I once visited the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia with someone who was convinced that the entire place was filled with fake art: not forgeries or wrongly attributed masterpieces, but “museum quality” reproductions. The basis for this wild claim was a painting from Cézanne’s series The Card Players, of which there are two very similar versions, one in the Barnes, and the other in the Met. Not only was she sure she had seen this painting before, she was certain that at that very moment, the real version was hanging in its rightful place in New York, which meant that the Philadelphia version had to be a fake. The history and layout of the Barnes allowed this theory to quickly gather steam: one of the largest collections of Modernist and Impressionist art in America, it was originally housed in the billionaire philanthropist Albert C. Barnes’s mansion in Pennsylvania and arranged according to esoteric principles that came to be known as the Barnes Method. Rather than having all the Cézannes in one wing, you might see, for example, a peasant woman by Cézanne, with a girl in a pink bonnet by Renoir hanging above it, and a medieval door latch between them. The idea is to observe closely and forge your own metaphoric connections between object and image. But there were too many vaguely familiar Picassos, too many Van Goghs stuffed between rusty sconces, too many corners jammed with Restoration armoires. It was just the sort of thing, my companion said, that an American industrialist who made his fortune selling antiseptic creams would do: build a mansion in the middle of nowhere and fill it with copies of his favorite European things. (This dovetailed nicely with her initial impression that Philadelphia itself was a lesser copy of New York.) Apart from feeling momentarily insane, and at the same time realizing I would probably end up marrying this woman, it occurred to me that it’s not such a bonkers idea when you consider the Met Cloisters, the mishmash of actual convent buildings from Catalonia and southern France that were reassembled in Upper Manhattan by John D. Rockefeller Jr. and filled with an array of Old European Things like sarcophagi, tapestries, and illuminated manuscripts. In any case, it’s a theory that would likely have interested William Gaddis, whose novel The Recognitions, reissued in November by NYRB Classics, is full to bursting with forgers, fakes, thieves, and liars, all in search of an authentic experience of art and life.
Plenty has been said already about how difficult The Recognitions is to read. Jonathan Franzen, currently at work on his own interminably long trilogy of novels, complained that like Gaddis’s tome, his own novel The Corrections was mostly misunderstood when it first appeared. It would be fair to say that the initial critical reaction to the publication of The Recognitions in 1955 was a resounding tl;dr. It’s certainly true that the book is long, so long in fact that in the time it took me to read it I was also able to watch every episode of Showtime’s The L Word and develop a recurring dream in which I make spaghetti for Katherine Moennig (Shane McCutcheon from The L Word) and Paul Giamatti (John Adams from John Adams), who isn’t even on the show. The novel contains interludes in Spanish, Latin, and French, and swathes of arcane religious knowledge synthesized from James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, a book Gaddis devoured while traveling through Spain. Characters change name, appearance, and sometimes gender, and then there’s the matter of the book’s structure, which doubles back on itself and fails to progress in a linear fashion like a good realist novel ought to.
To give an indication of how deep the concept of fakery goes in The Recognitions, we might start with Hieronymus Bosch’s tabletop painting of The Seven Deadly Sins, which first appears on page 30 and provides about as much of a through line as the reader gets for the following 900 pages. The Reverend Gwyon, a New England preacher who finds himself drawn to the ancient religion of Mithraism, buys the painting in secret from a decrepit Italian count for a princely sum. In order to take such an important painting from Italy to America, the reverend has to lie and pretend to customs officials that the painting is a fake. The painting then sits in a corner of the parsonage collecting dust for years until we see it (or maybe a copy of it) again, this time in the drawing room of the Manhattan socialite and art entrepreneur Recktall Brown, the kind of skin-shedding reptile you can still spot after dark on the Lower East Side, cozying up to the skaters and video artists. It’s revealed that the Italian count is probably a forger and an associate of Brown’s, whose own home is full of art and artifacts of questionable provenance. Stepping out of the novel for a moment, the real Seven Deadly Sins, which hangs in the Prado in Madrid, is also probably a fake. Bosch’s work of oil on poplar was Felipe II of Spain’s favorite painting, and it hung in his bedchamber in the Escorial palace until it was gifted to the Prado. The story seems to be that because the king considered it an original, courtiers who were responsible for cataloguing the work were obliged to consider it authentic also. The Prado still claims it’s real, while leading Bosch experts denounce it as a fake, possibly done by one of Bosch’s followers after the original was damaged. In all three cases, in the real world as in Gaddis’s fiction, the owner wants to believe they have the original while suspecting they have a fake, but this never diminishes their sense of connection to the painting itself.
If all this seems complicated, it’s because it is. In the absence of plot, in the traditional, linear sense of the term, Gaddis’s characters are not just seeking authentic experiences, they’re looking for ways to transform and transmit them, too. It’s somewhat ironic that the postwar scene in Greenwich Village is now regarded as an epochal moment in America’s literary imaginary, a time when “real writers” lived in New York and you’d have to be at some kind of Beatnik open mic night to hear the words “cashless casual salad chain” strung together. For Gaddis, who actually lived through it, the Village was a hotbed of poseurs and sociopaths utterly incapable of original expression, so The Recognitions is peopled with characters hell-bent on replicating older, more venerable (read European) experiences of art. There’s the poet of the moment who plagiarizes Rilke’s Orpheus sonnets, the author whose novel has been translated into nineteen different languages (by himself) but published in none, and the unpublished poet who takes books off shelves at parties and inscribes them to friends as if he were the original author. The closest thing we have to a main character, Wyatt (the son of the reverend, who, to further complicate matters, later in the novel will also be known as Stephan), abandons a portrait of his own dead mother to dedicate his considerable skills to drinking and forging early Flemish masters.
Parties loom large in The Recognitions. One scene unfurls across nearly 200 pages. Because of the pandemic, I was unable to tell while reading if this seemed like a really good party and I wanted to be there, or if it was more like the kind of soirees James Baldwin found himself at when he, like Gaddis, lived in the Village in the late forties: “It was a time of the most terrifying personal anarchy. If one gave a party, it was virtually certain that someone, quite possibly oneself, would have a crying jag or have to be restrained from murder or suicide.” This is the hectic energy that pervades the middle section of Gaddis’s novel: characters are jittery from too many cigarettes, take their lives in bathtubs, swallow over-the-counter amphetamines without even a glass of water, dabble in heroin and spend the night searching for marijuana, which still goes by the street name of “tea.” So much gin gets guzzled I got a stomach ulcer just thinking about it, but it’s also a scene for flirting, mistaken identities, meeting new people, and long discussions of artworks that people plan to make but never quite do. In short, a bunch of fake people on the make, the sort of place where a character like Agnes Deigh (a suicidal literary agent with a Mickey Mouse wristwatch) can say, “No matter how bad a book is, it’s unique, but people are all so ordinary,” and keep a straight face.
If you read The Recognitions like a Flemish triptych, à la Hieronymus Bosch or Jan van Eyck, you’ll notice that the novel’s middle section is more or less twice the length of the first and third sections, where characters and themes reappear with a slightly wicked twist. As in early Renaissance painting, hands and eyes are important to Gaddis, and there’s a kind of panoramic quality to the narration, where the author will describe different scenes from across New York or Paris in the same passage, giving a sweeping sense of everything happening at once, the characters existing almost outside of time. With certain artists, like Rothko for example, it’s possible to take in the entire painting all at once, if you stand at an appropriate distance. This is something you can’t do with a Bosch painting or, for that matter, a novel. In the works of Gaddis and Bosch alike, it’s hard to tell exactly when a character or figure is performing an action, in relation to the rest of the tableau, and it’s just as hard to tell who the main characters are. As you progress page by page through the long party scenes, there’s a heady feeling that you’ve been here before, you’ve already seen that advertising executive spill a martini on himself, you’ve heard how they boiled Sir Thomas More’s head before they stuck it on a pike a thousand times. Some of Gaddis’s characters are more striking than others, the way the eye is drawn to certain figures in a Bosch painting: a Barbary ape named Heracles gets as much time on the page as the reverend’s wife, Camilla, while a hard-drinking department store Santa in a Village dive is more memorable than Don Bildow, a magazine editor who reappears again and again at key moments in the novel. Look closely and key figures from the first panel closely resemble the ones you see in the third.
When you hear the name William Gaddis you’ll often hear names like Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, or David Foster Wallace mentioned in the same breath. They all belong to a certain school of twentieth-century American literature that celebrates long, challenging books written by white men, books that tend to point to America’s rotten core in a somewhat experimental way. It’s a tradition that is met in some quarters today with long sighs and a rolling of the eyes, and often folded into a canon that still doesn’t seem willing to include kindred books like Marguerite Young’s Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai, or Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport. But Gaddis was more of a forerunner to these Very Important Male Authors. In 1955, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot was first performed in English to initial bafflement, and William Faulkner’s very serious but ultimately failed World War I novel A Fable somehow swept both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. It was also the year that Lothar Malskat sensationally sued himself in a German court for forging the Marienkirche medieval frescoes in Lübeck, the restoration of which had been celebrated with the issuing of two million postage stamps by the German government. Amid all this, William Gaddis published his first novel, an extraordinary work that like its namesake, the Clementine Recognitions, was the first of its kind, ushering in a new era in literature. An authentic artifact from “a world where first-hand experience is daily more difficult to reach,” The Recognitions is that rare thing, a postmodern American original.
For more, read Samuel Rutter’s essay “A Dandy’s Guide to Decadent Self-Isolation,” on Joris-Karl Huysmans’s Against Nature.
Samuel Rutter is a writer and translator from Melbourne, Australia. His work has appeared in A Public Space, The White Review, T Magazine, and Harper’s. He is currently writing his first novel.
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