Friday, August 19, 2011

The Recognitions, by William Gaddis

I don't know, but I might have discovered the one. The one, you ask? No, the ONE. The one book I have been looking for. The one book that has me rolling with laughter, while in the same moment of trying to get my breath, flooring me with the beauty of its prose. The one book I can look forward to reading over and over and over again, plumbing its depths, and yet knowing I will never find the bottom. And why the hell did it take me so long? Truth be told, I should have perused this tome after reading Gaddis' "Carpenter's Gothic," last year, which I thoroughly enjoyed. And (an aside, here, footnote, whatever) that book led me, however circuitously, to Le Salon Litteraire du Peuple pour le Peuple (or, however it is styled now by our mischievous demon of a dictatuer (who is no longer a dictator, or even a member...hmmm, so perhaps another puckish imp is responsible for cracking open the coffins?)

(And now for an aside to the Aside...let the vodka speak (in the form of a Black Russian--I'm ashamed to say, for I usually drink it straight), it will have its way--and by the way, I must insist on putting the period inside the parentheses, being old-school, cuz thats just how i roll.) But after all this time, I still don't feel comfortable enough to participate fully in their discussions (threads) because I am so in awe of the participants. Jeez, I believe half to be English professors, a healthy portion of literary critics, with a sprinkling of writers (Piero, whose first book I'm now also reading alongside Gaddis and Wallace, and am thoroughly enjoying it--damn, I think I am liking it as much if not more than the second (I wish I had read them in order,) which I did not think possible,) and let me toss in a link to this fine piece of prose, because it deserves to be read by as many people as possible (especially those of us too young to have experienced the incredible time of the 60's:)
I Think, Therefore Who Am I (And yes, Mr. Weissman, you belong right up there with those behemoths. If I could write only half as well as you, I would be impossible to live with.)

Yes, as I was saying, the collective intellect and erudition of the Salonistas have me in a constant state of wonder and awe. And one of the Giants of the Salon is tomcatMurr, whose review of "Carpenter's Gothic" was so incredible, so dead-on, and beyond anything I could ever have imagined, I couldn't but help leaving a comment on his's profile telling him how much I admired it. After which he sent me an invite to Le Salon, and since then I've discovered a whole world of wonderful literature I probably never would've found on my own.

Which, now I think, finally, leads me back to the book at hand, which is the whole point of this blog post, right? I do tend to meander so...but the vodka, it is the vodka, and not the possible uninvited denizen in my noggin causing me to ramble so. Although, perhaps enough of the ambrosia might kill it? I am reminded of the story from Katherine Hepburn, when reminiscing of the filming of "The African Queen," and how everyone was catching malaria, except John Huston and Humphrey Bogart. Hepburn said she was not surprised, since Huston and Bogart were in a constant state of inebriation, and there was no way any malarial beastie could possibly survive in all that alcohol. But it probably doesn't work that way for a brain tumor, huh?

Yes, the book. I cannot begin to describe how much I am enjoying it. I cannot remember another book affecting me so. I had started to pick it up after reading another incredibly long and complex tome, "The Tunnel." I read the first few pages, and was almost sucked in. But I wasn't ready just yet to devote another large chunk of my life to such a monster. I wanted to get a few more manageable books down my gullet first. And I did.

Another interesting aside, (my last, I assure you) but one of these manageable chunks was "The Pleasure of Reading in an Age of Distraction," and its author, Alan Jacobs, in the first few pages mentioned "The Recognitions," and how it was the first book he just couldn't bring himself to finish. I actually had Gaddis' tome right next to me as I read this. Of course, being a godless heathen, I am not superstitious, but....

But something kept pulling me back to this one. And I finally let go of my resistance, and dove in the other day. It's all I've been able to think about since. I'm not really that far into it (so let me apologize now, rather lately I realize, that if you came to this post thinking to find a review, it's not,) but it has struck such a chord with me, I really feel, as my opening words tried to convey, that I have found the one. May you find the one for you.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Nose

Nope, sorry, this is not a review of the Gogol story. This concerns my nose. I am 46 years old. Almost half a century. And all this time I was completely unaware of the nose on my face. Not that I had one; of course I knew that. But to the nature of it. You see, I had always thought I had a small, petite, rather unassuming nose. It was even something that bothered me slightly. Oh, it’s not like I laid awake at night, wishing to have a more prominent one. But it did occur to me that if I had a bigger one, my face might be more interesting to look at. I’ve always thought of my face as being rather nondescript, boring, really a reflection of my personality. I often blend into the background, and am hardly ever noticed. I will start to say something, and it’s like I’m not even there, people will go on with their conversation completely ignoring me. Not out of malice, mind you, but because I just don’t make much of an impression. Most of the time this doesn’t bother me, as I prefer not to be the center of attention. But all of that has changed now.

Yesterday, after getting home from work, my daughter was playing with a ruler. She was sitting on my wife’s lap, and measuring how long her arm was, just out of the innocent curiosity kids her age will exhibit. Out of the blue, I told her to measure her mom’s nose, which she happily did. Then she measured her own to compare them. Then my wife told her to measure mine. It was quite a bit bigger than either. I said something to the effect of having a rather small nose, and my wife burst out laughing.

“Small?!” she shrieked, “you’ve got a honker!”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I retorted, “my nose is hardly noticeable.”

“Do you never look at yourself in the mirror?” she asked.

As my wife and daughter were laughing their butts off, I went to the nearest mirror and looked at myself. Nope, still didn’t see it. But then I turned to the side, and got a profile shot. And damn if she wasn’t right! It was like I was seeing myself as I really was for the very first time. I thought it looked like a Roman nose, and said as much.

“Yeah, “ my wife agreed, “that’s it exactly, a Roman nose.”

A Roman nose. All these years and I didn’t even know it. How is that possible? I know I'm not the most observant person in the world, but c'mon! I got on the internet and googled “Roman nose” and was presented with a bunch of pics of Roman emperors. Looking at my schnoz again, and then looking through the images, I lighted on one, and asked my wife is she thought it looked like that one.

“Oh yeah, that’s definitely it,” she confirmed.

Domitian. He’s always had a bad rap, hasn’t he? The first thing people usually think of when his name is mentioned is a scene of Christians being fed to the lions in the Coliseum. But he really wasn’t such a bad guy. Oh, he had his faults, of course. But put him up against Nero or Commodus, and he looks like a saint. Besides, most of the writings about him at the time were penned by his enemies, so of course they are going to denigrate him. Due to recent research, most of what was said about him has been reconsidered. Most Classics scholars will agree he was actually a very capable and efficient emperor. He just happened to make a lot of enemies due to trying to stamp out corruption in the government. A big no-no if you want to keep your head.

And now I have Domitian’s nose. I haven't been able to pass up a mirror all day. And each time I look at myself, my beak looks to be leaping off my face. I almost had a wreck on the way home from work today due to admiring it in the rear-view mirror. I feel different already, more self-assured, regal, almost. I feel that there is nothing I cannot do. If only I had known about my nose earlier. Who nose what I could have accomplished? But it’s never too late. Cause now I’m on a mission.

Now I’m on a mission

A Domitian-Mission

I’m not checkin’ out

I’m not Goin’ Fishin’

But you’re hoping that I would

Is that what you’re wishin’?

But, yo, check me out

Self-love I’m dishin’

No holes in my ego

No glaring omission

My lack of self-assurance

Is now in remission

Cause I’m on a mission

A Domitian-Mission.

And now it’s official. Bubba has finally lost it. Oh well. Peace Pax out!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Tunnel by William Gass

It took Gass 26 years to write it, and I was beginning to think it might take me that long to read it, but I finally finished “The Tunnel” by William Gass this past weekend. Five months, it took me. Five months! Five months?! Almost half a year? Obviously, it should not have taken me that long even considering what a slow reader I am. It took me less time, I believe, to read Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow, combined. Combined, I say! But most days, I just couldn’t pick it up. And when I did, sifting through more than 10-20 pages at a time was about all I could handle. Still, it’s done. I finished it.

And I have no intention to write a review on it. Nope, none whatsoever. Whatever I could say about it wouldn’t even come close to plumbing its depths. In order to do it justice, I would have to go back and read it again. There was just too much going on here to be able to assimilate it in one reading. Hell, I could read it once a year for the rest of my life, and possibly never get it. Not surprisingly, there are only two reviews of it on LibraryThing: one calls it a “tortuous work of genius.” (that’s the whole review) and the other says it’s probably a masterpiece, and wonders if he’ll ever finish it (I feel your pain.)

So, this blog post, which is just me trying to pen a few random thoughts about it while it is still fresh in my mind will have to suffice. Besides, I’m afraid that if I try to write an actual review, I might end up like Kohler, and end up writing a whole book about my life instead.

Which brings us to the book at hand. William Frederick Kohler, professor of history at a small college, goes down to his office in the basement of his house to write an introduction to the book he has just finished writing, his magnum opus called, “Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany.” He quickly realizes he just can’t do it, and instead, starts to write about his life instead. Actually, more than an autobiography, it’s really more of a case of venting the bile which has built up in him over a lifetime; he really doesn’t have anything nice to say about anyone, especially his wife. Fearing she might find it and read it, he hides the pages within the manuscript of his book.

About halfway through the book, he all of a sudden decides to start digging a tunnel. Why? On the first page, he mentions his life being a prison. So he's trying to dig out of his prison/life. And what does he do with the dirt? He puts it into his wife's antique bureaus she's been collecting. I suppose since she had cut him off, that was his way of getting back at her, while at the same time still being able to dump his dirt into her drawers, putting his junk in her trunk, sticking his...well, never mind, you get the picture.

Kohler’s kids: He goes on about almost everyone in his life, except for two people: his two sons. Does he even state their names? I think one might be named Carl. The only time he mentions them is to vent his disdain for them, and what a disappointment they are to him. Why is that? It is true that Kohler knew he was a disappointment to his own father. He had no interest in any type of physical activity and refused to learn how to drive, two things (sports and cars) his father loved. But at least his father did try. There is no evidence Kohler ever did with his children. It seems that one of Kohler’s associates, Culp, has more to do with his kids than he does, since Culp is a scoutmaster and they are in the boy scouts.

Martha Muhlenberg: Kohler’s wife. Often referred to as Marty. Concerning his marriage: did Martha cut him off due to his dalliances, or did he start philandering due to her cutting him off? One wonders if maybe she is having an affair, unbeknownst to him. How about with one of his colleagues, Culp (culpable: deserving blame), since he is more of a father to her sons than their own father. Kohler starts out the book denigrating Martha, lamenting about how fat and unattractive she is. But by the end of the book, we get a different picture. He likens her to some Aryan goddess, tall, blonde, buxom.

It is also interesting to note her maiden name, Muhlenberg. Frederick Muhlenberg was the first Speaker of the House, and is said to have been responsible for preventing German from being an official language of the United States.

So, he marries this Nazi ideal of a woman, but instead of encouraging/assisting his Germanization, she ends up emasculating him.

Magus Tabor: The only person he had anything good to say about was his professor, Magus Tabor. Mad Meg, as he was called, was his mentor while Kohler attended college in Germany. Tabor seems to have served as his surrogate father, as Kohler practically idolized him. And the parallels between Tabor and Hitler are fairly obvious: dynamic speaker, pro-German, anti-Semitic, etc… He was more of a rhetorician than a history professor, his forceful speeches whipping up his classes into a frenzy. He preaches about the power of Germany above all else. After one particularly vehement lecture, the whole class marches out shouting, “Germany! Germany!” And Kohler states that Tabor’s view of history wasn’t so much concerned with facts, as how they are presented, or twisted. Historians create history. Also, to continue the Hitler resemblance, he suffered, as Hitler was purported to, from syphilis. In fact, this is what ultimately kills Tabor.

It is interesting to note the distinctive ways in which Tabor, contrasted with Kohler’s own father, dies. Tabor, dying from syphilis, has lost control of his muscles, and spends most of his last hours flailing around uncontrollably. While Kohler’s father, having severe arthritis, cannot move at all.

Also, Tabor loses his ability to speak, which was his only weapon. So, the man of words, Tabor, in the end, has only movement. And the man of movement and action, Kohler’s father, has only words.

We can also look into Gass’ choice for his name: Magus Tabor. Magus (latin): magician; Tabes (latin): consumption, or decay. So, roughly translated as Magician of Decay, which would be a good way to think of Hitler, having duped/tricked Germany in following him down the road to ruin. Also, Tabes Dorsalis is neural degenerative condition caused by untreated syphilis.

Lou: A long-term affair for Kohler. Had been one of his students. She ultimately dumps him, which he never gets over. Interesting choice for her name. It reminded me of Lou Salome, the woman Nietzsche fell in love with. I believe she spurned him in the end, plus she was already involved with his best friend, although it was a complicated relationship. Also, Nietzsche suffered from syphilis, like Tabor. Interesting to note the theme of disease throughout the book: syphilis, arthritis, alcoholism, etc… which all have in common a wasting away of the body.

I also thought it was interesting to note that both major women in his life Lou and Martha have masculine names (which in Martha’s case, is Marty, how he often refers to her). Despite all of the posturing and gallivanting around he does, is Gass trying to say he’s basically a submissive? Perhaps a bit of a stretch there. Except for the fact that he often laments the size of his member.

It must’ve been difficult, having gone to school in Germany and being seduced by the powerful rhetoric of Tabor to the point of Kohler himself participating during Kristallnacht, and heaving a brick through a Jewish shop (although, later, he mentions the brick going right through the Jew, so did he do more than just break a window?) And then when war breaks out, he, being an American, finds himself fighting against the country he loves so much. The funny thing is he barely mentions his time in the army. One would think that would’ve been a fairly deep well to draw stories from, but he doesn’t. The only part we hear from that time is about Susu, some German singer he was enamored with, but she doesn’t seem to be too nice a character, as he mentions her devouring Jewish thumbs like sausages. Strange passage, that.

The prose is dense, to the point of being indecipherable at times. I felt I was reading Pound’s Cantos at times, having to go back and reread a passage, and still not get it. Kohler admits he had wanted to be a poet when he was a kid, but sensing the ultimate futility of this, decides to put his versifying aside, and concentrate on something more concrete.

It is also interesting to note how much Kohler resembles Gass himself. Verbally abusive father, who doesn’t get son’s love of books, alcoholic mother, grew up in the Midwest, professor at a small college, obese, etc… In order to come up with a character as dense and complex as Kohler, of course he would have to base him on someone. You don’t just pull a rabbit like that out of your hat.

Hell, I could go on and on and on, but I’ll stop for now. I apologize if I tended to haphazardly ramble on. I wasn’t trying to piece this together in any coherent fashion. Besides, it would not have been in keeping with the spirit of the book, as Gass constantly changed points of reference, which, until I got used to it, was a bit of a nuisance in trying to make heads or tails of anything.

If anyone who has read the book would like to offer any other insights (Rique!), please do so.

p.s. I've just decided to buy the recorded version of the book (unabridged) read by Gass himself. I can't wait. So, if I don't end up reading it again (I probably will,) I'll at least listen to it once or twice (probably more.)