"Gass's commitment to ideas, concentrated energy and originality shine through on every page. . . . These pieces deal with Ezra Pound as a failed modernist; the lives of Nietzsche and Wittgenstein in relation to their thought; various species of the avant-garde from Pierre de Ronsard to Degas, Beckett and the Bauhaus; the exacting demands of autobiography; the Pulitzer Prize Committee's 'banal and hokey' choices in fiction; and the abyss between the moral viewpoints expressed in works of art and the lives of their creators. Gass's deeply felt essays . . . are quotable, flecked with fertile insights and a pleasure to read."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Okay, let me simply say this: I admit I'm not sure I understood all his points and at times I simply wasn't up to Gass's intellectual standard. I felt I needed to reread a few of the works he mentioned, and discover a few others for the first time, but surely that's a good thing and a lessen in intellectual humility. I must also say I don't agree with everything Gass says -- how could I when, against his best advice, I have found pleasure in the present-tense he so deplores! Gass's writing is at times brain-cramp inducing. Consider this from the essay, "Nature, Culture and Cosmos":
"Let us imagine a world without language; and since I am going to insist that what we sometimes call the soul is simply the immediate source of any speech -- the larynx of the logos -- a world without words will be a soulless one as well."
The soul as the immediate source of any speech? Do I agree with that assumption? "Larynx of the logos" -- clever, but again, do I agree? Well, it warrants pondering.
Gass's writing is often clever and creative. Consider this from his essay on Ezra Pound:
"Christened 'Pound, Ezra Loomis.' If used as a verb, 'pound' means to beat. If used as a noun, 'pound signifies a unit of weight, a measure of money, pressure of air, or physical force. From time to time, apropos poetry, Pound wondered which should be sovereign, the verb or the noun, and concluded, if his practice may be entered as evidence, that the verb was most noticed when knocked off the sentence like a phallus from a kouros -- 'Spiretop alevel the well curb' -- and when effects were hammered back into their causes with naillike hyphens -- 'Seal sport in the spray-whited circles of cliff-wash' -- hence into a compaction like a headache . . . splitting."
One of my favorite passages comes from the title essay. "I, like many others in every art, rejected a realism that wasn't real and tried to work in a less traditional, less compromised way. I organized my fictions around symbolic centers instead of plotting them out on graph paper; I assigned the exfoliation of these centers to a voice and limited my use of narration, while treating the style and characteristic structure of the sentences that filled the novel, row on row, as microcosmic models for the organization of the whole. I do not pretend to be in the possession of any secrets; I have no cause I espouse; I do not presume to reform my readers, or attempt to flatter their egos either. My loyalty is to my text, for that is what I am composing, and if I change the world, it will be because I've added this or that little reality to it; and if I alter any reader's consciousness, it will be because I have constructed a consciousness of which others may wish to become aware, or even, for a short time, share. The reader's freedom is a holy thing." Much to chew on there, and that's merely one half a page out of 350.
So, do I recommend the book? Yes. Definitely. But be gentle with yourself while digesting -- it's a rich and heavy meal, perhaps best consumed in small portions.