Interviews

William Gaddis, The Art of Fiction No. 101

Interviewed by Zoltán Abádi-Nagy

William Gaddis was interviewed on November 4, 1986, in Budapest where he had stopped for a day on his way home from a conference in Sofia. The proposal of an interview survived his discouraging reputation for being reclusive and avoiding interviews. A gentle and genial man welcomed me in his Atrium Hyatt suite: grey hair; an absorbed and attentive, hard-featured, longish face with strict yet amiable, contemplative eyes; and a relaxed, unassuming manner. He had a ghastly cold and spoke hoarsely, coughing slightly, and sipping meditatively at his whiskey.

He listened to the questions with untiring patience. The remorseless logic as well as the profound care of his answers convinced me that this satiric chronicler of chaotic existence and entropic disintegration is indeed a fearful causal thinker deeply concerned about the human condition.

William Gaddis was born in 1922 in New York, where he lives now. In the mid-fifties he produced The Recognitions, an entropic, black humor, postmodern novel. Yet in spite of his books’ considerable artistic achievement, William Gaddis has still not received the degree of recognition that his talent and work deserve. Animated by a deep-seated humanism, he is a satirist who has no tolerance for stupidity and absurdity. With extraordinary erudition he examines man’s relation to the world in witty, sarcastic, often mordant social-epistemological parables. His novels are: The Recognitions (1955); JR, a National Book Award winner, (1975); and Carpenter’s Gothic (1985).

 

INTERVIEWER

Since over the years you’ve acquired a reputation for avoiding interviews, particularly those that address your work, let me ask why you are submitting to this one?

WILLIAM GADDIS

I suppose because I’ve got some illusion about finally getting the whole thing out of the way once for all. In the past I’ve resisted partly because of the tendency I’ve observed of putting the man in the place of his work, and that goes back more than thirty years; it comes up in a conversation early in The Recognitions. That, and the conviction that the work has got to stand on its own—when ambiguities appear they are deliberate and I’ve no intention of running after them with explanations—and finally, of course, the threat of questions from someone unfamiliar with the work itself: Do you work on a fixed schedule every day? On which side of the paper do you write? That sort of talk-show pap, five-minute celebrity, turning the creative artist into a performing one, which doesn’t look to be the case here.

INTERVIEWER

Thank you for the vote of confidence.

GADDIS

And so I’ve the hope of laying a few things to rest; an interview I can simply refer people to when the threat of another appears, without having to go through it again.

INTERVIEWER

You say a work has got to stand on its own. Isn’t it hard for a writer sometimes to adhere to this principle steadfastly? In other words, are you never annoyed by misinterpretations of your works?

GADDIS

What writer is not? And unless you’re writing “what they want”—I mean, some formula simply for the money—isn’t that our history, from Melville on? It comes with the territory, as the playwright said.

INTERVIEWER

Now that you have decided to step out of your reclusiveness—and before stepping back into it—perhaps you’re dissatisfied with the image that is in circulation concerning your life and personality and views that you’d like to correct?

GADDIS

I’d hoped this interview would clear up some of that—what can be cleared up, that is to say, because trying to correct one’s “image” is as futile as it is irrelevant. Of course, if your image is really all you’ve got going—which is hardly uncommon these days, take a Henry Kissinger, for instance—you’ll want to deliberately distort the record to make yourself look good. I’d go back to The Recognitions where Wyatt asks what people want from the man they didn’t get from his work, because presumably that’s where he’s tried to distill this “life and personality and views” you speak of. What’s any artist but the dregs of his work: I gave that line to Wyatt thirty-odd years ago and as far as I’m concerned it’s still valid.

INTERVIEWER

Here is another obligatory question. You have received recognition in the form of various grants and awards, including the substantial MacArthur Prize Fellowship. What is your feeling about that? How have they changed things?

GADDIS

Well, I almost think that if I’d gotten the Nobel Prize when The Recognitions was published I wouldn’t have been terribly surprised. I mean that’s the grand intoxication of youth, or what’s a heaven for. And so the book’s reception was a sobering experience, quite a humbling one. When finally help did come along, recognition as you say, a Rockefeller Foundation grant, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the National Endowment for the Arts, they came in difficult times and allowed and encouraged me to keep on with the second book and start the third. Without them, I wonder if I might not just have dropped the whole damned business, though God knows what else I might have done, too late even to be any of the things I never wanted to be. There’s always the talk about feeding at the public trough, disdaining grants because you’ve never been given one. I mean we’d all wish to come out with the fierce integrity of Samuel Butler, say, who never wrote simply to publish or published everything he wrote—The Way of All Flesh was posthumous after all—and that has been the luxury of the MacArthur. But then I never was a fellow to rush into print.

INTERVIEWER

Could you say something about the genesis of your own novels? Can you reconstruct what was involved in your getting started with The Recognitions?

GADDIS

I think first it was that towering kind of confidence of being quite young, that one can do anything —“All’s brave that youth mounts and folly guides,” as we’re told in As You Like It. The Recognitions started as a short piece of work, quite undirected, but based on the Faust story. Then as I got into the idea of forgery, the entire concept of forgery became—I wouldn’t say an obsession—but a central part of everything I thought and saw; so the book expanded from simply the central character of the forger to forgery, falsification and cheapening of values and what have you, everywhere. Looking at it now with its various faults, I suppose excess would be the main charge. I remember Clive Bell looking back on his small fine book, Art, thirty-five years after it was published in 1913, and listing its faults, finding it too confident and aggressive, even too optimistic—I was never accused of that!—but still feeling, as he said, “a little envious of the adventurous young man who wrote it.”

INTERVIEWER

What moved you to write JR?

GADDIS

Even though I should have known from The Recognitions that the world was not waiting breathlessly for my message, that it already knew, and was quite happy to live with all these false values, I’d always been intrigued by the charade of the so-called free market, so-called free enterprise system, the stock market conceived of as what was called a “people’s capitalism” where you “owned a part of the company” and so forth. All of which is true; you own shares in a company, so you literally do own part of the assets. But if you own a hundred shares out of six or sixty or six hundred million, you’re not going to influence things very much. Also, the fact that people buy securities—the very word in this context is comic—not because they are excited by the product—often you don’t know what the company makes—but simply for profit: The stock looks good and you buy it. The moment it looks bad you sell it. What had actually happened in the company is not your concern. In many ways I thought . . . the childishness of all this. Because JR himself, which is why he is eleven years old, is motivated only by good-natured greed. JR was, in other words, to be a commentary on this free enterprise system running out of control. Looking around us now with a two-trillion-dollar federal deficit and billions of private debt and the banks, the farms, basic industry all in serious trouble, it seems to have been rather prophetic.

INTERVIEWER

Carpenter’s Gothic?

GADDIS

Well, that was rather different. I cannot really work unless I set a problem for myself to solve. In Carpenter’s Gothic the problems were largely of style and technique and form. I wanted to write a shorter book, one that observes the unities of time and place to the point that everything, even though it expands into the world, takes place in one house, and a country house at that, with a small number of characters, in a short span of time. It became really largely an exercise in style and technique. And also, I wanted to take all these clichés of fiction to bring them to life and make them work. So we have the older man and the younger woman, the marriage breaking up, the obligatory adultery, the locked room, the mysterious stranger, and so forth.

INTERVIEWER

To have a more detailed look at the novels now. The Recognitions takes its title from Recognitions, a work attributed to St. Clement of Rome. The Wyatt Gwyon of your novel is thus a Clement figure with a dispersed family—there are many more dispersed families in the novel—and with a story that becomes a dialogue between pagan and Christian ideologies, and becomes a search for salvation, to mention the most obvious parallels. What was your main intention in introducing a Clement figure into the twentieth century, in a story that starts a few years after the First World War and takes place mainly at the turn of the decades of the forties and fifties?

GADDIS

We come back to the Faust story and to the original Clementine Recognitions, which has been called the first Christian novel (I remember thinking mine was going to be the last one), about his search for salvation, redemption, and so forth. And I had these notions of basing The Recognitions on the constant presence of the past and of its imposition of myth in different forms that eventually come down to the same stories in any culture. I think they titled the Italian edition The Pilgrim or The Pilgrimage or something like that. In a sense it is that: a pilgrimage toward salvation.

INTERVIEWER

Disregarding now the immense symbolic-thematic complexity that the myth itself entails in the novel, I think that the logic of the Faust story lends itself particularly well to the message about the postmodern world, namely, manipulation and forgery. The Faustian pact with the devil is nothing but giving up originality, isn’t it? And vice versa, a painter, Wyatt, manipulated into selling his soul, giving up originality, is bound to be Faustian, besides being emblematic of the artist’s position in a corrupt, manipulative, counterfeit world. Is this a correct interpretation of Wyatt’s central function as a Faust figure?

GADDIS

It is, yes, originality also being Satan’s “original sin” if you like. I think also, further, I tried to make clear that Wyatt 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.

INTERVIEWER

If Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus of the Portrait was the archetypal modernist artist, your Wyatt’s story seems to be a postmodern variation on the Künstlerroman. Wyatt does, in fact, come to be called Stephen at the end of the novel. He, too, abandons the idea of priesthood to become a priest of the imagination. But with a difference. He will paint forgeries, that is, he will become the priest of other people’s imagination. Stephen Dedalus’s non serviam—an attitude that echoes down in Ulysses, too—is no longer possible.

GADDIS

This is quite a complicated question. First, what is interesting is this business of Ulysses . . .

INTERVIEWER

I mean the Portrait. I know you had not read Ulysses before you wrote The Recognitions.

GADDIS

Right. Many of these similarities that critics and doctoral students have dug up are absolutely coincidences. Stephen, for instance—the reason I chose that name is he was the first Christian martyr.

INTERVIEWER

That’s why Joyce decided on that name. It was one of his reasons.

GADDIS

News to me. The coincidences turn up down to the smallest details. There is, for instance, a character who has covered the mirrors with handkerchiefs. Apparently this happens somewhere in Ulysses, too. And they said, Ah! This is where he got that. Where I got it was when I was in a hotel in Panama and I had washed my handkerchiefs and spread them on the windows and the mirrors to dry—they almost look pressed when they’re peeled away that way—a Panamanian friend came in and said, “All the mirrors are covered. Who’s dead? What’s happened?” I said, “No, I’m just drying my handkerchiefs.” Then I found the same incident in McTeague in what? 1903 or 1905, whenever McTeague was written. This always strikes me as dangerous—finding “sources.”

INTERVIEWER

So let’s forget about Joyce. Let me repeat the main point of my question to make it clearer, perhaps. It was something like this: Though on the one hand there is this forgery and serving other people’s imagination, on the other hand, at a deeper level, isn’t there a deeper appreciation of the real, genuine art of the past, an appreciation of tradition as a source of inspiration for the present?

GADDIS

Looking back—of course this is thirty-five years ago—the essential point was that these painters lived in an age of belief, and so they were, from Giotto on, very safely encased in a frame of reference, working in a frame of absolutes for their talents or their genius, in works largely for the Church. And this is exactly what Wyatt does not have around him. So he is really taking refuge in that framework of belief, as Stanley, his counterpoint, is the one who is within this framework of belief, the good Catholic boy, who finally pays the price.

INTERVIEWER

The Recognitions is a very serious book. Especially if one considers that it begins and ends with death and that there is much of the apocalyptic in between. If it is read as a piece of satire, it only makes it an even more serious book since it seems to have been written in the best tradition of “noble indignation.” On the other hand I wonder if it is not read too earnestly by too many critics. Especially if one considers that it opens on All Saints’ Day when somebody—whose body will be canonized as a result of a ridiculous mistake—dies of appendicitis at the hands of a fake doctor, and ends on Easter Sunday when, instead of resurrection, a devout organist (Stanley, the good Catholic boy) is buried in the collapse of a church. This is closer to burlesque.

GADDIS

Well, what I wanted was a large comic novel. I was very frustrated when it came out and so many reviewers saw it as . . . that terrible word erudition kept appearing. That it was difficult—

INTERVIEWER

And it is difficult.

GADDIS

—that it was among the first books of black humor and so forth, but, of course, we all came out of Mark Twain’s vest pocket. No one has ever beaten “The Mysterious Stranger.” But that whole world of the amount of information, what they called erudition, frightened off many people. Very very few reviewers said it is often very funny. It was a sometimes heavy-handed satire but I wanted it to be a large comic novel in the great tradition.

INTERVIEWER

In other senses the novel is not read earnestly enough. Most critics point out that the novel is about disintegration, about a world that is in a mess, is entropic. But Steven Moore’s arguments about Wyatt finding human integrity amidst disintegration seem convincing. So the novel itself is negentropic rather than entropic in the last analysis.

GADDIS

Well, we hope. Many reviewers and critics draw attention to all my books as being hopeless, that no good is going to come of anything, that everything is winding down in the entire entropic concept. But Wyatt’s line—I think late in the book—says that one must simply live through the corruption, even become part of it. As Esme, the model, is a quite corrupted person but still an innocent in some way. Well, Wyatt has been part of the corruption, but at the end he says we must simply live it through and make a fresh start. I mean you could almost say—though the way the phrase is used now is not what I mean—that it is a notion of being born again in this life—with no reference to our “born again” Christians—and the next one.

INTERVIEWER

Apropos of Wyatt being born again: Can his struggle for originality be regarded as the antihero’s struggle to become a hero? He is a student of perspective, who reaches “the vanishing point” early in the novel but begins to emerge as a sovereign personality again at the end.

GADDIS

The latter part of what you say is true. The earlier part about antihero and hero is an interesting interpretation. I did want to, in a sense, create a novel without a hero, but while he remains the central figure, facets all about him are carrying out his—the fashionable word today I guess—persona. Otto is a kind of two-dimensional imitation of Wyatt; he wants to be Wyatt but has none of the equipment. Stanley has the belief and so forth. Anselm has the despair. So they’re all reflections of him. They carry the activity—you don’t say action, you say activity—of the novel, while he is not anywhere in sight.

INTERVIEWER

Alchemy has an important role to play in The Recognitions. What attracted you to alchemy and what makes it a relevant device in a satiric exploration of early- and mid-twentieth-century reality?

GADDIS

My early impression was that the alchemists were simply trying to turn base metals into gold. Later I came to the more involved reading and better understanding of it all: that it was something between religion and magic and that it did not necessarily mean literally lead and gold. So the gold in many of the symbolic senses in alchemy is the perfection, is the sun, is a kind of redemption. When at some despairing moment Wyatt says—when he realizes that the table of the Seven Deadly Sins is the original and not his copy —“Thank God there was the gold to forge,” that is very much the key line to the whole book.

INTERVIEWER

The Recognitions—says John Aldridge—was published before the literature to which it was pioneer came into vogue. Did you discern signs of an influence that your novel exerted on the fabulators and black-humor writers?

GADDIS

No, because I don’t read a great deal of current fiction, especially when I’m working on my own. I don’t look for these influences. Even if I did, I would prefer not to say, Yes, I think he learnt from me, or what have you. Let the critics do that.

INTERVIEWER

While The Recognitions prefigured the style of the Pynchon generation, I wonder if there was any Pynchonian influence that went into your second novel, JR, which opens with a direct discussion of the questions of energy, disorder, chaos, entropy, the second law of thermodynamics?

GADDIS

Well, going back a bit further, Nathanael West had sketched entropy nicely in Miss Lonelyhearts in the early thirties. Norbert Wiener extrapolated the concept to communications around 1950, and, of course, entropy was mentioned in connection with The Recognitions. So I think both Pynchon and I—and I don’t know him—are simply involved with different aspects of the same problems. I would doubt that my work has influenced him; his has certainly not influenced mine in any way at all.

INTERVIEWER

Although there is a time-honored tradition of the satirical treatment of human stupidity from Aristophanes through Erasmus, Swift, Twain to Vonnegut—it is Vonnegut’s Jonah, the narrator of Cat’s Cradle with his interest in “the history of human stupidity,” that I am especially reminded of by your theoretician of stupidity, McCandless, in Carpenter’s Gothic.

GADDIS

Again, I think writers work from their own energies, their own concepts. I don’t think there is any influence among us. After all, stupidity—and I don’t mean ignorance—is a central issue of our time. In my own case, going back to entropy, I’m most intrigued by its correlation as the loss of available energy in a closed system with stupidity as the corresponding loss of available intelligence in our own political establishment, especially as regards foreign policy and the economy—its collapse that is to say—where Wiener sees physics’ view of the world as it actually exists replaced by one as we observe it, a kind of one way communication.

INTERVIEWER

The story of the dwarfish sixth grader, who begins with mail-order enterprise and becomes the head of a huge business conglomerate, is also about the American family—a bitter indictment of the corroding effect that profit-oriented corporate operations exert not only on education and art in particular, but also on social values and human relationships in general.

GADDIS

It is insofar as it is very much about the absence of the family. We know nothing about his father. All that we know about his mother is that she’s a nurse, who keeps odd hours because of her work. He has no past, in other words, and so he’s obliged to invent himself, not in the terms of a father, a mother, and a family, but in terms of what he sees around him. And all he sees around him—in all discussions in the principal’s office at the school—there is never any mention of actual educational content. They talk about nothing but paving the parking lot, about buying new teaching machines and teaching equipment and storing what they already have because no one knows how to use it, and so forth.

INTERVIEWER

And there is that other family, the musician’s. I forget the name . . .

GADDIS

Yes, Bast, who is, of course, a captive remnant of the past, of the “old family,” Turgenev’s romantic Arkady meeting up with the hard-nosed pragmatist Bazarov as it were. Speaking of influences, I think mine are more likely to be found going from Eliot back rather than forward to my contemporaries.

INTERVIEWER

Is JR’s story something you extrapolated from life only, or did you rely on sociologies devoted to how the corporate world works upon social values, human qualities, and relationships in American culture?

GADDIS

The boy himself is a total invention, completely sui generis. The reason he is eleven is because he is in this prepubescent age where he is amoral, with a clear conscience, dealing with people who are immoral, unscrupulous; they realize what scruples are, but push them aside, whereas his good cheer and greed he considers perfectly normal. He thinks this is what you’re supposed to do; he is not going to wait around; he is in a hurry, as you should be in America—get on with it, get going. He is very scrupulous about obeying the letter of the law and then (never making the distinction) evading the spirit of the law at every possible turn. He is in these ways an innocent and is well-meaning, a sincere hypocrite. With Bast, he does think he’s helping him out. As for the corporate world, I do read the newspapers, clip things, ideas, articles, and just use them as fodder. But all that hardly requires a text in sociology. And this may be the place to make a further point. I’m frequently seen in the conservative press as being out there on the barricades shouting: Down with capitalism! I do see it in the end as really the most workable system we’ve produced. So what we’re talking about is not the system itself, but its abuses, I don’t mean criminal but the abundant abuses just within the letter of the law. The essential question is whether it can survive these abuses given free rein and whether these abuses are inherent in the system itself. I should think it is perfectly clear in my work—calling attention, satirizing these abuses—that our best hope lies in bringing things under better and more equitable control, cutting back the temptations to unmitigated greed and bemused dishonesty . . . in other words that these abuses the system has fostered are not essential, but running out of moral or ethical control can certainly threaten its survival.

INTERVIEWER

What JR is about is a radically new situation from the point of view of the American dream, too, and radically new as a literary treatment of that theme: the novel seems to be about how the American dream claims you before you are socially mature enough to dream it.

GADDIS

Fine, yes, well put. Very much the heart of it in fact.

INTERVIEWER

But the writer of JR must have commanded an immense inward knowledge of the mentality and the clichés of the jungle of speculation and manipulation to enable him to write the book. Is this formidable “documentation” mainly veristic or intuitive?

GADDIS

I think both, in the sense that the earlier book was too. It is getting a central idea—in one case the forgery, in the other case the American dream turned inside out—and then seeking the documentation, in areas that essentially don’t greatly interest me, that simply provide vehicles. But I wanted them right, thinking if someone who is well-versed and familiar with the world of finance, with what goes on in the market and so forth, read JR . . . that even though it’s a quite improbable story, it is still possible. So that JR backs into the situation; he isn’t sure really what is happening. But in the beginning, what is very important, he is not viewed as one of these computer-wizard brilliant kids. He buys defaulted bond issues simply because they’re cheap—it says a thousand dollars up in the corner, but selling at seven cents on the dollar, he’s getting them for seventy dollars apiece. So it’s simple, cheerful greed. Then, when finally the corporation is thrown into bankruptcy, and they wipe out all of the stock, all the equities, he becomes the largest holder of preferred stock and takes control pretty much by default. This is not through his brilliance. But, of course, when he does end up with this textile mill, Eagle Mills, and reads in the paper about this brilliant financial person in New York who has taken over, he believes the myth that has been created around him. And, finally, by the end of the book, he is a prisoner of his own myth: he thinks that he is a brilliant financial operator. When it all collapses, he says, “Well, why do they blame me?”

INTERVIEWER

Earlier you mentioned the irrelevant activities of educators in JR’s world. Your satire concerning education is quite passionate. You must have had bad experiences.

GADDIS

No, really the opposite, in fact. I went to boarding school in New England when I was very young, and to college at Harvard, and had a good education. And so it was: looking around me as I became thirty and forty and fifty at what goes on, thinking this is not what serious education is all about.

INTERVIEWER

The humanities can do anything but humanize these school children in JR. And your view of art has not changed since The Recognitions, as evidenced by figures like Bast, the composer, Eigen, the novelist, and Gibbs, the encyclopedist. What makes you place art at the center of fraud and counterfeit in the modern world?

GADDIS

Let me start off with this observation, touching perhaps on my earlier ones on the crushing abuses of capitalism. Frequently enough, careless or predisposed readers, John Gardner for instance, see these books as chronicles of the dedicated artist crushed by commerce, which is, of course, to miss, or misread, or simply disregard all the evidence of their own appetite for destruction, their frequently eager embrace of the forces to be blamed for their failure to pursue the difficult task for which their talents have equipped them, failure to pursue their destiny if you like, taking art at the center, as you say, as redemption in, and of and from, a world of material values, overwhelmed by the material demands it imposes. The embittered character in JR, for instance, who is Eigen, is obviously based in part on my own experience with The Recognitions, that it was not a success when it was published and I was obliged to go and work in a pharmaceutical company, which I did not like, but I had a family and had to make a living. Next, Gibbs, who is very much a persona; obviously his name is from Willard Gibbs of the second law of thermodynamics and the concept of entropy. Gibbs is the man who has all of the feelings and the competency but is overcome, overwhelmed by a sense of the futility of doing anything and the consequent question of what is worth doing, which he cannot respond to. And so even though he could’ve done this, he could’ve done this, he could’ve done this, he doesn’t finish anything because he just thinks it’s not worth it, whatever it is. So that finally, when he has been quite a negative figure all the way through, and meets a woman who has great confidence and faith and love for him, and wants him to complete his own work, he tries to go back, but it’s too late. Bast starts with great confidence, the sort I mentioned earlier, that confidence of youth. He’s going to write grand opera. And gradually, if you noticed— because of pressures of reality on him and money and so forth—his ambitions shrink. The grand opera becomes a cantata where we have the orchestra and the voices. Then it becomes a piece for orchestra, then a piece for small orchestra, and finally at the end he’s writing a piece for unaccompanied cello, his own that is to say, one small voice trying to rescue it all and say,Yes, there is hope. Again, like Wyatt, living it through, and in his adventure with JR having lived through all the nonsense, he will rescue this one small, hard, gem-like flame, if you like. Because it is that real note of hope in JR that is very important. It’s the kind of thing that someone like John Gardner totally missed. Finally, it’s the artist as “inner-directed” confronting a materialistic world—brokers, bankers, salesmen, factory workers, most politicians, the lot—that JR himself represents, and which is “outer-directed,” if you want it in sociological terms.

INTERVIEWER

What do the letters J and R stand for?

GADDIS

A sort of abbreviation for Junior.

INTERVIEWER

And also his class at school perhaps. He is going to 6J. If that has got anything to do with it at all.

GADDIS

No, no, no, that J is Mrs. Joubert, the teacher. This is what I mean about being wary of tracing down sources, inferences; Gardner, I think, traced the name Bast down to some Greek reference, which was, of course, nonsense.

INTERVIEWER

Africa seems to be very much on your mind both in JR and in Carpenter’s Gothic. Why does Africa figure so conspicuously in your imagination?

GADDIS

In this last book, in Carpenter’s Gothic, it is very important because of what the scheme of the book becomes, which is the book of Genesis emerging from the fiery holocaust that created the Great Rift Valley from Lebanon down through Israel, down through the Red Sea and all the way down East Africa, as where man was born, where he emerged, as in fact much of modern paleontology confirms. In Genesis, we have prehistory told in the Lord raining down fire and brimstone, and by the time we get to the last book of the New Testament in Revelation, this whole apocalyptic notion, which many people, especially in the fundamentalist Christian movement in America, read literally, and feel that all this talk about the bomb is a kind of logical apocalypse and Marxism the great beast, and they put that together with what they read in Revelation. And so, as McCandless says in the book, many of these people who feel that apocalypse is coming must make peace, not with God, but with Jesus, as the go-between, take Jesus as one’s savior so that when he does appear, and calls up the faithful, they all rise to heaven and are saved in this self-fulfilling prophecy. If a war did start in Africa or any place else with the nuclear bombs and so forth, they would feel, Ah! now the wrongdoers, the ones who did not accept Jesus, are going to get it, that we are going to be—of course they’re also going to be—incinerated.

INTERVIEWER

The title of Carpenter’s Gothic is explained in the novel by the owner of the Victorian house built in that style as the Hudson Valley country architects’ derivative style, “to be seen from the outside,” and “a patchwork of conceits, borrowings, deceptions.” More than one critic suggested that the other meaning of gothic functions in the novel, too, the novel being “a spoof of gothic romances,” as Peter S. Prescott puts it. Let me wonder about the first half of the title, carpenter, though. Has it got anything to do with the town carpenter of The Recognitions—Wyatt’s maternal grandfather, who is a storehouse of adventurous stories just as McCandless in Carpenter’s Gothic is the mysterious adventurer, whose adventures turn out to exist in a madman’s imagination in the end, mere stories?

GADDIS

It never occurred to me—we’re back with this second-guessing sources, connections—but ideas do come forth and then submerge and come out in another form, which in a way both books are all about. One critical discussion I read discussed Wyatt’s first job with a bridge-building concern, which I’d conceived simply to get across his fascination with the idea of tensions, the delicacy of bridges and the tensions that are involved, the idea of strength in delicacy, in tension, but this dissertation ingeniously related his career as bridge builder to his father as pontifex, a priest, the bridge between God and man, and I thought this was marvelous. When I read things like that, I just keep quiet. I think, Well, if they want to think I’m that clever—fine.

INTERVIEWER

McCandless is a good “carpenter,” anyway, since he exposes what is behind the fanciful religious and political facade of those other “carpenters”: Reverend Ude, the fake evangelist and Senator Teakell, the corrupt politician. So contrary to what his name suggests—“candle-less,” namely, absence of light (perhaps a reference to his madness)—this “mad” carpenter is a molder of correct theories about how things fall into a pattern in the world, theories that do shed light on what is going on. But why must a seer be a lunatic?

GADDIS

A seer being an illuminated person and an illuminator—is this what you . . .

INTERVIEWER

I meant the wife’s revelation about him at the end, with the implication that he has spent time in a mental institution.

GADDIS

But that’s simply an implication isn’t it? I mean these are areas in my work that I don’t care to comment on. I think it says somewhere in The Recognitions that you cannot run along after your work saying what I really meant was this or this or this. Generally of all these questions: When I’ve worked on a book, I’ve put just as much into it as I wanted to, and if there are ambiguities, well, life is filled with them.

INTERVIEWER

I’m not asking if he was or was not really mad. What I mean is that the hint that he was, or even the ambiguity created about his sanity makes one wonder why it is that an illuminator should be at least potentially mad?

GADDIS

Well, you may make that inference—or comment. I have no objection.

INTERVIEWER

McCandless is ironically undercut as a Messiah at the end—this much is perhaps safe to say. Where does it leave us with the novel? Is the ironic undercutting “a straw of hope” as Cynthia Ozick hopes it is: that the world is not so dark after all, that it was only a madman’s vision?

GADDIS

Again, there’s an informed and positive interpretation; after all, if our situation—or what I see as our situation—were utterly hopeless, why would I have written the book at all? But I will say that this novel probably contains the least hope of the three. Because McCandless, who had got it all figured out, comes out at the end—when we realize that he is just leaving the scene and wants Liz to go with him—as hardly the great hero. It is sort of sauve-qui-peut and she refuses him. Incidentally, carpenter without the apostrophe, “carpenter gothic” is the correct phrase for this style of architecture, as Lester mentions in the book. So the apostrophe, yes, is a play on the architectural style, and on McCandless, and on the Lord’s Father’s ramshackle house wherein “are many mansions” and on the author too as “the carpenter.”

INTERVIEWER

What Paul helps the fundamentalist Ude and other anti-evolutionist carpenters to cut, frame, join, and hammer into shape is something political that may turn out to be an Armageddon for America, according to the novel. Amidst all this Liz is “the only straight number.” If this is a bit exaggerated, the second half of what her brother, Billy—yet another carpenter of yet another counterfeit front (counterculture)—says is true: Liz is “the only thing that holds things together.” It occurs to me to ask if she is not an embodiment of the female universe that Wyatt’s quest is for in The Recognitions? The female universe is not absent from the world of Carpenter’s Gothic, as it was not from the world of The Recognitions; rather, the world stifles it, kills it—Liz is asthmatic and is dead in the end.

GADDIS

I think that is valid. Just as in JR where Madame Joubert is this force of love, trust, hope, what have you. The ewigweibliche and so forth, but the thwarted, betrayed by lack of love ewigweibliche, the defeated Frau, nach der man sich sehnt (as is Esme in The Recognitions) they are all the realm of intuitive wisdom in a world of masculine materialism and so, as you may have noticed, at the end of JR it is the two unloved women who are going to be locked in a legal battle, reduced to being men you might say, after the men have messed everything up. In that book they’re the despairing survivors.

INTERVIEWER

Although Carpenter’s Gothic seems to be a little like the schoolbooks that are criticized in the novel—questions are asked to which no firm answers are offered—it is a book of beliefs and not, as Gardner would have said, “dramatization without belief.” This is satire and the beliefs are present indirectly: the satirist believes in those things whose absence is resented when what is negative is destroyed.

GADDIS

Deeply resented, yes, because we’re really back to the heart of it here, aren’t we? What we’re really talking about—what the book is so largely talking about, leaving behind alchemy and Wyatt’s “thank God there was the gold to forge”—is precisely this courage to live without absolutes, which is, really, nothing more than growing up, the courage to accept a relative universe and even one verging upon chance, certainly at least in its human component, since these absolutes are essentially childish, born out of fear of a purposeless existence and, finally, out of the desperate denial of the one unacceptable inevitable outrage, the prospect of one’s own death itself. Of course all this leads us into the sketchy refuge of situation ethics, old foes with new faces, because looked at another way, this collapse of absolutes going on around us may be simply another form of entropy, a spiritual entropy winding down eventually to total equilibrium, the ultimate chaos where everything equals everything else: the ultimate senseless universe. But then that, fighting that off, or succumbing to it, isn’t that what Dostoyevsky, what the great fictions have always been about?

INTERVIEWER

The man who wrote these three books seems to be just about fed up with two thousand years of wars and especially with the modern world, which is all fraud and forgery. Is it that bad?

GADDIS

I think it is but we must simply live with it.

INTERVIEWER

The Gaddis novels are also difficult books; this has become a critical commonplace.

GADDIS

I’m afraid.

INTERVIEWER

So let me ask some obligatory questions about your art in general. First, why the proliferation of characters in the first two books?

GADDIS

In the first two books. Well, as I say, the first one I wanted to be a large comic novel . . . with characters reflecting facets of the central figure, who, for all practical purposes, disappears; they carry on. This was part of the reason for that proliferation. In JR it was much more in the realm of these theories of entropy in communication and the breakdown of communication. So that especially in the school, where most of the time no one is listening to anyone else—they’re all talking—there’s some attempt in their patterns of speech to differentiate. Some readers have said: I don’t know who’s talking about what, and I give up. But that’s the chance, the risk that I took.

INTERVIEWER

Are you guided by theoretical preconceptions concerning the human personality and character when you sit down to write your—as they have also been called—post-psychological novels?

GADDIS

Insofar as these are a culmination of one’s experiences and ideas and impressions, prejudices and inner doubts, of course. But the task is to make the characters alive and come off the page as real. In JR it’s much more a number of voices creating the story, the world they live in. In Carpenter’s Gothic it’s much more the point of very few characters, each of whom is forcefully and severely self-delineated.

INTERVIEWER

Do you deploy preconceived aesthetic philosophies concerning language and communication when you sit down to work?

GADDIS

As I say, it is all simply in sitting down to work and the working, not with any theoretic notions. I did make the basic decision in JR largely, as I’ve said, in terms of setting a problem to solve. Often it’s very frustrating, but otherwise I would die of boredom at the typewriter. So I have to—in order to avoid boredom—have the energy . . . set a problem. In JR it was writing a long book almost entirely in dialogue with no chapter breaks and so forth, which led me into the problem of real time because I could not say, “Chapter Four,” or “two weeks later.” I had somehow to make that time pass in dialogue.

INTERVIEWER

So there must have been aesthetic decisions . . .

GADDIS

But they’re not out of a theory.

INTERVIEWER

I call your book-length dialogues floated dialogue because while you present everything through dialogues—background information, letters, newspaper articles, radio texts, tv texts—too many outlines become blurred, persons and objects are externally undifferentiated, everything is allowed to be viewed through what is spoken only. The omniscient narrator gives insignificant, descriptive details of the physical situation in which the dialogue is carried on, but he is of no help with what the reader would be really interested in.

GADDIS

I will tell you something in that area, if you like a theory, which I may have come up with after I wrote the book—I’m not sure. It is the notion that the reader is brought in almost as a collaborator in creating the picture that emerges of the characters, of the situation, of what they look like—everything. So this authorial absence, which everyone from Flaubert to Barthes talks about, is the sense that the book is a collaboration between the reader and what is on the pages.

INTERVIEWER

But the floated dialogue makes the reader’s part very difficult. The omniscient narrator expresses no view of his own. The reader is left to imagine the psychological motivation behind what is said. What the reader is left with—in the absence of reliable authorial/narratorial information and of the psychologically more reliable direct interior monologue form—is what could be called vocal behaviorism.

GADDIS

Well, this interior monologue you speak of is just too easy, obvious, boring, lazy, and I would agree right up to the last; I always cringe at the word behaviorism. But again it is very much this notion of what the reader is obliged to supply. We go back to McLuhan and his talk about hot and cool media. Television is the hot medium, to which one contributes nothing except a blank state, and the next day you say, What was that show we saw last night on television? It disappears because you put nothing into it. So nothing remains, as Gibbs remarks in JR. In this case it was my hope—for many readers it worked, for others it did not—that having made some effort they would not read too agonizedly slowly and carefully, trying to figure out who is talking and so forth. It was the flow that I wanted, for the readers to read and be swept along—to participate. And enjoy it. And occasionally chuckle, laugh along the way.

INTERVIEWER

But if they read along like that, they may miss a lot.

GADDIS

This is a risk I take, but isn’t that what life is, after all? Missing something that’s right there before you?

INTERVIEWER

The flood of dialogues may intensify the sense of claustrophobia some readers experience. Several critics believe that you lose control over your talent in your first two novels, this is why they are so long, 956 pages and 726 pages. Are you concerned with structure when you write?

GADDIS

Of course, acutely so, with outline after outline even to paragraphs. And this sounds very odd for me to say—not of The Recognitions perhaps, but JR and Carpenter’s Gothic both—JR especially is a very economical novel. That is one thing I hope I learned from Evelyn Waugh: economy. No one would believe this. I think a great deal of information is there of every sort, very economically got together. But critics will say whatever . . .

INTERVIEWER

Do you write the way you do because this is the easiest way for you to write, or, are such “difficult” works difficult to write too? What is it that causes particular difficulty in creating this type of a novel?

GADDIS

Well, as I’ve tried to make clear, if the work weren’t difficult I’d die of boredom. After The Recognitions, where there is a great deal of authorial intrusion and little essays along the way—on alchemy or what have you—I found it was too easy and I didn’t want to do it again. I wanted to write something different. I wanted to do something that was challenging, to create other problems, to force this discipline on myself, particularly with the last book. It’s all discipline. But I certainly can’t agree with that notion of whatever talent I may have going out of control. I think whatever talent there may be has been very painfully controlled, perhaps too much so.

INTERVIEWER

Do you regard yourself an experimental writer?

GADDIS

No. I think of “experimental” as something that may not work. When I sit down with a concept and what I’ve said about discipline and so on—what I’m going to do—I don’t think it’s experimental.

INTERVIEWER

It’s probably the dialogue form primarily that makes people label you as experimental. The novel is turned into a drama, as if it were, staged almost, “theatricalized.” The narrator is just a kind of stage director who does not interfere with the play.

GADDIS

But that’s exactly the point isn’t it, not to interfere. The attempt in the last two books was to make the characters create themselves, which is true of movies or the stage, and essentially of life itself. Of course, on the stage you can see the people. You see that he’s tall or short or fat or what have you. Here the only devices are: Where did you get that terrible suit? Or one person may say to the other something that is descriptive of that person. But only if it’s essential because this, to me, is again for the reader to supply, and I think feel rewarded in doing so.

INTERVIEWER

Creative reading. Critics have also created various labels that they affixed to your work: the encyclopedic novel, novel of excess, and so on. If you were to stamp a label that would describe your works best the way you see them, what would that label be?

GADDIS

Maybe in ten years, when I am finished, I will give you an answer to that.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think of labels like “postmodern,” “black humor,” “metafiction”?

GADDIS

I don’t read a great deal of this kind of criticism. When it’s applied to me . . . When I’m put in one of these areas, I think, “Well, then that is what ‘postmodernism’ is.” But I don’t either court it or pursue it or protest. I mean there are fashions—the most extreme, I gather now, being structuralism, deconstruction, what have you, much of which I just read askance. I’m not sure what is going on, but it’s surely not on my mind when I write.

INTERVIEWER

Isn’t one of the commonly accepted features of the postmodern that there is a suspension of causation? Is this illustrated in your work?

GADDIS

No, no, there is always a thread of causation, threads, many of them, and on a different level I would say to that that form and content must coalesce, they must reflect each other. So particularly with JR, being very largely about a shattered world, about a fragmented world, the style there is fragmentation. So that was a basic early decision: to try to reflect the fragmentation, but to create the fabric threaded with causation of however attenuated or even illogical a sort.

INTERVIEWER

Do you want readers to like what you do?

GADDIS

Heavens yes.

INTERVIEWER

What kind of audience do you think of when you write?

GADDIS

When I write I don’t think of the audience. After the fact I think, Well there. I hope they like it.

INTERVIEWER

Somehow it is always emphasized in connection with The Recognitions that it is an “underground classic,” that it is “for a very small audience.” Did you want to break out of this when you wrote more accessible novels? If not, what is it that made your second novel more accessible than the first, and the third more accessible than the second?

GADDIS

That’s interesting. I think of the first one, The Recognitions, as being the most accessible. Much the most. If we get into this terrible word, accessible, which has been used in many reviews usually with the prefix in-: I should think that because of the demand on the reader to put in a little work, JR is the least accessible of the three. The last one, I think, is quite accessible. Although because of the background that the first two created, they’re inclined to pursue it in the same way. The daily reviewer for The New York Times was relieved because it was short, so I believe he actually read it. Though he reviewed JR ten years before, in reviewing Carpenter’s Gothic he said he had not read JR—couldn’t follow it, too long and complicated. That kind of irresponsibility doesn’t cheer a writer up, but, of course, these things are not on my mind when I’m working.

INTERVIEWER

The self-reflexive element is gone from your work at this point.

GADDIS

I want to get rid of it, yes. None of the books has got any interior monologue, easy effects, any of “he wished he could see her that afternoon.” I mean he’s got to show it, to tell someone, I wish I could see her this afternoon. Authorial absence so that the characters create the situation. I find this much more provocative to me both as a writer when I’m working on it and as a reader. Interestingly, The Recognitions, which came out thirty-five years ago, was regarded as quite inaccessible at the time. Now I think it is read without much difficulty.

INTERVIEWER

Which is the novel you care most for?

GADDIS

I think that I care most for JR because I’m awfully fond of the boy himself.

INTERVIEWER

What are your feelings about the American novel today?

GADDIS

I wouldn’t make a great statement on that, but I do think there is a good number of excellent novelists, and then there is the usual . . . the others. But I think—since they say American novel in contradistinction to the French, the British, or what have you—we are turning out proportionately much more good fiction in America of all kinds.

INTERVIEWER

What is happening in the novel is happening mostly in America. What, in your view, can the goal of literary workmanship be in the last quarter of the twentieth century?

GADDIS

In Bulgaria, when we were talking at a conference dedicated to peace, the hope of the planet, there were some two hundred writers there from fifty-two countries, discussing what the writer can do for peace. Obviously peace is the issue driving everyone mad, so that most of that conference was sheer and desperate propaganda. I suppose in all three books I constantly try to call attention to what my mother had told me once at some paranoid moment of mine: “You must always remember that there is much more stupidity than there is malice in the world.” This is what I talked about in Sofia. This is what we must—if we can’t teach it, which we can’t—at least call attention to.

INTERVIEWER

Plans?

GADDIS

I have got another novel nicely under way.

INTERVIEWER

This conversation is being conducted in Budapest. Being a Hungarian, I am particularly interested in why Hungary, Hungarian literature and language, have a relatively large role to play in The Recognitions?

GADDIS

I think because I pictured them—Hungary and Budapest—as mysterious, exciting, highly civilized, sophisticated. But mysterious, mainly.

INTERVIEWER

One of the central characters, Valentine, is Hungarian. Why?

GADDIS

I suppose for these reasons, and that he is completely cynical, in that traditional American mistrust of European guile going back, again, to Mark Twain.

INTERVIEWER

Is he purely fictional or is he somebody you knew? I am asking this because he is the one in The Recognitions who informs Willie— obviously the author, William Gaddis—about Clement’s Recognitions.

GADDIS

No. He is a totally fictional character.

INTERVIEWER

And the references to Sámuel Brassai, Pázmány, Mikszáth, Bródy, Gárdonyi, Móricz, Molnár? Is there more behind it than the Encyclopaedia Britannica? Even if there is not, why Hungarian literature? Because Valentine and Inononu are Hungarian characters in the novel?

GADDIS

I was trying to make them legitimately characters of this very sophisticated, very cynical, very mysterious world as I viewed it thirty-five years ago.

INTERVIEWER

Where did you pick up the Hungarian phrases?

GADDIS

Well, I had written those scenes in English because I try to get things right, and so if they are in Hungary, if they’re in a Hungarian hospital, obviously they are speaking Hungarian. So I took these passages to a bar in the Upper East Side of New York, where there is a large Hungarian community, had a drink, and approached the bartender. I told him I had a problem, that I wanted these passages in Hungarian. He called someone over. Finally there must have been ten people around me arguing about exactly the correct accent, the nuance of the phrase. When I had written it all down, he said, “Now, the man who was the leading figure in this conversation, whom everyone else bowed to, as it were, is a great Hungarian actor. If he said you got it right, you know you have it right.” And, of course, as it all turned out, when I’d gone up there ready to buy a drink for anyone who would help me, it was they who bought mine.

INTERVIEWER

If there are Hungarian phrases and literary references, why couldn’t the two Hungarian characters have Hungarian names?

GADDIS

Valentine, of course, is named after the alchemist, Basil Valentine, who . . .

INTERVIEWER

So there were more important thematic concerns.

GADDIS

Yes, who knows, maybe he changed his name, I don’t know.

INTERVIEWER

Did you visit Hungary in the years when you were writing The Recognitions?

GADDIS

I’ve never been to Hungary until today.

INTERVIEWER

And since you flew in yesterday, it’s too early to ask you about the impressions.

GADDIS

What I see of Budapest is splendid. It is everything one has been led to imagine.


Author photograph by Nancy Crampton.