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

Fictions are everywhere, although we often call them something else: politeness or metaphor or simplification, perhaps. It’s a fiction to say you had a lovely evening if the evening was just so-so, and it’s certainly a fiction to say you are in the heart of the country when you are only in what is usually called its middle. There is even an element of fiction in most uses of pronouns like “you” and “we”—too many different persons are crowded into those common shelters.

Fictions are not lies, or not necessarily lies, because they don’t usually try to deceive. They arrange events and feelings, in the sense of a musical arrangement. They give experience an angle or a story. Sometimes we are not sure they are fictions—we just suspect them of some sort of stylization, catch in them what Brecht in another context calls “the scent of a mythology.”

“For we’re always out of luck here,” we read in William H. Gass’s masterly story “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” published in 1968. “Everything is gray, and everyone is out of luck who lives here.” Who are “we” and where is “here”? The narrator who tells us these things is a wounded and unhappy writer, “in retirement from love,” as he says. Maybe there is no “we.” Maybe only the writer is out of luck and sees gray all around. He certainly likes to list the faults in his habitat:

Everywhere…the past speaks, and it mostly speaks of failure. The empty stores, the old signs and dusty fixtures, the debris in alleys, the flaking paint and rusty gutters, the heavy locks and sagging boards: they say the same disagreeable things.

He quotes an early-nineteenth-century lament about midwestern culture: all ignorance and no remedy for it. “Croaking jealousy; bloated bigotry; coiling suspicion; wormish blindness; crocodile malice.” Our narrator clearly relishes this sour and eager rhetoric, and adds, “Things have changed since then, but in none of the respects mentioned.”

“Here” is a place called B, “a small town fastened to a field in Indiana,” and the writer arrives on the wings of a famous line by W.B. Yeats. “So I have sailed the seas and come…” is how the story opens. Well, at least the Indiana town has the same initial as Byzantium, and no doubt traveling “across the breadth of Ohio,” once we have set off into metaphor, is as good as sailing the seas. The weather of the place leaves something to be desired. The summer heat is “pure distraction…a gale can grow in a field of corn that’s hot as a draft from hell… though the smart of the same wind in winter is more humiliating, and in that sense even worse. But in the spring it rains as well, and the trees fill with ice.” But there is the autumn:

The shade is ample, the grass is good, the sky a glorious fall violet; the apple trees are heavy and red, the roads are calm and empty… and a man would be a fool who wanted, blessed with this, to live anywhere else in the world.

Always, everything, everyone, everywhere; hot as hell, ample shade, glorious violet; a fool, blessed, anywhere else in the world. Our narrator is using a recognizable idiom, leaping into generalizations, borrowing ready-made scenery, slipping into the tone of the proverb. Town and weather are not symbolist landscapes, projections of the narrator’s moods and (mainly) pain. They are as real as literary towns and weather need to be. But they are perceived by someone, and more important, written up, registered in a shared language which itself is the beginning of community. The narrator, as Gass says of Malcolm Lowry in “The Medium of Fiction,” an essay roughly contemporary with the story we are looking at, “is constructing a place, not describing one.” He is making a place “for the mind.” A writer, for Gass, makes a home in language: not an ideal residence, but a durable home all the same, even for those out of luck. Those (perhaps exaggerated) midwestern failures have an afterlife, as formidable but forgotten successes do not.

“The force of individual events,” Gass says in a much later essay on the work of Danilo Kis, first published in these pages, “…is but a cough in a clinic compared to the trauma of its descriptions.” “Trauma” is too strong a word for the condition of the narrator of “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” but he is making fictions, turning coughs and their equivalents into a kind of melancholy music, exchanging triviality of occurrence for richness of record. He thinks of an old man in the town of B, remarking that he is “not sure what his presence means to me… or to anyone.” But meaning is never what people in Gass’s work ought to be looking for, at least not meaning in any portable or easily expressible sense (“ideas aren’t literature, any more than remarks are, or plots, or people, or noble truths, or lively lies”), and in his next sentence the narrator articulates a local version of Gass’s own credo or hope: “I keep wondering whether, given time, I might not someday find a figure in our language which would serve him faithfully, and furnish his poverty and loneliness richly out.”


When the narrator speaks of the people “who live here in the heart of the country” he is thinking of the country in both senses, the rural heart of a rurally minded America. But the title of the story refers to a second heart, the heart of the heart, and only the writer lives there, the person who finds figures, and sees a whole continent in the gray town to which he has retreated. The story ends with a loudspeaker playing a cheerful Christmas carol over the empty streets. The narrator thinks he recognizes the tune. “Yes, I believe it’s one of the jolly ones.” “There’s no one to hear the music but myself, and though I’m listening, I’m no longer certain. Perhaps the record’s playing something else.” What could be more desolate than this bleak jollity? But this too can be furnished out. Gass and his narrator are definitely playing something else, even if no one else hears the music.

“There are a few vocations,” Gass says in an early essay,

…that are so uncalled for by the world, so unremunerative by any ordinary standards, so inherently difficult, so undefined, that to choose them suggests that more lies behind the choice than a little encouraging talent and a few romantic ideals.

Such a vocation, Gass continues, “requires the mobilization of the entire personality—each weakness as well as every strength, each quirk as well as every normality.” His examples are “the practice of poetry or the profession of philosophy.” And his chief models, we can easily guess if we have been reading him for any time at all, would be Rilke and Wittgenstein. Rilke “because his work has taught me what real art ought to be; how it can matter to a life through its lifetime; how commitment can course like blood through the body of your words”; and Wittgenstein because of the way he said things, “the total naked absorption of the mind in its problem, the tried-out words suspended for inspection, the unceasingly pitiless evaluation they were given.” “What you heard was something like a great pianist at practice: not a piece of music, but the very acts that went into making that performance.”

What about being a novelist? Gass thinks Rilke’s achievement allows him to measure the smallness of his own, and perhaps he believes that novelists mobilize something less than their entire personality for their work, or diffuse that personality into their narratives and characters. But he is certainly dedicated to fiction as an art, and a largely uncalled for one at that. “No court commands our entertainments,” he writes in a 1981 preface to the volume In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, “requires our flattery, needs our loyal enlargements or memorializing lies…. Mammon has no interest in our service.” You will recognize the relish of rhetoric here (“we are always out of luck”), and of course even serious publishers sometimes turn a dollar or two. Mammon might send one of his underlings to deliver a check. But then here as in the earlier example, the rhetoric is the point. It’s not that the writer doesn’t want (and get) readers. He wants readers who are willing to feel unwanted, who like to believe they wouldn’t show up at court even if they were invited. Or to follow Gass’s metaphors rather than his direct assertions, he wants readers who are ready to believe that something like blood can run through the body of words, and who can hear words as engaged in a difficult form of performance. “The dictionary is as disturbing as the world,” Gass writes in On Being Blue. This is not everyone’s experience, and we may think the writer needs to get out more in the world; but the dictionary is where the words linger, resting from their worldly exertions, and it’s good to remember that even in repose they are disturbing.

Gass is always a writer, whatever genre he is working in; and always thinking about writing as well as doing it. He is not even, in the end, opposed to meaning as long as it comes late, after all the hard work and deep pleasure of making and reading sentences. That’s when “the song is built and immeasurable meanings meant.” He is the author of five works of fiction (Omensetter’s Luck, 1966; In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, 1968; Willie Masters’s Lonesome Wife, 1968; The Tunnel, 1995; Cartesian Sonata, 1998); a book-length prose meditation (On Being Blue, 1976); a book about translating Rilke (Reading Rilke, 1999); and six collections of essays (Fiction and the Figures of Life, 1970; The World Within the Word, 1978; Habitations of the Word, 1985; Finding a Form, 1996; Tests of Time, 2002; A Temple of Texts, 2006).


The essay volumes, apart from revealing in their titles an unrepentant taste for alliteration, offer reflections on writers new and old, on the practice of fiction, and on a series of questions that for Gass seem to have migrated from philosophy to literature. “In philosophy,” he says, “you settle one bill only by neglecting another”; and in literature, I extrapolate, you never settle your bills but you don’t close the accounts either. The new book, A Temple of Texts, moves toward questions of theology at the end (“Sacred Texts,” “Evil”), and has the advantage of containing, as its center and title piece, a collection of brief notes on fifty cherished works that Gass selected for an exhibition at Washington University, St. Louis, in 1991. The idea, he tells us, was “to represent works which, I feel, have changed me as a writer in some important way.” This is less arrogant than creating a list of Great Books, he says, although “that is not to suggest that I do not believe in great books, for I believe in very little else.” Gass’s choices range across time and forms and languages, from Plato’s Timaeusto Cortázar’s Hopscotch, with a strong leaning toward Modernism broadly understood (Mallarmé, Henry James, Woolf, Ford, Joyce, O’Brien, Mann, Kafka, Broch, Svevo, Pound, Yeats, Stevens, Faulkner, Stein), and Rilke gets four entries (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Duino Elegies, Sonnets to Orpheus, letters). There is a very funny postscript:

I originally compiled a much longer list, and pared it for the exhibition, mentioned earlier. After I had made my choices and pellmelled my notes about them, I realized that one book was missing which ought—absolutely—to have been present: Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, a work, among all of his others, that made a convert of me for more than twenty years. This masterpiece I just—well, I just forgot. Let it stand for the Nothing that is not here, and the Nothing that is.

He just forgot. If this forgetting wasn’t a fiction to start with, it is one now. What other book so perfectly fits, or fails to fit, the unsettled bill of forgetfulness?

A Temple of Texts also has essays on the idea of the literary classic, on influence, on spectacles, on Erasmus, Burton, Rabelais, the Arabian Nights, Gertrude Stein, on Rilke twice more, and, among contemporaries, on Sábato, Gaddis, Hawkes, Coover, Garcìa Márquez, Elkin. Books, Gass strikingly says, “are not a hunter’s trophies, but the living animals themselves.” His tribute to Elkin is as good as such things get, and many of these words could also be turned on Gass himself:

He wrote for the grace of it, for he was an unmatched celebrator of the world, and most particularly of its unseemliness, its vulgarity, its aches and envies, its lowlifes, its absurd turns, its apparently ineradicable superstitions—still, for the grace of it…only that.

Gass too writes for the grace of it, and his world is very similar to Elkin’s, but I don’t think we can see him as a celebrator, and certainly not of superstition. This collection of essays, taken as a whole, offers a strange combination of attacks on the idea of the sacred with a proliferation of metaphors borrowed from religion. “The sacred text is actually an enemy of every other.” “Sacred books are as dangerous as snakes, but what makes them particularly poisonous is their sophistical methods of argument, and consequent abandonment of reason, their rejection of testing and debate, and their implicit disparagement of experience….” Sacred works “certainly have disgraced themselves,” because “just one good book, however greatly good, when used to bludgeon every other, turns evil.”

But it’s all right, it seems, to pretend that books are sacred, as long as you don’t take sacredness seriously, as long as the temple in your title is a pure fiction. “It is probably embarrassingly clear by now,” Gass says when he is about an eighth of the way into the book, “that works of art are my objects of worship.” William Gaddis’s novel The Recognitions created “a cult in the best old sense.” With Beckett, Wittgenstein is “the only other saint in my modest religion.” After Henry James, Melville is “another god.” What Gass hopes to be able to say of himself and his fellow seekers of difficult excellence (“Well, excellence is inconveniently difficult”) is “that during our most minor and marginal lives we did not dishonor our gods.” The most careful and most moving of Gass’s expressions in this line appears in his account of a reading of Hölderlin: “And as I read on, I, who am not a believer, said, my single sincere time, with wonder and devotion, ‘My God…'”

At one point Gass crosses his moral and metaphorical wires and suggests that “perhaps Shakespeare’s are the only sacred texts.” That is, they are the least sacred in the wrong sense, the least bludgeoning. This is a bit of a muddle, and Gass goes on to build and instantly demolish a distinction between “the secular sacredness of art and the spiritually sacred works of religion.” Something is going wrong here, and it’s not immediately clear what it is. Certainly Gass is entitled to take different tacks from essay to essay without being accused of contradicting himself, and certainly his metaphors, religious or not, are his own business. But the force and passion of his arguments against the bullying dominion of sacred books make his own sacred metaphors for works of art seem slight or fussy, even frivolous, borrowed from a tired vocabulary of praise, only there for the music.

And this, I think, is the perpetual risk in Gass’s writing, fiction and nonfiction. His ear is extraordinary, his tolerance for old idioms often attractive, and his best sentences are forms of conceptual adventure: Rilke makes metaphors “out of the very edge and absence of meaning”; with Wittgenstein, “we are in the presence of logic delivered as music”; in the Arabian Nights, “the king sinks into story instead of sleep”; in Rilke again, “we grow our deaths inside us like a talent or a tumor”; in Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, “the words… are like spices brought back from countries so far away, they’re even out of sight of seas.” This is all wonderful, but as Gass is eager to remind us, “every virtue has seven vices,” and if the incessant alliteration often makes music, it sometimes makes you feel the language is talking to itself, turned away from the world. The same style is never far from flippancy, as if the writer keeps getting tired of his own seriousness, or can’t make up his mind whether he wants to annoy us or impress us.

Both casinos and revelation, for example, have become “as common as the cold,” and the only thing that’s surprising about evil is that anyone is surprised at it. Well, maybe the dimensions change:

Certainly, human horrors are old hat. It is history’s major burden, our principal trait. In these recent cases [Auschwitz, chiefly], the surprise is the size of the crimes, not just the sum of the victims but also the zeal and numbers of those committing them. Still, it is business as usual down at the old abattoir and carnage yard.

Old hat, business as usual, the old abattoir. These are clichés consciously used to flatten our horror. And to bother us, of course, on another level. They are in appalling taste, but that presumably is their point, and might even be a virtue. But it isn’t a virtue here, because the implied posture is too unappealing, too impatiently full of what it claims to know better than we do, and what it won’t think through properly. We might say something similar about Gass’s remarks on anti-Semitism in his earlier essay on Ezra Pound: “One doesn’t own a little anti-Semitism as if it were a puppy that isn’t big enough yet to poop a lot. One yap from the pooch is already too much.” One doesn’t, and it is. But what is the force of the jocular, trivializing simile? What if the very idea of the puppy is too fast and tiny and dismissive, and itself suggests an extravagant failure to see the point?

We worry about this, if we do, because this is the voice of someone called William H. Gass in an essay. But essayists are also performers, and Gass’s mischief in A Temple of Textscan provoke us in just the right way, as when he suggests that Mein Kampf is something that at least resembles a sacred book or testament, or tells us that the Nazis were “our great teachers,” since they

taught us…that no occupation, no level of society, of wealth or education, no profession, no religious belief, no amount of talent, intelligence, or aesthetic refinement can protect you from fascism’s virus, not to mention a dozen others. It is not a contradiction for the Chaucer scholar to beat his wife, especially if she resembles the Wife of Bath.

These touches are all the more interesting because they recall Gass’s novel The Tunnel, whose narrator and central character is an American historian of modern Germany, and whose tireless, painful flippancy is what makes him so memorable. If the historian had written the sentences about the puppy and the abattoir—and he writes many sentences like them, and many in even worse taste—some of us would be laughing, enjoying the release from pieties that someone else’s bad behavior can provide. He is called William Kohler, and he has just finished his big book “on the Germans.” All that remains is for him to draft an introduction, but he can’t and doesn’t do it. He writes his life instead, a 650-page morass of self-pitying evasion which is also, word by word, a comic tour de force, Notes from Undergroundrewritten by a suddenly garrulous (and far plumper) Buster Keaton.

The novel, which appeared in 1995, was long awaited because of the high standing of Gass’s earlier fiction, but not universally welcomed. Louis Menand in these pages wrote of “these indecent and seemingly interminable confessions,” and Robert Alter in The New Republic spoke of “a bloated monster of a book.” It’s true that Gass’s defenders, and Gass’s own explanations of the book, don’t inspire confidence. Kohler has a repulsive mind, Heide Ziegler admits, but “this mind has not always been repulsive.” Even if true, this proposition doesn’t help us much. Ziegler goes on to say that Gass’s “message is not that all of us are fascists, but that there is always the danger that the fascism that lurks in our hearts might erupt, that we will become fascists.” Gass himself speaks of fascism rather as he speaks of the sacred, as the domain of licensed bludgeoning. But he makes distinctions, and seems to say the opposite of Ziegler. There is “political fascism,” which is “physically brutal…. The petty is perfected, the small boy struts his stuff, the bully has the run of the yard.” And there is also “a fascism of the heart,” which is “a corrupt state of feeling, a realm of impotent resentment.” In this condition “we hear the music of the aggrieved, the peevish, the spiteful—the concert of the coward.” Gass tells us we are wrong, as readers of his novel, to move from the heart to politics: the fascism of his character is a state of the soul. It’s hard to see in that case why the man would need to be a historian of Germany or so ceaselessly to evoke the Holocaust. Are the horrors of the twentieth century just a metaphor for American resentment, the grievances of the heart of the heart of the country?

It’s always hard to make discursive sense of fictions and analogies, and the novel itself swiftly undoes Gass’s own solemnity, as author, about fascism of the heart as the “fundamental subject” of the book. “We must study the fascism of the heart,” Kohler sententiously says at a meeting of the executive committee of his department. “A glorious phrase,” one of his colleagues remarks. Another adds, “And the resentment of the foot too, I imagine.” Resentments are real, and so are feet and fascism, and the heart has its many forms of unreason. But there are no easy, sermonizing equations to be made among these elements, and no easy transferences of meaning among them. The novel shows us this on every page, and Kohler is his own best enemy.

It’s a huge book, and we need a sample. Gass himself has a helpful test, which he has borrowed from Ford Madox Ford: “Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.” Let’s try it. On page ninety-nine of The Tunnel we first read about Kohler’s colleague Culp, who has devised a “history of the human race” in limericks. “He has an infinite number about nuns, each with the same first line.” An example follows:

I once went to bed with a nun
who had a remarkable one,
but I’d just got inside her,
when God came to bride her,
and I lost the position I’d won.

By an obvious association of ideas Kohler thinks of two of his former mistresses, one of whom, a German woman, went in for fascism of rather more than the heart. No matter. “Later, when I saw your name and story in a stack of documents…I loved you still.” He meditates briefly on the way bodies fall when they are shot. He thinks of his upcoming classes. “The students will crowd the corridors today, out of the cold, and I shall lecture, fast asleep.” He sings a little song his mistress used to sing—

Crow—O crow—
each time you pass,
my sickness grows
a little stronger

—and returns to what we can recognize, if we flip back a page or two, as an autobiographical narrative beset by digressions. He describes the dust of his natal midwestern town, and then the spells when the dust lifts. This is the last paragraph on the page:

The dust then. It slid through crevices no ant could crawl through, sifting under doors to wedge them shut. It appeared like a sudden hush on polished tables, threw gloom in mirrors, begrimed the beds and grayed the linen, clung to drapes and curtains, filmed milk, sanded flour and sugar, and coated all uncovered food with its special form of granular dismay. On the other hand, the sky on hot dustless days would leap with light, nails would wink in their boards, pails blaze like beacons, and the glass of the several stores would shout the sun at you, empty your head through your ears with whistling sunshine.

Does this page reveal “the quality of the whole”? No, because it’s not all as good as this, and because the length and unpleasantness of the book take their toll. But the test is surely fair, because it’s random, and many, perhaps most other pages would show us something similar if we took the time to read them slowly: a mobile mind, extraordinary shifts of style, and much of what we saw in Gass’s earlier fiction, a finding of figures to furnish out a world that would otherwise be lost. There is something attractive, even instructive, about Kohler’s apparently indiscriminate accounting, his record of the limerick, his amoral love, his thought of the deaths of others, his song, his treasuring of “granular dismay” and “whistling sunshine.” It may be that “childhood is a lie of poetry,” as a line from “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” asserts; but dust like this is the truth of both fiction and fact.

We have a new chance to think about The Tunnel, since Gass has made a recording of himself reading it, and provided some helpful notes about the novel’s structure, which you might not immediately grasp from the text, unless you’re watching carefully for bold capitals (the twelve main sections) rather than bold letters of the same size in lower case (many subsections). In fact, the book is so busy as a typographical event—diagrams, pictures, headlines, picture-poems, many typefaces, a page of calling cards, a coal- or dirt-stained page, and so on—that you wonder how its material form could be abandoned without excessive loss. “I simply couldn’t make each page physical enough,” Gass writes in his preliminary notes for the publication of The Tunnel. But of course the pages are irreducibly physical, even if the coal and calling cards on them are simulacra. The actual book repeatedly does what only books can do. So what hope is there for a voice, even the author’s own?

I can offer only a preliminary, heretical report, since I haven’t yet heard all forty-five hours of the audiotext, although I have done a bit more than apply the aural equivalent of the page ninety-nine test. Gass is an excellent reader, his dry drawl allows every word its space, he’s not emphatic, and it’s clear that he is acting as our surrogate rather than as an impersonator of his character. He’s reading a novel, in other words, not turning his novel into a radio play. Of course the voice can’t mark italics, bold type, chapter headings, epigraphs, and still less can it provide diagrams and illustrations or soiled pages. It’s just a voice, and a relatively uninflected one at that, but it does very precisely get across the complicated pleasure of the text. I don’t want to say that we don’t miss what we don’t see, since I like books that behave like books, and I don’t believe that the blank or black or marbled pages in Tristram Shandy, for example, are dispensable. Differences in medium do make a difference. But the transposition of The Tunnel from elaborate text to straightforward voice doesn’t make anywhere near the difference I thought it would. Gass’s medium is not after all the book or the journal or the voice. It is words, and the words, it turns out, at least in his case, don’t care too much what vehicle they ride in.

This Issue

November 2, 2006