Essays on writers, writing, and contemporary culture by a master of the form.
Preternaturally sensitive, at home in many languages and historical periods, Gass (Reading Rilke, 1999, etc.) only occasionally reminds his readers how much smarter he is than the average philosopher, novelist, or translator. (He is accomplished in all three areas.) These essays are most often amiable digressions into territory most people don’t spend much time exploring: the meaning of the city in literature, say, with a nod to one of his favorite writers about cities, Italo Calvino; or the making of lists as an expression of consciousness and as a literary form (does a list, he wonders, “possess an isomorphic formality with elements outside itself?”); or the origin of true innovations in fiction, where innovations “are nearly always formal,” meaning “the expression of style at the level of narrative structure and fictional strategy”; or—particularly timely—the chilling effects of Islamic fundamentalism on literature: “Fundamentalists will not rest, for to rest, as with a cyclist, is to fall; to rest may be to realize that their light comes from a faraway star, that their mode of life has been dead for a long time, and the world in which they are busy killing and constraining is already a bier into which they, with their miseries, have been born.” Only infrequently in these essays, many born as occasional pieces or lectures, does Gass say the expected thing, as when, for instance, he reminds his readers that the craft of writing, like any other craft, requires lots of exercise. More often, he views the world idiosyncratically, spilling out fresh gems at every turn.
Like a brainier Seinfeld, Gass can write about nothing in particular and about everything, in essays humorous and arch, complex and accessible—and always good fun.