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Les reconnaissances (1955)
par William Gaddis
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William Gaddis's The Recognitions
by tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE
Dear fellow reviewer, if you reviewed this in 20,000 charcters or less, I'm not sure I trust you. I didn't, so read my full review here: https://www.goodreads.com/story/show/367031-gaddis-s-the-recognitions
I'd at least skimmed 1 or more review(s) of Gaddis on GoodReads. I'd read that he'd been lambasted by the original critics. Did I read that someone even wrote an entire bk in Gaddis's defense?!
I was expecting this to be brilliant. I was expecting it to be difficult. I was expecting it to be experimental. What I WASN'T EXPECTING is what it was: viz: a total success at what most people (I reckon) expect novels to be: viz: an engaging tale, richly described, w/ interesting characters who're exceptionally well-developed: w/ great dialog, wonderful description, & a thoroughly exciting plot that takes the reader to multiple locations in the 'western' world. So what exactly was the fucking problem w/ the original critics?! Really?!!
William H. Gass has this to say in his introduction:
"Many think that it is reviewing which needs to be reformed, but I believe the culprit is the species, which surrounds itself with lies, and calls the lies culture, the way squirrels build their nests of dead twigs and fallen leaves, then hide inside. In any case, as the German philosopher Lichtenberg observed, when reader's brow and book collide, it isn't always the book that is lacking brains." - p viii
Ok, it's long. But the average attn span in the mid 1950s when it was originally published hadn't been eroded by television yet. Ok, many of the characters are flamboyantly perverse. In that respect, this cd even be sd to be contemporaneous w/ OR, pause for effect, slightly ahead of William S. Burroughs. Gaddis's acerbic humor rivals just about anybody. & he sure as fuck is erudite.
& then there's always what I call "Stereotype Projecting", possibly my biggest nemesis in life. People have limited experience, they encounter something outside that experience, unable to cope & unwilling to take the 'risk' of bothering to try to perceive the encounter freshly, they pigeon-hole it in a panic - in a defensive (& harmful) reflex, they put it in the category of 'the enemy' & leave it there. Just to be safe, just in case. Ergo: new information not assimilated, new information slotted into utterly irrelevant projected stereotype instead. Gass has this to say:
"Interpretation replaces the original with the lamest sort of substitute. It tames, disarms. "Okay, I get it," we say, dusting our hands, "and that takes care of that." "At last I understand Kafka" is a foolish and conceited remark." - p xi
If Gaddis has a central target (& he probably doesn't) it might be ignorance. Gaddis, quite reasonably from my POV, knows alot & sees no good reason why others shdn't too. Some of his characters do, some don't. In the end, they all seem to crack. Perhaps Gaddis has a different central target: the absolute unworkability of it all, of humanity's path(s). & THEN THERE ARE THE WORDS (bless 'em!):
"though some fainaiguing had been necessary at Italian customs" - p 25
"fainaiguing"? According to Wiktionary, it's the "Present participle of fainaigue" wch is an "Unknown Britishism, of uncertain origin" - "Maybe from fain, homonym of feign (“to pretend”) and ague (“acute illness”) or cognate French aigüe (as in maladie aiguë, “acute illness”) – literally “to act sick”", "To evade work or shirk responsibility" - "Derived terms": "fainaiguer", "finagle". If I were to use the word in conversation, I can all too easily imagine the person far-more-illiterate-than-I immediately 'correcting' me w/ "finagle".
Gaddis definitely takes the long view, this is epic - but it's not one of those epics where we just slog thru the family tree, it's epic as if we're living it, not being subjected to a fleshed-out genealogy. We start w/ Reverend Gwyon as the main character & he's as fascinating a one as I've ever read-tell-of:
"Reverend Gwyon took all this in a dim view. As his son lay dying of a disease about which the doctors obviously knew nothing, injecting him with another plague simply because they had it on familiar terms could only be an achievement of a highly calculated level of insanity. Wyatt's arms swelled at each point of injection. The doctors nodded, in conclave, indicating that science had foreseen, even planned, this distraction. From among them came Doctor Fell with a scalpel in his hand and a gleam in his eye seldom permitted at large in civilized society" - p 42
Ah, medicine.. Medicine as "another plague" [..] "on familiar terms". The dr I choose to go to on my rare visits agrees w/ me that "less is more", to quote her. I've only taken antibiotics on a very few occasions - hence my immune system is robust. Then again, I destroy myself w/ bad food & excess alcohol use. & I probably won't live as long as people who take medicines from here to eternity. Oh, well, I'm as unworkable as Gaddis's characters. Gwyon solves his son's health problem in a most unusual way.
Gaddis does have some of his characters be as erudite as their author - probably to serve as a vehicle for himself. Is there self-parody at work? Gwyon's sermons are a tad controversial, he seems to make his congregation a bit uneasy. "It did not seem quite necessary, for instance, to note that Moses had been accused of witchcraft in the Koran; that the hundred thousand converts to Christianity in the first two or three centuries in Rome were "slaves and disreputable people," that in a town on the Nile there were ten thousand "shaggy monks" and twice that number of "god-dedicated virgins"; that Charlemagne mass-baptized Saxons by driving them through a river being blessed upstream by his bishops, while Saint Olaf made his subjects choose between baptism and death. No soberly tolerated feast day came round, but that Reverend Gwyon managed to herald its grim observation by allusion to some pagan ceremony which sounded uncomfortably like having a good time. Still the gray faces kept peace, precarious though it might be. They had never been treated this way from the pulpit. True, many stirred with indignant discomfort after listening to the familiar story of virgin birth on December twenty-fifth, mutilation and resurrection, to find they had been attending, not Christ, but Bacchus, Osiris, Krishna, Buddha, Adonis, Marduk, Balder, Attis, Amphion, or Quetzalcoatl," (p 56) Interested readers are directed to Brian Flemming's 2005 documentary "The God Who Wasn't There".
Gaddis often lets the readers know things only if they already know something else. "Anyone could have seen it was transition she was reading, if any had looked. None did." The place? Paris. The yr? Probably sometime between 1927 & 1932, maybe as late as 1938, maybe even later if the issue being read wasn't hot off the presses. "She was drinking a bilious-colored liquid": Pernod, perhaps? Her interests? Contemporary avant-garde culture, James Joyce's "Work in Progress" (later to be known as Finnegans Wake). Even tho she's only presented as speaking Français, the reader knows that she speaks English if the reader already knows that transition was an English-language journal. For me, that's one of the greatnesses of Gaddis's writing - instead of spelling everything out, every step of the way, he puts the reader in the position of coming in mid-stream w/ whatever swimming agilities they have & lets them experience the whirlpool more for what it is:
"Otto stood, examining his fingernails. Then he looked at his watch, and music burst upon him. —What is it? he asked, approaching the door of the studio.
"—This? Something of Handel's, an oratorio Judas Maccabaeus.
"—Oh. It's . . . it's splendid isn't it, Otto went on, unable to show his appreciation by listening. —Lo the conqueror comes, sang the bass.
"—It always seems too bad when they have to translate these things. I mean, it must sound much more impressive in the original.
"—I mean . . . in German, he said" - p 136
Now, the original is in English but Otto's bluffing, he's trying to say something learn-ed [sic]. If Gaddis had had Wyatt (who Otto's talking w/) correct Otto & if such a correction were to be made by all of the characters every time such a mistake is made then all of the characters wd become homogenized. Instead, Gaddis just has Wyatt disgusted. Many people's lives & livelihoods revolve around Wyatt while he still remains, in many respects, socially dysfunctional. Esther, Wyatt's wife, & Otto are en route to a party & Esther hands Otto a scrap of paper w/ the party's address on it:
"—No. The other side. God knows what that is, something of his.
"—The equation of x [to the power of n] plus y [to the power of n] has no nontrivial solution in integers for n greater than 2." - p 136
At 1st, I thought this was a different way of expressing Fermat's Last Theorem ("In number theory, Fermat's Last Theorem (sometimes called Fermat's conjecture, especially in older texts) states that no three positive integers a, b, and c can satisfy the equation an bn = cn for any integer value of n greater than two." - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fermat's_Last_Theorem ) wch took 358 yrs for mathematicians to prove. "God knows what that is, something of his" becomes emblematic of Wyatt's isolation from those around him. But I don't really know - & this "not knowing" is what surrounds Wyatt as he becomes more & more introverted & detached from other people.
Then again, maybe I DO know what I'm talking about after all b/c on p 361:
"Now damn it talk to me, let's get all this straight. What's on your mind?
"—The equation of x to the power of n plus y to the power of n has no nontrivial solution in integers for n greater than two.
"—That is Fermat's last theorem."
Notice that "136" & "361" are anagrams of each other. Coincidence?
Wyatt leaves Esther, drifts away, basically, & Otto becomes her lover. Gaddis's depiction of the difference between the 2 is subtle:
"Later, he called from the bathroom, —This handkerchief drying on the mirror, can I take it off and fold it up? It's dry . . . Esther? did you hear me? This handkerchief . . . ?
"—Yes yes, she cried out, suddenly, then caught her voice and controlled it. —Yes, take it down. She picked up Otto's jacket from the couch and went toward the bathroom where she heard the sound of the electric razor.
"—It's all right if I use this isn't it?
"—Why yes. Yes, of course. I'm glad you're using it.
"—There's a straight razor here, he said turning to her where she stood in the doorway with his jacket, the machine whirring in his hand, —but I don't think I could manage it." - p 148
Cf that to this interaction between Esther & Wyatt on p 90:
"—Wyatt, something awful's happened. Where are you? Then she almost screamed, seeing him standing in the door of the studio with blood all over one side of his face and his neck. —What happened?
"—What is it? he asked. —What awful thing?
"—What's happened to you? she cried running up to him.
"—What? He stood there with a straight razor opened in his hand.
"—What are you doing?
"—Shaving . . .
"—Did you do that . . . shaving? What are you doing in there, shaving.
"—Oh, he said running his fingertips over his chin, and looking at the blood on them. —It's a mess, I'm sorry Esther. The mirror, I was using this mirror in here, you have the one in the bathroom covered . . .
"—Covered! she burst out impatiently, twisting the letter in her hand.
"—It has a cloth over it, I thought for some reason you might . . .
"—It's a handkerchief drying, why didn't you just pull it off."
The reader has to remember 2 somewhat minor incidents 58pp apart in order to appreciate this. Indeed, Gaddis tries the memory of even the most ardent reader. A character's name isn't necessarily given in a scene & the reader must remember the character being referred to by name in previous scenes from way-back-when to have a fuller idea of what's going on:
"She hardly spoke, except when he spoke to her and even then, only if he addressed a question, which she would answer very slowly, deliberate and brief. Though once she had burst out with, —Then do Pilgrims need a pass-port too? Or I shall wear a cockleshell, and he will know me and he will know me well . . . Which disarmed Stanley: what could she know of Santiago de Compostela? or when with the same light about to break in her eyes, waiting only his confirmation, she had asked whether it were true, Did the mice eat Saint Gertrude's heart? —For she is a patron saint of them . . ." - p 766
In this case, the lack of solidity of the character, the link to a prior scene at a mental hospital, Stanley's following fate, all add together to make the reader question whether the character 'even exists'.
&, well, let's hope that scenes like the following will be obvious to them by the time you get to them or you might just be hopelessly lost:
"—We even got held up by a highwayman, her husband confirmed.
"—It was on a train.
"—You still call it a highwayman anyway, her husband said patiently, smiling his cheery smile. —And he even talked English.
"—It was broken English. And what do you think he told us? That we're as much to blame, because we're there, that the victim abets the violence just by being there, he said, and he even made a quotation to prove it.
"—From Dante he told us. He took all our money, at gun-point.
"—Every peseeta we had on us.
"—But he didn't take the cameras, the fat man said. —I guess he didn't know how much they were worth.
"—He said he ought to do us a favor and throw them out the window, can you imagine? My . . . don't they keep it cold here, she shivered.
"Her husband got out his billfold and found a scrap of paper. —Here's a souvenir of it. He made me write it down so I'd remember to get this book and read it. Transcendent Speculations on Apparent Design in the Fate of the Individual, that's a mouthful isn't it. I wrote this down at gun-point." - p 881
Or how about this?: "—He says they even get food packages from America, like there was this Protestant minister who came here on a visit about thirty years ago and he always sends them these packages of food." - 884 IE: Wyatt's dad Reverend Gwyon.
It's so much fun to write these reviews & to rearrange the order of the author's meticulously worked-out sequence into my own:
"—Why do they get excited about the ruins in Rome here, Berlin is just as good now.
"—You can always see an ancient city better when it's been bombed." - pp 909-910
"They were going to drive up in some nameless person's new Renault, and they were somewhere in the Fremola valley, when it didn't go right, so they opened the hood to look at the engine, and there was nothing in there but an old tire, they must just have dropped the engine right out. So they just left it there, it was the only thing they could do. In the Saint Gotthard Pass, it was the only thing they could do." - pp 941-942
Uh, did they think to check if the engine was in the back?
While Gaddis certainly gets his digs in at the Ugly 'Merican, he spares no-one, including the French: "Over this grandstand disposal of promise the waiters stared with a distance of glazed indulgence which all collected under it admired, as they admired the rudeness, which they called self-respect; the contempt, which they called innate dignity; the avarice, which they called self-reliance; the tasteless ill-made clothes on the men, lauded as indifference, and the far-spaced posturings of haute couture across the Seine, called inimitable or shik according to one's stay." (p 64) "But on most hands the French were still being taken at their own evaluation. They were still regarded as the most sensitive connoisseurs of alcohol. Barbaric Americans, the barbaric English, drank to get drunk; but the French, with cultivated tastes and civilized sensibilities, drank down six billion bottles of wine this year merely to reward their refined palates: so refined, that a vast government subsidy, and a lobby capable of overthrowing cabinets, guaranteed one drink-shop for every ninety inhabitants; so cultivated, that ten per cent of the family budget went on it, the taste initiated before a child could walk, and death at nineteen months of D.T.s (cockeyed on Pernod) incidental; so civilized, that one of every twenty-five dead Frenchmen had made the last leap through alcoholism." (p 943)
Corruption & derangement; encyclopedic knowledge & talent - these factors combine to take Gaddis's characters on a roller coaster ride w/ no safety measures, w/o, even, a roller coaster:
"And the shadow he cast behind him as he turned away fell back seven centuries, to embrace the dissolute youth of Raymond Lully, and infatuation with the beautiful Ambrosia de Castello, which she discouraged; and if she seemed to succumb at last, offering to bare her breasts in return for a poem he had written to their glory, it was to show him, as he approached in that rapture of which only flesh is capable, a bosom eaten away by cancer; he turned away to his conversion, to his death years later stoned in North Africa, and in his celebration as a scholar, a poet, a missionary, a mystic, and one of the foremost figures in the history of alchemy." - p 77
Dauerte mehr als ein Jahr, dass zuende zu lesen. Sehr clever, aber teilweise zu clever für mich..
If you're on the fence about whether you should read this, read William H. Gass's introduction (in this edition the afterward). It is a book of such tremendous scope. I definitely did not get every connection, every structural reference or articulation, but getting them all is not the point. Nor is knowing the references, or following completely and mechanically the webbed mappings between characters. It will come. This is one of the best books I've read.
Also no one writes dialog like this, which is probably good for my heart and anxiety. I had to stop reading this in the mornings.
I read this mixed between this edition and the Nick Sullivan (Audible) recording, which is a triumph of the form. Sullivan does different voices, so the Gaddis method of the quote-dash to initiate dialog without terminating it becomes more demarcated. Getting exposed to this helped me learn to differentiate speech from description when reading, though it never fully congeals.
Video review: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NhA7P8pPosI
Written Review: https://www.thisissplice.co.uk/2020/10/21/with-high-regard-though-seldom-played/
- Group reading on Instagram with @therecognitionsbookclub this November-December.
- Group reading on #BookTwitter with #Gaddis2020 this November-December (thanks, @ReemK10).
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The book Jonathan Franzen dubbed the "ur-text of postwar fiction" and the "first great cultural critique, which, even if Heller and Pynchon hadn't read it while composing Catch-22 and V, managed to anticipate the spirit of both" The Recognitions is a masterwork about art and forgery, and the increasingly thin line between the counterfeit and the fake. Gaddis anticipates by almost half a century the crisis of reality that we currently face, where the real and the virtual are combining in alarming ways, and the sources of legitimacy and power are often obscure to us.
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Classification décimale de Melvil (CDD)813.54 — Literature English (North America) American fiction 20th Century 1945-1999
Classification de la Bibliothèque du Congrès
Much of the action of the book takes place off-screen, as it were, with events having to be inferred from the dialog between characters. This is not as horrible as it sounds: Gaddis is astonishingly good with dialog, and even more astonishingly bad with description.
This is probably one of those novels, like Catcher in the Rye, that is improved significantly by the reader having lived in New York City - in that quite a lot of the novel is how the city of New York, embodied by its denizens, reacts to the characters, and how the characters thrive or crumble under the indifference of such a concentrated population. One amusing aspect of The Recognitions is how little New York has changed since 1955: the people are the same, the problems are the same, and every party/bar/restaurant scene could have taken place yesterday.
Ultimately, though, it doesn't really say much, and the overwritten descriptive passages weigh down what would otherwise be a quite enjoyable book. I found JR to be a much better novel, and the lasting effect of this novel may be to make me re-read the other. ( )