12 Winters Blog

William H. Gass’s Transformative Translations of Rilke

Posted in February 2020, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 22, 2020

The following paper, “The ‘Movement of Matter in Mind’: William H. Gass’s Transformative Translations of Rilke,” was presented at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, held Feb. 20-23, 2020, University of Louisville. Other papers in the panel “Germanic Modernisms Then and Now” were “Exodus into Death: Effi Briest as the Other” by Olivia G. Gabor-Peirce, Western Michigan University; “The Meaning of Life–Thoughts on Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Die Frau ohne Schatten” by Enno Lohmeyer, Case Western Reserve University; and “The Ek-static Image: Tracing Essence of Language & Poetry in Heidegger” by Ariana Nadia Nash, University of Buffalo, SUNY. The panel was chaired by Brit Thompson, University of Louisville.


The “Movement of Matter in Mind”:
William H. Gass’s Transformative Translations of Rilke

I would like to say a motivation for this paper is that one of William H. Gass’s least read and least appreciated books is Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation, and I want to direct some much-deserved attention to this oddly beautiful and beautifully odd book; but in truth I don’t believe I grasped the breadth of the slight until I was absorbing material in preparation of writing. Of course, as a devotee of the Master I believe that all of Gass’s books are read too little and appreciated too sparingly. Indeed I’ve been on a mission for more than a decade to right that wrong.

reading rilke coverNevertheless, I didn’t realize just how invisible Reading Rilke was even among those cherished few who cherish Gass nearly as much as I. I was struck, for example, when re-reading Stanley Fogel’s otherwise excellent assessment of Gass’s work up to the point of its publication in the summer 2005 edition of The Review of Contemporary Fiction that Fogel doesn’t speak of Reading Rilke at all, even though it came out in 1999, and Gass’s translations of Rilke that it collects began to appear in print in 1975 (in North Country, University of North Dakota).1 Similarly, H. L. Hix’s useful Understanding William H. Gass (2002) is organized by Gass’s book publications, and there is no chapter devoted to Reading Rilke. In fact, there is barely a mention beyond Hix’s pointing out the strangeness of the Rilke book not appearing until 1999 even though “Gass reports having been preoccupied with Rilke nearly his whole adult life, indeed seldom letting a day pass without reading some Rilke” (4). One more example: Wilson L. Holloway’s fascinating book William Gass, which offers a mid-career assessment of “an emerging figure in contemporary literature” (ix), makes only a passing reference to Rilke as one of Gass’s chief influences. Granted, Holloway’s book appeared nearly a decade before Reading Rilke, but it also appeared five years before The Tunnel, and yet Holloway managed an entire chapter on the work-in-progress based on the excerpts that had been appearing now and again since 1969—interspersed with appearances of Gass’s Rilke translations throughout the same period.

It seems strange to me, now, that books and articles devoted to explicating William Gass wouldn’t spend more time discussing Gass’s self-identified greatest influence.

Gass and Rilke togetherI could go on referencing the lack of references in Gass scholarship to Reading Rilke, but, I suspect, my point is beyond made, like a bed piled high with a scaffolding of pillows. I think at the root of the silence regarding Reading Rilke is that writers tend to organize their assessments by genre (Gass’s fiction versus Gass’s criticism or Gass’s nonfiction), and Reading Rilke is a hodgepodge of a book: part Rilke biography, part autobiography, part criticism, part philosophical inquiry (into translation, into art), and part poetry collection—laced throughout with Gass’s insights, advice, and arid humor. Writers of Gass’s ilk have always written for a narrow audience (an audience which shrinks by the day), and the book’s various components appeal to even thinner subgroups of readers. Taken as a whole, however, I believe anyone who is interested in art, literature, and especially poetry—in aesthetics in other words—would find a book very much to taste, indeed, a book to savor.

I must admit that I came to Reading Rilke after partaking of the Master’s less hybridized offerings. Like many, I found the fiction first (In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, for instance, and Omensetter’s Luck); then the criticism (Fiction and the Figures of Life, On Being Blue, and The World Within the Word, etc.). But anyone who knows Gass at all knows of his Rilke obsession, something about which he made no bones.

It is clear in Gass’s “Fifty Literary Pillars,” in which he catalogs the (actually) fifty-one books/authors that shaped him as a writer and thinker. Four of the pillars belong to Rilke, and about the Duino Elegies in particular Gass writes, “[These poems] gave me my innermost thoughts, and then they gave those thoughts an expression I could never have imagined possible.” While discussing Sonnets to Orpheus, Gass acknowledges that “[i]t is probably embarrassingly clear by now that works of art are my objects of worship,” and, moreover, “works of art are often more real than we are because they embody human consciousness completely fulfilled” (WHG Reader 43). Heide Ziegler, a scholar and a friend of William Gass with whom he consulted on his Rilke work, describes the Gass-Rilke connection even more dramatically than Gass did himself, writing, “William H. Gass is Rainer Maria Rilke’s alter ego, deeply tied to him through like sensitivity, insight, giftedness. Deeply tied to him most of all, however, through their shared concept of space, Rilke’s Raum, Weltraum, the realm of all things, which denies any chronological sequence” (55). She goes further in describing their connectedness: “Gass the son attempts to provide that space for Rilke the father” (56).

We do not, of course, have to rely on secondary-source assessments of what Rilke meant to Gass and his work: we have Gass’s own analyses, especially in Reading Rilke:

The poet himself is as close to me as any human being has ever been […] 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 until the writing stirs, rises, opens its eyes; and, finally, because his work allows me to measure what we call achievement: how tall his is, how small mine. (xv-xvi)

Regarding the creative process as he learned it from reading Rilke, Gass writes, “In the case of the poet, the perception will have soaked for a long time in a marinade of mind, in a slather of language, in a history of poetic practice.” At which point the “resulting object will not be like other objects; it will have been invested with consciousness, the consciousness of the artist.” Done properly, those who experience the object “shall share this other superior awareness” (148). It is worth noting that Gass is using poet in a classical sense, as anyone who aspires to create art. Though Gass did not consider himself a poet per se (and in fact disparaged his own efforts), he aspired to make his fiction, especially, art objects via their poetic use of language.

The above quote references the word perception, and this is such a vital point in this discussion it warrants further attention. Gass believed that Rilke’s aesthetic philosophy grew out of his infatuation with the sculptor Rodin, about whom he wrote critical essays and was attached to as a secretary for a time. The lessons learned included that “the poet’s eye needs to be so candid that [… everything] must be fearlessly reported,” and that “exactitude is prerequisite to achievement.” Ultimately, then, it is “not the imitation of nature but its transformation [that] is the artist’s aim” (Reading Rilke 40). However, it is not the poet’s objective to describe everything encountered with candor and precision. Art only happens via careful selection. Gass writes, “Rilke proclaimed the poet’s saintly need to accept reality in all its aspects, meanwhile welcoming only those parts of the world for which he could compose an ennobling description” (31). The only means by which a poet—any writer—has to ennoble even the ugliest aspects of the world is though the artful use of language.

This lesson is perhaps the most profound one that Gass took from his literary idol. Throughout his career, Gass mixed the loveliest of language with the coarsest (even crudest) of subject matter, a technique that many critics criticized. Indeed, in Gass’s most ambitious novel, The Tunnel, his greatest ambition was to write about the Holocaust in a beautifully literary way via his first-person narrator William Kohler, whose correspondences with Gass himself were uncomfortably close for many readers. After a twenty-six-year gestation, The Tunnel appeared in 1995 and promptly won the American Book Award in ’96; however, it also quaked a tidal wave of negative reviews. Richard Abowitz, who interviewed Gass about his book in 1998, captured the controversy quite succinctly:

The Tunnel may well be the greatest prose performance since Nabokov’s Pale Fire, but only the most stalwart reader will be able to last the full trip [650-plus pages] through Kohler’s anti-Semitic, sexually depraved and bathroom-humor obsessed world. When The Tunnel was published, almost every major critic felt the need to weigh in on it. Many abandoned their professional tone and responded in ways that were shockingly personal. (142)

Gass claimed that he was prepared for the onslaught, saying, “I knew it would happen. The book does set a number of traps for reviewers, and that identification certainly occurred [that Gass and his narrator were practically the same person]. But the book in sly ways even encourages it; so that these people who don’t really know how to read will fall into the trap.”  He added, “[S]o when it happened, I had to suffer it. I had asked for it in a way” (144).

Returning to Reading Rilke itself, the opening chapter is a biographical sketch of the poet. In “Fifty Literary Pillars,” Gass calls Rilke “the most romantic of romantics” (WHG Reader 43), and in this first chapter Gass explains in detail this designation. He writes, “With a romantic naiveté for which we may feel some nostalgia now, and out of a precocity for personality as well as verse, Rilke struggled his entire life to be a poet—not a pure poet, but purely a poet—because he felt, against good advice and much experience to the contrary, that poetry could only be written by one who was already a poet: and a poet was above ordinary life” (23). Gass devotes several sentences to describing the concept of a true poet, and concludes by saying that “the true poet was an agent of transfiguration whose sole function was the almost magical movement of matter into mind” (24).

Gass’s reputation as a literary critic was at least equal to his reputation as a writer of fiction. Indeed, among the things that impeded the production of his fiction, which he preferred to write, were the unending requests to write reviews and to speak at symposia—requests that were accompanied by a paycheck and were therefore difficult to turn down. One of the joys of reading Reading Rilke is that Gass has collected and expanded on his insights into the act of literary translation, which, he says, is the highest form of reading: “Translating is reading, reading of the best, the most essential kind” (50). That is, to render something, like a poem, into your mother tongue from a language that you have learned through study, you must read carefully, deeply and slowly, meanwhile taking into consideration a plethora of contextual elements. Even still, the most successful of translations leave behind something important in the original: “It is frequently said that translation is a form of betrayal: it is a traduction, a reconstitution made of sacrifice and revision. One bails to keep the boat afloat” (51).

Gass elaborates on the idea of translation as essential reading by comparing his translations of specific Rilkean lines to those produced by other translators, organized chronologically from Leishman (1939) to Oswald (1992), and then Gass himself in 1999: fifteen translators of Rilke all together. Gass carefully critiques each rendering, discussing the choices each translator made, what they captured of the original and what escaped. His critiques are ruthless, but he is just as hard on himself. He refers to himself in the third-person as “a jackal who comes along after the kill to nose over the uneaten hunks, keeping everything he likes” to acknowledge his debt to Rilke’s earlier translators and his benefitting from their successes and their shortcomings. Elsewhere, still in third-person critique, Gass compares his effort in translating a particular line to someone “who flails like [he is] drowning here” (80). About the difficulty of translation in general, Gass writes, “The individuality, the quirkiness, the bone-headed nature of every translation is inevitable” (61).

Nevertheless, Gass obviously believed literary translation was worthwhile, and with proper care it could be done well. Even though something is always left behind, he says that “[t]he central ideas of the stanza, provided we have a proper hold on them, can be transported without loss” (51). Gass goes into detail about some of the pitfalls of translating, and perhaps chief among them is that “[m]any translators do no bother to understand their texts [because t]hat would interfere with their own creativity and with their perception of what the poet ought to have said.” He adds that such translators “would rather be original than right,” comparing their work to a type of thievery whereby “they insist on repainting a stolen horse” (69). In the final analysis, a worthwhile translation is one that “allow[s] us a glimpse of the greatness of the original” (53). Such a translation does not come easily, emphasizes Gass, who was known for his obsessive revising: “It will usually take many readings to arrive at the right place. Somewhere amid various versions like a ghost the original will drift” (54).

Gass’s translations of Rilke’s poetry (and some of his prose) are sprinkled throughout Reading Rilke, but the climactic section is a straightforward collection of Gass’s translations of the Duino Elegies,2 without commentary. These poems began appearing in 1978 when The American Poetry Review published Gass’s translations of the first and ninth elegies, and they concluded the same year the collection appeared, 1999, when Conjunctions and The Minnesota Review published the seventh and fifth elegies respectively. Even though critics have been reluctant to recognize the significance of Gass’s translations of Rilke, Gass himself consistently gave them pride of place. At the celebration of Gass’s ninetieth birthday, on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis, the author read excerpts from his works over the decades, essentially in chronological order, with the exception that he saved his reading of Rilke’s “The Death of the Poet” for his finale—a dramatic conclusion to be sure given that the birthday celebration had to be postponed by several months due to Gass’s deteriorating health (see my post, which includes a link to a video of the entire reading). Moreover, Gass’s final authorized work was The William H. Gass Reader, published in 2018, a year after his death; however, Gass was able to see the book into press, selecting its contents and their order himself. The nearly 1,000-page reader opens with Gass’s translation of an untitled poem from Rilke’s The Book of Hours (“Put my eyes out”); and Gass ended the reader with an essay titled “The Death of the Author,” echoing Rilke’s poem “The Death of the Poet.”

To publish Reading Rilke, Gass had to force himself to complete his translations of the Duino Elegies, a project on which he’d been working nearly as long as he’d worked on his magnum opus The Tunnel—that is, more than twenty years. He said finishing the book was necessary to “get rid of [Rilke’s] ghost” (Abowitz 147), but the exorcism didn’t work, given the evidence of the prominent place Gass reserved for Rilke for the remainder of his life. As a disciple of the Master I of course believe there is too little attention paid to William Gass, period, but his translations of Rilke and the book Reading Rilke have generated almost no scholarly attention whatsoever—which translates to an inverse correlation given the primacy of Rilke in Gass’s world. Indeed, in “The Seventh Elegy” Gass discovered the core secret to living a meaningful life: to cherish, to internalize and thus immortalize “great things,” like poetry, literature and art. He writes, “Those few attainments which display the grace of great things, we must take into ourselves and save from an indifferent multitude. Because all our knowledge, even the gift of a pleasant life, comes to nothing if we know more, enjoy more, only to destroy more” (165).

I encourage you to take into yourself Reading Rilke and the Master’s masterful translations of Rainer Maria Rilke.

Notes

  1. The Acknowledgments page for Reading Rilke does not wholly agree with William Gass’s own vita (released to me by Mary Henderson Gass). For example, the vita lists the earliest published Rilke translations as “The Panther” and “Torso of an Archaic Apollo” in North Country, 1975; and then indicates that the latter was reprinted in River Styx 8 in 1981. North Country does not appear on the Acknowledgments page. Nor does Schreibheft 54, credited with first publishing “The First Elegy” in 2000; nor does The Eliot Review, credited with publishing “Marionette Theater” (undated but presumably between 1984 and 1998). I’m not sure what to make of these omissions, other than perhaps Gass forgot and did not consult his vita when preparing Reading Rilke.
  2. Gass’s translations of the Duino Elegies are not available online, but other translations are accessible, including A. S. Kline’s at the poetry in translation site. An added bonus is that Kline’s elegies are illustrated by photos of Rodin’s sculptures.

Works Cited

Abowitz, Richard. “Still Digging: A William Gass Interview.” Conversations with William H. Gass, edited by Theodore G. Ammon, UP of Mississippi, 2003, pp. 142-148.

Fogel, Stanley. “William H. Gass.” The Review of Contemporary Fiction, vol. 25, no. 2, 2005, pp. 7-45.

Gass, William H. Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation. Basic Books, 1999.

—. The William H. Gass Reader. Knopf, 2018.

Hix, H. L. Understanding William H. Gass, U of South Carolina P, 2002.

Holloway, Watson L. William Gass, Twayne, 1990.

Ziegler, Heide. “Three Encounters with Germany: Geothe, Hölderlin, Rilke.” The Review of Contemporary Fiction, vol. 24, no. 3, 2004, pp. 46-58.

 

 

In the Heart of the Heart of Despair

Posted in May 2017, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on May 27, 2017

“In the Heart of the Heart of Despair: Seclusion in the Fiction of William H. Gass” was presented at the American Literature Association annual Conference on American Literature in Boston, May 25-28, 2017. It was part of the panel “The American Recluse: Contesting Individualism in Narratives of Isolation and Withdrawal,” chaired by Susan Scheckel, Stony Book University. The panel was organized by Matthew Mosher (Stony Brook), and he presented his paper “‘Our Inviolate Realm’: Self-Reliance and Self-Destruction in E. L. Doctorow’s Homer & Langley.”


First of all, I’d like to thank Matt Mosher for inviting me to join this panel on recluses in American fiction. His invitation encouraged my wife Melissa and me to attend this terrific conference for the first time, and visit Boston for the first time. More important, however, Matt has opened my eyes to an aspect of William H. Gass’s work that is so obvious and so foundational I never quite saw it in spite of spending the last decade of my scholarly life focused primarily on Gass (aka, “the Master”). From his very first fiction publication, the novella “The Pedersen Kid” in 1961, to his most recent, 2016’s collection of novellas and stories, Eyes, Gass’s protagonists have almost always been solitary souls, withdrawn from their various social spheres: in a word, reclusive. In various papers and reviews of Gass’s work, I have nibbled around the edges of this realization, discussing the loneliness and/or isolation of individual characters—but I’ve never noticed the pattern, a proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the room of Gass scholarship.

Gass imposingAs the title suggests, my main focus for this paper will be Gass’s early experimental story “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” (published independently and as the title story of his seminal collection in 1968); it’s important to note, though, that I could have tossed a dart at my William H. Gass bookcase and whichever spine it came to rest in would have provided ample material with which to write this paper. According to the law of probability, I likely would have landed my dart in The Tunnel, and it would have been an especially fruitful stroke of fate. I say it would have been likely because Gass’s American Book Award-winning novel tips the scales at more than 650 pages, and I have three copies (plus the audiobook) among the volumes in my Gass bookcase. I describe the dart’s prick as fruitful because the first-person narrator William Kohler (a sort of William Gass doppelgänger) spends the entire 650 pages of the book sitting alone in his basement writing a highly personal and ego-centric memoir, which is The Tunnel itself.

I’ve chosen to focus primarily on Gass’s earlier work, however, because it’s more manageable given the context of this paper, and also it provides ample insights to what I believe is at the core of this phenomenon: this pattern of isolated characters in Gass’s fiction. (As I write this paper, I’m anxious to hear what Matt and my fellow panelists have to say on the subject of reclusive characters and see if it complements or contradicts my ideas about Gass’s characters.) I shall leave you, for the moment at least, in deductive suspense regarding my theory.

Earlier I referred to “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” as an experimental story. “Experimental” is certainly true; for “story” one must broaden one’s sense of the word. A story is normally something with a plot, that is, a discernible conflict and at least a nod toward resolution. Not so with the Master. “In the Heart” features 36 sections with subheadings. The sections vary in length from just a few sentences to several pages, and their styles range from coldly clinical to lusciously lyrical. There is no central conflict, at least not in a typical sense. The story was somewhat inspired by William Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium” (1927)—in fact, it begins by more or less quoting from the poem’s second stanza, “So I have sailed the seas and come . . . to B . . .” —and its structure is loosely based on the ottava rima form that Yeats used for his 32-line poem. It is their kindredness in theme, though, which is of greatest importance to our purpose here.

in the heart cover 2Yeats begins by lamenting the deterioration of his physical self due to old age (he was in his sixties when he wrote “Sailing to Byzantium”), but ends with the understanding that the physical is fleeting while the soul that aspires to a higher artistic ideal is immortal. In Gass’s story, the unnamed first-person narrator is an aging poet who has come to B, a small town in Indiana, and is reflecting on his life in this mundane Midwestern locale, season upon season, year upon year. “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” is not merely a prose interpretation of Yeats’s poem, which ends on a more optimistic note than it began. On the contrary, Gass’s story starts bleak and only grows darker. Repeatedly the narrator refers to his own isolation and loneliness, as well as to the isolation and loneliness of his Hoosier neighbors. Early in the story, he tells us that he is “in retirement from love,” and “I’m the sort now in the fool’s position of having love left over which I’d like to lose; what good is it now to me, candy ungiven after Halloween?” (173). The story concludes, 28 pages later, with the narrator’s sense of isolation at Christmastime in the town, a time which represents the pinnacle of the town’s communal life. He finds himself (or merely imagines himself) in the deserted downtown, which has been bedecked for the holiday: “But I am alone, leaning against a pole—no . . . there is no one in sight. […] There’s no one to hear the music [“Joy to the World”] but myself, and though I’m listening, I’m no longer certain. Perhaps the record’s playing something else” (206).

Meanwhile, in the heart of the story, the narrator describes, here and there, his various fellow townspeople, especially his neighbor Billy Holsclaw, who “lives alone” (179). The narrator paints a sad picture of Billy (unshaven, dirty with “coal dust,” dressed in “tatters”), and ends the initial section about him with the statement “Billy closes his door and carries coal or wood to his fire and closes his eyes, and there’s simply no way of knowing how lonely and empty he is or whether he’s as vacant and barren and loveless as the rest of us are—here in the heart of the country” (180). We note that the narrator describes Billy’s actions inside of his house even though it is not possible for him to know what goes on after Billy shuts the door; thus, the narrator seems to be assuming Billy’s behavior based on his own, alone in his own house. This point brings up an important issue in the story: How does the narrator have access to all that he describes in B? H. L. Hix asserts, “He does not wander out into the world, so the reader gets not a picture of B, but a picture of the narrator’s confinement, the view from his cell” (49). Not literal cell of course: the cell of his isolation, his loneliness: the cell from which he projects everyone else’s isolation and loneliness.

Referring to the narrator’s view underscores what would become a major motif in Gass’s fiction: the window. There are numerous references to windows and what the narrator sees framed in them in “In the Heart.” He describes the windows of his house as “bewitching [. . . with] holy magical insides” (179). Through his window he views vivacious young women and fantasizes about them: “I dreamed my lips would drift down your back like a skiff on a river. I’d follow a vein with the point of my finger, hold your bare feet in my naked hands” (179), and “[Y]our buttocks are my pillow; we are adrift on a raft; your back is our river” (188). However, he knows he is well beyond the point when any such contact could reasonably take place. This realization makes especially poignant his later observation that rather than interacting with the world directly he has “had intercourse by eye” (202). That is, he has lived mainly through observation of his fellow human beings, not by talking to and connecting with them directly.

As I said, references to windows are everywhere in Gass’s oeuvre. The story “Icicles,” also collected in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, begins with the main character, Fender, sitting down to a lonely dinner eaten from a tray in his living room and looking through his picture window: “[H]is gaze pass[es] idly along the streets in the wheel ruts and leaping the disorderly heaps of snow. He was vaguely aware of the ice that had curtained a quarter of his window . . .” (121). Here the ice emphasizes the coldness of this sort of existence, an existence void of human warmth for Fender, even though his profession as a real estate agent requires him to interact with people all the time. Unlike the narrator of “In the Heart,” Fender does engage with people, but this engagement does not lessen his isolation; it only amplifies it. This is an important variation on the theme of isolation in Gass’s work. Often, Gass’s characters are not literally alone, but they feel isolated and lonely nevertheless. William Kohler in The Tunnel is married, but to a wife he hates and who has no interest in his life’s work as a historian. As the title suggests, Babs, the wife in the novella Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, is isolated, lonely and horny in spite of her marital status, or perhaps because of it. The ironically named, antisocial Mr. Gab of the novella “In Camera” spends his dreary days inside his shop that sells black-and-white photographic prints, with only his assistant Stu (short for “stupid”) for company. The boy-narrator, Jorge, in “The Pedersen Kid” is living among his family on a farm in North Dakota but is as desperately lonely as a boy can be thanks to his bellicosely alcoholic father, brutalized and traumatized mother, and live-in farmhand Hans, who may be molesting Jorge. The list goes on and on. (The Master is a real feel-good kind of author.)

All fictive writing is autobiographical to some degree, but Gass has never been one to make the veil especially opaque. The autobiographical elements flash neon in his work, and in his copious interviews he has been happy to connect the dots for readers and critics. In The Tunnel (his magnum opus) and Willie Masters’ he’s given the main characters his own name, or variations of it. The tunnel-digging William Kohler is a university professor, as was Gass, with a history and a list of interests quite similar to Gass’s. Eerily similar; disturbingly similar for some readers. Joseph Skizzen of the novel Middle C is an isolated music professor who specializes in Arnold Schoenberg, the composer whose twelve-tone system Gass used to structure The Tunnel. Like Jorge in “The Pedersen Kid,” Gass was born in North Dakota and grew up an only child in a family devastated by alcoholism and hatred. The list goes on and on.

Gass painted

Understanding the extremely close—at times, uncomfortably close—connection between Gass himself and his characters is especially important when viewed alongside his fascination with windows. Hix explains: “The window, which represents the ambiguity of our connection to the world, our looking out on a world from which the very looking out separates us, has appeared as a metaphor regularly in Gass’s […] fiction” (124). Windows, then, and their representation of separation through observation, seem to be a commentary on Gass’s own sense of isolation: that is, Gass the writer, Gass the intellectual, Gass the artist. It is the artist’s job—their curse perhaps—to observe the world around them, closely; to think about it, deeply; and share their interpretations with the world, honestly. It is a vital function, but one that requires and creates distance from one’s family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. In a 1984 interview, Gass identified himself as “a radical, but not one allied with any party. Parties force you to give up your intellect” (Saltzman 92). In other words, he was, in essence, a lone-wolf radical. To clarify, Gass has not seen himself as a writer with an overt political agenda, but rather one with a loftier, more ethereal, more profound goal: the alteration of his readers’ consciousness. [About the photo: William H. Gass painted by Philip Guston for his lecture at Yaddo, “Why Windows Are Important To Me,” 1969.]

In his landmark essay “The Artist and Society” (1968), Gass writes that the artist is “[naturally] the enemy of the state” and “[h]e is also the enemy of every ordinary revolution” (287). Moreover, he “cannot play politics, succumb to slogans and other simplifications, worship heroes, ally himself with any party, suck on some politician’s program like a sweet. […] He undermines everything.” Again, the artist/writer as lone-wolf radical. The payoff, though, can be sublimely effective. Gass writes, “The artist’s revolutionary activity is of a different kind. He is concerned with consciousness, and he makes his changes there. His inactions are only a blind, for his books and buildings go off under everything—not once but a thousand times. How often has Homer remade men’s minds?” (288). In other words, to be the sort of artist, the sort of writer, the sort of radical Gass admires most—the sort whose work will be worth reading a century from now, or a millennia—he must be solitary and isolated: the observer behind the window encased in ice.

Paul Valery 1If this paper were to be extended, I’d try to make the case that Gass’s philosophy may be traceable to one of his idols, the French writer Paul Valéry, of whom he said, “He dared to write on his subjects as if the world had been silent . . .” (Fiction and the Figures of Life, xi). Known mainly as a poet and essayist, Valéry also wrote the novella “The Evening with Monsieur Teste” (1896), whose title character is an isolated intellectual very much akin to many of Gass’s fictional creations, especially William Kohler and Joseph Skizzen. In the Preface to his novella, Valéry describes the philosophy which led to the creation of the character Monsieur Teste (or, in English, essentially “Mr. Head”), and I think at this point we can see that it could have been written by his devotee, William H. Gass. I shall let Valéry’s translated words be my final ones here:

I made it my rule secretly to consider as void or contemptible all opinions and habits of mind that arise from living together and from our external relations with other men, which vanish when we decide to be alone. And I could think only with disgust of all the ideas and all the feelings developed or aroused in man by his fears and his ills, his hopes and his terrors, and not freely by his direct observation of things and himself. . . .  I had made for myself an inner island and spent my time reconnoitering and fortifying it. . . . (4-5)

Works Cited

Gass, William H. “The Artist and Society.” Fiction and the Figures of Life, Godine, 1979, pp. 276-88. [The complete draft, from William H. Gass’s papers, is available online via Washington University.]

—. “Icicles.” In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories, Godine, 1981, pp. 120-162.

—. “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories, Godine, 1981,  pp. 172-206.

—. Preface. Fiction and the Figures of Life, Godine, 1979, pp. xi-xiii.

Saltzman, Arthur M. “An Interview with William Gass.” Conversations with William H. Gass, edited by Theodore G. Ammon, UP of Mississippi, 2003, pp. 81-95.

Valéry, Paul. Monsieur Teste. Translated by Jackson Mathew, Princeton UP, 1989.

Chapter One of An Untimely Frost

Posted in January 2014 by Ted Morrissey on January 28, 2014

Below is the first chapter of my new novel An Untimely Frost, published by Twelve Winters Press earlier this month. The story was inspired by Washington Irving’s rumored courtship of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. Listen to an interview by WUIS’s Rachel Otwell.

from An Untimely Frost copyright © 2014 Ted Morrissey. All rights reserved.

an-untimely-frost-front-cover

Chapter One

The London streets confounded me. I had the address of her residence, obtained via my London publisher—how difficult could it be to find, 261½ Wicker’s Lane? How difficult indeed! The cut of my suit was like a giant flame for the moth-like streetpeople, hawking their wares directly in my face, so that I smelled their rotting teeth and breakfasts of spoiled turnips and onions. And solicitous women . . . at ten in the morning? Even Old New Yorkers waited until after a proper luncheon for such engagements, I would think.

In spite of the distractions I found the inauspicious house on Wicker’s Lane. I stood across from it and gazed somewhat in awe: here was the residence of Margaret T. Haeley, authoress of so many of my fretful nights. For months after reading Dunkelraum, before I could settle into sleep, I would check under my bed and in the wardrobe for Mrs. Haeley’s monster—ridiculous, I knew even then, for a giant to be lurking in such small places. But if it were possible at all for her monster to exist, my still childish mind must have reasoned, then it was equally possible for him to break the physical laws of space.

My wonder at Mrs. Haeley’s monster contributed in no mean part to my wanting to take up the pen myself. (Which reminded me, I still needed to finish the proof-sheets for Andersen’s Romance; Murry—that was Mr. A. B. C. Murry of Claxton House—was, I imagined, growing impatient as he wanted to capitalize on the renewed interest in America in Sunnydale, my second book and first full-length novel; there was a stage play in the works, rumored to be starring none other than Mr. Junius Booth. Murry had had the proof-sheets delivered to the hotel and the stack was waiting in my room upon my arrival. No rest for the weary, they say.)

The thought of the house’s occupant quickened my pulse but the narrow-shouldered structure itself was remarkably unremarkable: brown-stained boards (in need of fresh stain) which led one’s eye to black-shuttered windows that were too small for the house’s two and a half storeys; the windows gave the impression the old house was squinting. I recalled the boyhood trick of squinting at an object until the act of only partial seeing—of shutting out more and more light—transformed the object into something altogether of another world. I was tempted to narrow my eyes at the old structure. . . .

Church-bells’ pealing in the neighborhood broke my reverie. I was readying myself to cross the lane and call on Mrs. Haeley when I noticed a slightly built black fellow approach the house with a leather tote of wood—wood, yes, I realized, but not split logs or kindling as such—rather broken pieces of furniture: a severed table leg protruded conspicuously from the tote, which the fellow balanced quite easily on his narrow shoulder. He bypassed Mrs. Haeley’s front steps and instead went to an alternate door to the side, below street level, that I had not observed at all. A moment to fiddle with the lock and the black fellow with his sticks of furniture disappeared from view.

I waited for a dray to pass; the malnourished beast pulling it deposited a fresh dollop of manure in the lane. Then, dodging the droppings, I went to Mrs. Haeley’s front door. There was a bell-key positioned beneath a pane of stained glass, glass which was too smudged and greasy for me to make out its figures. I turned the key and heard the rattling chime within. I imagined its echoing in the empty foyer of a haunted and abandoned house. . . . Thinking of Mrs. Haeley’s monster had worked its old spell on my fancy.

I waited, listening to the noises of the streetpeople behind me. I did not want to appear rude but I turned the bell-key again. After all, I knew someone was inside. Another long period elapsed. I took my card from my vest pocket (beforehand I had added the name of my hotel, The Saint Georges) and I was intending to slip the card through the postman’s slot when I heard footsteps inside, then the bolt . . . bolts (four!) were moved aside, and the door slowly and creakily receded but only about a hand’s length. “Yes?” came a man’s voice, English but not a Londoner it seemed. It was gloomy inside Mrs. Haeley’s house but with the little daylight leaking into the narrow space I realized the gatekeeper (I thought of Macbeth’s jocular one) was the slightly built black fellow.

“Hello there; I’ve come to pay my regards to Mrs. Haeley—a mutual friend recommends me.” Friend was a bit strong as I wasn’t certain that any true ones existed in the book business but I hoped the innocent embellishment would gain me admittance.

“Mrs. Haeley is not receiving callers today, sir. Thank you . . .” and he began to close the door.

“Wait—please—I’ve come such a long way—” It was true, and my feet were starting to pain me again. “Will you at least present her my card?” I held it in the narrow opening and felt the foyer’s draft on my fingers. The fellow’s hand came up, perhaps reluctantly, to take it. The realization struck me that there was no proper servant in Mrs. Haeley’s house, just this taciturn handyman or whatever he was, who completed the task and shut the door without further word. The bolts were slid back into place.

I stood a moment at Mrs. Haeley’s door, nonplussed at being turned away so unceremoniously; then I began my descent of the five steps but halted when I heard the bolts again. The door opened more fully this time and the black fellow stood in its frame. “Jefferson Wheelwright—author of Sunnydale and the Old New Yorker stories?”

I had turned and was looking up from the second step. “That’s correct, my good fellow—at your service.” I put a finger to my hat brim (a high, round-crown affair I was informed was the epitome of London vogue, though I had not seen a one since stepping from the Chaos, an old packet whose crew made certain she was aptly named).

“Mrs. Haeley is not taking callers but she would not wish me to turn away a man of letters without some refreshment. Won’t you step indoors, sir?”

“Most kind; thank you.” I was still disappointed at not meeting Mrs. Haeley, but I was feeling most fagged and some tea and a taste of biscuit sounded quite glorious. I went in and removed my allegedly fashionable hat (it was chocolate brown velveteen made from the same bolt as my coat lapels, vest and cuffs—I was sparing no expense for my tour of England and the Continent). When Mrs. Haeley’s man closed the door the foyer was plunged into a profound gloom for which my eyes were ill prepared.

“This way, Mr. Wheelwright.”

“Your name, sir?”

“Mrs. Haeley has always called me ‘Thursday.’”

“Like Crusoe’s Friday.”

“Yes—but one better, she says.” The pride in Thursday’s voice was evident. From the foyer we went into a long narrow hall. The irregularity of the walls made me think they were in sad disrepair; then my adjusting eyes discovered the appearance of irregularity was due to the fact the walls were lined with books, stacks and stacks of books, each reaching close to the fourteen-foot ceiling. Actually it was my nose that helped my eyes to interpret clearly: the wonderful smell of old books permeated Mrs. Haeley’s house. There were hundreds of books just in the hall—perhaps thousands!

Thursday paused for a moment and deftly removed a book from the middle of a stack, about eye height, and handed it to me before turning a corner into a room I soon discovered was the parlor. Daylight filtered in through slightly ajar shutters and sheer curtains—enough light to allow me to read the spine of the book: Sketches of the Old New Yorkers. The volume, I was happy to see, was well thumbed.

Thursday took my hat. “It’s very nice—I’ve not seen one quite like it.”

“So I’m beginning to suspect.”

He placed the hat on a coat rack in the corner from which a long woolen scarf and a dark jacket already hung. The room was of good proportions with several couches and armchairs and low seats of the Ottoman style. A large oval table occupied the more or less center of the room. It all gave the impression, however, that though it was a place to welcome guests, none had been welcomed there for some time.

Thursday invited me to sit while he fetched “a nuncheon of tea and crackers.” I took a couch opposite one of the room’s three windows. I smelled the dust that was unsettled by my sitting. There were no pictures on the walls, though there were darkened rectangular spaces where ones had been hanging for years. The motif of the book continued as there were stacks here and there in the parlor, none as prodigious, though, as those that stood in the hall.

My eyes had adapted totally and I perused the volume of Sketches Thursday had handed me. I opened the cover and there was the India-ink portrait of me rendered by young Melissa Blackwood, my neighbor’s daughter during my Albany days (the Blackwoods had moved to Brussels and I planned to visit them on my tour). Little Miss had done a remarkable job on the portrait for such a youthful artist but the likeness was not perfect. Her affection for her “Uncle Jeff” had caused her to widen the space between my eyes and to thin my lips and to tuck in my ears (the ears which had acquired for me the grammar-school nickname of “Chimp”). I realized that the inclusion of my portrait rendered by such a juvenile hand was apropos in so much as the sketches themselves were unpracticed in their way, too—though at the time I considered them the masterpieces of the age. Only two years elapsed between Sketches and Sunnydale, yet they were worlds apart in craft. I trusted that my new work demonstrated a similar advancement in my technique, but I wasn’t so certain: I’d often felt in something of an artistic rut.

The musing reminded me of one of my chief reasons for calling upon Mrs. Haeley. Like the rest of the literary world, I wondered if the authoress was at work on something new. Other than the posthumous volume of her husband’s verse that she had edited and for which had written a touching introduction, nothing had come from her pen, save, I supposed, for letters to family and friends (I held out hope of becoming one of the latter).

Thursday returned with a silver tray and pot, both slightly tarnished, two delicate-looking cups, and a plate of crackers. I wondered then if Mrs. Haeley would be receiving me after all. But Thursday, after pouring my tea and adding a spot of cream at my request, fixed himself a cup and sat in a chair adjacent to my couch. I was not used to such behavior from a domestic, and it occurred to me that maybe Thursday was more than that to Mrs. Haeley. When did Haeley drown? It’d been more than ten years. Sipping at my tea, I tried to examine Thursday’s features more acutely in the parlor’s poor light: his nose was somewhat broad and his lips thick, but his hair, which was brushed straight back, was more Italian in appearance than African; so he seemed of mixed parentage.

“The tea is very good. Thank you for it.” I took a cracker from the plate. It proved stale but was tolerable (and welcome) with the tea. “When might Mrs. Haeley be receiving?”

Thursday lowered the cup from his lips. “It is difficult to say. She does not see many visitors so there is no regularity to it.”

I would imagine journalists were a constant bother to the household. She had been, after all, notorious in her youth, before Haeley’s yachting accident. I recalled the headline in the Post: Celebrated English Poet Dead! / Stephen Hæley’s Yacht Capsizes During Storm. A romantic teenager at the time, I immediately fantasized courting and wooing Haeley’s young widow, of taking his place at her side, a new King with the Queen of English literati. I had not thought of all that for years but perhaps the notion lay on the underside of my mind when I made my plans for the tour.

We sat in silence for a time with our tea and crackers. I was trying to think of something to say when there was a creaking overhead as if someone were walking about upstairs. I looked to Thursday, perhaps to confirm it was the lady herself.

“Old houses and their rheumatic joints.” Thursday smiled, his teeth as white as alabaster in the gloomy parlor.

“Indeed.” Then I had the crazy thought that Mrs. Haeley was not there at all . . . that Thursday was an invader of her home, had murdered the famous (infamous?) authoress and buried her in the yard. There were instances of actresses and opera dancers having overzealous supporters who would not leave them be and who sometimes broke into their rooms—even a case or two wherein the worshipper did harm to their chosen idol because of their twisted devotion. To my knowledge, authoresses did not generate such a following (nor authors for that matter), but there is always a first case. “How is Mrs. Haeley?”

“Oh Mrs. Haeley is fine. I make certain she gets her meals and her rest.” There was more of that pride in Thursday’s voice, though it sounded as if he were referring to a prized equine and not the lady of the house. On the one hand, I had no reason to doubt Thursday’s assertion but on the other my first impression of Mrs. Haeley’s house was not of its being a place of sound health. It seemed like a home from her fiction, a birthplace for a monster. Perhaps her upstairs apartment was all light and cheerfulness, a place she could revel in the sort of vitality Thursday implied. After all, Mrs. Haeley was still a young woman, only some eight years my senior. It was just that she achieved literary fame at such a young age, her novel the buzz of New York City, London, Paris, Brussels, all coinciding with her twentieth birthday. Quite remarkable really.

I finished my tea and crackers, feeling somewhat refreshed, which was good as I would likely have to hike up to Fullham Road on aching feet to find a cab. I had been dropped there, wishing to walk the remaining blocks, to take in the sights and sounds of the OldCity. My head was filled with London stories—of the strolling gentlemen and ladies, of the fancy carriages, of the gay chimneysweeps. This idealized tableau was not the London I found. Perhaps it was somewhere else, in another district. I wondered at the impression of Old New York my book created and whether visitors were taken aback by the genuine thing. I was no doubt giving myself and my pen too much credit.

“Well,” I said, placing my cup upon the tray, “thank you, Thursday, for the refreshment; it worked wonderfully and I feel quite able to return to the hotel.”

“I’m sorry, sir, you did not see Mrs. Haeley, but I will tell her of your visit and present your card.” We both had risen and Thursday was crossing the room to retrieve my hat.

I appreciated Thursday’s politeness but it wasn’t the same thing as insuring me a future audience with Mrs. Haeley.

He handed me my hat. “One thing more, sir, if you would.” He went to a small writing desk in the corner of the parlor and returned with a pen and ink-bottle. I understood, and sat on the edge of the couch to autograph the volume of Sketches. It took me a moment to decide what to write but after turning to the cover page I inscribed: “To Mrs. Haeley and her ‘inmates,’ Best Regards, J. Wheelwright.” The “inmates” remark, of course, was meant as an allusion to her novel, where the childhood Hans mistakes the word intimates for inmates, and it proves ominous foreshadowing. I wondered though if my cleverness—my wanting to illustrate my level of familiarity with Mrs. Haeley’s work—would be grasped . . . and appreciated. It was done now. I used the ink-bottle to hold open the front cover and first pages until my inscription would dry, and I lay the pen besides.

A moment later I was on the stoop listening to Thursday quadruple bolt the door. And the sounds and smells of Wicker’s Lane were instantly upon me. I began making my way—sore feet and all—toward the hotel, resolving to hail the first cab I saw. I felt the old melancholia beginning to stir. I hadn’t a clue what a visit to Mrs. Haeley’s home would yield, but my experience was a disappointment of the first order.

The novel is available from Amazon (print and Kindle), Barnes & Noble (print and Nook), Espresso Book Machine, and a host of global booksellers. See the Twelve Winters Press Fiction Titles page for a complete list.