“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Lost Classics: The Recognitions

The Recognitions
By William Gaddis

I’ll note this from the outset: not only is William Gaddis’s The Recognitions (1955) my favourite novel of all time, but also it is, in my opinion, the best U.S. novel written after 1950. Although the works of Gaddis, who died in 1998, have belatedly started to get some of the, uh, recognition they deserve, his books are still too infrequently read by the larger public. And to be fair, there are some legitimate reasons for this: The Recognitions is 956-pages long. Much of the writing in it is what would be considered difficult (inspiring Jonathan Franzen’s essay ‘Mr. Difficult’ about Gaddis), and it’s the kind of book wherein the punch-lines to jokes are quite literally withheld for hundreds of pages. It is also perhaps the funniest, most inventive and most beautiful book I have ever read.
            The novel does, however, have a plot; The Recognitions is the story of an extremely talented young artist, Wyatt Gwyon, who, after receiving a terrible review of his first painting exhibition (for the reason that he refused to pay the critic to write a good review), becomes a professional art forger, counterfeiting the works of the old Flemish masters for a shadowy international ring of criminal art dealers. While the book includes an enormous and encyclopaedic set of references to other topics, including the history of Christianity and pagan religions, alchemy, the Faust myth, and huge array of other characters and subplots, it is first and foremost a satire of the Greenwich Village art world in the 40s and 50s. The book contains long party scenes full of young ‘hip’ artists who are basically unbearable people, and its riotous skewering of bourgeois bohemians is, if anything, more relevant today than it ever has been.
            At the same time, it is also full of beautiful passages of moving writing, such as this short line about a young married couple venturing off on a cruise-ship for the first time: ‘Nevertheless, they boarded the Purdue Victory and sailed out of Boston harbor, provided against all the inclemencies but these they were leaving behind, and those disasters of such scope and fortuitous originality which Christian courts of law and insurance companies, humbly arguing ad hominem, define as acts of God.’
            When Gaddis published the book in 1955 at the age of 33, he had high hopes that it would establish his reputation as a writer, and, as he later stated: ‘I almost think that if I'd gotten the Nobel Prize when The Recognitions was published I wouldn't have been terribly surprised.’ But the tepid response meant that Gaddis returned to work in advertising and corporate speechwriting, and his book dwelled in obscurity for more than twenty years. In the interim, his reputation was buoyed by a book entitled, Fire the Bastards! by Jack Green, which sought to demonstrate that almost all of the 55 contemporary reviews of The Recognitions demonstrated obvious errors (and that most reviewers hadn’t even finished reading the book!). Gaddis later won the National Book Award in 1976 for his second novel, JR, and enjoyed some small fame and recognition.
            But in many ways, this history is fitting for a book that is very much about artists who don’t get recognised and the final lines of the novel, which describe the fate of the work of a composer who dies in the collapse of a building, are often taken as fitting description of Gaddis’s own reception: ‘most of his work was recovered too, and it is still spoken of, when it is noted, with high regard, though seldom played.’
            To put it simply, if you haven’t read The Recognitions, then you’re simply missing the best that 20th Century literature has to offer.

1 comment:

ryaneoneill said...

Great review Emmett, and you inspired me to track down the book just to see if a novel that is so long can really be so good. (I'm a big fan of short novels. I believe that most contemporary novels could lose a third of their page count and be vastly improved)
I'm only on page 150 of 'The Recognitions', and am thoroughly enjoying it so far. It has brilliant writing on every page, and on some pages it seems, every sentence. I'll be interested to see if it is one of those books that is the best thing ever for the first 200 pages, and then you wish it would just end for the next 200, or, if as your review suggests, Gaddis has the stamina to keep the whole thing going so well for another 800 pages. I'll let you know how I go...

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