Saturday, March 19, 2005

Leaving the labyrinth

Apologies for those five reprints in the comments to the last post! and thanks, Bud, for agreeing to twin up on farewell postings, thanks for your more carefully constructed piece which actually considers the text! I've taken the cheap way out and ride here on the backs of others...I found a terrific if tangential article about the connection between Gaddis and Thoreau while browsing in the university databases lately – I am waiting to be disconnected from these when the census date for paying for the semester comes and goes, as I’m not studying this semester.
I really liked this one from the New England Review - the author, J. M. Tyree, muses over the connection via an exchange Thoreau had with Emerson about family and creative work, and draws a long if tantalising bow over the fact that Thoreau, like Gaddis, was miserable in the city when he worked there, though probably for different reasons.

"...There may be another biographical dimension to Gaddis's connection with Thoreau. It is a curious and lesser-known fact that Thoreau spent a dismal period in New York, tutoring in Staten Island and attempting to sell his writing to city magazines during 1843. Thoreau quickly recoiled from an urban scene he did not wish to understand. In a June 8 letter to Emerson, he remarked:

'I don't like the city better, the more I see it, but worse. I am ashamed of my eyes that behold it. It is a thousand times meaner than I could have imagined. It will be something to hate,-that's the advantage it will be to me-, and even the best people in it are a part of it and talk coolly about it.'

During the twenty-year hiatus between the publication of his first and second novels, Gaddis chose to remain in New York, manacled to jobs in corporate PR, working on campaigns for IBM and Pfizer, among other companies. How much he detested that world is obvious from the autobiographical character Eigen in JR, the author of a cult classic very much like The Recognitions.
As it had done for Thoreau, New York gave Gaddis "something to hate," and, like Thoreau, Gaddis was determined to use that hate to his advantage. JR, among other things, is perhaps the most devastating assessment of the shabbiness and slapdash cons of corporate America ever written.

One is tempted to say: it is as if an author with some of the temperament of Thoreau had decided to stay in the desperate city and document the things he hated, rather than withdrawing into the woods to speak of what he loved. Any such analogy is bound to be inadequate, but the idea does give direction to Gaddis's enduring interest in Thoreau, despite his super-saturation in an urban milieu. In a sense, Thoreau was trying to convince his fellow citizens to abandon their fruitless searches for transitory happiness and instead invest their time in a more authentic "economy."

Gaddis stayed on in the city and remained mostly content to describe the foolishness of those same fruitless searches, rather than trying to save people from themselves. Thus Gaddis became a comic novelist, a satirist at heart, rather than the saint, prophet, or ascetic that is made of Thoreau in the woods. He was modern, perhaps, because he disbelieved in an idealized bucolic withdrawal from the fragmentation of urban life. Authenticity-the impossible notion of remaining "inviolable," as one character in JR puts it-might be out of reach. The horror of the new had to be faced head-on, the abyss laughed at, or into.

I was interested too in this article by Christopher Knight, who seems to have written a bit on art and Gaddis, and who comments on Wyatt’s problems with abstract art before discussing recognition as an unfashionable theory for art criticism:

"...Of course, to speak this way--about a "recognition" that affords a glimpse of "the real essence of the thing"--is, in today's climate, to invite a quarrel, if not outright dismissal. One sails in safer critical waters if one takes note of the desire and then shows how misguided it is, how there is no escaping the labyrinth of the simulacrum.

For postmodern critics of Gaddis's The Recognitions, this has been easy enough, because Wyatt, turning his back on his own painting, pursues a desire for the real in the empire of the false--the forger's studio--a point that the novel's Basil Valentine makes with some pungency:
"--Yes, I remember your little talk, your insane upside-down apology for these pictures, every figure and every object with its own presence, its own consciousness because it was being looked at by God! Do you know what it was? What it really was? that everything was so afraid, so uncertain God saw it, that it insisted its vanity on His eyes? Fear, fear, pessimism and fear and depression everywhere, the way it is today" (690).

Still, if we stop here, with the satisfaction that necessity--so at the heart of Wyatt's purposes--finds itself trumped not only by the seduction of the false but by contingency itself, we make, I believe, a mistake. This is not to deny that in forging Flemish master-works Wyatt puts himself not much nearer the heart of necessity than those contemporaries who deny its reality. But it is to say that the artist who really demands watching here is not Wyatt, however talented, but Gaddis himself. And what we find is an artist enthralled by the notion of necessity, by the notion that this, rather than that, is what he must do. This conviction is not changed by the readily available instances of artists who seem to work without such a notion.

In After the End of Art, Danto is fond of pointing out these instances, as if they constituted a proof of necessity's demise. Gaddis, by contrast, seems to offer another sort of instance, not only of the artist who should "like to think of it all, what's eventually completed and what isn't, in terms of Samuel Butler's books 'coming to him wanting to be written,' but also of the artist who, even as he acknowledges the place which the failed artist has in his fiction, cautions readers not to confuse the purposes of the novels with "their own appetite for destruction."

So I leave this labyrinth of a book, with its serpentine coils turning on each other, content to revisit at another date, and curious as to why Gaddis found it necessary to attempt to force the modernist novel to carry these unfashionable concerns right through to Wyatt’s eventual decision to ‘live deliberately’ ( Thoreau again). And of course to finish the novel in a demonic cacophony of the voices which plague us throughout, and evidently plagued him as he lived and worked among them. The answer lies, I think, in his conscious emulation of Eliot – Knight goes on to discuss how Eliot and Pound had greater confidence, however, in what they were doing, than what we see in Gaddis’ first novel:

“…the suggestion is that the contemporary artist's response to the real is dramatically unlike that of the earlier modernists who, in the words of Frank Kermode, sought "to produce encyclopedias for the fallen modern world," sought "to get a world into a book, not a world or a book like Dante's, to be bound up in one volume of exactly one hundred cantos, but a world of heresies and exile, as seen by a privileged and tormented minority and got into books of strange fragmentary shapes, dreams of an order hardly to be apprehended."

The confidence of a Pound or an Eliot has, it would seem, left us, and our experience of things is more reflective of Geoffrey Hartman's contention that "the growth of historical consciousness, its multiplying of disparate models all of which press their claim, amounts to a peculiarly modern burden," to the point that we feel ourselves "surrounded by abstract potentialities, imperatives that cannot all be heeded, options exhausting the power of choice."

The sense that our choices now overwhelm us--to the point that whatever necessity any one imperative (religious, political, aesthetic, and so on) might entail soon gets lost in the wider world's shuffle--has, for Danto, become something like an abiding faith: "everything is possible, nothing is historically mandated: one thing is, so to say, as good as another. And that in my view is the objective condition for post-historical art" …”

With this in mind I'll leave the very last word to Mr. G,
“ He was the only person caught in the collapse, and afterward most of his work was recovered too, and it is still spoken of, when it is noted, with high regard, though seldom played.”(956)

Knight, C.J. After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History.
CLIO, Fall 1997, 27:1, p129.
Tyree, J.M. Henry Thoreau, William Gaddis, and the Buried History of an Epigraph. New England Review: Middlebury. 2004, 25:4, pp.148-162.

Friday, March 18, 2005

In Gaddis We Trust

Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the phrase “willing suspension of disbelief,” which he characterized as “poetic faith” and has since come to mean the way we give our selves over to a play, book or film despite merely sitting in front of a stage or screen or reading mere words on a page.

But “poetic faith” seems to capture for me the way I felt when following William Gaddis through 956 pages of “The Recognitions” as nearly the entire slew of characters shows up in Rome or others in Paris, other characters who are linked by incidents thirty years in the past meet coincidentally as do several others who are intimately linked through one-degree of separation of another character, like Esme and Basil Valentine or Fuller and Otto, and so on, and so on.

I say poetic because I loved Gaddis's writing, both the realistic and figurative. I can't think of another writer that does dialogue better than Mr. Gaddis, flitting from one character to another without ever losing us (okay maybe sometimes losing us) by capturing dialect and character traits that serve as signals to always let us know who is doing the talking. He also managed to create images of scenes that would capture them perfectly, such as this at Brown's party:

“Like undersea flora, figures stood weaving, rooted to the floor, here and there one drifting as though caught in a cold current...”

This is not only a good simile for a party, but the words “cold current” and “drifting” are perfect metaphors for the entire scene and really for the book as a whole. Indeed, the party scenes drew out, like the final scene in the film “La Dolce Vita,” the emptiness of the book's population. The mutual complicity that the characters shared in their debased lives served as a fitting backdrop for the Wyatt story line and grounded his quest with purpose.

[spoiler alert!] When we see Wyatt eating bread that, soon after, we find was made in part with the ashes of his father, we know that this is the inevitable conclusion of the Oedipal story that Gass talks about in the introduction. The absurdity of the coincidence would never have worked if it weren't for some of the shallow characters doing the same thing out of sheer simplicity and the dumb luck of how they, the ashes, got there in the first place, simultaneously fulfilling Wyatt's destiny and shining a light on why he had to be the one.

If I had any real complaint about “T. Recs.” it would be that at times I felt like I was reading “The Onion” (a satirical newspaper). That is not entirely a bad thing, but Gaddis's satire works better at a higher plane than:

“...the quiz program, where a Mr. Crotcher had just answered a question concerning a fable with an ant for its hero, and won a completely furnished house in a popular suburban community called Arsole Acres.”

But when Maud bathes her newly adopted(?) baby while washing dishes...

“ - The most popular hostess of the week...! she said in a faint tone as she washed, first a dish, then a tiny foot, then a cup.... The eyes did not move from her. The baby's head was not conical nor, looking at it, did one have that impression; but immediately upon looking away such an image formed in the mind, and no amount of looking back, of studying it from strategic angles, served to temper the placid image which remained. When most of the dishes were done she had reached the neck, and suddenly she applied both thumbs at the base of the baby's head. - It should go in more here, she whispered, then applied the heel of a hand there, and finally stepped back and turned away from the fixed gaze as breaking fetters. She left the baby there in the sink with what dishes remained and went into the living room...”

With that, Gaddis's satire is at its stinging best, particularly since I have known of stories in real life (like a middle-class woman locking herself and her five year old in the bathroom while she overdoses on heroin) that tell me that what he is saying is not so foolish and that every bit of cynicism he must have felt while writing this book is just as valid, if not more so, today than it was then.

The world Gaddis created is ours, a look in the mirror, certainly, the way a good comedian can be so funny because they make fun of some little quirk that we identify with because we thought that idiosyncrasy was ours alone. I even said in an earlier post that I had the feeling while reading “The Recognitions” that if I could write as well as Gaddis, this would be the book I would write; a recognition if you will, and that, it seems, is the point in the title. The multi-layered theme of forgery appears to be primer-coating or structure for the book rather than its purpose.

So we forgive Mr. Gaddis for stretching our “willing suspension of disbeleif” as we near the end of the damn(!) book and the last third folds itself, if not neatly, then wholly over its early chapters and we are surprised and shocked and left wanting to understand, looking for meaning the way Stanley and others haplessly do.

We can also forgive Mr. Gaddis because he includes himself in his cynicism, poking fun at his long book. One character, alluding to the very novel we hold in our hands, says:

“- Reading it? Christ no, what do you think I am? I just been having trouble sleeping, so my analyst told me to get a book and count the letters, so I just went in and asked them for the thickest book in the place and they sold me this damned thing, he muttered looking at the book with intimate dislike, -I'm up to a hundred and thirty-six thousand three hundred and something and I haven't even made fifty pages yet.”

Even Mr. Gaddis recognized his book for what it was, a densely packed wild tale that only the faithful will give themselves over too. And, like a basketball game that is so close it seems you only need to watch its final seconds, “The Recognitions” is perfectly encapsulated in its final three paragraphs; yet it would not be nearly as fun without the journey of getting there.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

a popular book

'I lie on the white wicker swing, Foxx's Book of Martyrs before me, reading aloud about the pesky papists piling huge jagged rocks on the faithful French Huguenots and crushing them, while listening to the Minneapolis Millers on the radio lost to Toledo thanks to atrocious umpiring that killed a rally in the third inning....Tucked inside my Martyrs book is a magazine called High School Orgies, lent to me by Leonard, opened to an ad for a cologne made from 'love chemicals' that will turn any girl to putty in your hands.'

The Minnesota reference is a dead giveaway as to the identity of this reader (he's a little better known than Mr. Gaddis). Has anyone laid eyes on Foxx's Martyrs themselves - I am unfamiliar with this interesting treatise.

I have had to return my copy of T.Recs a la bibliotheque and am feeling a bit like a Lake Wobegon denizen with no copies to be bought in Melbourne today...will have to get back to the library and snatch it back again. Someone has bought the last copy at the bookshop most likely, I wonder if some poor undergrads are about to study it.
Anyone ruminating on the text out there...?

Monday, February 14, 2005

II.v Of money and drink

Aunty Mary's dirty grin,
Aunty Mary drinks gin.

I can't offer a decent reference to this translation of the Jesuits' motto (Ad Majorem De Gloriam) as it appeared many years ago in a Jesuit "family" magazine. I do remember it as part of an anecdote about writing the abbreviated maxim every day above one's schoolwork, as many Catholic children did in the thirties and forties. The rest is lost, along with the family beachhouse where I picked up the old's sad about the beachhouse actually. And I am right out of gin...

The other translation is of course, 'for the greater glory of God'.

Sinisterra in lots of ways is a mirror image of Wyatt, is he not? A real forger - what the hell is that? Like Wyatt and hell ( according to the Annotations anyway), his house reeks of lavender oil and is referred to as Sheol, the Jewish afterlife zone, of which my Jerusalem Bible has much to say ( more anon, when I get around to getting it out).
Frank reminds one of Shakespeare's 'low life' characters, and certainly provides a welcome break in the story from the seriousness and obscurity of earlier chapters. I think the novel turns upon this chapter, and begins to move forward again. I felt it breathing again at this point first time round ( this time I'm feeling disjointed and can't remember what happened in the previous chapters...)

A funny little aside one page in - 'what's the matter with it? St. Paul was an epileptic'. Is Gaddis suggesting that the light on the road to Damascus, resulting in Paul's conversion from Judaism ( like Mrs. Sinisterra), was no more than an epileptic aura presaging a fall and an attack ( remember Paul falls from his horse)? Just a thought.

I wish this reference was covered in the Annotations - anyone like to take a guess:
'…that secretary of the Treasury under Lincoln, who made the five hands down without even getting a haircut.' p. 490

Gaddis draws a direct relationship between monetary systems and religious systems on p.495 l.6 (and of course in the epigram to the chapter) :
'like so many of the mystic contrivances devised by priesthoods which slip, slide and perish in lay hands, this [i.e. the establishing of currencies] too became a cottage industry...'

An acidic description of Mr. Pivner's spiritual yearnings and his Carnegie bible of the marketplace follows, Pivner being described as seeking '…the elixir which exchanged the things worth being for the things worth having'.
I like the way both episodes are rounded off with the price of Christ's betrayal.

Poor Mr. Pivner, rushing to meet his 'son' Otto, doesn't take the time to take his insulin and is mistaken for a drunk when he falls down in the hotel lobby. Then follows the comic setpiece of the novel, as Otto picks up a girl and Sinisterra's forged money ( 'queer') after mistaking Frank's leg for a table leg and rubbing his own against it all the way through their hilarious interview.

When he runs into his friends later he pretends he has sold his play and starts to throw the money around, in a savagely comic scene with an Ernest Hemingway lookalike in the background. Things get a bit heavy when an undergraduate discussion of SS. Anselm and Augustine's ideas about creativity degenerates into a glib dismissal by Max of religion, and a violent, hysterical cri du coeur from Anselm ensues:
-And what did they do, they damned him, the lens-maker Spinoza. They excommunicated him, right into the darkness of reason.

I have read that Max is modelled on Anatole Broyard, who did not embrace his African- American heritage and was known to Gaddis and Martinelli. Gaddis doesn't set out to flatter Broyard, does he? We see Max’s meaner side in this episode as he talks down to an increasingly hysterical Anselm - perhaps he is narked because Otto has supposedly sold his play.
Sorry, I thought I knew this already - what does Anselm put in Stanley's coffee?

I rather like Sinisterra, going to confession and lighting his candle for Johnny the Gent. 'Be quiet. You think I'm a half-wit? I'm going to confess a sin.' A master of disguise and delicate distinction. You need a thug at times like this to leaven your narrative, and if he is comical so much the better. As Shakespeare well knew.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Recognitions 50th Conference

Just noticed this on the annotations site...

William Gaddis: 50 Years The Recognitions

A 2 day conference at the University of Buffalo.

Monday, January 31, 2005

Back to the Comprehensible

This chapter is a nice change of pace from the previous one. A few things from my reading:

1. "...he [Max] will survive." (449) While will Max survive? Because he is adept at stealing others work and passing it off as his own?

2.On 450-1 Otto retells a story he heard from Wyatt about a forged Titian being found over top of a real Titian (with another painting in between): "I mean he didn't know he knew it, but it knew, I mean something knew. I mean, do you see what I mean? That underneath that the original is there, that the real... thing is there, and on the surface you... if can only... see what I mean?"

It's almost as if Otto is trying to limn God or the soul or fate or something beyond us, something metaphysical. The kernel of truth beneath all the veneer.

3. Love Anselm's idea that "...God has become a sentimental theatrical figure in our literature, that God is a melodramatic device used to throw people in novels into a turmoil." (458) Don't we see that happening here in T.Recs. But can we consider it sentimental or melodramatic?

4. The description on 464 of the "new" Sherlock Holmes story provides a nice counterpoint to Wyatt's "new" paintings by Flemish masters. While the Holmes story is about numbers and surface, Wyatt recreates in a more spiritual way. He recreates not through analysis but through a kind of memory (see top of 461).

5. Anyone want to take a shot at Esme's letter?

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Lines of Organization

In a recent post, Bud writes about the bewildering array of literary allusions and influences compiled into Gaddis's The Recognitions. I can verify that Gaddis's book is every bit as complex and Bud indicates, and most definitely gives the impression that "Mr. Gaddis knows almost everything" (as quoted by Bud from Cynthia Ozick). I can also understand how the book's immense complexity makes it possible to find detailed allusions to books Gaddis never read (i.e. Ulysses).

So, perhaps it is a bit of a Sisyphean (or pointless . . .) task to try and find some themes around which we can cluster Gaddis's hurricane. Neverthesless, I'll start with one, which strikes me as central to any reading of The Recognitions. Page 373 features dialog discussing the historical book, Recognitions:

The Recognitions? No, it's Clement of Rome. Mostly talk, talk, talk. The young
man's deepest concern is for the immortality of his soul, he goes to Egypt to
find the magicians and learn their secrets. It's been referred to as the first
Christian novel. What? Yes, it's really the beginning of the whole Faust legend.
. . . My, your friend is writing for a rather small audience, isn't he?

Wow. The Recognitions is rarely as obviously self-referential as this. Just like the "young man" in the quote, Wyatt, our "young man," undertakes a trip (to France) to learn secrets (of art). Further, Gaddis's The Recognitions is, like the historical Recognitions discussed in the quote, a Faustian story: Recktall Brown is our devil and Wyatt is the Faustian character who is seduced and corrupted by the potential to do what he could not without the devil's help.

What's interesting are the differences: The original Faust featured a devil, Gaddis's an art dealer. The Devil gave Faust magical powers; Recktall Brown gives Wyatt the ability to forge art.

Most interesting, however, is the quote "the young man's deepest concern is for the immortality of his soul." In Faust, the young man's "concern for immortality" is that he has given up his eternal soul, that he will no longer have a place in Heaven. In The Recognitions, the "concern for immortality" is Wyatt's fear that he will amount to nothing as an artist, will have no fame, no recognition, will be forgotten.

Getting back to the hurricane of references that Bud so elegantly described, I believe that much of them cluster around these twin ideas of immortality. The Recognitions is heavy on references to the modern material culture and to ancient, even obscure, Christian religion. It seems that these illusions are in service to developing the two ideas of how our soul can be immortal--the ancient one (Heaven) and the modern one (fame).

And Gaddis, perhaps, thought he was on to something big with The Recognitions. He calls Recognitions the "first Christian novel," which only leaves us to wonder if Gaddis, seeing The Recognitions as analagous to Recognitions in many ways, considered his work the first postmodern novel?

Gaddis's Library of Babel

“When it was announced that the Library contained all books, the first reaction was unbound joy. All men felt themselves the possessors of an intact and secret treasure.”
- J.L. Borges, The Library of Babel

Gaddis's The Recognitions seems to be a vast repository of literary allusions and the best of modernist influence. But it ain't necessarily so, says Mr. Gaddis and Steven Moore. I recently picked up a copy of Steven Moore's “William Gaddis,” his 1989 collection of criticism. The introductory chapter reviews Gaddis's literary influences and discusses the perception that, as Moore quotes Cynthia Ozick, “Mr. Gaddis knows almost everything.”

But allusion is just that and can't be mistaken for erudition. That is not to say that Gaddis was not well-read, but that his books were well researched and he wears his erudition on his sleeve, at least in The Recognitions (to be clear, I think Gaddis is brilliant, which shows in his writing, writing that needs not allusiveness to prove itself).

For example, all of the religious references in the book can be traced, according to Moore, to “a half dozen rather mundane sources.” But Moore says that by the time Gaddis wrote J.R. more than two decades later, “he became his own man and 'influences' all but disappear into the vast machinery of his work.

It seems impossible to really know what influences an author when writing; looking at the 73 pages of footnotes to T.S. Eliot's (23 page) poem, The Waste Land, you notice an awful lot of conjecture based upon possible references pieced together with a combination of criticism and biography. Following the biographical path, Moore cites Gaddis's Harvard education, where Dryden, Chaucer and Elizabethan drama were part of the regimen, which Gaddis was ”glad of.“ And logically, Moore uses Gaddis's own statements and paper trail to develop a sense of his influences. The most important of those is Dostoyevski and the 19th century Russians:

”Gaddis's love for nineteenth century Russian literature in general crops up in his novels, his letters, and in his few lectures, where references are made to the major works of Dostoyevski, Tolstoy (especially the plays), Gogol, Turgenev, Gorky, Goncharov, and Chekhov. Gaddis shares with these authors not only their metaphysical concerns and often bizarre sense of humor, but their nationalistic impulses as well.“
Moore also quotes Edward Wasiolek as saying that Gaddis pursues ”perhaps the most distinctive trait of Russian fiction, to trace out the extreme, but logically possible, reaches of human characteristic.“ I agree, except that, in my opinion, the ”reaches of human characteristic“ are at different extremes for 19th century Russians and the 20th century Americans that Gaddis wrote about.

Another major influence was T.S. Eliot. I mentioned in an earlier post that Gaddis had at one point intended to incorporate every line from Four Quartets into the novel. While there are many lines peppered throughout, the entire poem is not there as far as I understand - I gave up on my efforts to spot them after a while. Also in an earlier post, I quoted from Four Quartets, a passage that I thought was particularly apt. But Moore says that another poem is really at the heart of this novel: ”The Recognitions can be read as an epic sermon with The Waste Land as its text.“ I've gone back and re-read these since beginning the book, and may, if I can come up with anything interesting to say, comment on them later.

Without going into specifics, Moore cites as ”relevant,“ Sade's Justine, Goethe's Faust, Rilke's Duino Elegies, Rimbaud's A Season in Hell, Broch's Sleepwalkers, Hesse's Steppenwolf, Silone's And he Hid Himself, some Ibsen, and Dante. Moore also quotes Gaddis as admitting ”that when he first read Kafka in his early twenties he was so stunned by what Kafka could do that he 'sat down and wrote some very bad Kafka, though I thought of it as good Kafka then'.“ Being stunned by Kafka is a sentiment that I am sure many writers share, myself included, and I recall Gabriel Garcia Marquez making a similar statement.

On the English front, relevant writers include C. Brontë, Conrad, Forster, Waugh, Shakespeare, Langland, Kipling, T.E. Lawrence (as an aside, I tried to read Seven Pillars of Wisdom, being a fan of Lawrence of Arabia, but found it dull. I always feel like I'm missing something when I don't like something as important as that), Huxley, Graves, and more.

Among the Americans, Moore cite's Gaddis's Bard College (where he taught for a short while) reading list, including Dreiser, Bellamy, Sinclair, Miller's Death of a Salesman, Salinger and even Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People. Also, Hawthorne, Melville, ”some“ Emerson, Thoreau's Waldon, West, Cummings (especially 1 x 1), Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, and naturally Hemingway.

[I would go into more detail, but this is feeling much too like an eighth grader's book report and I know I'm capable of something in the ninth to tenth grade level.]

The names above sound like a good reading list for someone who wants to be a writer, perhaps only missing Stendhal, Proust (who Gaddis claims to have only read about 50 pages), the King James Bible, and...Joyce.

Gaddis & Joyce

In 1923, T.S. Eliot said of James Joyce's Ulysses, ”a book to which we are all indebted, and from which none of us can escape.“ No one knew the latter part of that statement better than William Gaddis, who joked that one academic essay went into so much ”minute detail“ on The Recognitions debt to Ulysses that ”I was doubtful of my own firm recollection of never having read Ulysses.“

Gaddis, in a letter that Moore reprints to Joyce scholar, Grace Eckley, catalogs fairly precisely what he did (the Molly chapter of Ulysses, Exiles and some of Dubliners) and did not read of Joyce's and goes on to say after listing some other authors he did read, ”why bother to go on, anyone seeking Joyce finds Joyce even if both Joyce & the victim found the item in Shakespeare, read right past whole lines lifted bodily from Eliot &c, all of which will probably go on so long as Joyce remains an academic cottage industry.“

I confess thinking myself that there must be a Joyce influence in here, and I find it amazing that someone of Gaddis's writerly disposition would have not read Joyce, and even more stunning that he didn't like Joyce's writing (Gaddis claims to not have finished Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man). T.S. Eliot was influenced, by his own admission, by Joyce and I often find that I feel compelled to read those who influenced those who are influencing me; that's the literary conversation into which I, like the kid who desperately wants to eat at the adult's table, can't resist trying to insinuate myself.

Jack Green says in his vociferous response to Gaddis's critics, Fire the Bastards!:

”ulysses & the recognitions are very “20thcentury” & have a number of technical resemblances: both are long & closely organized; sharp contrast between humorous & nonhumorous passages; lots of blasphemy; modeling/parodies on classics & extensive crossreferences (ulysses having much more of former, recognitions of latter); “timegrowth” in rereading; many nonfictional references (miscalled “erudition”) to give desired tones to the fiction; passion for other books; importance of ideas of major characters (dedalus, wyatt); delight in carrying humorous situations to extremes; restraint as basic technique of style but the worlds of the 2 books arent alike, nor are the characters the 2 have little resemblance in the essential ie artistic sense.“
At least acknowledging the similarities, Green's beef on this point is the critics' use of Joyce as an easy way out of thinking critically about the book. Indeed, it is too easy, considering that Moore gives us someone else to hang on to here. Ronald Firbank. Who? Described as a writer of ”high camp comedy of manners and part fairy tail,“Firbank, an English writer who died in 1926, seems to wax and wane in popularity. The Center for Book Culture (Dalkey Archive Press) has some of his books as well a few quotes and biographical details.

Moore claims Firbank, whose popularity was rising around the time Gaddis wrote The Recognitions, may have been a source for ”elliptical dialogue - especially for effects usually achieved only in traditional exposition - and perhaps to have campy fun at Catholicism's expense.“

Just like Joyce's influence from the then out-of-print Dujardin, not all of the books in Gaddis's ”Library of Babel“ are part of the Western Canon that we all take for granted.