A learned potpourri of fulminations and enthusiasms from the indefatigably stylish novelist, teacher and critic.
If Gass’s first three essays don’t hook you, you probably aren’t an inveterate work freak and won’t declare this lively book a worthy companion to its author’s several prize-winning essay collections (such as The World Within the Word and Tests of Time). In an utterly perfect introductory essay, Gass sings the praises of multiplicity, contradiction and polyphony in literature, urging readers to become, above all else, omnivorous (“The healthy mind goes everywhere”). “Influence” rambles engagingly about the title phenomenon’s central relationship to artistic creation, meanwhile tossing off witty aphorisms with imperturbable ease. “Fifty Literary Pillars” then offers concise tributes to literary and philosophical works that have influenced Gass, acknowledging consensus classics and drawing attention to comparative arcana (Beckett’s How It Is, Colette’s Break of Day, Gaston Bachelard’s phenomenological treatise The Poetics of Space). A well-fed yet ceaselessly hungry mind is hunting and gathering, here and in subsequent celebrations—of Renaissance masters Erasmus and Rabelais, unparalleled antiquarian Robert Burton (whose Anatomy of Melancholy is a vast treasure-trove of beguiling eccentricities), Latin America’s magical realists, Gertrude Stein’s annoyingly innovative prose experiments and Robert Coover’s abrasive political novel The Public Burning. Gass loves Dickens’s verbal energy, Henry James’s stentorian complexity, postmodernist intellectuals and philosophical clowns—almost as much as he scorns hypertext (“The information highway has no destination, and the sense of travel it provides is pure illusion”). Three very different masters receive special attention: manic rhetorician Stanley Elkin, underrated satirist William Gaddis (Gass writes amusingly about being persistently mistaken for him) and the great German poet Rilke (evidently Gass’s favorite writer).
Don’t skim any of these ebullient pages, which offer a seductive mixture of analytical precision and colloquial chutzpah.