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
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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.
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