LIFE SENTENCES by William H. Gass


Literary Judgments and Accounts
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A wry, mannered retrospective collection of essays by octogenarian Gass (A Temple of Texts, 2006, etc.).

In these wide-ranging essays, the author embarks on considerations of the function of mimesis in Greek theater with the same stylistic devotion and plentitude as he does an exegesis of lust. In “Retrospection,” a revelatory piece written at age 87, he admits that writing never came easily to him, yet creating metaphors was “unstoppable,” as natural as “carp ris[ing] to a dimple of bread.” (He lists seven personal “bad habits” in the same essay—e.g., naming, metaphoring, jingling, preaching, theorizing, celebrating, translating, all of which nicely percolate in other essays here.) The profound reading of this former philosophy professor is gorgeously in evidence—e.g., in his writing about Nietzsche, Kafka, Malcolm Lowry and Henry James, and in an excoriating look at the extent of Nazi Germany’s legitimizing of murder. His essay on the “Nordic Nazi” and little-read Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun is a fascinating study of a soul-impoverished quisling. Bass also offers erudite but no less accessible reflections in a series of Biggs Lectures in the Classics. The author delights in a well-turned sentence, and the last section of this alluring collection diagrams some duds and some doozies—e.g., Sir Walter Scott’s litany from Waverley, Chester Himes’ tough-guy constructions in Run Man Run. As a philosopher, Gass confesses that his most cherished part of speech is the preposition, particularly of, meaning “those of possession and being possessed, of belonging and exclusion.” Throughout, rhythm is the author’s organizing principle, rendering his own sentences compelling, exacting and suggestive.

Stately pronouncements from a master of the form.

Pub Date: Jan. 17th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-307-59584-3
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 2011


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