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.