Light Sentence: In a New Essay Collection, William H. Gass’s Prose Is as Sprightly as Ever

Language, writers and the Holocaust are themes

“Life Sentences.” (Knopf)

As William H. Gass’s own writing often has something of a confessional bent, it would not be inappropriate to begin a review of the eighth collection of essays by the great novelist, philosopher and critic, Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts (Knopf, 350 pages, $28.95), with a confession. At 19, being underfunded, we lifted a copy of his pointillist 1976 classic On Being Blue from a bookstore. His listy, lush, jazzy, staccato, masterful riff on the epistemological variants, meanings and hues of the gloomiest color makes a powerful palliative in moments of blueness. That book was a dose of what he’s called his “metaphysical hot todd[ies],” elixirs we would recommend to any melancholic.

Mr. Gass, who was born in Fargo, N.D., raised in Warren, Ohio and educated on the GI bill at Wesleyan and Cornell after sailing the ocean blue during WWII, wrote of the ocean, “It was never blue. It was moody. There was a lot of it … On calm days its surface was the skin of a sleeping creature. I would wash my skivvies by tying them to the end of the rope and letting the ship pull them through the water as though I was fishing for a bigger catch, perhaps a dress suit.” He locked himself in the ship’s safe and drank all the medicinal brandy and “because of my exemplary incompetence was promoted, such is the navy way, to top secret officer.” Mr. Gass is, by adoption, St. Louis’s most favored literary son since T.S Eliot first planned a brief trip to London. He is undoubtedly, as he once wrote of the woman he called his great literary “wife,” Gertrude Stein, “American as git.”

But being American as git does not necessarily make one as wholesome as apple pie.

Mr. Gass is an ironist of the highest caliber, a metafictional novelist of the Coover, Barth, Pynchon and Gaddis school. At 87, he is an improbable éminence grise of American letters, festooned with accolades; if there is any justice in the world he will one day get his Nobel prize. When he is not deathly serious with his sly, avuncular delivery of 3-in-the-morning-crisis existential epiphanies, he is hilariously subversive.

Here, for example, from Life Sentences is his comparison of the virtues from his shamelessly prescriptive defense of lust: “Piety is a nasty little virtue. Reverence for Pa the father, Ra the god, and hurrah the flag. Piety is respect for power and privilege, ancestors and the dead-and-gone deities. There is nothing in the world worth worship … Adultery on the other hand, cannot be too frequently practiced.” A few pages later, in the same essay, called “Lust,” he addresses the uses of rage: “Old Man Yeats knew what was true. If you have no more anger at this world, anger at its willful stupidities, its grim indifference, its real sins: Its murdering hordes, its smug myths, exploitative habits, its catastrophic wastes, the smile on its hyena hungry face, its jackal tastes, then you belong to it, and are one of its apes—though animals should not be so disgraced as to be put in any simile with man.”

Though he is also a masterful novelist—Omensetter’s Luck (1966) is widely considered a classic—his reputation rests on his criticism and essays. Mr. Gass’s collected essays are sure to eventually be gathered and bound together in a voluminous Library of America edition and placed on bookshelves and dusty stacks alongside the likes of Emerson, Twain, Mencken, Muir, Baldwin, Whitman, Dos Passos, Du Bois and the James brothers.

As an essayist, his prose is gorgeously musical, ticking along smoothly as if measured out by metronome. He composes miniature fugues and conducts cadenzas while meandering around his subjects. To switch to a culinary metaphor: it’s the creamiest of intellectual fare. He delights in internal rhymes and polysyllabic arrangements. His sentences lilt without tilting over. He wraps every poised sentence around an effulgent core of epiphany. He is simultaneously both the royal arborist wielding the clippers that trim the hedges of the labyrinth and the questing hero with his fingers clasped around the minotaur’s horns. He lingers over and savors whatever he is writing about. In Sentences he admits that he has “never been able to break the denominating habit … In a recent piece [on Elizabeth Bishop], I managed to cram the names of 110 weeds into one paragraph.”

Per the collection’s playful, multiple-entendre title, the investigation of the life of the sentence—its turns, textures, sub clauses, predicates, its febrile shape and the slithery feel of its innards—has, in fact, been his life’s work.  He has dissected and diagrammed—like every other one of his essay collections, this one contains an essay composed of charts and a diagram—the English literary sentence more thoroughly and exhaustively than perhaps any other writer in the history of the English language. Over the years he has published essays on “The Ontology of the Sentence,” the “Geography of the Sentence” and how “The Sentence Seeks Its Form.” This new collection adds “Narrative Sentences” and “The Aesthetic Structure of the Sentence” to that list. He dabbles in semiotics, potters in semantics and putters around linguistics.

Light Sentence: In a New Essay Collection, William H. Gass’s Prose Is as Sprightly as Ever