It Ain’t Easy: William Gaddis’s Life in Letters

William Gaddis.

William Gaddis.

In 2002, Jonathan Franzen published an essay in The New Yorker titled “Mr. Difficult,” in which he detailed his changing readerly relationship with William Gaddis—who had died in 1998—over the course of his own coming of age as a novelist. For a time, Mr. Franzen wrote, he was infatuated with writers who “shared the postmodern suspicion of realism” that he himself felt—or rather, felt obliged to feel—in the late ’80s and early ’90s. (Thomas Pynchon, Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover are just a few of the names checked alongside Gaddis’s.) A marathon reading of Gaddis’s novel The Recognitions got Mr. Franzen through what sounds like a fairly serious depression. Mr. Franzen titled his novel The Corrections partially in homage to The Recognitions, but when he later tried to read other Gaddis novels, he found that he didn’t want to, and—more importantly, at least to Mr. Franzen—he couldn’t bring himself to care that he didn’t want to. Older, perhaps wiser, and certainly more world-weary and pressed for time, he wasn’t interested in the brick-thick novels of mostly unattributed dialogue that constitute Mr. Gaddis’s other major works, JR (1975) and A Frolic of His Own (1994), both of which won the National Book Award. “Mr. Difficult” concludes with a bitter dismissal of The Rush for Second Place, a nonfiction collection, and Agape Agape, a very short novel, both published posthumously in 2002. For a younger generation of readers, it’s likely that Mr. Franzen’s epic kiss-off to “Mr. Difficult” was the first and only thing they ever heard about him.

Last year, Dalkey Archive Press reissued The Recognitions and JR in paperback editions with adulatory introductions by William H. Gass and Rick Moody, respectively. Now they’ve followed that up with The Letters of William Gaddis—a doorstopper in its own right, and in hardcover, no less. The collection is edited by Gaddis scholar Steven Moore, who writes in his introduction that he has favored letters in which Gaddis “discusses his writing, his reading, his views on literature … and enough personal matter to give the volume continuity and to allow it to function as a kind of autobiography in letters.” Broken into sections named for the novel Gaddis was working on during the given time period, and generously footnoted, the book is a treasure trove for Gaddis wonks and superfans. What it is or should be for the rest of us, however, is less clear.

The collection begins with a letter that Gaddis wrote from boarding school in 1930, when he was 8 years old, and concludes with one written mere months before his death. The longest section covers the years 1947-1955, when Gaddis was between 25 and 32, which is to say approximately the same age as the readers in whose blind spot he presently abides. Gaddis spent his 20s traveling the world, taking jobs when he had to, but preferring to live cheaply and write a lot. He spent time in the American Southwest, Mexico, Paris, Italy, Costa Rica, Algiers, the Panama Canal Zone, New York and several cities in Spain, all the while working on the book that would become The Recognitions. His main correspondent in these years was his mother, Edith, with whom he enjoyed a lively and sophisticated friendship, and whose regular checks and wire transfers kept him afloat. Mr. Moore, an eager and genial host, keeps a running tally of the places, people, ideas, readings and experiences that would later find their way into Gaddis’s fiction. This careful tracking of sources helps undergird Mr. Moore’s claim for the book as “a kind of autobiography,” even as it lays waste to the claim that Gaddis “was not an autobiographical writer.”

In fact, the Letters constitute a telling self-portrait, one that reads like a powerful if admittedly difficult (that word again!) novel, in which much of the action takes place outside of the narrative proper, and is only revealed belatedly, by Mr. Moore in a footnote, or by reading between the lines. The William Gaddis of the letters is a long-suffering, hard-working artist, perpetually beset by troubles with money and love. The Recognitions is a critical success but a financial disaster; it gains a small but devoted cult following while the author himself has to support his family by working as a corporate PR hack and occasional college teacher. Financial concerns seem to have been the main reason two decades passed between The Recognitions and JR, a novel Gaddis himself described as “the American dream turned inside out.” (Its eponymous protagonist is an 11-year-old boy who becomes a titan of industry via the pay phone down the block from his elementary school.) Gaddis shunned all publicity—refusing to give interviews, readings or blurbs—but was an active custodian of his own legacy, meticulous in his responses to students, professors, scholars, translators and other writers who contacted him with questions about his work or theirs. The reader finds himself rooting for Gaddis, cheering for him when he gets a hefty fellowship or a good review.

Then there’s the other William Gaddis—a kind of ghost Gaddis, haunter of the Letters—a hard-drinking, self-involved pain in the ass who wears out several wives and who knows how many girlfriends and mistresses, a pig-headed elitist who insists his impenetrability is the hallmark of his genius and is ever indignant at the “injustice” of having to actually work for a living. This William Gaddis, though harder to root for, is more interesting to read about, and one wishes he had a larger role in the Letters—though of course it is ludicrous to fault Gaddis for failing to describe his own worst selves to his own closest confidantes, who doubtless hardly needed to be told.

When Gaddis makes wounded reference, in a 1993 letter to Muriel Oxenberg Murphy, to her having dismissed their globe-trotting middle-aged love affair as a “mere decade alcoholic haze,” one sees the two William Gaddises reconciled. On the one hand, the couple probably did spend 10 years plastered. On the other, the reader has actually read the letters from those years and so knows that Gaddis’s love was at least as strong as the booze that fueled it, and that Ms. Murphy must have known it, too. One can’t help but root for a man being kicked when he’s down; it doesn’t matter whether somebody pushed him or he fell out of his chair.