Defensive postures

Scott Timberg, a Calendar staff writer, is co-editor, with Dana Gioia, of "The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles."

AS a critic of literature, William H. Gass is nothing if not formidable. One of the nation’s most celebrated writers, Gass made his name as an ornate novelist who emerged on the heels of Thomas Pynchon and John Barth in the first generation of American postmodernists in the 1960s, eventually translating Rilke and writing the ambitious, gargantuan “The Tunnel.” But he’s generated his strongest reputation as a critic who champions overlooked authors and European high modernism. (Three of his essay collections have won National Book Critics Circle Awards for criticism.) Few interpreters can better parse a passage of Nabokovian complexity. He manages the feat of being both deeply learned and effusively enthusiastic.

Gass has always operated at the contrarian edge, which at times has coincided with the avant-garde. The traditions of American realism and regionalism don’t much interest this dewy-eyed Midwesterner. He’s got a formalist’s ability to diagram a sentence or passage (Gass and his architect wife, Mary, are doing just that in an upcoming volume), and he loves writers who, like Joyce or Beckett, break through conventions. To him, an author is a kind of magician, someone who makes “conceptual music” or who revels “in the drama and the dance of ideas.”

But “A Temple of Texts,” built of his essays for the likes of the London Review of Books and the New Republic, shows a great mind that’s been tending the same vineyard too long. It includes some excellent and perceptive pieces, most written in the last decade -- including essays on Gertrude Stein and Flann O’Brien. Wonderful lines and insights appear throughout. He’s best with authors whose meaning comes directly from the way they structure their sentences: Gass’ sense of prosody is penetrating, and he feels well-wrought phrases like physical blows. Falling into Gertrude Stein’s “Three Lives” one morning after midnight as a young grad student, he recalls both singing and moaning, “because this tension had caused my stomach to hurt quite fiercely.”


Other times he makes lyrical, if less insistent, claims: “[B]ooks are like bicycles: You travel under your own power and proceed at your own pace, your riding is silent and will not pollute, no one is endangered by your journey -- not frightened, maimed, or killed -- and the exercise is good for you.”

Still other pieces are show-offy or insular. He wastes the chance to properly sing the praises of John Hawkes, a novelist well worth a revival, with his rambling, self-serving anecdotes. Several essays never find their focus, and Gass rarely uses three words when eight will do. When he extols the importance of the classics or literary culture in general, his thinking is, as Gass himself might have said during his days as a Washington University philosophy professor, un-rigorous.

Perhaps the finest (and unfortunately least characteristic) essay in the book is “A Temple of Texts: Fifty Literary Pillars” -- a collection of single paragraphs in which he praises the books, from Plato to Cortazar, that made him who he is. It is witty, unpredictable and deeply felt.

What undercuts this volume is that it is essentially defensive. For every classic extolled or overlooked novelist exhumed, there’s a knock at pop culture. He’s hardly unique among literary types: Literature and the fine arts have been fighting a rear-guard battle against popular culture for a long time. It’s a real lost opportunity, however, that this powerful an intellect closes his ears to the noisy, vulgar chaos of the world rather than trying to understand or make art from it. He forgoes his chance to take his arguments somewhere, which critics as different as Leslie Fiedler and Northrop Frye did almost every time out.

Ironically, David Foster Wallace, whose self-conscious, meta-fictional style is in some ways the offspring of the first postmodern generation, is now writing better, if differently inflected, essays about literature than his literary father. “The true alchemists do not change lead into gold,” Gass writes in one instance, “they change the world into words.” It’s a nice turn of phrase -- likely to bring the house down at the faculty club. But what does it really tell readers of books of literary essays that they didn’t know coming in?

Gass is without question an important man of letters. But somehow, for all the strenuousness, erudition and anger at work in “A Temple of Texts,” what comes across here is a kind of learned smugness. If you’re rooting with Gass for literature and deep thinking to return to the forefront of culture with full force, this is, at the very least, not much help. *