Comprehending Gaddis

D.A.N. Jones

  • The Recognitions by William Gaddis
    Penguin, 956 pp, £7.95, January 1986, ISBN 0 14 007768 5
  • JR by William Gaddis
    Penguin, 726 pp, £7.95, January 1986, ISBN 0 14 008039 2
  • Carpenter’s Gothic by William Gaddis
    Deutsch, 262 pp, £8.95, February 1986, ISBN 0 233 97932 8

There seem to be about a hundred characters in The Recognitions, most of them United States citizens, but some of them change their names, escaping from law-men, and others have no known name at all. They have to be recognised by a tone of voice or a favourite catch-phrase which might pop up anywhere in the 22 chapters of this long novel, like a running gag. In the same way, certain themes or obsessions pop up, in a frivolous or portentous spirit, and they are often relevant to the concerns of William Gaddis’s later novels, JR and Carpenter’s Gothic.

One of the slighter-seeming themes is the learned American’s scorn for those of his compatriots who know no language but English. If you have ever been in Athens or Rome with an American snob, exasperated by the ignorance of his fellow-citizens, you will recognise the wrathful feeling behind this piece of dialogue overheard in Spain. ‘Boy, that big picture was some mess wasn’t it, that Rubins?’ observes an American tourist. ‘Rubins, was he a Spaniard?’ His know-all wife replies: ‘Look at his name, Peedro Pablo, where else do you get a name like that?’ To us cocky British snobs who call the great man ‘Sir Peter Paul Rubens’ and don’t much mind what he called himself, the ‘mistake’ of the tourists is not tragical. But, for William Gaddis, this sort of ignorance leads up to the climax of The Recognitions, where his most admirable character – Stanley, the musician – meets his death playing a gigantic organ in an Italian church, all because he did not understand the Italian notice, warning that the instrument was too powerful for the edifice. The unpatriotic William Gaddis is keen to remind us that the organ was presented to the church by some dumb American.

He leads up to this climax with a funny story about another dumb American not understanding a French notice by his hotel window in Paris: he opens the window and the facade of Henry’s Hotel collapses. Earlier in the book, we have come across some smart-ass visitors at a Greenwich Village party misunderstanding one another’s use of Greco-Latin words. ‘Philogyny? I thought you said phylogeny.’ ‘I said, misogyny recapitulates philogyny.’ ‘Misogamy? ... What’s the name of this book you’re writing?’ ‘Baedeker’s Babel.’ ‘And you say you’ve become a misologist?’ Such words are for reading rather than hearing at a party. They are interrupted by ‘a blond boy in dungarees’ (who keeps popping up) remarking: ‘I tell you I felt just for all the world like Archimedes in his crwazy bathtub.’ But then the smart-asses come back saying: ‘Scatological?’ No: ‘Eschatological, the doctrine of last things ... ’

This leads us to a perhaps more serious theme in Gaddis’s novels, the part played in our lives by religious belief and the excitement and indignation caused. In The Recognitions he concentrates on Roman Catholics (in America, France, Italy and Spain). Among the more serious characters is a woman called Agnes Deigh, who seems to be a lapsed RC, seeking God, and a man called Anselm, embarrassingly blasphemous and obscene at Greenwich Village parties. We are not surprised to overhear, much later, that Anselm has entered a monastery – ‘some silent order out west’ – and is publishing a book about his spiritual experiences. One of his old party-party chums responds: ‘Anselm, the Church really had him. I laugh every time I think of him, retiring from the world and they make him publicity agent for a monastery!’ A woman remarks: ‘I always thought he was queer.’

First published in 1955, when homosexual behaviour was severely punished by law-men and law-abiding journalists, The Recognitions uses expressions like ‘queer’ and ‘that way’ with some aggressiveness. The bohemians of Greenwich Village rap about the subject defiantly, while a low-class forger of bank notes, passing ‘queer money’ to a contact, supposes the recipient is a ‘queer’ because he says he is a writer. Another benchmark of the 1950s is an admiring, envious appreciation of lusty, cultured Latin Europe, wherein five of the chapters are set. Other chapters are located in a rather puritan Protestant parish, somewhere in New England, where the clergyman (Episcopalian?) is becoming devoted to the rites of Mithras, as he understands them.

But most of the action is set in Manhattan, a community deeply disturbed by the ‘media’ of the 1950s. The characters’ activities are hideously interrupted by commercial or ‘sponsored’ cries from their radio and television sets: ‘Exhaustive scientific tests have proved ... ’ Their rubbishy, Murdoch-style newspapers have headlines like: ‘Science Shows There’s a God, Pope Declares.’ Any ‘media’ sentence beginning ‘Science proves ... ’ is held up for particular scorn in this scornful novel. Among the media horrors is How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. This is a title we may have laughed at, without reading the book (like Barbara Cartland’s novels), but William Gaddis has read it and seems to hate it, as a form of American humbug. The Recognitions is a book about humbug and hype, using as difficult examples the skilled forgery of bank notes and old paintings by masters of their art or craft.

It is easier to read The Recognitions than to report the story-line. Let me use the first chapter, entitled ‘The First Turn of the Screw’, and the 19th, ‘The Last Turn of the Screw’. The other chapters bear no title. We begin with an account of a New England clergyman travelling to Latin Europe with his wife, who dies because of the incompetence of a fraudulent surgeon: this surgeon is an American citizen, called Mr Sinisterra, who usually makes his living by forging bank notes. As a result, the clergyman, the Reverend Gwyon, begins whoring after strange gods, ending up as a Mithraist in New England. In the 19th chapter, his son, Wyatt Gwyon, is hiding in Latin Europe, dodging American law-men, since he has become a forger of old paintings. Wyatt Gwyon’s protector is an American with a Rumanian passport, calling himself Mr Yak: he fixes Wyatt up with a Swiss passport, reminding him to tell the law-men that he is a Swisso, not a Pelagian, for the ignorant law-men might ask for his Pelagian passport. This Mr Yak seems to be Mr Sinisterra in disguise, the very man who caused the death of Wyatt’s mother: she is buried nearby and Yak/Sinisterra wants the help of Wyatt in constructing the forgery of a mummy.

This is horrid as the American H-Certificate movies of my boyhood, now revived on commercial television to horrify my grandchildren. Let us return to the ‘religious’ theme. Wyatt’s father, the Reverend Gwyon, grows more and more obsessed with his books about the rites of Mithras. The well-read reader will spot the obsession when he sees Gwyon looking at a picture of Il Tempio di Mitra or notices him adding numbers to the names of Abraxas and Meithras (printed in Greek script, to perplex less learned readers). He conducts a Mithraic ceremony, dead bull and all, but is then replaced by a more acceptable clergyman, called Dick. This man reads Reader’s Digest and How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Dale Carnegie’s book crops up again when Mr Pivner reads that the Burma Translation Society has published it, with a tribute from the Burmese statesman, U Nu (Thakin Nu), hoping that it will prevent his nation from remaining ‘static as ignoramuses’. Mr Pivner is wholly dependent on commercial media, including Dale Carnegie’s book, which he bought because so many other people had bought it. Poor, lonely Mr Pivner, media-sodden and believing what ‘Science proves’, had bought that book ‘hoping to win friends. He wondered if other people had bought it for the same reason.’

Apparently, this wretched book is all about winning money and power. The upper-class men in the art-forgery racket say, with tolerant sneers: ‘A charmingly cynical thing of its kind. It is written with such freshness, such naïveté, that one may imagine the author himself quite innocent of comprehending the full meaning of the deceit implicit in the scandalous behaviour which he recommends, in order to win friends and, as it follows, influence people.’ An American writer, seeking religious experience in a Spanish monastery, is disturbed by a pragmatic Spanish monk asking for help in obtaining the important American book, How to Procure for Friends and Vanquishing Everybody.

Mr Pivner, a true believer in Dale Carnegie, has a son called Otto who shows off in Greenwich Village about his experiences in Central America. Otto buys his father a dressing-gown with ‘queer money’ given him by a bank-note forger; he also gives some of this money to Stanley, the musician, thus getting them both into trouble with the law-men. Stanley goes on a pilgrimage to Rome, where he finds (spouting in Firbank’s style, as the author explicitly reminds us) a cardinal who likes young men and who owns an arca musarithmica, a 17th-century machine that composes music automatically. Also present are some murderously described American clowns, upper-class graduates in the advertising industry.

We first meet them in Manhattan congratulating one another on getting out of their daddies’ brokerage companies: ‘You can’t tell me advertising isn’t the new Wall Street, the highest-paid business in the US today.’ This is an old Alabama Rammer-Jammer man talking to an old Skull and Bones man. ‘The whole industry’s being taken over by the Ivy League,’ they crow. The word ‘Alabamarammerjammerman’ recurs in the book like an obscenity. The Rammer-Jammer set are working on a television series about saints, sponsored by a company called Necrostyle. They are upset when their favourite actress dies, infected by kissing a sacred relic, just when they had ‘changed the story-line around a little’, to make it ‘the Divine Comedy by Dante, instead of a straight life of the BVM’. They had just ‘got it all tied up with this canonisation, God damn it, she was the BVM incarnate, she had it in the bag.’

We must leave The Recognitions and press on to Carpenter’s Gothic, pausing for a brief nod to JR, an almost equally lengthy book. JR is largely about a young American boy messing up capitalist processes. I am perplexed by some of the dialogue, being unfamiliar with the business-supplement jargon which Gaddis parodies:

– the Boss has been hedging in them on the side must have Crawley up to his ass on margin some deal going on a trade if Nowunda holds out takes a stiff royalty on mineral exports solve this problem at Ray-X getting rhodium for thermocouples on these government fixed price contracts ...

However, I recognise the Gaddis attitude on page 20, when a man is copying down some meaningless arrangement of Greek letters hewn upon a school portico. ‘Oh, can you read it?’ asks an admirer. ‘Not exactly read it,’ says the snob, ‘but I thought I’d copy it down, it might make a good epigraph for a book when I find out what it means.’ Just below this, a radio blurts out the idiotic statement: ‘Scientists believe that the total amount of energy in the world today is the same as it was at the beginning of time.’ The listener’s response is: ‘Turn that off! Let’s have order here, order.’

William Gaddis has a reputation in the United States, high and formidable, so that he is discussed with respect and caution: but in Britain he has sometimes been received with a suspicious snort. Martin Seymour-Smith writes in his useful guide, Novels and Novelists, that ‘The Recognitions, a complex novel about forgery and illusion, was found by most critics to be impenetrable and possibly pretentious.’ Now that The Recognitions of 1955 and JR of 1975 are being republished in Britain, we may compare them with his latest novel, Carpenter’s Gothic and question Seymour-Smith’s dismissive judgment. The new novel is no less difficult to follow – and the very title needs some explanation.

‘The timber tradition (or “Carpenter’s Gothic”) was in no way limited to ecclesiastical work,’ writes R.I. Middleton in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. This American style of architecture was transferred from the churches to the homes of very rich men, first used for the mansions of Southern slave-owners in the 1840s and subsequently introduced to the Hudson River Valley in New York State, where the style still survives. The carpenters used pattern books, to make the new houses look old and Gothic. ‘Carpenter’s Gothic,’ the encyclopedia continues, ‘is an eclectic and naive use of the most superficial and obvious motifs of Gothic decoration. There was usually no logical relationship of ornamentation to the structure of the house.’ This information may be helpful to Structuralist critics considering the elaborate but mysterious style of William Gaddis.

He lets us know about his location by presenting us with half a telephone conversation to overhear. A tenant is talking to her friend:

– It’s a beautiful old Victorian house right up on the Hudson with a tower, there’s a tower on the corner it’s all windows that’s where I am now ... We’ve just rented it, not from anybody I mean nobody we know but you’d love how it’s furnished it’s all, rosewood chairs and sideboards and the draperies in the alcoves all heavy silk lined and gold and the loveliest lamps and silk flowers I can’t wait for you to see ...

William Gaddis always begins a piece of dialogue with a dash and concludes or interrupts it with three dots. Apart from this Frenchified trick, his dialogue is very like Henry Green’s.

Return to the house, where the lady’s landlord is being tormented by an old enemy, a suspicious character of ecclesiastical, pro-Christian bias:

– You know what you’ve got here? the head cocked this way, that – it’s a classic piece of Hudson river carpenter gothic, you know that? All designed from the outside, that tower there, the roof peaks, they drew a picture of it and squeezed the rooms in later ...

In the same voluble, untidy way, the landlord tells his tenant:

– It was built that way yes, it was built to be seen from outside it was, that was the style, he came on, abruptly rescued from uncertainty, raised to the surface – yes, they had style books, these country architects and the carpenters it was all derivative wasn’t it, those grand Victorian mansions with their rooms and rooms and towering heights and cupolas and the marvellous intricate ironwork. That whole inspiration of medieval Gothic but these poor fellows didn’t have it, the stonework and the wrought iron ...

He goes on (very like the American Europe-lovers of The Recognitions) pitying the poor American carpenters who had produced merely ‘a patchwork of conceits, borrowings, deceptions, the inside’s a hodgepodge of good intentions like one last ridiculous effort at something worth doing even on this small scale ... ’ Then the landlord tells himself: ‘It’s like the inside of your head.’ This thought leads him to tell his tenant: ‘When somebody breaks in, it’s like being assaulted.’

The resemblance of the narrative style to that of Henry Green is perfectly illustrated by the first two sentences of the book (haunted, Green-like, by emblematic doves), too long to quote here. The similarity in rhythm and eccentric punctuation is quite striking. It is a quick, breathless sort of narrative, echoing the natural untidiness of the dialogue. Here is the tenant, a nervous woman of wealthy family, welcoming a surprise visit from her dropout brother.

– Well how could you know how could we tell you! How could you know where we’d moved you never, we never know where you are nobody knows. You just show up like this with your, your boots look at your boots they’re falling apart, look at your, that hole in your knee you don’t even have a jacket, you ...

It is an attractive way of writing – and Gaddis often uses the style to humorous or witty effect. But it does not make for lucidity. With his complicated plot-lines and his quite scholarly arguments, Gaddis might win more readers if his work was less like a comprehension test.

He evidently prefers to be mysterious. The landlord, McCandless, is a mystery man. Very like McLeod, the old Marxist in Norman Mailer’s Barbary Shore, McCandless is pursued by avenging spirits from his dissident past: he seems to have been a geologist, engaged in dirty business in Africa, and his dissidence is expressed in great wrath about ‘religion’, the stupid things his fellow-citizens believe about the creation of the world. As usual in a Gaddis novel, the characters are constantly interrupted by the ghastly media (‘The radio warned her that five million Americans had diabetes and didn’t know it, and that she might be one of them ... ’), and they are all over-excited by media talk and slogans. The tenant’s husband is working for a very foolish clergyman, a ‘redneck creep’ called the Reverend Ude, who drowns people during baptism services and is mounting a campaign against ‘the aggressive instincts of an evil empire’ in Africa. While her husband is ‘mapping out his media strategy’ in support of the Reverend Ude and his idiotic friends, the tenant is going mad. We are led to believe (with vivid prose) that the house has burned down, but it turns out to be one of her fantasies.

William Gaddis is well aware of the difficulties he presents to his readers and the demands he makes on our close attention. This is clearly expressed in The Recognitions when the narrative is interrupted by a long letter from a distraught woman (Agnes Deigh, we have to conjecture) to a dentist with whom she is obsessed. We might be inclined to skip through it, noting only that some of it is neatly expressed while other sections are untidy and frantic. Then the author comments on the letter: ‘The hand had defeated its own purpose: for those lines written in frantic haste took time to interpret; while it was quick work to go through those written with careful painful pauses, written slowly, to compel the reader to read slowly and attentively, a habit she might have made in conversation.’