kirsch on gass


“When reviewers take the trouble to compliment a writer on her style,” William H. Gass writes in “Life Sentences,” his new collection of essays, “it is usually because she has made it easy for them to slide from one sentence to another like an otter down a slope.” Gass’s sentence enacts its own dissent from this critical preference for clear and simple prose: as soon as the otter barges in, the reader’s attention is forcibly drawn away from Gass’s meaning and toward his style. An ostentatious style is often considered a token of difficulty, and Gass certainly has a reputation as a difficult writer in the high-modernist mode. In his long career — he is now 87 years old — he has published only two novels, the most recent of which, “The Tunnel,” was a 650-page exploration of the psychology of fascism. (The other is “Omensetter’s Luck,” an avant-garde historical novel about the nature of good and evil.) Yet that otter is a cheerful kind of disruption, and the style of prose Gass practices and celebrates in “Life Sentences” tends to be not knotted and elliptical, but exuberantly baroque. Early on, he announces that “the three greatest masters of English prose” are the 17th-century writers Thomas Hobbes, Jeremy Taylor and Thomas Browne; other touchstones are Emerson’s essays and the rococo style of Henry James.

more from Adam Kirsch at the NY Times here.