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At-swim among the noble Gasses.

Amid the charivari of huzzahs and cagey praise that greets Bill Gass's prose, there is always the slur that he remains unapologetically highbrow (a word that has no equivalent in French). You have to wonder at a culture, if such, which thus chides the natural activity of someone born with a mind, like Gass, whose abstract reasoning collides with his rompy phenomenology. If, while trying to write, I get a smear of Roma coffee substitute into my eye, there is just about no one I would sooner have brood upon the event than Bill. Gass delights in finding things in the wrong places; this is the basis of his contrapuntal style, just about as far from Heinrich Himmler's lean raw greyhounds (his anthropomorphic version of his SS youths) as any anti-Nazi can get. We inhabit a time of drab, immigrant prose, generously published by money-grubbing publishers, but Bill comes from a planet of his own devising, tootling a wunderhorn like no one else's.

Gass and I have a good many things in common, including the almost ever-ready answers "formalism" and "style" to anyone asking silly John Gardner types of questions about literature. Bill told Arthur M. Saltzman so in an interview, omitting the fact that we both have swimming pools, which give us distraction and delight in about equal measure. I recall seeing Bill's pool empty, for the painters, and marveling at his apparent equanimity; down into that bare white dental cavity we looked, and I felt the space there oppressive whereas it seemed to free him and gave him a new view of the bathing hole. Our own pool has a turf fringe lined with ordinary bricks, which form a fairly graceful curve along the patio, except that one brick is missing and grass has long ago replaced it. So when you prepare to step up to the ladder, you can actually step onto this berm of turf, prizing its softness, the element of bounce within it. Now, someone with a pattern complex would have taken trowel and ruler to this gap and made exact room again for the brick. Indeed, long-forgotten voices have urged me to do just that, but I somehow have demurred. Who, then, would appreciate the near-illicit soupcon of springboard I find in that sprout of turf, the grass that intercepts your foot before you actually step on the grass that flanks the coping?

Why, Bill of course, not merely a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles, but also a quantum surveyor of what belongs where it should not. Behind this pool foolery lies a lifelong interest in metaphor, in the opposition of discordant elements, in literature's counterpoint--a recognition without which neither Apollinaire nor Nerval would work, nor Cowley, Donne, and Shakespeare. There is a counterpoint in literature that only simplists ignore, and there is also a counterpoint in the preparation of literature. You have to have the right quarrel in the brain before you make with the blocks. Perhaps the most cogent version of this need is what people say about writers' having to write because they cannot face the world the way it is. Thus we get a barbarism embellished. Thus too we get Bill Gass, passionate photographer, going out to snap the ugliest sights he can find in St. Louis, firm in his conviction that the act somehow provides a supplementary hidden tune, making the hideous or the barren more interesting, exciting, than we would ever have believed.

So, in this sense, he is a serendipitous beautifier, in his prose as in his photographs, the point being that the right kind of attention can convert a sow's ear into a silk purse, or, failing that, into something implying porcelain.

Bill has never, so far as I remember, been in our somewhat rundown pool, it never having been the right season, though he has slept in our caboose, selecting for his midnight reading Last Tango in Paris, in whose buttery longueurs he perhaps takes more pleasure than I do, exercising devout phenomenology on every word. I have suggested elsewhere, in a book on words, the chance of becoming an etymological reader, sealed in by words, ravished by the fierce mirror they impose on us. It is certainly one way for either of us to go, as it were selecting the model over the real thing. This is what the stylist is always doing, concocting hithero unsuspected combinations, rattling the kaleidoscope of the world until somebody wakes up and says I didn't know you could do that kind of thing with words. Well, you can, though there are few enough who can and impenitently proclaim the high art it is. Half a dozen maybe, whose approach to the living is epistemological as well as phenomenological. Most writers regard words as mere wrapping paper, if that, forgettable as soon as uttered or written, but I do envision Gass and me lingering over some pregnant phrase--"The multitudinous seas incarnadine," say--"Making the green one red" at the expense of plot and storyline, although revering forever the tendency of one side of our brains to make a story out of just about everything--a narrative shove, or shove toward narrative, that makes story of all we say or write.

Anyway, Bill has his loafer foot on the turf springboard that will loft him into the undercover deep chloriny. He has felt the bounce in the turf and pondered it for several minutes, like the hallowed image of the grunt with his foot on the land mine, afraid to step away. I might have been tempted to fix a little springboard under the turf, to give the lingerer a sudden shunt, but I have never gotten around to it, as with so many house improvements recommended to my wandering attention. Later that day, I was glad to see Bill in a somewhat ragged T-shirt and jeans confronting the foot soldiers of the Cornell English and philosophy departments, a live panther among cherubs, his glasses dangling in front of him on some umbilical of his own devising. Hearing him introduced, I could only wish he were introducing himself, as he once did me, breathing all over his lectern the funereal creosote of a cough lozenge as he spoke, at gratifying enormous length, after which he supplied me with an enormous chocolate cake for my public supper. Another day during my visit, we two free-wheeled in front of a philosophy seminar, and that same day I sat for hours in a high bedroom in his house writing prose, undisturbed and at peace, as it were among his or his children's toys.

Earlier, before we had met, we both journeyed to a conference held at Indiana University, where we read papers. The Spanish-speaking contingent--Fuentes, Goytisolo, Vargas Llosa, Jorge Edwards--soon taxied away to view Dillinger's penis (held hostage in a neighboring museum), heedless of ensuing discussions about Literature in Spanish "Hoy" (Today). "Well," Bill said, "I really came to meet you." "Well," I said, "it's the same with me." We had some rare and rather polished exchanges after that, and began a desultory correspondence. I say desultory, but I mean something worse: Bill has an appalling aversion to answering letters, to which you become accustomed, so much so that, when a letter arrives from him out of the blue, you exclaim in delight, seeing he has caught up.

There follow, over the years, many kinds of exchanges, too few visits, though we had a field day of libidinous chat for a long stint while Diane ran the writing program at Washington University, in which Bill participated not at all, though his allies Howard Nemerov and Stanley Elkin did. You got the impression that, safely anchored in philosophy, Bill was better off, earthier than Montaigne, silkier than Scarlatti.

One day in Ithaca the phone rang and a melodious rather theatrical baritone, Howard Nemerov's, asked Diane if she would consider running the MFA program at Washington University ("Wash U"). She was not to know that a minefield awaited her, deadly fruit of a scenario that included a sacked but liked MFA director nonetheless adjudged flawed by many, and an amiable Chair, pal of Howard's, to be felled by a heart attack before we arrived and succeeded by a supporter of the old guard at the MFA. Diane ended up accepting, but Howard could have sold me on anything since it had been he who volunteered for the RAF in World War Two and subsequently flew Bristol Beaufighters over the English Channel, shooting down Hitler's Heinkels and Dorniers. The hero-worship of those childhood years persisted, especially with the Australian cricketer Keith Miller, who also in the RAF for the duration went up in night-fighters (Boulton-Paul Defiants, I imagined) in between cricket matches and pillaged the enemy from there. There was no resisting Howard, I thought; I was RAF myself, little knowing then that Howard walked all the way from his home to campus, even in winter's ice and slosh, and would eventually decline all treatment for his throat cancer. This was not Bill's department at all, and wouldn't have been anyway, considering the high incidence in university English departments of cant or envy, erotomania, xenophobia, homophobia, anglophobia, francophobia, pedantry, parsimony, and outright fascism. But Bill was there all right, in the metaphorical hinterland, scrutinizing the toenail, as was his wont, constantly vindicating her, counseling her, being a mensch without the least compulsion to be so.

When at last the department's balked misogyny burst through, no doubt because Diane had handled the whole affair with customary poise and prowess, it was Bill who heard her out, deplored the pus-purveyors (one a Dryden specialist!), and advised her to let go. This was the same man who, out wheeling one of his twin daughters in a baby carriage, swathed in a turban and voluminous coats against the cold, heard someone telling his daughters how nice it was to have grandmother out wheeling them about in the fresh air. He took the tribute in his stride and rolled on.

Where Diane's office-mate Stanley Elkin, big pal of Bill's, stood in all of this remains doubtful, since he ran with the hares and hunted with the elkhounds, ever crossing his bets, secure in his post-mortem witticisms (on the death of John Gardner: "God reads!"). He and I were the same age, but he liked to wave a comprehensive glance at his body and crutches, he long crippled by MS, saying "Look at me. Look at you." He knew nothing of my own ailments and would have dismissed them on the strength of my Arizona suntan.

One of the amenities of the program, indeed sometimes of that benighted department, was the chain of soirees held weekly at a faculty member's mansion somewhere in the line of noble piles that rim one of St. Louis's parks. These gatherings were known as First Thursdays, at which you-nibbled-finger sandwiches, sipped a cocktail, and entered into genteel chat about Michelangelo, Those Cardinals, Kierkegaard, and beta-blockers. An occasional editor (one from Algonquin Press) or literary agent would show up, almost curtseying with gentility to the host, who glided around the event in a wheelchair. Responding with a sparkle to the meetings' sobriquet, Diane shopped around until she located a copy of G. K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, wrote "First" in front of the last word, and handed it to our host, who was delighted. If there was malice there, I smelled none, and we got to talk with Bill and sometimes Mary, architect and gourmet cook. I think of those soirees as the leavening to the hard tack of a department in which it was becoming extremely hard, certainly for Diane, to get a new attitude established to the creativity of writing. This bitterness plagued Bill, and sometimes Howard, who could do nothing about it: lots of pretty trim, with classic names on the masthead, but a failing heart at the center, based, I imagined, on pique and disappointment, and in general a hatred of new brooms.

Myself, I was commuting by TWA from Tucson, Arizona, where I held a visiting appointment, snubbed by the anti-Proustian local rednecks, but heartened by the presence there of Harry Levin from Harvard and the novelist Mary Carter, yet another woman running a writing program amid a storm of misogyny. I wondered at these poisons of the frontier and fobbed off as migraine symptoms the visual impairments of an impending minor stroke that waited until August to get me, which was around the time Diane, after serious phone calls to Bill and Howard from Ithaca, at last quit Wash U and its politicist aroma. Life moved on, and of course we saw much less of Bill, whose rounded boyish hand, mainly on suave postcards, appeared regularly enough in our mailbox, streamers from a fallen kite. We missed Diane's costly rooms looking out on the greenery of a park; in them I had made good headway with my longest novel, The Place in Flowers Where Pollen Rests, tapping away on her IBM Selectric adjusted into a little niche whose Venetian door I had removed. I then sat on the rug while shuffling pages, knowing we would eventually miss the convivial dinners with Bill and Howard in the fish restaurant downstairs. These candid, glowing asides from the boorocratic mayhem served asplanches de salut and would not have been the same without Bill's sagacious tinkering. Looking back, it was the social patina we enjoyed, which for a while at least blinded us to the claws of the infighters and the scorching paranoia of the minority faction.

Looking back over these pages, I find I have overlooked Gass the diplomat, in whom Gass the former sometime Naval officer is buried. You get glimpses of him when you see Bill handling speakers, one of whom, say, needs to pop off the platform from time to time to visit the men's room, so there is a slight hiatus to fill. Or when, to put it blandly, he is charming someone he might otherwise stab in the back. He knows who, and so do I. At a reception for Bill in our house in Ithaca, a lady novelist whom he had been rough about in print inquired who was that man with the long straight silver hair and the rumpled, rotund look (she was practicing). I told her, and ten minutes later they were discoursing amiably. It is all part of the portmanteau of social polish, at which he excels, taking for granted the good nature of almost everybody, but reserving the right to change his mind.

For years there have been rumors of his ailments: the ulcer, for instance, which he never mentioned to me, or perhaps to anyone else. Maybe, after hearing out old crocks such as Elkin and me, discoursing on their multiple sicknesses, he had decided never to be ill himself, or at least not to be public about it. A literate St. Louis doctor watches over him, and, in the background, there is always the estimable Sir Thomas Browne ready to do duty, blending metaphor with medication, matching a beached whale with a wounded stylist. Considering Bill's age, and his less than normal dependence on pollock, tuna, anchovies, halibut, clams, cod, crab, herring, salmon, scallops, striped bass, trout, bluefish, and most of all fresh albacore tuna, he remains rather healthy, even allowed to drink hard liquor. He was much disturbed by my minor mishap back in 1984 (apocalyptic year to have it) and by my reappearance, with pacemaker, a year later. Perhaps he divined the way we were all going to go, part of his everyday philosophy perhaps having been that, with an Elkin alongside him, he need not fear lightning striking again. Surround yourself with the walking wounded, one version might go, and you will be able to carve meerschaum pipes out of mermaids' foam.

Like Marco Polo's, Bill's true vocation is looking, in whatever sphere: the patient pursuit of the minimum indivisibile in everything, until the ultimate particle squeals to be let go. Yet the power of his mind enables him to go beyond mere viewing. Hardly a one of his essays stops short of its glorious, absolute philosophical transmogrification. The Gass touch is a chaos attractor, rendering in one swoop not only the Platonic form of something, and the derelict, casually intercepted version of everyday familiarity, but also the Gassian incarnation that stands between, proffering the seraphic narcissist's Blakean vision, either a stunning epiphany or an apostate deviation to decry. He and I are familiar with those who read us and look quizzically back, saying (if they are lucky) "You really don't see things as the rest of us do, do you? Yet some of what you put in lapidary English echoes so subtly our own encounter with people, things; you must have assimilated the standard response long ago and launched yourselves from there." Let me take an orgasmic liberty and quote Bill's full-hearted response to my Terrestrials, printed along with other wonderful responses on the back of the jacket:
 West is an extraterrestrial, and while he flies over he sometimes
 looks down on us poor wordsmiths pecking at our corn. The book
 itself soars. It is one of our finest. That means it is carefully
 planned, powerful, and beautifully written. Hi up there, Paul.

The clue to that piece of loyal, royal almsgiving is that it is exactly what I would say about Bill. By their naughty ways shall ye know them.

I differ from Bill (and Mary) in that style and phrasemaking occupy me much more than does literary architecture, by which Bill means diagramming sentences. "Aesthetically," he tells Saltzman, "That means doing door plans, facades. My wife--she's an architect--is doing the drawings for me." I have a blind spot for architecture, I confess, although not for aeronautical design, though surely the two have air in common, and sky.

Perhaps Bill will excuse me from censure for, say, Gala, in which I write the whole novel according to the DNA alphabet, or Caliban's Filibuster, which is actually a trip across the spectrum of visible light. I doubt, however, if this is what the Gasses are up to, and I confess that abstract drawings do little for me, unless they happen to be the sort of thing you find in Reisner's two volumes on the tombs excavated at Giza, over which I've pored for years, and one novel. Bill is probably right, that I am an extraterrestrial after all, and probably, qua stylist, an etymological reader at heart. Yet I am and always have been obsessed with models. I almost know what the Gasses are driving at. I have even studied machine drawing and drawn cross-sections of aircraft engines, as well as designed various model planes I subsequently built and flew, sailplanes most of all.

It is a conversation I must have with Bill, amounting maybe to a conversion, as in the old sense of the former word. Something beyond the tone and tint of words lures us both, but it has to be something unthinkably superb to break the language barrier; I mean imposing enough to distract us aesthetically. I once did a long sentence of Bach-like variations, continually modifying slightly what Bach was doing in his crescendo of feelings. Perhaps that was a clue to what lurks behind, what I call The Invisible Riviera of the Visible World.

Of late certainly, and perhaps for a long time before that, Bill seems to have become a kind of clearing house for witticisms, verbal spasms, fits of ventriloquial sprezzatura. Irving Malin, the critic, asked me for a comment on his new critical book, and I acquiesced, coming up with the following (I like Irv and respect his mind):
 His calculated and distinctive modus operandi is the affable,
 colloquial shocker embedded in peaceful-looking recitals. I find
 the Malin Effect most winning, the work of a candid savant, which
 isn't bad going for a reputed agoraphobe who loses his friends'
 addresses. From his tower he poaches only the best ivory.

Well, I've said much less and less well about other books that no doubt deserved better, but the puffs have always been published on the flap. In Irv's case, however, the stately scholarly publisher declined my Joseph's coat of praise, although Irv called me and said he would be happy to put it on his tomb. Next thing, he has told Bill Gass about it, whom he was no doubt enlisting for comment too. When Irv read the thing aloud, Bill took a deep breath and said "That Paul!" I ended up sending Irv a novel inscribed "To Irv, For verve." Clearly you have to watch your step in the tricky world of log-rolling. Many happy logs to Bill.

He does not bother buying clothes

But garbs himself in unique prose.
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Author:West, Paul
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Biography
Date:Sep 22, 2004
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