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Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts Hardcover – Deckle Edge, January 17, 2012
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*Starred Review* The pleasures in Gass’ (A Temple of Texts, 2006) new powerhouse essay collection are heady, varied, and many. Now in his late eighties, the philosopher-writer is more frolicsome than ever in his fathoms-deep erudition and purring, stalking, and fencing prose. Gass writes so cogently, robustly, and puckishly about literary, metaphysical, and moral matters because he knows his subjects down to their subatomic particles. He happily reports that he “relished” the diagramming of sentences as a grade-school student, hence his dynamic lectures-become-essays on sentence structure, the anatomy and history of the metaphor, and Platonic forms. Having profoundly internalized Kafka’s work and life, Gass imagines Kafka writing a memoir-from-beyond, in which he corrects biographical misperceptions. Further musings on the pitfalls of literary biography engender a vivid portrait of Katherine Anne Porter and an exultantly expert solution to all the speculation about Henry James’ sexuality. Gass is mischievously insurgent in “Lust,” reordering our definitions of vice and virtue. A set of piquant personal essays includes reflections on the Fourth of July, tyranny and freedom of expression, and “Slices of Life in a Library,” a charmingly comic homage to the joys and misdemeanors of passionate reading. The brainy, ethical, artistic, and ebullient fun Gass has in this brimming volume will exalt every ardent reader. --Donna Seaman
“Gass [is] a first-rate essayist and something of a classicist . . . a major talent [and] an intrepid critic . . . Life Sentences is a roaming collection . . . incisive . . . elegant.”
—Larry McMurtry, Harper’s Magazine
“Life Sentences is much more than occasion to regrind old axes…It’s a moving testimony that, for all his abstract theorizing, Gass, now 87, still knows his way to the heart of a story.”
—Larry Hardesty, The Boston Globe
“Let’s just get it out of the way: William H. Gass can write. I know: That’s not breaking news. Over the course of a half-century, Gass’ beautifully constructed prose has drawn raves, earning him an American Book award, a PEN / Nabokov Lifetime Achievement award and three National Book Critics Circle awards for criticism . . . Gass’ skills haven’t waned with age, either. His new collection of essays written over the past decade, Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts is so agile and well-written it seems to demand a round of appreciative applause every few pages, as if he were a leotard-clad acrobat swinging high overhead.”
—Doug Childers, Richmond Times-Dispatch
“Other than praising the book and urging people to read it—and quoting as many elegantly constructed passages as one can get away with—there isn’t much for a book reviewer to do. I can’t even resign myself to giving advice on where to start and what to skip, because Life Sentences is that rare book of essays that has no low points and can be read straight through.”
—Troy Jollimore, The Barnes & Noble Review
“Mr. Gass is an ironist of the highest caliber, a metafictional novelist of the Coover, Barth, Pynchon and Gaddis school. At 87, he is an improbable éminence grise of American letters, festooned with accolades; if there is any justice in the world he will one day get his Nobel prize. When he is not deathly serious with his sly, avuncular delivery of 3-in-the-morning-crisis existential epiphanies, he is hilariously subversive . . . Though he is also a masterful novelist—Omensetter’s Luck (1966) is widely considered a classic—his reputation rests on his criticism and essays . . . As an essayist, his prose is gorgeously musical, ticking along smoothly as if measured out by metronome. He composes miniature fugues and conducts cadenzas while meandering around his subjects . . . [Life Sentences] is a literary miracle.”
—Vladislav Davidzon, The New York Observer
“The pleasures in Gass’ new powerhouse essay collection are heady, varied, and many . . . the philosopher-writer is more frolicsome than ever in his fathoms-deep erudition and purring, stalking, and fencing prose. Gass writes so cogently, robustly, and puckishly about literary, metaphysical, and moral matters because he knows his subjects down to their subatomic particles . . . The brainy, ethical, artistic, and ebullient fun Gass has in this brimming volume will exalt every ardent reader.”
—Donna Seaman, Booklist, starred
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I say "odd quote" because Gass seems to take good-humored umbrage at Gardner's assessment, though I can't believe his intent was malicious, nor can I understand how William Gass can disagree: he is a master stylist, and he can just plain write. About the "nothing to say" part; well, that can't be helped - that's just Gass living up to his surname, to an extent.
William Gass is not every(wo)man's writer, and while there is certainly something in this collection for everyone, only those resolved to read the sentences to their finish will be rewarded. In the age of Twitter, even the pithiest Gassian metaphor will tax the 140-symbol limit. His lexical perambulations will test your patience. His insistence that the Classics matter and that a modern liberal education that excludes them is a waste of time will be passed off as the grumblings of a curmudgeon. He will irritate, flabbergast, pontificate. But one thing William Gass will never do: confuse. He is perspicuity personified (and he would hate the alliteration). You know where he stands because he is tenacious in his quest to allow every thought to resolve itself syntactically, grammatically, and logically. Even if it pushes the paragraph to the near-breaking point. This may seem like a negative criticism, but it is not. Make no mistake: William Gass is worthy of your time, whether you are majoring in the humanities or better, just majoring in being human. The sentences alone - even those which, despite their astounding complexity, don't seem to say much at all - are worth the effort. With Gass, like gas, the effect is cumulative and, ultimately, explosive.
"Life Sentences" offers twenty-two essays filling nearly 350 pages of compound-complex sentences couched in pristinely ordered paragraphs. Brief reminiscences from the life - and pre-life - of a man of letters lead off the collection, with the ultimate essay - "Retrospective" - likely the standout of the group. In a remarkable homage to exactly the type of verbal smothering that he has been accused of, Gass reveals an interesting breakdown of the places where good writing - including his own - tends to go wrong. It is impossible in this space to sufficiently describe his seven deadly literary sins, so a simple listing will have to do: naming, (whoring and) metaphoring, jingling, preaching, theorizing, celebrating, and translating. Enlightenment with every turned page.
Section two offers the author's inevitable commentary on the lives and work (more on the life than on the work) of Gertrude Stein, Malcolm Lowry, Proust, Nietzsche, Kafka, and certainly, Henry James, et al. It is here where Gass's obsession with form - in my opinion - gets the best of him, and he allows politics or simple preference to interfere with his hermeneutic. Said another way, Gass loves Gertrude Stein for what was clearly the hugeness of her character - a character in which there was surely much to admire. But her books? A superior vocabulary, quick wit, and a life of privilege are not prerequisites for "timeless prose" and the essay consumes lines that would have been better devoted to a writer of greater significance. But this is William Gass's book, not mine, so Gertrude Stein, again. Overall, the section offers interesting discussion on the abuse of Nietzsche, a Kafka piece that is borderline genius, and a take on Knut Hamsun worth a read and re-read.
Section three features three installments from lectures he delivered on the Classics. Simply, these essays are brilliant, and alone worth the price of the book. Here, Gass has included his considered take on the Greek literary mechanisms of eidos, mimesis, and metaphor. Stunning, thorough, and challenging, these should be required reading for anyone who would ever pick up a book to read it. Required memorization for anyone who would ever attempt to write. The mimesis essay produced the odd effect in me where I found myself pumping my fist and grunting "YES!" again and again. Really, really good.
The collection closes with three essays on theory. Gass waxes philosophical on what a waste virtues are without their accompanying vices, on narrative sentences, and on sentential aesthetic structure. Good, technical stuff, with a touch of the nostalgic - diagramming sentences just like back in school. The best things truly never get old, and William Gass - 87 years old when he delivered this book - should know.
In summary, a quote: "What does make a sentence or a line of verse rise from the dead and walk again, run for a record, and even dance...?" If you want to know, read "Life Sentences" by William Gass.
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He is a great writer, witty, profound, a page turner