The Recognitions

by William Gaddis

Other authorsWilliam H Gass (Introduction)
Paperback, 2012




Dalkey Archive Press, (2012)


The book Jonathan Franzen dubbed the "ur-text of postwar fiction" and the "first great cultural critique, which, even if Heller and Pynchon hadn't read it while composing Catch-22 and V, managed to anticipate the spirit of both" The Recognitions is a masterwork about art and forgery, and the increasingly thin line between the counterfeit and the fake. Gaddis anticipates by almost half a century the crisis of reality that we currently face, where the real and the virtual are combining in alarming ways, and the sources of legitimacy and power are often obscure to us.

User reviews

LibraryThing member RickHarsch
Skimming or Swimming in Gaddis

Of course, one can never know if one is reading the original of The Recognitions.
Especially as it is packaged by those noble and normally nonpareil packagers Dalkey Archive.
Here’s the entirety of the two blocks of print on back of the book:
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always spoken of as the most over-looked important work of the last several literary generations…Through the famous obscurity of THE RECOGNITIONS, Mr. Gaddis has become famous for not being famous enough.” --Cynthia Ozick’

‘Dubbed by Jonathan Franzen the “ur-text of postwar fiction” and the “first great cultural critique, which, even if Heller and Pynchon hadn’t read it while composing Catch-22 and V., managed to anticipate the spirit of both”—THE RECOGNITIONS is a masterwork about art and forgery, and the increasingly thin line between the counterfeit and the fake. Gaddis anticipates by almost half a century the crisis of reality that we currently face, where the real and the virtual are combining in alarming ways, and the sources of legitimacy and power are often obscure to us.’

Having ordered the book via mail, I read it anyway. And luckily it included an introduction by William Gass that brilliantly challenged me to give the book its due as I went along at any, I think he implied, preferred speed. What I found was neither an ur-text nor the first great anything, although it did have in it much about forgery, fakery, counterfeitery, shallowness, posturing, either as passionately assertive activities of city folk or bumblings of lost city folk, mostly blindly assertive, even as a sort of rings of hell for the tortured honest as can be (’…increasingly thin line between the counterfeit and the fake…’ ? Is that really what they meant to say? If so, it is not inaccurate, but awfully limiting.).
Known as a difficult book that requires patience, I found it a rather easy book that only required that I not think much about the next book I wanted to read. The 956 pages are not large print. Nor, and here is where I’ll stuff my one use of postmodern, does the book hook the reader, rev up and charge to a distant finish line. Nor do the stories within stories conform to neat spirals as in The Arabian Nights. But that is one of the delights, for Gaddis is as lyrical, philosophical, and funny as he is surprising, his wit ranging from Marxian one-liners (a Renault taken to be a painting), to slapstick (a great bit about a leg driven about Manhattan and how it leads to a false rumor of sexual hijinx…). One section, or chapter, is in fact a set piece as long as a novel by Dawn Powell or Nathaniel West, two writers who certainly retain their echoes in Gaddis’ novel.
Okay, so what makes the book seem difficult? Well, ‘big words’, meaning obscure ones, are scattered throughout—the average reader would probably have to run to the dictionary 15 to 20 times; there are abstruse references throughout, hopefully a number of them invented by Gaddis, but familiarity with none of which is required to follow or understand the book; and finally, conversation is not clearly demarcated, so that quite often one has to follow the meaning of the text to get who is speaking, be patient before it is revealed who is speaking, or it matters not at all who is speaking.
What does the book mean (why does Fraudzen believe it is ur)? Well, yes, the book riffs ontologically throughout on the real, the fake, the fake of the real, the expert of the fake of the originally meaningless real, creating a very intellectually inconvenient, multi-layered mélange of realities that require of the reader precisely the amount of thought the reader would like to apply to the book. Known as a book its readers return to repeatedly, one can readily see why, for there are passages strewn throughout in which Gaddis says lyrically what we all suspect to be true, and even if, over half a century on, these matters are not new, if we have not yet read Gaddis, his way of expressing it is.
Rating the book seems a silly exercise, so I thought I would argue for its place in ‘the canon’, but canon’s exist so that books like this can mean all the more, so it gets five stars, fifteen mackerels, three genius grants, whatever the top prize is. In terms of recommendation, I believe every reader of serious literature should have this book and read it as the urge arises. One LT reader mentioned two attempts, each ending before page 100. This is likely not uncommon. But if this happens to you, keep it next to Finnegan’s Wake in the shitpot room and enjoy the expressions of a great thinker and writer as you, by excreting, create in your being room for inspiration.
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LibraryThing member piccoline
Gaddis brilliantly mines the central metaphor of forgery and fraud to explore the diverse worlds of capitalism, art, religion, and the ways we are in the world. Vast, exhausting, formally inventive and daring, the book yet touches the heart as it invades the brain.

Perhaps not the place to start
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with Gaddis (for that I'd recommend _A Frolic of His Own_) but an unmatched joy of a novel.
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LibraryThing member RogerRamjet
I find it startling that over a thousand people in Goodreads have reviewed or at least read this book. I would not have expected 1000 people in the whole world to have read this long and extremely difficult book.The value of difficulty in modernist literature is hard for me to appreciate, but this
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book, while not at the level of Finnegans Wake, certainly embraces that value. To give one example, the endless dialogues where it is impossible to discern who is talking are just boring. However, I gave the book three stars because I very much enjoyed the theme of forging old Masters and the use of and insights into Early Northern Renaissance art, including that of Memling, Van Eyck and especially Hironymous Bosch. The author's use of Bosch's painting of the Seven Deadly Sins which portrayed the Eye of God at the center is haunting. I also gained extra appreciation for the Recognitions after reading Davies' What's Bred in the Bone, another book about forgeries, in which Davies makes his own book a kind of forgery or at least imitation, by mimicking many elements of the Recognitions, from the overall theme, to the use of Northern Renaissance art, to the accounts of clever fakes of Old Masters, to the names of important characters: Ismay/Esme. I have never seen any evidence that Davies had read the Recognitions, but it seems too neat that a book about imitating Masters is also itself an imitation of a Masterwork, which is the Recognitions.
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LibraryThing member madinkbeard
This is one of my favorite novels. It takes a lot of work to get through it, but it engrossing, funny, and beautifully written. Gaddis is a masterful writer too difficult to ever gain any real popularity, but that's everyone else's loss.
LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
There are so many good reviews of this on Goodreads already that I'm not sure if I can come up with something interesting or at least original. I'll save this as a project of its own, to be accompanied with organ music on some Italian vacation. Instead I'll offer up a quotation direct from the book
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itself. Not my words, but his.

And then they silenced, each bending forth, closer and closer, to
fix the book the other was carrying with a look of myopic recognition.
E€EYou reading that? both asked at once, withdrawing in surprise.
E€ENo. I'm just reviewing it, said the taller one, hunching back in
his green wool shirt .E€EA lousy twenty-five bucks. It'll take me the whole e
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LibraryThing member KateSherrod
This book is like walking into a cocktail party full of strangers, all wearing identical masks, who all turn out to be jerks and would just be terribly, terribly amused if one told them so. The first section is actually good; I would read more about Gwyon's odd father and great-aunt. I would read
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more about Gwyon's time in Paris, too. But once he gets to New York, not only can I not tell who's saying what but I don't care. I just want them to shut the hell up.
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LibraryThing member eenee
Finished it! The front and back covers ripped off! It was lovely, but also very long and at times I didn’t understand what was happening. I heeded Gass’ advice in the introduction and just forged ahead. If you like crazy wordsmithery and are interested in fraud and forgery in all its forms,
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this story is for you. I recommend reading it with a group of cool pals so you have some moral support.
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LibraryThing member dmarsh451

I've completely lost interest. It started well.
LibraryThing member tonysomerset
Started and hugely enjoyed the intense writing style, each sentence packed with meaning worthy of a page to itself. Notwithstanding diatribes about religion and RC, wide ranging references to literature and the arts, easy to snuggle into each sentence and saviour its import. Apart from 'The End' ?
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glimpsed in the first pages, weight of angst drags against plot development as we skedaddle around the world. Wearily and with aching arms, the resting book may never be picked up again, not too sure whether I am bothered about what happens to whom; ideas, character development and plot seemed to have plateaued.
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LibraryThing member DavidCLDriedger
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race . . . and for what . . . meaningless a chasing after the wind.
LibraryThing member tmph
Together with his JR, they make Gaddis, for me, the greatest American fiction writer of the second half of the Twentieth c.

Currently re-reading. Slowly, immersed.

For those new to this, hang on for every hundred pages; it changes, new scenes and characters. Keep going. I'm currently in the six
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hundreds and at a party in the Village. Written in the 1950s, yet it is today.
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LibraryThing member SeriousGrace
Confessional! What do you get when you combine these factors: a reading list still over 4,000 titles long, Book Challenge rules which address when to not read a book, and a book 956 pages long with a plot no one can explain? Me, quitting this book! I read plenty of other reviews urging me to "stick
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with it" and to "keep reading despite the nonsense." Can't do it. Not one of the reviews really told me what the book was about except in some obscure and round-about way involving art, religion and the postmodern condition, all the (many) characters are seemingly adrift with endless and pointless dialogues, and there never seemed to be an end to the literacy allusions and absurdity. There. I said it. Hated it with two thumbs down. Maybe, when I'm feeling a bit more scholarly and have all the time in the world, I'll pick it up again.
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LibraryThing member rehpii
Months of bed time reading and I have finally completed The Recognitions. At the end, I don't know what to think of it. Reading it in such a manner, it was hard to follow although I think it would have been hard to follow regardless.
LibraryThing member stravinsky
the affectations/the degradations/the ramifications

the first chapter was pretty killer. the ending hit the spot.
LibraryThing member mkfs
The Recognitions charts the life of a capital-A Artist, though thankfully it spends more time on the people who encounter him than on the artist himself, before forgetting about him completely and transitioning into a sort of novelization of Durkheim's Suicide.

Much of the action of the book takes
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place off-screen, as it were, with events having to be inferred from the dialog between characters. This is not as horrible as it sounds: Gaddis is astonishingly good with dialog, and even more astonishingly bad with description.

This is probably one of those novels, like Catcher in the Rye, that is improved significantly by the reader having lived in New York City - in that quite a lot of the novel is how the city of New York, embodied by its denizens, reacts to the characters, and how the characters thrive or crumble under the indifference of such a concentrated population. One amusing aspect of The Recognitions is how little New York has changed since 1955: the people are the same, the problems are the same, and every party/bar/restaurant scene could have taken place yesterday.

Ultimately, though, it doesn't really say much, and the overwritten descriptive passages weigh down what would otherwise be a quite enjoyable book. I found JR to be a much better novel, and the lasting effect of this novel may be to make me re-read the other.
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LibraryThing member jonfaith
We live in Rome, he says, turning his face to the room again,
-Caligula's Rome, with a new circus of vulgar bestialized suffering in the newspapers every morning. The masses, the fetid masses, he says, bringing all his weight to his feet.-How can they even suspect a self who can do more, when they
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live under absolutely no obligation. There are so few beautiful things in the world.

Such higher machinations proved beyond me. So much was required. Too often I was found wanting. The Recognitions is an uncharted continent. My cap is tipped to those unlacing the Incognito. I made my way through it but am left baffled, perhaps awaiting some Stanley whom will search for me and yield elucidation.

Color me knackered. I am weary and dehydrated and manipulating my favorite images from The Recognitions like some layman chancing upon talismans. It is unjust to compare, though I transgress: I liked Ulysses far more, found such poetic, whereas -- despite the marvel Gaddis engenders -- I feel dirty and bleak. There is a thread of thought which finds that conclusion one of design.
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LibraryThing member skavlanj
A Book With More Than 500 Pages

My edition of William Gaddis' The Recognitions is 1,021 pages long. Dense pages of small type, often with only one break between paragraphs. And unfortunately (or perhaps appropriately) was mildly infested with book mites (which a couple days in a zip-lock bag in the
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freezer took care of) and the musty smell of an attic (which nothing cured) that left my eyes watering on occasion like the effect of bad allergies.

I want to hate this book but am unable to. There are incredibly well-written scenes that are almost poetic in their word choices, and in spite of its unusual writing style in which characters commit dialogue demarcated only by em dashes it is rarely difficult to determine who is speaking (what they're talking about is a different issue). I want to like this book but am equally unable to. It contains so many references to obscure books and songs and works of art, often in languages other than English, along with a wealth of Latin and German phrases, that a reader could spend as much time googling as it takes to read this book and probably still not appreciate what Gaddis intended by including the reference. Mainly I want to understand this book, but seriously doubt anyone is able to because The Recognitions is populated with so many certifiable characters it should have a copy of the DSM-5 appended as a bibliography.

I would love to provide a plot summary but there are too many narratives and no clear protagonist. The man my dust jacket refers to as the "central quester" disappears for the middle third (or more) of the story, and when he reappears he is either described but unnamed (as many of the characters are in various parts of the novel) or called by the name of a man on a forged passport. I would love to explain why he is called that name but it would take as long to explain as for you to read, and like me you probably still wouldn't be able to say why, exactly.

If you enjoyed Finnegans Wake, this is a book for you. If you liked Naked Lunch, this is a book for you. If you can read about a Christmas Eve party given by either the wife or ex-wife (it is never made clear) of that same central quester, a woman who has either just had an abortion directly before the party or has been pretending to be pregnant and had a pretend abortion (again, never made clear), where a child appears repeatedly, asking for and receiving sleeping pills for her mother, where one guest has left another guest's six-year-old daughter either at a movie theater or a church (again, never made clear) and Hemingway may or may not make an appearance (we are never provided clear evidence it is Hemingway, although it is clear regarding his earlier appearances in the novel) and the hostess winds up in bed with a man who may or may not be the one who may or may not have impregnated her and either has sex with him or is forced to watch him masturbate (ibid), and not worry that you didn't really understand the point of this scene, this is a book for you. If you aren't up for 1,021 pages of that don't feel bad - you aren't missing a masterpiece but rather a book that will leave you asking yourself how many people can attempt suicide in one book (particularly people who all know each other).
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