, and he sometimes gets so involved in minutia and arcane references that his essays grind to a halt. Take, for instance, when an insightful comparison of Gaddis's The Recognitions and JR is hijacked by an overly deep reading of a paragraph from the second page of The Recognitions:
I particularly like the double t's with which our pleasure begins, but perhaps you will prefer the ingenious use of the vowel i in the sentence with which it ends ("which things, indeed, he did. He diagnosed Camilla's difficulty as indigestion, and locked himself in his cabin"), or the play with d and c in the same section. But these are rich streets and should be dawdled down...
Such opaque readings do little to illuminate a work....
When I read this passage, a couple objections jumped immediately to mind. For one thing, this piece on The Recognitions is not an "essay" per se, but originally appeared as an introduction (my personal favorite introduction, in fact), as did many of the offerings in this new book. He is not making an argument about The Recognitions, as one might find in an essay (that is, he is not trying to "illuminate [the] work"), so much as, by way of introducing it, suggesting that the reader has various pleasures in store. In this case, the reader who attends to the language (who listens to the music, as Gass likes to put it), has much to look forward to in Gaddis. And, I thought that Gass, by bringing the reader's attention to not just specific sentences or words, but even letters, is doing what he usually does, which is concerning himself primarily with language, and that to complain about this in Gass is to largely have missed what Gass is about. Indeed, Scott immediately admits that
perhaps it is unfair to criticize Gass for being obsessed with details; as his essays make clear, when reading he prefers the rich side streets to the quick boulevards, so it makes perfect sense that his criticism would reflect this. From his first essay collection onward, Gass's attention has been most focused not on the structure of a novel but on the use of language: its creativity, its elegance, and above all its physical sound.
I draw attention to this, not to pick on Scott, but to talk a little about Gass and his particular criticism. More than most critics, it seems, Gass wants us to pay attention to the language. More than that, he wants us to think about how the language forms the rest of what we think we "see" or understand while reading fiction.

Lately I've been reading Gass' early collection, Fiction and the Figures of Life. At any given time he may be talking about character or the nature of fiction, but always Gass is focusing on the language. In "The Concept of Character in Fiction" he bemoans the fact that so often "characters are clearly conceived as living outside language". Then he proceeds to walk us through the ways in which character emerges through the specific word choices the writer makes. First, he plays with the common idea that we "visualize" while we read, before finding it wanting:
The proportion of words which we can visualize is small, but quite apart from that, another barrier to the belief that vivid imagining is the secret of a character's power is the fact that when we watch the picture which a writer's words have directed us to make, we miss their meaning, for their point is never the picture. It also takes concentration, visualization does--takes slowing down; and this alone is enough to rule it out of novels, which are never waiting, always flowing on.
Gass shows us how characters only consist of what the writer gives them. This seems like an utter banality, but it's not. We might be told that a character is tall or fat or bald or whatever, and we might automatically visualize to some extent what that means, we fill in the blanks. But our blank-filling, here, is wrong. Our visualization of the character ends up endowing the character with more than what the writer has given it. If I have an idea of what a stock fat guy looks like, and all I'm told by way of physical attributes is that Mr. X is fat, enter stock image. This only gets in the way. So, Gass would have us attend to the words, consider the choices, consider how they sound, and how their sound is why they were chosen just as much if not more than their supposed meaning. And how this sound, this music, helps create whatever meaning comes through.

Later in this essay, Gass quotes from Henry James' story "The Birthplace":
Their friend, Mr. Grant-Jackson, a highly preponderant pushy person, great in discussion and arrangement, abrupt in overture, unexpected if not perverse in attitude, and almost equally acclaimed and objected to in the wide midland region to which he had taught, as the phrase was, the size of his foot...
Says Gass: "Mr. Grant-Jackson is a preponderant pushy person because he's made by p's". This might seem at first blush to simply be Gass trying to be clever or showy, but it's not. He says this because it matters that James has used this alliteration. It matters that "preponderant", "pushy", and "person" all begin with the letter p. He finishes this sentence thus: "and the rhythm and phrasing of James's writing here perfectly presents him to us." Characters come to us through language--which is to say, they are made up of the specific word choices made by the writer and the specific sounds those words make. And of course the same is true of everything else in a work of fiction.

When Gass singles out particular repeated sounds in The Recognitions, he asks the reader to consider such detail while reading. This is one of the many reasons I appreciate his criticism (another is the sheer joy it is to read).

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Anonymous Scott said...


I'm in agreement with what you have to say about Gass here. His close reading are inspiring, in that that show readers (unless they already happen to be reading as closely as Gass--not likely) just how much closer they can be reading.

In my review I meant to point out how a collection of Gass's essays differ from what most might expect. He doesn't lay out an argument so much as embody an author's style. This can be very rewarding, but I feel that at times his approach frustrates more than it illuminates. Gass is occassionally indulgent (he loves his alliteration and aphorisms), and often I enjoy his indulgences, but I think that at other times they obscure.

December 17, 2006 9:36 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Hi, Scott. Thanks for the comment. I'd agree that occasionally Gass can be mysterious (or obscure). At times, when he dashes off a pithy aphorism about a writer's style, say, or the use of certain sounds, I want him to spend more time actually talking about how those sounds or that style produced a given particular effect in the writing.

I didn't think the passage you quoted in the intro to The Recognitions warranted the comment you made of it (hence, it jumped out at me and elicited my own comment), but I don't disagree that at times his approach might be frustrating. And I certainly agree with your point that Gass offers the reader something rather different than the typical kind of literary essay or review.

December 17, 2006 10:23 PM  

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