William H. Gass
William H. Gass; drawing by David Levine

The Tunnel is about a man who undertakes to establish an identity between the frustrations and disappointments of ordinary domestic life and the Holocaust. The man is a professor of history at a university in the American Midwest. The frustrations and disappointments are his own—The Tunnel is, in effect, his memoir—and they are of a fairly mundane sort: an alcoholic mother, a sexually stagnant marriage, a failed love affair, uninteresting children, dim students, bickering colleagues, and a general sense of lost entitlement. He has just completed a scholarly study, Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany, intended to subvert conventional notions about the morality of the Holocaust. He now writes The Tunnel as a kind of companion volume—so that his wife will not know what he’s up to, he interleaves the sheets of the two manuscripts on his desk—in which he gives vent to his many resentments, bigotries, and fantasies of revenge, and in which he identifies himself regularly and admiringly with the Nazis.

William Gass is said to have spent thirty years writing this book. It is his second novel. His first, Omensetter’s Luck, appeared in 1966; he is also, of course, the author of a number of volumes of essays and short fiction. In trying to make sense of a project to which so much time has been dedicated, readers will naturally look for a way to distinguish Gass himself from the petty, self-absorbed, and deeply unpleasant narrator he has created. They will not want to imagine that the narrator’s sour nihilism is also Gass’s, or that these indecent and seemingly interminable confessions are only displaced autobiography; and they will therefore make every interpretative effort to peel Gass away, so to speak, from the text he has produced. They will find this extremely difficult to do:

The narrator’s name is also William, and he has been given a last name, Kohler, that, like Gass, is an easy occasion for schoolyard humor. (Kohler is the brand name of a toilet maker.) Kohler tells us he was born in Iowa; Gass was born in North Dakota. Kohler’s father becomes crippled by arthritis, and his mother is an alcoholic who finally has to be institutionalized; these seem to be copies of Gass’s own parents, as he has described them in his nonfictional writing. Kohler eventually attends Harvard (Gass went to Cornell); after duty in the Second World War (in which Gass also served), he marries a woman named Martha, with whom he has two children (as does Gass), and he returns to the Midwest to a career (like Gass’s) as a professor. Kohler makes frequent reference to his rotundity, which photographs and personal observation confirm to be a feature of the Gass physique, and to his unusually small penis, for which the evidence needed to establish a correspondence is happily lacking. Kohler is a few years older than Gass (who was born in 1924); but this is to make it possible for him to visit Nazi Germany in the late Thirties, and to be middle-aged, the time of reflection and regret, in the late Sixties, which is the period in which the book is set.

Kohler is also (again, like his creator) something of a philosopher. His interpretation of the Holocaust is based on a theory about the nature of history, which he explains as follows: “Neither guilt nor innocence are ontological elements in history; they are merely ideological factors to which a skillful propaganda can seem to lend a causal force, and in that fashion furnish others…. If there is a truly diabolical ingredient to events…it lies in the nature of History itself, for it is the chronicle of the cause which causes, not the cause.” The syntax of the last sentence might be a little clearer: what is meant is that people are incited to act not by past events, but by representations of past events (“it is the chronicle…which causes”), and those representations reflect the selfish interests of the people who do the representing. There is no past; there are only texts.

Kohler’s initiation into this line of thinking comes, as he tells us, during a student visit to Germany in 1938. There he sits at the feet of a professor named Magus Tabor (or “Mad Meg,” as Kohler affectionately calls him), whose histrionic lectures on the uses of history take up many pages of The Tunnel. These are mostly Nietzschean deconstructions with a Nazi twist—such as, “There is no Nature which we are compelled to obey, only a Culture which various interests conspire to place on its empty throne,” and “It’s a war of lie against lie in this world where we are,” and “Myths are history, and myths are made, preserved, and propagated in some language. Now then, my pure, young, decent countrymen: whose tongue shall be the one to wag?”


Kohler discovers in these exhortations an appealing philosophy of life, for they justify his sense that the will makes its own truth, and they permit him to understand Nazism as a splendid casting off of self-deception, a bold acknowledgment that morality is simply the mask that disguises the real motive for human action, which is the desire to be the dog on top. He declares to Tabor his admiration for the “New Germany”; he participates in the rioting on Kristallnacht; he returns to America. The details of his subsequent military service are sketchy, but he is evidently present at the Nuremberg trials, which he pronounces a “charade,” on grounds that if there is guilt in merely wishing the extermination of the Jews, no one is innocent. “Who of us has not destroyed our enemies in our heads,” as he puts it. “Suppose but a whisper of our wishes leaked out and half a continent was ready to rise and do your bidding?” He publishes these observations in a book called Nuremberg Notes, which is roundly attacked, but which launches his academic career.

About half of The Tunnel is taken up with reflections, in this vein, on the nature of history and our knowledge of the past, presented in the form of Tabor’s monologues, office debates among Kohler’s history-department colleagues, and the musings of Kohler himself. The remainder consists of Kohler’s recollections of various aspects of his private life—his parents and relations, his childhood terrors and ecstasies, the early years of his marriage, his love affair with a local salesgirl, his daily routine, and his tunnel. The latter is a harebrained attempt to construct an escape tunnel in the basement of his own house, an undertaking involving complicated schemes of concealment which are minutely described and which include breaking the neck of his wife’s cat and disposing of the corpse.

The personal stories are interwoven with the reflections on history, and the strands are matched in two ways. There is, first, a continual figuring of domestic events in the language of the Third Reich. “A little Führer’s been my father,” Kohler says; or, “I’ve been in bedrooms as bad as Belsen”; or (about his tunnel), “I am running away from home…I am escaping the camp.” An abusive tirade by his father is compared with a Nazi murdering Jews. A marital quarrel in which dishes are broken is made to recall Kristallnacht. Kohler’s banishment from his wife’s bed evokes Germany’s disgrace following the Treaty of Versailles. He catches the spirit of his married life at middle age in the phrase “as we auschwitz along on our merry way.”

Kohler’s ambition for this “domestic epic,” as he terms it, is to achieve for personal life what he imagines Hitler has achieved for political life: to unmask its brutality, to expose “the fascism of the heart.” Under-writing this enterprise is a theory of personal relations which is isomorphic, as he tells us, with Tabor’s theory of history. “I can tell myself the truth, too,” he says, “as Magus Tabor taught me, because ordinary life is supported by lies, made endurable through self-deception.” Underneath the smiling fakery, underneath the cosmetic surface of daily existence, there is only “the pit, the abyss, the awful truth, a truth that cannot be lived with, that cannot be abided: human worthlessness, our worthlessness, yours and mine.” Domestic life and Nazism are thus related thematically as well as metaphorically, and Kohler is given an extended fantasy about organizing a political party for the scorned and the embittered, those who feel defeated by life, shut out of the banquet. He proposes to name this “the Party of the Disappointed People.” Various banners and insignia, the latter looking somehow like biologized swastikas, are designed and are illustrated in the text, and a manifesto is drafted. Bigots, it is explained, will form “the backbone of the Party,” along with “all who are downwardly destined.” There are dreams of future triumph:

The Nazi movement was a pinnacle, but it peaked only for a moment. Its remnants may hope for more lasting luck next time, but I am confident that my group, the PdP, already huge, although a sleeping giant, will wake, will rise, will thrive.

The tunnel itself, at one point, is represented as a kind of monument to the movement. “Trajan’s column is a solid tunnel turning through the sky,” Kohler explains, “while my pillar will be made of air and go the other way; it will celebrate defeat, not victory.”

But the tunnel as a symbol is clearly intended to ramify in other directions as well. It is, for one thing, a substitute vagina: “I have my own hole now,” says Kohler, with his wife in mind, “your cunt is not the only cave.” But it also links up with a series of images, arising repeatedly in a variety of contexts, of circular shapes—not only “cunts” (a favorite subject of reflection throughout), but wedding bands, cyclones, coffee-cup rings, mouths, the letter O, and so on. A tunnel is a nothing enclosed by something not itself, and we are expected to see that this might be a fair description of Being, of life in the body: “a tall dark column of damp air,” as Kohler describes one character, “hole going nowhere—yes—wind across the mouth of a bottle.” Existence is a noise produced out of a hollowness. There is nothing within; there is only the form and the sounds it makes. The essence is empty.


This is, as it happens, exactly the theme of Gass’s most famous work of fiction, the short story “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” (1968). And the dismissal of content as anything other than an effect of the manipulation of form, as something “deeper” than the aesthetic surface, has been the constant argument of his criticism.* It is alarming to discover these thoughts among the musings of a bigot, and this is therefore the place where most readers will wish that the point of distinction between the two Williams were a little more obvious.

But Kohler turns out to share not only Gass’s conception of Being but most of Gass’s literary tastes as well. He describes himself (in much the same terms that Gass has) as an addictive reader in his childhood; literature was his escape tunnel from his loveless life. In The Tunnel Kohler imitates Sterne and Joyce; he alludes to Flaubert (“I carry on the spirit of Flaubert,” he says), to Proust, and to Plato. He reveals himself to be (again like Gass) a particular devotee of Rilke. The final pages of the text are given over in part to translations and variations on a number of Rilke’s poems, and Kohler refers several times, with particular insistence, to Rilke’s great poem “The Panther,” a work from which many of the The Tunnel’s motifs—the prisonhouse of signs, the nothingness of the world, the compulsive circling, the paralyzed will, the abysmal heart—might be said to have been directly culled. What possessed Gass to force, from the most intimate material of his own life, the perverse growth of William Kohler? Why this particular fleur du mal?

Writers double themselves all the time in their fictions, of course. That’s one of the reasons for writing them: to clone yourself and set yourself out on a different path, or to reconfigure yourself as a marginal observer of your own childhood, as Lawrence does with Rupert Birkin in Women in Love, and as Woolf does with Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse; or to split yourself in two and reimagine one side of yourself through the eyes of the other, as Joyce does in Ulysses, and as Nabokov does in Pale Fire. The remarkable thing about fictional narratives is that readers have so little trouble dissociating the author from the double. Even three-year-olds know that Dr. Seuss is not the Cat in the Hat; and I suspect that if they could articulate the sense they have of the text, they could also explain precisely the way in which Dr. Seuss is not not the Cat in the Hat, as well. The reason for this is that making copies of ourselves and setting them in motion in imaginary space is built in to the way minds work. We do it all the time—when we plan for a future event, when we relive the past, when we daydream.

The Tunnel is extremely resistant to this ordinary readerly operation of dissociation. The resistance gives the book a certain power and even fascination; but it is hard, in the end, to feel that the resulting indeterminacy is intentional. Part of the problem is structural. There is, to begin with, trouble in deciding the book’s genre, and where the genre is undecidable, one of the techniques of reading, which is to make sense of texts against their conventions, is blocked. The Tunnel is not a novel. Apart from the narrator, it has no characters (though it has some extended descriptions of characters) and it has no plot. Everything is recollected; nothing is dramatized. It makes some claims, in the early going, to be a kind of inverted epic, and Kohler composes an appropriate invocation of the muses (“Sing of disappointments more repeated than the batter of the sea, of lives embittered by resentments so ubiquitous the ocean’s salt seems thinly shaken,” and so forth). But apart from its scale, there is nothing generically epic about the book. It begins and ends in essentially the same place. As a piece of writing it is, like its protagonist, singularly inert. It performs very large circles around a stasis.

There are also, simply on the level of storytelling, a number of puzzling inconsistencies. Kohler tells us, for example, that he was married in 1940, and makes an elaborate point about the significance of the date; some 200 pages later, he informs us that he married after the war. A long episode in which Kohler’s mother misplaces her wedding ring is given, with (apparently) only minor differences, twice in the book. Kohler seems to claim, in the process of making a difficult metaphysical point, that the brick he threw on Kristallnacht sailed through an open window and never broke glass; in the actual Kristallnacht episode, he throws two bricks, and both are described as breaking glass. If the discrepancies are deliberate, no means are provided for grasping the significance they are intended to have.

And there is, finally, the problem of tone. In his most experimental work of fiction, Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife (1968), Gass argued that the times demand “a diction which contains the quaint, the rare, the technical, the obsolete, the old, the lent, the nonce, the local slang and argot of the street, in neighborly confinement,” and The Tunnel enacts this democracy of diction, this radical mingling of discourses, to an ostentatious degree. There is a lot of Rilke, and there are many limericks. Passages of refined lyricism give way to excited excurses on farting. There are long, memoiristic set pieces, delicately turned and philosophically shaded; and there is this:

In my trunk I have a cartoon—the newspaper brittle and yellow now—of the scurrilous anti-Semitic sort I so love to collect. The upper legs and lower belly of a prone and naked male are shown. There, a thick and circumcised cock rises out of an ugly crosshatch of hair. Around the cock, however, is wrapped a fist, thrust—one feels forcefully—from the sleeve of a uniformed arm coming toward one like a blow in the shadowy background. Although the fat fingers of the fist cover most of the cock, its Semitic circumcision and glistening head are clearly shown, if rather crudely drawn. Adorning a middle finger of the fist is a large ring with a round face on which a swastika has been boldly incised in heavy ink. The original was in simple black and white, of course. I colored the cock’s head red with a crayon later, and made the ring yellow as a winter squash. It is an arresting image.

And this:

   They discovered in one of the


   how to make Jews into lamps;
but whenever they skinned them,
the dirty kikes bit them

   so, their jaws held by wires,
with a fine pair of pliers,

   they extracted their teeth in

And this:

I want you to see a Jew’s cock—hatless, raw-headed, red as an alcoholic’s nose—rise. Any Jew’s will do. They are famously the same. Call one up. You get the joke? Well, laugh then, so I’ll know. Consider the wrinkled daddy-dinkums that you’ve made. Feeling qualmish? I want you to watch it while it slowly swells, twitches throughout its formerly flaccid length as though a little link of sausage were alive. I want you to watch closely while it shivers from a hairy thigh and lifts, enlarging as it goes, straightening, becoming stiff as a pole for the German flag, but bearing another banner, oh yes…and so…

sickening the swollen veins, the kosher crown, the sticky bead like sweat that rises to its top like bullet grease to lubricate the dome…

ah, is it not—this image—hideous and tummy turning?

…oh yes, but why?

because it means more Jews.

The obvious prima facie difference between Gass and Kohler is that Gass is a professor of English and Kohler is professor of history. “I gave up poetry for history in my youth,” Kohler tells us, more than once, and this suggests the place where the character is meant to be split off from the author. Kohler is a Gass who took another path, a Gass who has abandoned the consolations of aesthetic form. More encouragingly: literature is what saved Gass from becoming Kohler. But there are two ways to take this. One is to understand Gass to be suggesting that literature survives the abyss as history cannot, because literature has not (as Kohler says history has) been “buggered by ideology.” And Kohler is given a little speech, near the close of his text, in praise of poetry, which he makes in pretty much those terms:

I was slow to realize how poetry created a permanent and universal present like a frieze of stone, and was therefore what any one of us might see and feel who followed its lines and felt its forms: it was the oil of all ills, didn’t the poets claim? the salt of sadness in every tear, artful fence for the stolen kiss. Poetry was not merely what stood in front of your eye like a palace guard (for poetry believes in nothing but the reenactment of its rituals), it was those eyes, their pupil’d core, the scene itself.

(The last sentence is essentially a redaction of “The Panther.”)

But it is also possible to read The Tunnel as a work of self-criticism. Because he emerged on the literary scene in the Sixties, at the same moment as Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, and Donald Barthelme, Gass is commonly classified as a postmodernist, with the implication that he regards “the aesthetic” as just one more ideology of the modern age, another discourse to be parodied, pilloried, and debunked. Hence the mix of high and low diction, the generic indeterminacy, the typographical avant-gardism, the self-conscious punning and wordplay are commonly interpreted as assaults on the purity of form. But the implication is entirely mistaken. Gass is a literary formalist, an aesthete straight out of the nineteenth-century tradition; and his nihilism is entirely consistent with the nihilism of Flaubert, Pater, Joyce, and Stevens.

“My eyes are tired,” wrote Joyce near the end of his life. “For over half a century they have gazed into nullity, where they have found a lovely nothing.” The eyes that have gazed into the life represented in The Tunnel, though, have found an unlovely nothing, and it may be that the purpose of the book is to demonstrate the exhaustion of the modern faith in aesthetic form. Gass may have asked himself not “What would have happened to me if I had had to give up poetry?” but “What would someone like me, whose belief in poetry is founded on a conviction about the nothingness of the world against the power of the word, say if he were asked to make moral sense of an event like the Holocaust?” It may be that The Tunnel is an excavation of Gass’s own assumptions, and that the book announces not the triumph of formalism, but its defeat. It is impossible to know.

Genre, linear narrative, and diction are props, of course; they are conventions, mere artifices of sense-making. But they are part of the language, too, just as much as words are. One sometimes feels with Gass that he has respect for no unit of language greater than the word, and that he believes that words will carry him through, will create their own pattern of association, their own form, so long as he doesn’t submit them to the coercions of conventional structure and selection. If you collapse conventional structure, though, you need some other, unconventional, structure to take its place. Otherwise, all you can make is a pile of words.

This Issue

July 13, 1995