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William Gaddis

By Elizabeth Hardwick

Many of our members knew William Gaddis better than I did. That would be especially true of those who lived out on Long Island. However, I did often talk to the dapper gentleman here in the Academy halls; I had dinner with him and Muriel Murphy several times and once, some years ago, we were among a group of American writers brought to England for some discrete honor. I remember we traveled on early Virgin Airways, first class, and loud, thumping Virgin Atlantic records played the whole time and we were served by hip, sort of Cockney, stewards and stewardesses, and it was all like having the Beatles pass the peanuts. For myself I can say that was the last plane voyage I enjoyed. And I think Gaddis felt the same.

I was brought to his great fiction by Mary McCarthy, who had served on a prize-giving committee with William Gass and the prize went to Gaddis for JR I think it was. It’s very hard to make the grade with Mary McCarthy and William Gass and so I took note of the genius for fiction among us. Actually, William Gaddis is not only an outstanding American talent, he is I think securely among the dozen or so of our most gifted and lasting novelists. The grandeur, the scope, the originality, the worthy ambition, the mastery of language, the saturation in the American landscape: this body of work is genuinely incomparable.

The history of his career is a dramatic one, both an honor and a sort of dishonor to the fate of literature in our world. His first book, The Recognitions, published in 1955, all 956 pages of it, received a number of inane, slothful reviews that have or will haunt the reviewers, since gross mistakes in judgment become interesting historical moments in their own unhappy way. The next novel, JR, did not appear for twenty years; it was 1975. It is often written that this two-decade gap was due to discouragement, but I doubt that. Disappointment for a time, yes, but on the other hand it is not unlikely that JR took twenty years to write. It is a miracle of some seven hundred pages.

Gaddis won prizes, honors of all degrees up and down in distinction, finally the deluxe MacArthur. And yet some of the obituaries appearing at his death used phrases such as, famous unread, or little-read author. That is somewhat accurate perhaps, even tough it doesn’t bring to mind the swollen decimals of the weekly best-seller lists; it is meant instead that he hasn’t had enough of the literate, discriminating audience his brilliance could expect. That is impossible to judge or to assess. In fact, to read one of the novels of Gaddis is an insidious allurement leading to the reading of others.

The novels are long, but they are not, in my view, difficult. He does not, as some claim, seem to me to have been influenced by Joyce; the prose is too American, too deeply rooted in the sounds and sights and memories of the local, national landscape. What is needed in the reading is a surrender of one’s own ear to the spectacular musicality of the flow of the dialogue. You must, in a sense, breathe along with it and then it becomes the most lifelike, true exchange possible to transfer to the page. And this author is always interesting, word for word; actions, plots, characters have a vividness, a recognition, if you like, that correspond to the experience of the times, the common experience. Gaddis is the historian, the fictional historian, of our institutions: the clergy, Wall Street, and in his last book, A Frolic of His Own, the law. If it is a painting forgery, a financial scam, a lawsuit for damages incurred, or thought to have done so, there will be nothing the author doesn’t know about the matter at hand. Know and deliver with a wry perception of the most beguiling and instructive nature.

A Frolic of His Own, a masterpiece. In the early pages there is a legal brief of some length that is a magical example of the wit and learning that rolls and rolls its way through the pages. It is not a parody; that would be an act of exaggeration somewhat too easy. A dog has been “entrapped in the lower reaches of a towering steel sculpture known as Cyclone Seven which dominates the plaza overlooking and adjoining the depot of the Norfolk and Pee Dee Railroad.” The dog’s owner, a little boy of seven, is trying to rescue his pet and the dilemma brings out neighbors, the police, the fire department, and “the victim’s own kind,” that is other dogs. The fire department is thinking of moderate use of acetylene torches to affect a rescue, when the sculptor from his Soho studio asks for a restraining order, and later for damages done by the dog’s teeth. The madness of the litigious infection of the current national scene and of the comic vulnerability of Cyclone Seven, freestanding in a public space, is accomplished in this interlude with devastating inspiration.

To give an idea of the dialogue in A Frolic is difficult since it is like entering a stream. However, it is not what we think of as the stream of consciousness mode, which is the hidden, inner life beneath the surface. The dialogue in these novels is a stream, yes, but of the way people actually talk, the common flow of abrupt, faltering, and yet practical speech. There is some punctuation, but it does not always conform to the conventional markings. Indeed a study of just what punctuation there is in the dialogue and what there is not has much interest of its own.

Little in my words here can truly suggest much less identify, the wonders of the fiction written by William Gaddis. The reader will find there a stunning virtuosity combined with a command of all the elements of classical fiction: plots, landscape, development, richness of every kind. And most importantly the novels are utterly compelling about contemporary life.

I understand that a new novel is to be published, completed just before his death. The title is Agape, Agape. The OED defines agape as a “love feast held by the early Christians in connection with the Lord’s Supper.” Or perhaps the title is agape, agape, illustrated in the dictionary by a “rabbit mouth that is ever agape,” attributed to Tennyson. In any case, we will have here yet another gift to American literature; an expectation true enough but too bland and general for the daring, explosive pages that bear the name of William Gaddis.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on April 13, 1999.

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