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.)

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