25 remaining, & here they are, picking up where we left off, with Tolstoy & his disgraced Natasha
26) The Prince has immersed himself in war work, Napoleon’s on the march, and Natasha attempts suicide, arsenic, then spends weeks in bed. Only her old friend Pierre, our hero more or less, can wring from her an agreement to meet.
27) Pierre’s no innocent himself, though rather a bumbler, badly married, an embodiment of how the good in Russia has gone sour, but Natasha always liked him and when they meet, in the parlor, they’re chummy a while.
28) But finally Pierre has to ask, “Could you really love… that evil man?” aware even as he asks that he’s bumbling again, sounding full of hoke, and yet at his question Natasha undergoes another of those reality-replenishments.
29) All she’s felt, all she’s lost, knocks her sideways, and she collapses into her old friend, groaning through tears: “Don’t call him evil… he wasn’t evil to me.”
30) And Pierre takes her head in his lap, patting her (they’re both fully dressed, entirely decorous), telling her not to cry, then telling her more.
31) “Were I the richest, cleverest, handsomest man on earth — and free — I’d be down on my knees to you this instant, asking for your love and your hand.”
32) They don’t write ‘em like that any more, do they?
33) Natasha reawakens, a Sleeping Beauty though entirely decorous, and then Pierre heads out to a supernatural vision — the comet of 1812, overhead — and these people still have to look forward to the battle of Borodino!
34) The concept exfoliates, I’m saying, the gesture of love extending its Godlike reach across peace and war both, so that later as Prince Andrei lies mortally wounded he spies the cad who stole Natasha, laid out in similar agony.
35) “Poor man,” thinks Andrei, and suffering men and women everywhere swoon to that voice in their ear, here as at the end of Melville’s Bartleby: “Ah, humanity!”
36) The Author as hymn-singer, indeed hymn-giver, holding back the dawn so love may flower anew, that’s the double-helix in this DNA, I mean the Gass DNA, and it’s high time someone here on Big Other admitted — this God too can disappoint.
37) Intense and inspirational his reading may be, and let’s give kudos all over again for how he sussed out the sex in Stein’s Tender Buttons, a fresh reading at the time.
38) Let’s give kudos for how smartly he celebrated for instance Henry Miller and Donald Barthelme, both decidedly different sensibilities from his own.
39) The list could go on, fifty and more, but it’s high time someone on Big Other acknowledged that when, for instance, Gass asserts about In Search of Lost Time, “it is only Proust’s style that will carry this enormous book… the unique character of his language” — we need to ask, well, does he knows where the bed belongs?
40) We need to ask about story, I’m saying, a literary pillar in itself, even for a pillar of Gass’, such as Henry James, indeed story was a most important pillar for James, who, whether comic as in Washington Square or tragic as in The Golden Bowl, was forever unfolding mystery, peeling back delusion, revealing the essence of a person and a society.
41) Story will sustain Proust, in part at least, until such time as when we join the original singers of The Odyssey, and memorize the epic down to its least detail, and so it seems to me revealing that Gass has never written about David Foster Wallace.
42) Wallace may not sound mouth-to-ear enough for Gass, but when the younger writer’s fiction goes deep into strange heads and daunting pursuits (like tax law, in Pale King), it’s seeking to isolate some basic quandary, or rather irony, that element central to story.
43) I’d go so far as to say Wallace was at his best in his shorter work, when the irony has a cathartic impact, so that “Little Expressionless Animals” delivers better than an meditation on television’s haunting presence in that it reveals, à la Tolstoy and Natasha and Pierre, the secret of the love between Faye Goddard and Julie Smith.
44) If someone out there can prove me wrong, and show me a Gass essay that spends time on Wallace, I’d enjoy that, but meanwhile I’ll conclude with a story about story, involving Gass and another of his favorite contemporaries, John Barth.
45) Gass had high praise for Barth in On Being Blue and elsewhere, and Barth esteemed him in return, and lent what support he could, including sharing a few conference roundtables and such.
46) But Barth’s work is always about story, how it unfolds and how it might get refolded, and so under various public circumstances he began to put questions to Gass about just that, story or drama or even soap opera, and its place amid (to namecheck differently) fiction and the figures of life.
47) During the colloquy I heard, the two exchanged gestures of love, in that in order to ask about story, Barth borrowed examples from philosophy, Gass’s discipline, Wittgenstein in particular, and then in order to answer Gass cited an example from Borges, an author Barth had been one of the very first North Americans to champion, in his 1967 essay “The Literature of Exhaustion.”
48) Gass brought up a Borges story that might be an essay, “The Approach to Al’ Mu’tasim,” the Argentine’s take on legend of the Simurgh, or the Thirty Birds, in which a flock birds in search of God discover themselves to be God.
49) Even I, Gass might’ve been admitting, can’t define all that fiction amounts to — even my concepts have their lacuna — but I know when I’m in the presence of a terrific voice and story, a love-bed that’s irremovable.
50) And this post is more of the same: late to the party as ever, with the lame excuse that I’m out of the country and only intermittently internetted, yet delivered to Maestro Gass from the heart of my heart, thinking especially of that moment in his “Heart of the Heart” when the narrator avers, “And I am in retirement from love” — thereby proving, of course, that he’ll never grow that old.
Editor’s Note: This list is part of Big Other’s Tribute to William H. Gass’s 88th Birthday.