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No Ending to The Recognitions

The Seven Deadly Sins - Hieronymus Bosch (oil on wood panels) - one of the copies Wyatt makes

It took nearly five months but I managed to read all the words in William Gaddis’s The Recognitions. In honor of Old Masters use of triptych (Wyatt, the main character forges old Flemish paintings), this is the third in a series about reading the novel. The first concerning descriptions of the sun and the second concerning his use of dialogue.

To end, I’d like to “let be be finale of seem,”* and say as many suggest, the book is a long road that doesn’t end because it ends. Yes, the characters meet certain fates but Gaddis seems to have written so much “outside” the story without it seeming meta-fictional. The parade of writers, publishers, editors, other artists and wannabes is some kind of reckoning in itself, including the “distinguished novelist” introduced in the last 100 pages. He happens to be at the same monastery in Spain with Wyatt (who has then become Stephen). The writer’s name is Ludy and he is described thus:

He was a comfortable man of middle age, dressed in an expensive suit of Irish thorn-proof, the last two buttons of the vest undone, or rather, never done up at all, in token of the casual assurance he afforded himself as a novelist successful enough to be referred to by his publishers as distinguished. (857)

I’ll admit to leaving one button undone myself. Gaddis seems to have written The Recognitions with a brash, preternatural vision that he attests to in the quote below. The book is everything it could be: witty, sad, hilarious, erudite, maddening–and more.

What is lost if everyone wants to gain? is a question seemingly posed again and again but always destroyed by someone else grabbing for the mantle.

From the Paris Review interview:


Could you say something about the genesis of your own novels? Can you reconstruct what was involved in your getting started with The Recognitions?


I think first it was that towering kind of confidence of being quite young, that one can do anything —“All’s brave that youth mounts and folly guides,” as we’re told in As You Like It. The Recognitions started as a short piece of work, quite undirected, but based on the Faust story. Then as I got into the idea of forgery, the entire concept of forgery became—I wouldn’t say an obsession—but a central part of everything I thought and saw; so the book expanded from simply the central character of the forger to forgery, falsification and cheapening of values and what have you, everywhere. Looking at it now with its various faults, I suppose excess would be the main charge. I remember Clive Bell looking back on his small fine book, Art, thirty-five years after it was published in 1913, and listing its faults, finding it too confident and aggressive, even too optimistic—I was never accused of that!—but still feeling, as he said, “a little envious of the adventurous young man who wrote it.”

Without the excess The Recognitions wouldn’t be The Recognitions.

*”The Emperor of Ice-Cream”

6 thoughts on “No Ending to The Recognitions

  1. Greg, bravo. Thanks for this sensitive celebration — & I’m moved to add that, among the adventures that young men have taken on, since the novel appeared, few can have proven so rewarding as reading THE RECOGNITIONS.

  2. While Gaddis’s language is still unparalleled, well, at least compared to the ever-overflowing carnival of writers unconcerned with developing a singular style, what also makes The Recognitions still a necessary read is its continued pertinence, that it offers caustic observations about authenticity, the artist’s place in society, identity, family, duty, and so much more.

    Though I’ve read it, that is read every single word in it, I’ve yet to read it, and I don’t think I will have read it until I’ve read it twenty times. Then again, I might still not have read it. How many books can you say that about?

    1. Absolutely. The first read is only tilling the field if that–maybe it’s just looking at the field, thinking about what to do with it.

      Maybe we could also call it THE REPETITIONS–as to what the experience should be like.

      As to pertinence, does the term = timelessness?

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