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Posts Tagged ‘New York Review Books Classics’

Enlarge and Linger

November 14, 2014 | by

On William Gass’s In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.

gass

William Gass teaching at Washington University, 1974. Photo: Washington University Magazine

In the heart of the heart of William Gass’s In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, deep inside the title story, the narrator contemplates his cat, Mr. Tick: “You are a cat—you cannot understand—you are a cat so easily.” The confident Mr. Tick, unlike the narrator, does not worry over his mortality or think about the burden of self-consciousness. He does not care that the past is past. He does not fear possibility or imagine himself as anything other than the cat he is. Mr. Tick spends his time murdering birds and walking across rooftops. Content just to be alive, he moves elegantly, “his long tail rhyming with his paws,” leaving our forlorn narrator to fend off loneliness on his own, with the only weapon he has at his disposal: words.

Words are free, there for the taking, and William Gass makes sure we are aware of their infinite potential. Words can be used to command, to describe, to denigrate. They can be strung into sentences and bellowed in a song “in such a way that from a distance it will seem a harmony, a Strindberg play, a friendship ring.” We understand nuance and learn how to prepare for consequence with the help of words. We can make beautiful things with words. Those inclined can dare to treat the medium of language as an inexhaustible source of art.

Art is the business of serious writers, Gass insists. A brilliant essayist as well as one of this nation’s most important novelists, he argues in his essay “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction” that the task for a serious writer is twofold: “He must show or exhibit his world, and to do this he must actually make something, not merely describe something that might be made.” In his emphasis on making, Gass, who turned ninety this year, is proposing that the meaning generated by a work of fiction goes beyond its mimetic familiarity. The purpose of an imaginative narrative isn’t to confirm what we think we already know about reality; rather, it offers “a record of the choices, inadvertent or deliberate, the author has made from all the possibilities of language.” A fictional cat may reflect qualities of a real cat, but it is better appreciated as a product of the author’s agile mind. Read More »

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Staff Picks: Papa, Pig Earth

July 30, 2010 | by

What we’ve been reading this week.

  • I wrapped up A Farewell to Arms just in time to enjoy the Hemingway look-alikes at Sloppy Joe’s in Key West, Florida. Kudos to Charles Bicht, Papa 2010. —Stephen Andrew Hiltner
  • First published in 1935—but set in the 1880s—A House and Its Head is a late, obsidian instance of Victorian Survivor Literature. It concerns a tyrannical father, his idle grown children, and the young second wife he brings home to them. Imagine The Way of All Flesh written by a woman under the influence of Oscar Wilde. What I and everyone else especially like about Ivy Compton-Burnett is her dialogue. Her characters make asides, they soliloquize, they turn epigrams, and yet the effect isn't exactly stagey. (As Oscar liked to say, “Art doesn’t imitate life; life imitates Shakespeare, as best it can.”) —Lorin Stein

  • I visited Cuba for the first time in January. On Revolution Day, July 26, I read about Fidel Castro’s surprise appearance in public and the rest of the coverage of the holiday I could find. Unsatisfied, I found and read “Cuba—A Way Forward,” the riveting, deeply distressing report from Daniel Wilkinson, Deputy Director for the Americas at Human Rights Watch and Nik Steinberg, a researcher there, in the New York Review of Books. It makes me desperately sad to think about the amazing people I met in Havana that have almost no chance of reading Yoani Sánchez’s incredible blog, even though they live in Havana, as she does. Wilkinson and Steinberg are forceful and eloquent on the reality of the political situation in Cuba: “It is hard to think of a US policy with a longer track record of failure. The embargo has caused much hardship to the Cuban people but done nothing to loosen the Castros’ hold on power. Instead it has provided the Cuban government an excuse for the country’s problems.” —Caitlin Roper

  • I’ve been following the debate surrounding Odyssey, Andrew Wylie’s latest venture in publishing e-books with Amazon. As an observer, I find it upsetting that the publishing world is squabbling over backlist e-book rights. But do I blame them? The pie is shrinking for everyone. Except Amazon. —Thessaly La Force

  • I’ve been reading Pig Earth, John Berger’s cycle of stories, essays, and poems about peasant life in the Savoyard village where Berger settled with his family in the mid-seventies. This cycle is also a study in oral tradition, and of life in a place where nobody has any secrets. It is also—according to Wikipedia—a novel. But I’ll keep you posted. —L. S.

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