William H. Gass’ Life Sentences

Life SentencesA blank page is a maddening thing, offering at once the promise of possibility and the torment of finality, for every printed word is a commitment curtailing choice, a brick laid in the foundations of a building whose plan we only dimly discern. Whatever guides our hand and directs our judgment – talent, or intuition, or some mystic muse, we know ourselves to be responsible for each and every sentence, and there are few pains in life as acute as recognizing some misshapen lines, sent stillborn into the world, as our own. It comforts me only a little to learn that even William Gass, my nomination for our language’s best living prose writer, has felt this sting:

A badly made sentence is a judgment pronounced upon its perpetrator, and even one poor paragraph indelibly stains the soul. The unpleasant consequence of every such botch is that your life, as you register your writing, looks back at you as from a dirty mirror, and there you perceive a record of ineptitude, compromise and failure.

This blog is my dirty mirror, and every post a compromise, but I feel some affinity for Gass and his chosen title, Life Sentences, because surely one of its many meanings must be that he has been, as it were, sentenced to sentences, condemned both to appreciate them and to write them, and this, his most recent collection of essays, is a compendium of his appreciations and his unique way of appreciating. Beginning with a transcript from his acceptance speech for the 2007 Truman Capote Award For Literary Criticism, extending through devotionals to authors as various as Kafka, Nietzsche, Henry James, Katherine Anne Porter and Knut Hamsun, and ending with a microscopic dissection and diagramming of individual sentences, Life Sentences catalogues a lifetime of literary love.

Writing, as Gass and others practice it, is a lifetime pursuit, and lives, while easily wasted, are not typically sacrificed to a single cause without a powerful impetus. Midway through an early essay, he gives us this:

Along with hundreds of others, I was once asked by a French newspaper to state, in a word, why I write. I replied in a sentence suitable for a courtroom. I write to indict mankind. I suppose I could have said: I write to convict mankind, but man has already done that without my help, and, besides, I wanted the pun.

Great hatreds, in my experience, are far more motivating than great loves, and longer lasting, too. (Incidentally, the pun he refers to: indict comes from the French enditer, by way of the Latin indicto, both of which are verbs meaning to write.) Only one essay in this volume fulfills this misanthropic promise, “Kinds of Killing,” prompted by a review of Richard Evans’ The Third Reich At War. Not content merely to report on atrocity, Gass makes us live it:

With acres of their fields burned, crops requisitioned, and farmers enslaved, the population began to starve. Rations, if you were a Pole, came to no more than 669 calories a day. Jews received 184. An officer’s spit might contain that much. Robbers roamed the roads and forests. Diseases spread as the body’s resistance also failed. In France, when Germany overran it, refugees fled one city only to fill another. Friends turned upon friends. Denunciation replaced “bonjour.” So the campaign of extermination was going nicely. The women were the only ones around but nonetheless inviting, exchanging syphilis for a few hundred calories of love.

Or this:

Who could have imagined there were so many Jews; that just removing them to overnight ghettos in Poland or the Ukraine would put such a strain upon every mile of track and every engine’s boilers; that so many departments of government would be required, soldiers to shoot them, munitions to facilitate this, guards to control them, shovels to dig and to cover their graves? Better methods had to be found for both death and disposal. Perhaps those employed with such success in the programs of euthanasia might be brought into play – sealed chambers and car exhaust – and camps built solely for death’s purpose. So thirty gas vans were built in Berlin. They could kill sixty at a time, an improvement of ten over previous model years. Occasionally a child survived whose mother had so severely swaddled it the fumes could not penetrate the cloth. It was a doubtful stroke of luck, since the guards would smash such babies’ heads against convenient trees.

The thought of an officer’s spit as a source of calories, a tree being “convenient” because it might facilitate the death of a child, the language of industry applied to mass murder (“an improvement of ten over previous model years”) – these are indeed indictments. In “The Literary Miracle,” however, Gass offers another reason to write, one that is distinctly more sympathetic: “To adorn nature with a new thing: that is the miracle that matters. Most prose flows into an ocean of undifferentiated words. To objectify through language a created consciousness, provide it with the treasured particularity we hope for for each human being – that is the cherished aim of the art.”

This is the humanitarian potential of art generally, and literature in particular: words, our language of thought, shape not only our world but ourselves. Writers give shape and form (“objectify”), endow characters with consciousness (“particularity”); like god, they create life. If I am sure of anything, it is that 500 years from now, though I have lived and breathed and Hamlet resides entirely on the page, he will seem more real, more substantial, to the citizens of tomorrow. Gass explains this miracle better than I can:

In the aesthetically interesting sentence, […] every materiality of language is employed to build a body for the meaning that will realize the union of thought and thing that paradise apparently forgot to promise us, and give consciousness the solid presence it constantly yearns for and will never quite realize. Over and over, we think that in the word we shall find the place where mind and matter meet.

Words – simple, everyday words, carefully chosen and dutifully arranged – make possible this miracle, and you need only sample a small handful of his prose to realize that Gass cares more about his every sentence than some writers do about whole books.