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Tests of Time: Essays [Paperback]

William H. Gass
2.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

June 15 2003
Tests of Time brings us fourteen witty and elegant essays by novelist and literary critic William H. Gass, "the finest prose stylist in America" (Steven Moore, Washington Post). Whether he's exploring the nature of narrative, the extent and cost of political influences on writers, or the relationships between the stories we tell and the moral judgments we make, Gass is always erudite, entertaining, and enlightening.

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From Amazon

For those willing to overlook the author's wandering style and bursts of elitism, William H. Gass's latest series of essays, Tests of Time, yields many rewards. Gass unifies this ambitious work with a focus on the ethics of writing, and, on a more general level, morality. The first of three sections, Literary Matters, includes essays investigating the nature of narrative, experimental fiction, writing's effect on memory and experience, and culture and canonization. The second section, Social and Political Contretemps, explores the influence of politics, religion, censorship, and nationalism on writers, as well as the similarities between American and German culture. Finally, the Stuttgart Seminar Lectures section concerns the value of well-documented history and artistic writing. Gass insists throughout that only through creative, brave, and responsible writing can humanity avert moral degeneration--and he often succeeds in powerfully conveying and inspiring this point. His thorough reading of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities beautifully emphasizes the role of poetry in our connection with the past and present. "There Was an Old Woman Who" entertains and informs with its use of a largely forgotten case of urban cannibalism as an example of the need for accurate documentation and a moral view of history. Unfortunately Gass often muddles his valuable ideas with overlong ranting, inflammatory rhetoric, and out-of-touch popular-culture criticisms. The author is easily at his best when he remains succinct and organized yet impassioned, as he does in the collection's excellent final essay, "Transformations." Here and elsewhere, Gass delivers a modernist critique in every way exemplifying the courage, skill, and consciousness in writing that he so values. --Ross Doll --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

These 14 essays from essayist, novelist and philosopher Gass (Finding a Form, etc.), which first appeared in a variety of other venues, are neatly divided into three sections, "Literary Matters," "Social and Political Contretemps" and "The Stuttgart Seminar Lectures," delivered to a cultural studies seminar. Ardent in his admirations, Gass, an emeritus professor in the humanities at Washington University in St. Louis who is nearing 80, produces remarkably succinct and well-thought-out criticism in a passionate and precise yet easy and vernacular-based language. Some essays start with deceptive lightness, like "I've Got a Little List," beginning with takeoffs on a famous Gilbert and Sullivan patter song, then developing into revealing literary observations: "The list is the fundamental rhetorical form for creating a sense of abundance, overflow, excess. We find it so used in writers with an appetite for life from Rabelais and Cervantes, or from Burton to Browne, to Barth and Elkin." On social and political matters, Gass employs a similarly tuned instrument, as he examines Algerian literary politics, and 1930s American fascism from the moment "I first heard my father refer to his president as `that rich Jew Rosenfeld'" to Father Coughlin and beyond. All the essays retain care and gusto; even a meditation on history and lies based around the O.J. Simpson trial feels fresh. If Gass finds the prose of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities "elevated to poetry without the least sign of strain," the same might be said for much of this collection. (Mar.) Forecast: Gass has won a National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism, Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundation fellowships, a Lannan Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award and many other honors. This book is not going to set any records at the register, but it will be well reviewed, particularly in terms of the newly invigorated search for a workable modern ethics … la Richard Rorty.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

2.5 out of 5 stars
2.5 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Gasseous Matters Nov. 8 2003
Format:Hardcover
I suppose I bought this book to get a better idea of what Gass was about. He admires several of my favourite, rather obscure authors, such as Lowry and Gaddis, and has written insightful reviews on their lives and work and even introductions to certain masterworks of theirs. On the other hand, his essays for, say, The New York Review of Books, aren't even essays or reviews in any sort of conventional sense. Perhaps a new term is needed-Narrative commentaries? In any event, they always come across as clumsy and inscrutable in a not very endearing sense to me. This book has confirmed that impression, and I think the entire section on Flaubert a lot of rot. I understand that in putting the words of "The Master" in the mind of a fictional character who has memorized all of Flaubert's letters he's attempting to convey the soul or essence of Flaubert in a way in which a straightforward essay would not. He fails. It's rubbish.
I also throw my hands up regarding his essay on Calvino's Invisible Cities. - Well, that is to say, I know what I think of it. It's too esoteric by half. And the game is pretty much up when, at the height of his, er, Calvinolatry, Gass claims that this slim volume out-Proust's Proust. After such a disproportion, any attempt to take him seriously anent Calvino can be no longer seriously maintained.
But there are some good sections herein, the best being the eponymous essay on why certain works remain resonant with readers throughout the ages. This is Gass at his best. This is the Gass who motivated my purchase of this book. This is the Gass who, unbeknownst to me until I read this essay, holds another of my favourite writers in his pantheon and provides startling insights on why his work passes the tests of time: to wit, Thoreau.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Please read this book... Dec 9 2002
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
William H. Gass is a truly unique and heart-breaking writer. This is a beautifully written collection of essays that are thoughtful, profound, and disturbing. Two of the essays, "Were There Anthing in the World Worth Worship" and "There Was An Old Woman Who...", are worth the cost of the book by themselves. An amazing essay collection that is smart, angry, sad, and funny.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Not much of an essay writer May 13 2004
Format:Paperback
Daniel Myers is right in saying this collection is not so good. In _Books in Canada_ for April/May 2004 I argue that the collection is very poor.
Gass is completely off the rails when he favours Rushdie over Solzhenitsyn, for instance, and while comparisions of that type are invidious, it does make one wonder about Gass' internal compass that he can completely sympathize with the first while absolutely denigrate the second.
In general Gass' thinking process is a mess, often contradictory and, if this can be said without a brick being thrown, typical of those writers who (grow to) consider themselves philosophers or thinkers. His writing praises itself, there is too much consonance and assonance, and the lure of the jab is far more attractive to him than sober thought. It's not just the ideas that are poor, but their vehicle.
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Poor, poor William Jan. 8 2004
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
William Gass is a poor, sad, bitter intellectual who has the misfortune of being honest enough to carry his own tired philosophies to their inevitable conclusions: bitterness and nihilism. In these essays, as always, his exhaustion shows. He denies God (now there's an original thought for you). Then he whines incessantly because God hasn't made his world perfect. He hates life, but he hates the thought of death even more. His writing is filled with angry despair, so unfortunately this book isn't much good. But, on second thought, please buy it anyway. The poor man needs a lift.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 2.5 out of 5 stars  6 reviews
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Essential collection from a master essayist Dec 3 2007
By Brian A. Oard - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Although addicted to alliteration, Gass is great once he gets going. This collection boasts a plethora of provocative (and sometimes very funny) thoughts, along with prose so great you'll want to telephone friends in the middle of the night and read it aloud to them. Of special note are "The Writer and Politics: A Litany", which is just that, a VERY long list of writers' experiences with political power, and Gass's masterful anti-religion polemic, "Were There Anything in the World Worth Worship." The latter contains one of my favorite Gassean epigrams: "...the chief point in life is to die of something and never for something if it can be helped." Sane words in an insane time.
9 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Please read this book... Dec 9 2002
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
William H. Gass is a truly unique and heart-breaking writer. This is a beautifully written collection of essays that are thoughtful, profound, and disturbing. Two of the essays, "Were There Anthing in the World Worth Worship" and "There Was An Old Woman Who...", are worth the cost of the book by themselves. An amazing essay collection that is smart, angry, sad, and funny.
8 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Gasseous Matters Nov. 8 2003
By Daniel Myers - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I suppose I bought this book to get a better idea of what Gass was about. He admires several of my favourite, rather obscure authors, such as Lowry and Gaddis, and has written insightful reviews on their lives and work and even introductions to certain masterworks of theirs. On the other hand, his essays for, say, The New York Review of Books, aren't even essays or reviews in any sort of conventional sense. Perhaps a new term is needed-Narrative commentaries? In any event, they always come across as clumsy and inscrutable in a not very endearing sense to me. This book has confirmed that impression, and I think the entire section on Flaubert a lot of rot. I understand that in putting the words of "The Master" in the mind of a fictional character who has memorized all of Flaubert's letters he's attempting to convey the soul or essence of Flaubert in a way in which a straightforward essay would not. He fails. It's rubbish.
I also throw my hands up regarding his essay on Calvino's Invisible Cities. - Well, that is to say, I know what I think of it. It's too esoteric by half. And the game is pretty much up when, at the height of his, er, Calvinolatry, Gass claims that this slim volume out-Proust's Proust. After such a disproportion, any attempt to take him seriously anent Calvino can be no longer seriously maintained.
But there are some good sections herein, the best being the eponymous essay on why certain works remain resonant with readers throughout the ages. This is Gass at his best. This is the Gass who motivated my purchase of this book. This is the Gass who, unbeknownst to me until I read this essay, holds another of my favourite writers in his pantheon and provides startling insights on why his work passes the tests of time: to wit, Thoreau.
So, all in all, a mixed bag. Unfortunately, the rather tedious parts tend to outnumber the brilliant ones. And Gass's style, in general, seems to me one that simply wears thin after a couple hundred pages. When Gass sticks to literature, or to commenting on the writer in the everyday world, through the ages, as he does in "The Writer and Politics: A Litany," he is scintillating and exciting. Most of the writing in this book, though, is of an unpleasantly offbeat nature that tends to the grating or soporific, by turns. So, three stars for the pearls amidst the paste.
2 of 11 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Life is too short... June 26 2007
By princemuchao - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
...to waste time with a book like this.

I can't believe anyone would publish these essays in the first place. I enjoy meandering prose, but only if it is to an eventual point. These pieces go on and on. Uncharacteristically, I was constantly checking how many pages I had left before the next essay.

A few of the pieces showed promise - Invisible Cities, Sidelonging, Tests of Time and The Shears of the Censor in particular - but soon become tedious as the reader is bludgeoned with copious amounts of prose that leads to no purpose. The one exception was Anywhere But Kansas, which was a lithe 9 pages. I am assuming that the other 30 pages were eaten by Gass' puppy or something.

Just to be clear, I read many long, complex novels and enjoy them - Barth's Giles Goat-Boy, Sot-Weed Factor and Letters; Grass' Tin Drum and Dog Years; Mitchell's Cloud Atlas - but when you are writing essays they have to be tight, or at least vaguely interesting throughout, else the length becomes unbearable.

Until now, I was excited to read The Tunnel. I will still give it a shot in the coming months, but I am no longer looking forward to it.
5 of 19 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Not much of an essay writer May 13 2004
By Jeff Bursey - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Daniel Myers is right in saying this collection is not so good. In _Books in Canada_ for April/May 2004 I argue that the collection is very poor.
Gass is completely off the rails when he favours Rushdie over Solzhenitsyn, for instance, and while comparisions of that type are invidious, it does make one wonder about Gass' internal compass that he can completely sympathize with the first while absolutely denigrate the second.
In general Gass' thinking process is a mess, often contradictory and, if this can be said without a brick being thrown, typical of those writers who (grow to) consider themselves philosophers or thinkers. His writing praises itself, there is too much consonance and assonance, and the lure of the jab is far more attractive to him than sober thought. It's not just the ideas that are poor, but their vehicle.
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