Essayist's collection a treasure
LIFE SENTENCES: Literary Judgments and Accounts. By William H. Gass. Knopf. 368 pages. $28.95.
"For anyone who has reached 87 years, as I have," writes William H. Gass, "only the past is likely to have much duration; greed and regret will have eaten the present, which is at best a sliver of cake too small for its plate, while the future fears it may cease before having been."
This, from his essay, "Retrospection," one of two dozen in his new collection "Life Sentences."
Gass is arguably the best literary essayist of his generation. He has been accused of valuing style over content, and sometimes that seems true.
And sometimes his style masks his content. And sometimes his style is the content.
As a professor of philosophy and professor emeritus in the humanities at Washington University, he ensures there is no lack of content or ideas within the text.
His essays on classic form, mimesis and metaphor bring a writer's clear and creative voice to what often can be dry philosophical concepts.
The book is divided into four sections. The first, "The Personals Column," contains seven essays, the best being "The Literary Miracle," "Slices of Life in a Library" and "Retrospection."
The second section, "Old Favorites and Fresh Enemies," contains 11 essays on writers. His essay on Kafka is brilliantly written from the point of view of Kafka as Gregor Samsa, the character-turned-bug in "Metamorphosis."
Other writers about whom he writes include Marcel Proust, Henry James, Malcolm Lowry and Knut Hamsun.
In the most touching essay of the collection, about his fellow writer, the late John Gardner, Gass writes: "He caused to rise up like an enveloping vision a fictional world that would help us live better in the real one".
Gass is the author of three novels, including "Omensetter's Luck" (1966) and "The Tunnel" (1995), as well as the masterful collection "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country" (1968) and his "Cartesian Sonata and Other Novellas" (1998).
But it is his 10 nonfiction works spanning more than 40 years where he defines himself as a writer.
Gass is a stylist par excellence, as each and every essay in this collection displays. He is a treasure. His writing is gold.