Gass may well be our greatest living writer. Gass
first achieved fame thirty years Ago with the publication
of the short story collection In the Heart of
the Heart of the Country (Harper &
Row, 1968). These stories, heavily influenced by
the prose of Gertrude Stein, are still among the
most anthologized and admired in contemporary fiction.
The same year the journal Tri‑Quarterly
published Willie Masters' Lonesome
Wife in which Gass used games, photography,
footnotes and a coffee stain to subvert—in,
to be candid, a rather dated 60s way—the fictional
process by bringing the reader into a metafictional
maze of self‑referentiality. However, Gass'
most outrageous accomplishment is a project that
consumed him for close to three decades: his second
novel The Tunnel (Knopf, 1995).
few words on The Tunnel's plot are
in order. William Frederick Kohler, the narrator,
is a middle‑aged professor of history who
has recently finished writing his masterpiece: Guilt
and Innocence in Hitler's Germany. Filled with
bitterness, envy, rage and misanthropy, Kohler sits
down to write the preface and spews out The Tunnel's
650 pages. The book's title arises when Kohler for
no particular reason and to no particular purpose
decides to dig a tunnel in the basement of his suburban
Tunnel may well be the greatest prose
performance since Nabokov's Pale Fire,
but only the most stalwart readers will be able
to last the full trip through Kohler's anti‑Semitic,
sexually-depraved and bathroom‑humor obsessed
world. When The Tunnel was published,
almost every major critic felt the need to weigh
in on it. Many abandoned their professional tone
and responded in ways that were shockingly personal.
is the most vexing reviewing assignment I've ever
undertaken," Sven Birkerts confessed in The
Atlantic Monthly. In the National
Review James Bowman called The Tunnel
"a load of crap." But The Los Angeles
Times critic called it "the most
beautiful, most complex, most disturbing novel to
be published in my lifetime."
in Fargo, North Dakota, in 1924 and raised in Ohio,
Gass has spent most of his life in the Midwest,
a region he famously loathes and that forms the
backdrop for much of his fiction. Since 1969 he
has taught philosophy at Washington University in
St. Louis, where he is currently director of the
International Writers Center. Gadfly
spoke to William Gass shortly before the release
of Cartesian Sonata: and Other Novellas,
his first fiction since The Tunnel.
most of Cartesian Sonata: and Other Novellas
written before The Tunnel was
Oh, no, just one was written a long time ago in
rough draft. That was the first piece—called
in the book "Cartesian Sonata." The rest,
the last three, which are designed to match the
first one, were written in the last year. I have
a long span of gestation, I guess. The last story,
"The Master of Secret Revenges," for example,
was an idea maybe 35‑40 years ago and then
just sat there not doing a thing until recently.
The other two, "Bed and Breakfast" and
"Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop's,"
were more recent and don't appear to have had any
lengthy sort of time in my unconscious, but you
never know about those things.
Bishop isn't the sort of writer you usually focus
on. Did you know her?
I didn't know her personally and I was slow to come
to her work. Out of that group of people—Lowell,
Jarrell, Roethke, Berryman and so on—I was
reading them more than she at first. So it was a
little slow, but now I think she is the most important
is it about Bishop's work that appeals to you?
precision, and an extraordinary care with everything.
A marvelous perception. Here is a case sort of like
Henry James where no idea violates it, but there
are plenty of ideas lying behind the surface of
the computer changed how you write? When you started
The Tunnel, there were no word
processing computers right?
No, I worked from a very early age on a typewriter
which I was given—a little portable—so
I was in one sense prepared for the computer because
I never wrote by hand. It proved to be a godsend
actually because I was able to write much more rapidly
on it and was able to complete The Tunnel
in a year, writing about half of it in that last
year on the computer.
wrote that much of it in the last year?
I had written about 600 pages of The Tunnel
in manuscript and I wrote about 600 pages more to
finish up what I had planned: 12 sections about
100 pages each. These measurements, of course, are
all manuscript measurements.
of the things I noticed in reading The Tunnel
is that you frequently make use of—I don't
mean in the limericks—poetic meter in your
yes, I tend to employ a lot of devices associated
with poetry. Not only metrical, but also rhyme,
alliteration, all kinds of sound patterning. I also
borrow a great deal from rhetoric and rhetorical
Watson Holloway's book on you, he says that you
advocate experimental writing more in your criticism
than you practice it in your fiction. Do you think
that is accurate?
I assume that's one of the troubles people have
with it: it is too experimental. I do a lot more
experimenting in the fiction than in the essays.
But it isn't something that I think is a requirement
for a writer. It is just something that interests
you were preparing to publish The Tunnel,
were you worried about being compared to Kohler,
about people seeing the book as somehow autobiographical?
worried so much. I knew it would happen. The book
does set a number of traps for reviewers, and that
identification certainly occurred. But the book
in sly ways even encourages it; so that these people
who don't really know how to read will fall into
the trap. It was just an amusement on my part, and
so when it happened, I had to suffer it. I had asked
for it in a way.
of those reviewers who fell into the trap would
then be Robert Alter, who accused The Tunnel
of being an immoral book because it compares Nazi
persecution to domestic trauma.
well that is one way he wants to interpret it, but,
of course, it is, and must be, to some sorts of
reader an immoral book. I want it to be for them.
I want it misread in a certain way by certain people.
It's for me the proof of the pudding. Alter has
a certain sacred cow—I mean, the Holocaust.
I don't think anything is sacred and therefore I
am prepared to extol or make fun of anything. People
who have very settled opinions are going to dislike
this book because Kohler is the worm inside all
of that stuff.
is your view of Kohler?
I think he is very complex. I tried to make him
a very sophisticated complex humanist in such a
way as to exhibit one of the crucial problems of
the whole Nazi period, and that is that there was
no profession, no level of education, no quality
and sensitivity, which can protect you from that
virus. So I had to make him somebody who would even,
from time to time, show sufficient sensitivity and
regard so that the reader would begin to move along
in his mind tract. Then, of course, derailment occurs.
He is also for me a model of a kind of mind that
is very common in the United States: a slightly
hidden Fascist mentality.
did you feel about the public reaction to The
Tunnel? Were you surprised? What
did you expect when it came out, and were you expecting
the public to be shocked?
I expected to be ignored. I mean, I expected a few
critics to be shocked and upset, and indeed a few
were. There were some who were quite enthusiastic,
but by and large it was the usual: just shrugs and
nobody paid much attention. There were a few outraged
voices, but that didn't surprise me. I don't expect
much response from the kind of thing I do. If I
was looking for plaudits, then I really have done
the wrong thing.
you think the serious novel still has a role to
play in our culture?
don't know about "role"—as if it
acted, it went about doing things. It has a serious
role to play in the very nature of existence, I
think. Any serious art does. But as an actor on
the stage of human affairs in the ordinary sense,
I don't think so. I'm not one who thinks that one's
life should be directed by art. It's simply one
of the things that makes life bearable, but it doesn't
give it purpose or direction. One's consciousness
is filled with beauty perhaps (in the old sense),
but hardly with truth and goodness. I would be terrified
if I thought that, as Yeats worried, books or poems
sent people out to do anything or led to people
having certain kinds of convictions. That would
also indicate that they have very weak minds.
a writer, you have chosen a different path, almost
a hostile path to that little sub‑group that
is our literary culture. You don't teach in an MFA
program, you don't even teach in an English department,
and your essay on the Pulitzer certainly guarantees
that you are completely outside of the log rolling
in contemporary literature. I was wondering if this
was just how your life developed, or whether at
some point you decided you didn't want to be part
of the mainstream.
I certainly decided very early I didn't want to
be a part of any English department. I really don't
get along with those people. I prefer to be in a
place where one is teaching stuff meant to be taught.
Philosophy is perfect that way. It is material meant
to be chewed over and talked about and debated,
and I enjoy that very much. Whereas, not certainly
all, but many of the people in the English departments
I find simply not caring about literature, and just
playing around with bad ideas. So I am grateful
to be out of that region, and that was a decision
I made very early. I've hardly ever studied literature
seriously academically. I stayed away from it.
you read many contemporary novels? Are there young
writers that you like?
have tried to keep up somewhat because the Center
is interested in finding young people who show promise.
I have a model staff who points me in the right
direction. I think it important to try to find out
what's going on. I used to do that by agreeing to
judge say the National Book Award or something and
then you'd get a dose of what was going on for at
least a year. That was helpful even though it was
painful as well: a lot of work. But, you know, you
get distracted, you have too many other things to
do, you don't read the way you used to for pleasure,
you are always reading because you are reviewing.
I no longer review anybody I'm likely ever to meet
or be friends with or anything of the sort, and
if I were ever to review a young person's book,
I would be even more besieged by people wanting
me to give them a lift. This is one of the disagreeable
parts of this business. Everybody is after you for
you see your influence at all among younger writers?
I don't. They are doing different things, and I
think that is fine. I don't want anybody being influenced
or following me. If I detected it I would drop the
book in horror.
are your writing habits like now?
am an early riser, and I work mostly in the morning.
I am usually through any serious writing by noon.
When I am teaching, of course, that's a little altered,
but I only teach one semester a year. I do my work
at the Center in the afternoon and other kinds of
work, which is more mechanical.
a number of your books, your characters like to
write naked. That's not true of you I assume?
No. I have air conditioning. I don't have to take
my clothes off.
Master's Lonesome Wife was before
contemporary graphic programs. I was wondering how
you did the layout on that.
book was written for myself. I never expected anybody
to publish it in any form. It was a very complicated
text which could only be partially realized by any
publisher, not only because some things were just
simply impractical or impossible to do, but the
rest, many of them, too expensive. Some ideas like
setting the quotes that I interwove in the text
in the type of the first edition of the book in
which they appeared, that kind of thing was more
a conceptual notion. It would have looked terrible
and so there were other reasons for restraining.
I worked with the designer on this who was, of course,
trying to achieve what I wanted with good design
and within budget.
there is no manuscript lying around with the coffee
mark on it?
there is. The original manuscript with the original
notions and scribbles is at Washington University.
are you working on now?
book called Reading Rilke should come
out next year. I'm trying to get rid of his ghost.
It involves a translation of the poems, but as I
am going through I talk about Rilke, language and
the problems of translation. So it's also a little
book about translation.
you are working on a book about architecture?
form and its relation to literary form. The structure
of the sentence, the structure of the novel and
the architecture of things. Architects deal with
relations almost completely—how these relations
are materially embodied. That is what interests
about fiction projects?
have another collection of novellas under way, and
I'm about halfway done with another collection.
I am not going to write any more novels. That takes
me forever. I'm not going to do that.
seems like you have been incredibly productive since
finishing The Tunnel. Did getting
that out of the way just...
has been odd. In my 70s, I have been productive,
but in a way I'm bringing to a close things that
have been going on for a long time. I am trying
to get them done and out of the way so that I can
go on to some new things that I hope to fiddle with.
that be in your 80s?
feel as young as I ever have, I guess. I am fortunate
about that. My energy level seems not to have flagged.
I'm still busy turning out stuff, but it may be
that I will start slowing down when I don't have
something that has been lying around for decades.
New stuff might have to get old and I may not have
time for that.