In 1982, writing about Emerson, William H. Gass offered this description of the essay: “The essay is unhurried . . . it browses among books; it enjoys an idea like a fine wine; it thumbs through things. It turns round and round upon its topic, exposing this aspect and then that; proposing possibilities, reciting opinions, disposing of prejudice and even of the simple truth itself.’’
Gass’s own essays turn round and round: It’s not always clear how one paragraph follows from the last, and intriguing premises can become swamped by metaphor. Take, for instance, the second paragraph of “Reading Proust,’’ from Gass’s new collection, “Life Sentences.’’ “When André Gide first looked into ‘Swann’s Way,’ ’’ Gass writes, “it must have seemed a stack of sheets like any other, so his mind would not have been filled with the kind of foreboding that faces’’ - whom? Proust’s readers today? No. - “the climber of a mountain while still in the foothills looking up at his goal, a blanched peak whose slopes are already dotted with many a failed ambition.’’
That sentence might have ended after “foothills,’’ or after “goal.’’ The slopes might have been dotted with the bodies of failed climbers, but they’re dotted with ambitions - a figuration within a figuration. This is dense prose, and readers used to the clean lines of the typical modern essay might find themselves muttering, “Get to the point.’’
Your enjoyment of “Life Sentences’’ may well depend on how comfortable you are slowing down to browse and thumb through things, and whether you find Gass’s metaphors fine enough to savor. The book contains about two dozen essays, sorted into four sections: The first is a collection of first-person reminiscences; the second and longest consists of literary essays; the third is the text of Gass’s 2004 Biggs Lecture on Classics at Washington University in St. Louis, where he taught philosophy; and the fourth, titled “Theoretics,’’ somewhat arbitrarily joins two superb essays on the aesthetics of the sentence with a third on lust.
Gass is probably best known as a champion, in both his novels and essays, of metafiction, fiction that’s aware of itself as fiction. The topic comes up explicitly in his lovely introduction to the novel “Nickel Mountain,’’ by his friend and former intellectual sparring partner John Gardner, which is reprinted here. But it also bubbles under the surface of the Biggs lecture, where he implies that proponents of “mimetic fiction’’ misunderstand the origins of the term: “When the artisan goes to work, he makes things by following the pattern of nature (that is the right rendering of mimesis here): it makes lava, he manufactures plastics; it grows talons, he invents corkscrews.’’
But “Life Sentences’’ is much more than an occasion to regrind old axes. Among the highlights of the second section are essays on Kafka and Henry James that argue that writers are better understood through their writing than through the banal facts of their lives, but argue it in two totally different ways, with styles tailored to their subjects. Then, in a fascinating, fractured essay on Malcolm Lowry, Gass makes almost the opposite point. “[T]he principal problem with John Huston’s film of [Lowry’s book] ‘Under the Volcano’ is that Albert Finney’s performance treats the Consul as little more than a fall down drunk, and forgets that Geoffrey Firmin is also a stand up Malcolm Lowry.’’
One of the book’s most memorable pieces comes from its first section. It’s about Gass’s father, whom Gass has previously portrayed as bitter and abusive but who is here celebrated as a former athlete, playing baseball on fields whose “grass so softly reflected the summer sunlight it would seem to stain a lowered palm.’’ It’s a moving testimony that, for all his abstract theorizing, Gass, now 87, still knows his way to the heart of a storyLarry Hardesty has worked for 15 years as a writer and editor in the Boston area, most recently with the MIT News Office. He can be reached at email@example.com.