Tuesday, January 25, 2005

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.

9 Comments:

Blogger genevieve said...

Thanks Bud for looking more closely into the Joyce thang. I do agree that there is a Dostoyevskian feel to Gaddis and for me that would set him streets apart from Joyce both in the aesthetics and subject matter. In the party scenes there is that teeming sense of crowds of discontented people quarrelling, often violently, in small rooms and public spaces alike, that I found Dostoyevsky crawls with ( The Possessed, The Idiot).

I'd have to think a bit more about subject matter, I'm not up enough on Dostoevsky's theology - from what I remember it was pretty damn simple, wasn't it? perhaps Joyce and Gaddis have more in common than he (Gaddis)thought.
Agree with Green that “the two have little resemblance in the essential (i.e. artistic) sense”, and that Gaddis of course stands on his own.
Can I add here apropos of influences that apparently Beckett constantly borrowed from the Bible and recomposed bits of the work of others – don’t have the Knowlson bio on me, but I believe he mentions this. Beckett was big on tonality, of course, and reworked material so that the original seems to completely disappear: at other times he deliberately invokes a musicality in his own stuff that he has borrowed from another text by virtue of constantly working with it. A fine line between parody and reinvention…

January 25, 2005 at 1:06 AM  
Blogger DerikB said...

Wonderful post, Bud.

Harry Mathews also mentions Firbank as a big influence. I tried reading him, but did not even make it through the short novel I picked up at a used bookstore.

January 25, 2005 at 10:54 AM  
Blogger Bud Parr said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

January 25, 2005 at 3:06 PM  
Blogger Bud Parr said...

As far as Dostoyevski goes, I've only read C&P and Notes (and I know The Gambler, but only from the opera), so I'm not qualified to comment on his theology either. I hesitate even to use the (much overused) term nihilistic, which may be to simplistic for D, but it may be something like that. I feel like the issue is more one of, regarding our society, "look what we've become!" and the idea that no one can see that perhaps a few who stand outside of it (Wyatt, or even Raskolnikov perhaps).

I do think that is disingenuous to think that anyone can truly understand influences on a writer (I said this in my post). If it were that simple there would be little point in writing in the first place. Allusions are different entirely in that they are markers for the reader and/or homages to a piece of literature in the conversation.

Not surprised to hear about that about Beckett, only because the KJ Bible is so rich - One of my all time favorite literary passages is Father Mapple in Moby Dick telling (Melville reworking) the story of Jonah.

As far as Firbank is concerned. I'm glad, in a way, to hear you say that Derik. I'm often at odds on following these linkages. I have gone back and spent some time with Eliot, but you could go on for ever, which is tempting, exploring these writers that pop up through other readings.

January 25, 2005 at 4:02 PM  
Blogger Bud Parr said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

January 25, 2005 at 4:03 PM  
Blogger Bud Parr said...

Having trouble with the comment system. Sorry for the multiple posts of the same thing.

January 25, 2005 at 4:41 PM  
Blogger genevieve said...

Mmm, and this reflects my penchant for bio-criticism
packages over the last decade - I have been very lazy.
The only thing I guess in my mind is that so much of the religious, occult and myth sources depend upon borrowing and reworking anyway - surely the high modernists( Joyce, Eliot, Pound) had a tendency to break everything open and rework it in ways that would invite comment, especially from academics ( which is also what theologians do with spiritual texts, come to think of it). And it does no harm to acknowledge this briefly.

I am developing a healthy respect for Gaddis as I progress through the book because of his apparent determination to make TR less accessible to academia, if anything.
I will have a look for Firbank now, sounds very interesting.

January 25, 2005 at 7:36 PM  
Blogger DerikB said...

Bud, I tend to get caught up in those linkages of authors too (why I ended up trying Firbank). Sometimes it works (there's a long linkage from author to author of my discovering Calvino, the Oulipo, Queneau, Mathews, etc etc as well as the Markson, Lowry, Gaddis combo) and sometimes not (following up Gaddis and trying Dostoyevsky again but only making about 300 pages into Brothers Karamazov).

Though, I could have just read the wrong Firbank.

January 26, 2005 at 8:52 AM  
Blogger Bud Parr said...

Markson and Lowry are on my "to be bought/read" pile now, thanks to your comments on this site, Derik.

January 26, 2005 at 4:10 PM  

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