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Posts Tagged ‘William Gaddis’

An Emotional Performance

June 23, 2016 | by

How the Internet makes memoirists of us all.

Jean Alphonse Roehn, Portrait of an Artist Painting Her Self Portrait

Jean Alphonse Roehn, Portrait of an Artist Painting Her Self Portrait

I can’t recall the last time I didn’t know a writer’s face. See me pasting bylines into Facebook to find an essayist’s profile picture. Watch as I dive through tagged photographs to find out which school a reporter attended, what his partner looks like. Is his Twitter account verified? Is he famous enough to justify being verified? Usually I’m less interested in the plain fact of, say, a writer’s ethnicity or what kind of pet she owns than I am in her presentation of those facts. Of course sometimes I’m just nosy, but more often, I’m looking for reasons to trust or distrust a writer’s work. I don’t really believe in objective narrators anymore, but I still care to look for reliable ones. Read More »


August 21, 2014 | by


From the poster to Art and Craft.

In The Recognitions, his brilliant novel about an art forger, William Gaddis wrote, “Originality is a device that untalented people use to impress other untalented people to protect themselves from talented people … Most original people are forced to devote all their time to plagiarizing. Their only difficulty is that if they have a spark of wit or wisdom themselves, they’re given no credit. The curse of cleverness.”

Art and Craft, a new documentary, is a similarly vexed study of authenticity and creativity: it tells the story of Mark Landis, an art forger who is, as the design site Colossal puts it,

arguably one of the most prolific art forgers in U.S. history, having tricked over sixty museums in twenty states into believing his masterfully created replicas are authentic artworks. The catch: so far, it appears Landis, who has been diagnosed as schizophrenic, has yet to commit a crime. While he’s caused headaches, confusion, and multi-year investigations, he has never sought to benefit or profit from his forgeries in any way. Instead, he enjoys the performative act of pretending to be a philanthropist who makes donations of obscure artwork to art institutions, many of which unknowingly exhibited the fakes, allowing Landis the secret thrill of seeing his work on display.

On the other end of the spectrum is Matthew Leininger, a righteous curator whom the Times calls “a kind of Javert to Mr. Landis’s Valjean.” Leininger has made it his mission to put a halt to Landis’s ruse; he “maintains a database of all known contacts with Mr. Landis, sightings of him and works he has copied … he uses a dry-erase marker to update a laminated map in his office.”

But has the man really done anything wrong—is he really a kind of failure? Certainly Gaddis would say so—“I tried to make clear,” he says of The Recognitions in his Art of Fiction interview, “that Wyatt [the forger] was the very height of a talent but not a genius—quite a different thing. Which is why he shrinks from going ahead in, say, works of originality. He shrinks from this and takes refuge in what is already there, which he can handle, manipulate. He can do quite perfect forgeries, because the parameters of perfection are already there.”

Maybe the same could be said of Landis, but that seems to give short shrift to his project. A 2012 article elaborates on the remarkable scope of his talents (or, if you remain skeptical of the validity of such things, his “talents”):

Landis creates works in oil, watercolor, pastels, chalk, ink and pencil, making most of his copies from museum or auction catalogs that provide dimensions and information on the originals.

He sometimes bestows gifts under different names, such as the Father Arthur Scott alias used at Hilliard. In that case, he told officials that his dead mother had left works including Curran’s oil-on-wood painting “Three Women” and that he was donating it in her memory … To convince museums he is a philanthropist, he also concocts elaborate stories about health concerns, said Cincinnati exhibit co-curator Matthew Leininger.

“He has been having heart surgery for almost thirty years,” Leininger said with a frustrated laugh. “This is the strangest case the museum realm has known in years.”

Landis, fifty-seven, acknowledges what he’s up to. He told The Associated Press in a phone interview from his home in Laurel, Miss., that he made his first forgery donation to a California museum in 1985.

“They were so nice. I just got used to that, and one thing led to another,” he said. “It never occurred to me that anyone would think it was wrong.”

There’s no release date for Art and Craft yet, but you can see the trailer, which brings to life Landis’s eccentricities, here. “The art world is a very strange place,” says one of its interviewees, in what may be the understatement of the year.


The Best Christmas Card Ever

December 25, 2013 | by


At the Paris Review offices, several of us were lucky enough to receive, in recent days, a mailing from a friend and contributor to these pages. It was a plain cream Christmas card on which was printed,

“‘Merry Christmas!’ the man threatened.” —William Gaddis

We all agreed it was quite the best Christmas card we had ever seen.

The quote comes from Gaddis’s first novel, 1955’s The Recognitions, which, like the rest of his work, is noted for being challenging. (In his Art of Fiction interview, Gaddis objects to this characterization, preferring to think of the labor involved as “a collaboration between the reader and what is on the pages.”) 

And while he may not seem the most festive of authors, Gaddis might have approved: in a letter he sent his mother from Harvard in 1943, young “Bill” writes,

Have got Christmas cards—fifty—do you know where that plate I had for engraving is? It must be perhaps in my desk or somewhere—I’d like to have them done and mailed from here if possible—would appreciate it if you should run across to send it up—

Merry Christmas, Bill!



Mysterious Skin: The Realia of William Gaddis

December 24, 2013 | by

-1Most people with scholarly inclinations will visit a novelist’s literary archive to follow the paper trails, as manifested through gathered correspondence, stray postcards, marked-upon stationery, and scattered drafts. A couple of months before the recent publication of his collected letters, I visited the William Gaddis Papers at Washington University in Saint Louis in search of something near the polar opposite.

I had harbored a minor obsession with the novelist for years, even before reading a single word of his writing, probably due his reputation as a writer who crafted a string of unapologetically dense works while almost entirely avoiding the fickleness of the literary limelight. I had bought a used hardcover of Carpenter’s Gothic, one of Gaddis’s shorter novels, at a library booksale just after my early-twenties Pynchon obsession had tapered off a bit. That book sat unread on a shelf for a few years until I decided to make the plunge into Gaddis’s work after seeing his specter, both his name and the titles of his books, floating through David Markson’s great anecdote—and allusion-heavy novels.

More dilettante than scholar, I was on the hunt for certain pieces of the novelist’s realia, that archival category of physical, three-dimensional objects rather than the usual rectangular flatland of manuscripts. Gaddis—who wrote “only” five books over the course of a forty-odd-year career (though amounting to around 2,640 pages in total), with each tome encompassing every possible spectrum of American vernacular and obsession; who won a MacArthur Award and two National Book Awards; and who was famous, as Cynthia Ozick once put it, for not being famous enough—had one object in his collection that I had never seen in a library catalog before. I found this particular entry buried deep within the online finding aid for the Gaddis Papers:

“Box 166.2/- : Zebra Skin, (1 item), Stored in oversize; box on order.”

After scanning across this listing while doing cursory research for something else, I instantly became obsessed with the idea of the zebra skin in the library. What, exactly, did it look like? How was it stored among Gaddis’s papers? Why had he owned it? What was it doing in the special collections of an academic library? Read More »


A Tsunami of Pages, #OccupyGaddis

June 20, 2012 | by

Guy Laramee’s paper landscapes.

A cultural news roundup.

  • Want to know the books Whitey Bulger would have taken to the grave?
  • Paper landscapes, a tsunami of pages—this is extreme editing.
  • Be Kind to Books Club. Some propaganda never gets old.
  • Self-promotion knows no boundaries.
  • “You can’t turn Infinite Jest into a two-hour play. You can’t put it on a conventional stage. And you can’t send your audience away without at least a small dose of pain.”
  • A giant squid invades Paris in Fiona Apple’s new music video.
  • R.I.P. Gitta Sereny.
  • The conspiracy is alive: find a Thomas Pynchon “Trystero” near you.
  • Twilight is not an acceptable nomination.
  • Paging Jonathan Franzen. #OccupyGaddis begins now!
  • Flannery O’Connor reads “A Good Man is Hard to Find” in a rare 1959 recording.
  • What happens when you leave a group of boys around art? The sculptor Eva Rothschild finds out.


Reading in New York; Reading of London

April 20, 2012 | by

My apartment is infested with evil roommates and sad vibes. Being unemployed, I have no refuge. But I refuse to be depressed! Mornings I pack a small bag of books, take to the streets, wander around. But one can only sit on so many benches. Am curious about comfy food places where the management smiles kindly (or just not unkindly) on quiet, unassuming customers who occupy space for many hours, ordering only coffee, or perhaps (eventually) some delicious pie ... Suggestions?

Sincerely, Ex Libris

(oh and Manhattan only please)

Dear Ex, We have one of the world’s great reading rooms–at least for now–at the Forty-second Street Library. Having spent years in tiny, often overcrowded apartments, I promise that you will sit longer and read more there than in any café. If you get hungry, there’s a Pret à Manger across the street, not to mention the restaurant and sandwich kiosks in Bryant Park. Enjoy it while you can. Other good reading places—on weekdays especially—are the side room at Cafe Pick Me Up on Avenue A, the Hungarian Pastry Shop in Morningside Heights, and Tarralucci e Vino, either the one off Union Square or the one on East Tenth Street. For weekends, I highly recommend the bar at Vandaag on Second Avenue. No pies, but excellent coffee, strupwafels, and poached eggs.

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