William Gaddis: A very fine shambles


In a late letter to Stanley Elkin, one of the colleagues he came to admire, Gaddis writes that “age 72 is daily more infringed by that blond pageboy off to boarding school age 5”. This is almost where we begin, with an account of school activities he sent his mother when he was just ten days past his eighth birthday. Edith Gaddis, whose husband had left well before this, was the recipient of most of the letters collected here from the next twenty years and more, years that took her son to Haiti, Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica, Spain, Paris and North Africa, as well as the American West (and Harvard, briefly), as he pursued a life of varied adventure. He was also beginning to write. “I have been working very hard”, he sends word to his mother from Mexico City in April 1947. “Many days. On a novel.” By December – now in Panama, working in the Canal Zone, where he would quickly come to see his country as deserting its responsibilities (“America I have such pity for, fury at”) – he had “started the plans for another novel”, which would be partly a study of abdication, deception and self-deception, expressing pity for and fury at not just one nation but the whole human race: The Recognitions. More than a quarter of this volume of correspondence is devoted to the period when Gaddis was writing his first published novel, though his references to work are at first few, interspersed among travel plans, notes on what he has seen and done, and concerns expressed for his recipients.

more from Paul Griffiths at the TLS here.