William H. Gass

by Jan Garden Castro

Self-Portrait by William H. Gass.

William H. Gass was born in Fargo, North Dakota in 1924, and met Wittgenstein and Nabokov during graduate studies at Cornell University where his dissertation, A Philosophical Investigation of Metaphor, was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with language. He has received 37 awards, served on 22 committees, juried the National Book Awards three times, and been elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He is the David May Distinguished University Professor in the Humanities, and Director of the International Writers Center at Washington University. His fiction includes Omensetter’s Luck, Willie Masters Lonesome Wife, and the long awaited, just published, The Tunnel, which explores what Gass terms “the fascism of the heart.” His essays include: “Fiction and the Figures of Life,” “On Being Blue,” “The World Within the Word,” and the forthcoming volumes, Essays on Literature and Architecture, and The Surface of the City. He is currently working on a book of exegesis and translations titled, On Reading Rilke.

Torso of an Archaic Apollo
Never will we know his legendary head
where the eyes’ apples slowly ripened. Yet
his torso glows as if his look were set
above it in suspended globes that shed
a street’s light down. Otherwise the surging breast
would not thus blind you, nor through the soft turn
of the loins could you feel his smile pass easily
into the bright groins where the genitals yearned.
Otherwise this form would not be so complete,
from its shoulder showering body into absent feet,
or seem as sleek and ripe as the pelt of a beast;
nor would that gaze be gathered up by every surface
to burst out blazing like a star, for there’s no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
—Rainer Maria Rilke, Paris, early summer, 1908.
Translated by William H. Gass and first published in River Styx, November 8, 1981.


Jan Castro I would like to open by discussing a poem that is close to you, Ranier Maria Rilke’s “Torso of on Archaic Apollo”. In what way is it a metaphor about language and your relationship to language?

William Gass The poem makes a statement about what a work of art is designed to do. It applies to language only when language composes a work of art. By being more real than its observers even though it’s mutilated, the statue makes a statement. The poem says the work of art has a reality exceeding even that of human beings. The fragment says to the observer, not as real as it is, “you must change your life.” My notion of a work of art is not that it is a copy or a representation of reality, but an addition to reality which is intensely human itself. It contains—embodies—human consciousness, presumably at a high level of refinement. What happens with texts which, from my point of view, are successful, is that the language is transformed from a language of utilitarian import to a level of what Rilke called “things.” So you’re trying to create a language which now serves, not as a message bearer, but as an experience, a container of consciousness, in fact.

JC You once said that you want to create something so pure it would survive being dropped into a sinkhole. Is that a metaphor for the human condition?

WG I was talking about the importance of establishing the integrity of the work. It must have an inner coherence and right-ness that won’t allow it to simply dissipate like smoke.

JC On the international scene, how do you define “the novel,” and who, in your view, are its key makers?

WG I wouldn’t try to define “the novel.” It has always been a sprawling genre, if even a genre. The novel goes in so many different directions, can do and contain an infinite number of things. In some sense, it is a long prose work, but like A Thousand and One Nights, it can be broken up into a series of stories. It can contain poetry, other types of texts, actual pieces of other things in the world, and so forth. It can become a scrapbook. There’s room for fiction of all sorts in the novel. I wouldn’t rule out a novel simply because it was trying to do something either new or old-fashioned. The question with the novel is not simply who’s good, but who is affecting what may come next. Lots of writers of good novels are not doing anything particularly innovative. Some are doing new things in ways that no one can follow. There are those who are starting to open up possibilities. Take the Italian novelist Emilio Gadda. He is certainly an innovator of great quality, as is Calvino. Among the writers in Spain I would mention is Juan Goytisolso. In Germany, there’s Gunter Grass and others like him. These would be writers whose work is loosening and instructive.

JC In linguistic terms, is the relationship between poetry and prose shifting, as you suggested just now? For example, you include every kind of prose and verse in your latest novel The Tunnel, and you employ the typographic variations first associated with Mallarmé’s 1895 poem “A Toss of the Dice Will Never Banish Chance.”

WG Yes. Apollinaire works with concrete poems, I work with concrete prose. I’m interested in the prose layout of the page in the way poets are interested in the poetic layout. And although I’ve been doing some things that you would associate with poets, I’m not doing them the way poets would do them. I’m doing them the way writers of prose would do them. I’m concerned with paragraphs rather than stanzas, with scenes rather than scansion, with the possibilities of concrete pieces of prose: cartoons, drawings, and such, which don’t usually find their way into poetic contexts. This resembles what Mallarmé was doing, but it also harks back to many of the devices you find in Sterne. With an exception here and there, the verse in The Tunnel is doggerel, designed to be serious in the function it’s trying to perform, but playful and often obscene and certainly not as gifted as poetry. One of the reasons for this is that the poetry is doing a prose job even though it happens to be rhyming or forming lines. So, I’m up to something different than a poet would be.

JC There is a range of poetry in The Tunnel, including some Rainer Maria Rilke translations.

WG Yes, Rilke translations that have been incredibly distorted, so you would have to call them new. That’s particularly true of some of the poems that appear near the end: the poems that come from the beggar, the blind person, and so forth. The drunken poem is entirely mine. The feel of these poems has been transformed; they’re no longer Rilke. Some of the translations in the body of the text are more Rilkean and faithful to his originals. It’s important at some point for the narrator to show close reverence for the poet, and at other times to move off and away from Rilke. There is a considerable range from adultery to fidelity.

JC In the same way you visit other genres in your writing, you visit other mediums. For example, you once characterized your short story “The Pederson Kid” as fugal in form. Could you describe your writing process here?

WG It’s hard for me to remember now. I wouldn’t describe the whole story as fugal, but it contains some fugal elements, as does The Tunnel. In fact, The Tunnel contains a section called “A Fugue.” Of course, you can’t write a fugue except in music. But certain patterns, sets of repetitions and returns, and methods of development in the prose, are characteristic of Baroque music. My style has been called Baroque. “The Pederson Kid” is stripped, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t Baroque. The Baroqueness comes in its organization, its repetition, its circling around: the people lost in the snow in that story don’t know where they are and circle around just as the language revolves about itself in slow loops. In that sense, the story’s prose employs certain Baroque structures though the language itself is plain and simple.

JC Do you recall the writing process? Did it take years, months, or weeks?

WG A long time. I started out with a plot. As I proceeded, the plot became less and less important. Then I started working on sentences, following the suggestions of Gertrude Stein. These account for the stripped quality of the piece, though it’s supposed to fit the character’s nature as well. At certain points, these short sentences begin to repeat and move about in a very obvious way. I was trying to study the relationship of the sentence to the paragraph, a problem Gertrude Stein was concerned with. So I went through a process of writing, rewriting and rewriting, only to have the piece rejected by editors, and then, morosely, letting it sit around, finally rewriting it once more, and getting it rejected again. It took well over a year to write, probably more than that, and then many years to get published, maybe seven or eight.

JC Do you remember how many rejections? (laughter)

WG They were countless. I was turned down for ten years. I couldn’t get a thing in print. My writing went nowhere. I guess you have to be persistent. Talent is just one element of the writing business. You also have to have a stubborn nature. That’s rarer even than the talent, I think. You have to be grimly determined. I certainly was disappointed; I got upset. But you have to go back to the desk again, to the mailbox once more, and await your next refusal.

JC And you have to have a strong sense of what you’re doing, I believe.

WG Well, that sense comes to you as you do it.

JC In your 1985 essay collection Habitations of the Word, you discuss The Tunnel as a trope for absence: “The hollow absence of life, words, and earth…a shapeless mess of dirt, word-dung, and desire, which has to be taken out and disposed of. Every tunnel evokes Being, Non-Being, and Becoming in equal portions and with equal fervor…that brings its wretched employer nothing but confusion, nothing but Postmodernism, nothing but grief.” Would you say the novel is both a trope for and a critique of the Postmodern? If so, is society doomed to self-destruct, or do you see some other form of discourse on the horizon?

WG I don’t know whether The Tunnel‘s hole is a trope for the Postmodern because I never understood Postmodernism. I’m not a Postmodernist. I only understand that term as it is used in architecture, where it makes some sense to me, and I don’t find the movement of much interest even there, simply eclectic and superficial. My work is probably best characterized as late or decayed Modern end of the road sort of thing, last gasp. All of my principles and models and so forth come from modernism. People may call The Tunnel Postmodern because of certain elements—visual, mostly—but everything I do has been done previously by other people. Even the dislocation and fragmentation is old stuff. Labels reflect the desire many people apparently have to give new life to old ways by conferring upon them new names. All kinds of exciting things are going on in the novel all over the world, and no one work puts an end to the production of another kind.

JC Maybe we should trade our definitions of Postmodern. My definition, based on studying a bit with Sartre scholar Michel Rybalka, is the French idea, drawing from the range of sources that have existed both in modernist and in premodernist literatures. Modernism is a fairly strong rejection of the past whereas postmodernism recycles the past without taking it too seriously. According to my definition, you would be in the camp. You evidently have a different definition.

WG Modernists all rode the recycling bike. The modernist tradition certainly rejects certain parts of the past, but only certain parts. Even when you have someone like Ezra Pound saying “make it new,” he’s going back to Provençal troubadours, to the Greeks. At the same time he’s saying this, he’s off stealing something from Confucius. So you can call, let’s say, Picasso modern, but he’s borrowing from Japanese, African, or other sources. This always takes place. What is important is not whether you are looking back (you had better), but how and for what reason. When you go back as a modernist in architecture, you’re going back to see, for instance, in Palladio, what you can discover about the very foundation of architecture. You can find in an earlier writer like Sterne, the very foundations of fiction—its possibilities. You don’t reach back to imitate them, to use Sterne like little signatures later on so people will say “Sterne!” When an architect suddenly starts using columns or round windows or friezes to remind us of the past, he’s probably only employing pastiche. But to go back to somebody with the idea of discovering what the art is all about, not by copying their style or mode, but by discovering the fundamental principles which they may help you to wield, that is what modernists tried to do at their best. Corbusier goes back to earlier principles to find out what architecture is all about, not to dance the Palladian polka.

I find Postmodernists rarely interested in fundamental things, but only interested in finding qualities of the past which they can decorate a modernist shed with. Most Postmodern buildings are merely modernist buildings wearing a different skirt, to switch the image. There are a few exceptions. Sterling’s Museum in Stuttgart, for example, is a triumph.

So when one returns to an earlier model, it’s not to copy something, it’s to refine the essence of the whole task. You know Cervantes understood fiction more deeply than almost anybody. You go back to find out what he knew if you can. That’s one more reason why certain people like Calvino or Borges or Beckett are so wonderful. They’re wondering what’s fundamental to their art. I undercut certain traditional forms in order to discover that beneath those superficial forms there is something that my novel, as crazy at it may appear, can share with a very well-mannered Jane Austen novel. We’re doing the same thing, basically.

JC You have been put into the Postmodern camp by your friend Heide Ziegler.

WG Yes, Heide certainly does, and most critics do. But when a number of us—John Barth and John Hawkes and I—were in Germany some years ago, and the Germans kept calling us postmodernists, we all rejected the label.

JC In terms of the form of the novel, you once said to me that you think of the whole as a tapestry or visual construct, but that you compose in terms of the music on the page. Was this your approach with The Tunnel?

WG Yes, It’s organized in terms of two coordinates, one being the temporal coordinate that music offers, in particular the 12-tone system. The book is divided into 12 sections, and each section has a fundamental theme. These 12 themes are interwoven within each section, but in different relationships, some being more important in one place than in other places. There is a kind of recombination all the time of the basic 12 tones, just like variations on a theme. And then there are literal transcriptions of songs, cabaret songs in particular. So there are many very obvious musical connections. There are also many relations between moods and attitudes, moving them about as if they were leitmotifs.

The other coordinate is the conception of the book as a tunnel itself. The writing of it, and the reader’s experience of it, are tunnel-like. Presumably, the reader is passing through the text the way the narrator who is digging the tunnel is digging through the past; his past, our past. Apparently the narrator is digging a tunnel out of his own house. Why? A similar question can be asked whenever someone presents us with a new novel. Why? The world didn’t ask for it. What’s it up to? Why make it? The proper response to the tunnel the person is digging out of his own basement, varies. It might be a mine, and in a mine the tunnel is going any particular place. The tunnel is hunting for something. There are all kinds of tunnels. There are tunnels that allow you to get from A to B successfully by circumventing an obstacle like a hill. There are tunnels in which you discover ore and precious things. And there are escape tunnels. The book is ambiguously structured: maybe it is all three tunnels—and more.

To the degree that this is an escape tunnel, you have to hide the entrance. And so the entrance to this book is hidden. The reader is likely to say, “Where is this text going? The story hasn’t started yet. What’s happening?” There’s a disguised entrance. In a sense, then, the reader who gets far enough to find an entrance will have earned that discovery. There will be a lot of readers who don’t go that far. They can just think of themselves as the jailers who didn’t find the escape tunnel.

JC How much of Wilhelm Fredrick Kohler, the narrator of The Tunnel, whom you have described as the ultimate Fascist, is based upon historical material and how much is based on distorted personal recollections? I’m thinking, for example, of Kohler’s recollections and of his childhood traumas over his uncircumcised penis.

WG Circumcision marks an important difference between Jews and Aryans, so it comes into the book for very obvious reasons. There is no personal connection in that regard. I put a lot of material into the book because it belongs in the period: it figures in certain ways, symbolically. What the writer needs to do is to find ways in which certain things that belong to his historical period can be assimilated into his own life as well. I certainly drew on some of my family background in the construction of this work. I also tried to read an awful lot about the period. While I’m writing, I don’t consult it. I let it sort of soak in because the Nazi period is the background, and not the subject of this book. I’m not even worried about getting all of the data exactly right because this book is full of failed memory, and I’m a realist. Not everything is remembered perfectly.

JC To what extent are you being Freudian, and to what extent are you using valid psychophysical profiles when you associate the narrator’s small penis with Fascist behavior?

WG Fascist behavior goes more with disappointment and resentment than it does with anything else. What I’m concerned with are the ways in which people get disappointed and resentful; and this is one. It’s not the only one—there are many others. I wanted to give my narrator a lot of them. Of course there would be many Fascists: fat ones, tall ones, skinny ones. People of every kind of physical trait can have a fascist mentality, yet they get very concerned with purity and kinds of racial characteristics which are said to define the “right sort.” You’ll notice that while Goering, Himmler, and Hitler define the perfect Aryan, they notably lack these noble characteristics. If it isn’t one physical characteristic that disappoints, it will be another. Some women, no matter how beautiful they are, complain that they’re not beautiful enough.

JC In “real life,” you are in demand as a lecturer and you’ve toured China, Japan, and much of the world. What is the secret of exchanging ideas with people of many different cultures?

WG The secret is the same as it is anywhere: real interest and curiosity and keeping your eyes and ears open. You’ll find that other people are as interested in what you’re thinking as you are in what they’re thinking. The main barrier, of course, is language, so you often have to work through translators. That can be a real pain. But I’m a person who loves to travel, and who can’t afford it. So when I get a chance, I usually say “yes.” I don’t think twice about where it is: if I am able to go, I am interested in going. I have been fortunate to have some invitations that were pretty wonderful, to go to the Soviet Union on a couple occasions, and to enjoy a trip to China. The China trip was one of the best. My travels in Japan and China proved to be the richest for me not only because these countries are exotic and distant from my ordinary world, but also because they provided wonderfully new aesthetic experiences.

JC The cultures have done a good job of defining themselves?

WG Japan, in particular, because it’s an island country. It doesn’t have a great foreign population. Its strangeness is that it has copied everybody, so you see reflected in the monolithic Japanese culture aspects of everybody else. It is a culture made of mirrors. China is simply a huge, indefinable place. I found the Chinese, as I met them, absolutely delightful. I was there at a good time. They were beginning to open up—this was before the terrible clamp down again and the period was exciting for them. I saw all kinds of things that I could not have seen before. But I have enjoyed traveling almost everywhere I have gone. People are generally warm and friendly, and things are new and interesting.

There were more difficulties traveling in the Soviet Union because the government was hostile to non-communist writers. We were in a more adversarial relationship as visitors than was a good idea. When we were not acting as adversaries, it was pretty exciting. I remember riding on the train from Moscow to St. Petersburg enjoying all the romance of the great Russian novel. You know, with the snow falling. It was pretty terrific stuff.

JC Visiting Pushkin’s house?

WG Was very wonderful. It’s a great mistake to miss such opportunities.

JC Recently, Solzhenitsyn was condemning the Russian government as an oligarchy in contrast to the democratic model of the United States. To what extent do you agree?

WG That’s a shift for him. He’s a czarist, basically. It was embarrassing to the U.S. when they embraced him and found out he was worse than Lenin. Soviet society differs from American society, as most societies do, in the sense that we never went through a feudal period. Russian society is very feudal. Feudalism lies behind everything in Russian literature. The United States, though a mixture of many different groups, is much less tribal. It’s trying to be tribal now. I’m so depressed by this, I can’t find a pillow large enough to pound. Our problem is racism, basically, not the feudal system. Certainly we have social discrimination and so forth, but it is not embedded in the very structure of society the way you find it in England or Germany or France or Italy…In Russia, or China…Both China and Japan are fundamentally organized on family lines, a deeply grounded feudal tradition. We are very lucky that we don’t have that; it’s our big advantage. That doesn’t mean we’re not going to mess up—we’re very busy messing up.

JC You’re still the Socratic voice in this Athenian wilderness.

WG That’s what the Greek philosophers were contending with. The Greek state was built in opposition to the tribes, to religious fundamentalism, to the bloodline connections and superiority based on birth. That is one reason why reading the Greeks is terribly instructive right now. Greek tragedy concerns itself with the conflict between tribal loyalties and values, and the values of an enlightened, cosmopolitan state. They collide in Greek lives, and the result is quite tragic and moving. Similar conflicts are occurring all over the world today. The Greeks are central to our Western civilization. They show us revealing things about what’s happening now.

JC Wasn’t Socrates condemned because the body that was trying him was made up of families and bloodlines that wanted to protect those ties?

WG Oh, sure. The fact that you have various tribes united into an Athenian state is a triumph, but it doesn’t mean that tribalism isn’t still operating. Further, the city-state collapsed because it couldn’t form wider alliances, or give up local sovereignty in order to establish larger connections and communities. As a citizen becomes more and more cosmopolitan and extends his cultural alliances, loyalties become thinner and more abstract, as they must. So the expression “the brotherhood of man” is a pretty weak one compared to the power implication “having a brother.” You have to try to balance the rich concreteness of everyday life with wider commitments. It’s not a matter of everything being on one side or the other; it’s a matter of achieving a rational balance between competing interests.

Writing process
Greek theater
Spring 1995
The cover of BOMB 51