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.

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