Reading Gaddis

For a while now, a friend of mine has been urging me to read one of the great modern American classics, The Recognitions by William Gaddis. And just recently, the thought of taking on something epic in size, clever, rich, allusive and yet, by all accounts, really quite easy and engaging to read has started to appeal to me. Yesterday, my copy of the novel arrived through the post, threatening to ruin my good relationship with the postman. It’s quite a beast – 956 pages in a largish format book, but it looks extremely enticing. In a nutshell, it’s a novel about art forgery and is considered to provide a bridge between Modernism and Postmodernism. Or to quote the essay by Peter Dempsey, available here:

‘Gaddis’ first novel takes the form of a quest. In a carefully wrought and densely-woven series of plots involving upwards of fifty characters across three continents, we follow the adventures of Wyatt Gwyon, son of a clergyman who rejects the ministry in favor of the call of the artist.  His quest is to make sense of contemporary reality, to find significance and some form of order in the world.  Through the pursuit of art he hopes to find truth.   His initial “failure” as an artist leads him not to copy but to paint in the style of the past masters, those who had found in their own time and in their own style the kind of order and beauty for which Wyatt is looking.  His talent for forgery is exploited by a group of unscrupulous art critics and businessmen who hope to profit by passing his works off as original old masters.   As the novel develops, these art forgeries become a profound metaphor for all kinds of other frauds, counterfeits and fakery: the aesthetic, scientific, religious, sexual and personal.  Towards the end, Wyatt wrenches something authentic from what Eliot called “the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.”   The nature of his revelation, however is highly ambiguous and is hedged about by images of madness and hallucination, which disturbs simple distinctions between real and authentic, between faiths and fakes.’

Anyway, I was wondering whether anyone else was interested in reading this alongside me? It doesn’t matter if no one is; I’m going to read it anyway and then post my thoughts regularly on the blog from the 1st of December. But if a few people were inclined to take this on as a group read, I would attempt to conquer my fear of technology and spawn a mini-blog off of the Reading Room site. There’s a fantastic website that covers all of Gaddis’s work and includes a complete set of annotations to The Recognitions that will come in very handy, to support the reading, so the marvels of the internet are at our disposal. Well, leave a note in the comments if this interests you.

I’ve been thinking about my general reading plans for the winter, as well. I had the privilege of offering a selection of books for the next Slaves of Golconda pick, and I liked the five I chose so much that I decided I’d read my way through all of them. So, that’s Drusilla Modjeska’s The Orchard, Marianne Wiggins’ The Shadow Catcher, Ali Smith’s Boy Meets Girl, David Markson’s Reader’s Block and the one we eventually elected for the group read, Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson. I’ve got my eye on a couple of classics: The Woman’s Room by Marilyn French and The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington, and some contemporary novels too, notably The People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks and Richard Russo’s Bridge of Sighs. I’ve also got some books overdue for review, including Toby Barlow’s Sharp Teeth (never think I’ve forgotten you, Toby). However, I must finish all the books I’ve currently got on the go (there’s about four of them) and catch up on the outstanding reviews. I’m writing this post sitting comfortably on the sofa, with a fire burning in the stove and the rain rattling against the windows. It’s going to be a long, cold, dark winter, which is just perfect for lots of magnificent reading, right?

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20 thoughts on “Reading Gaddis

  1. Oh, I’m considering joining you! I own that book and would like to read it, but it IS daunting, which would make it a great book to read with other people. I’m reassured that you say it’s easy and engaging to read — I really don’t know what to expect. I won’t commit 100% for sure just yet, but I’m seriously thinking about it!

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  3. I would so like to be with you in December for a group read, but I think the book is a little too dense for me. And long! I have read THE PEOPLE OF THE BOOK and YEARS OF WONDER by Geraldine Brooks, and found them both wonderful and wanting at the same time. It seems wrong of me to say that about such an incredible writer, but the protagonist’s narrative seems forced, though the rest was fabulous.
    So I will follow your journey from the sidelines.

  4. Dorothy – it would be such fun and so interesting to read with you, but I quite understand. Have a think about it and I’ll get back in touch nearer the 1st December. Qugrainne – having you along even on the sidelines is just great. I’m really intrigued now to read Geraldine Brooks – I think the authors who are a bit controversial are even more interesting than those everyone loves unreservedly! I’ll let you know how I get on. Charlotte – umm, yes, definitely a time to keep warm and well entertained! And always happy to know you’re there, Charlotte, in whatever capacity. Toby – oops, didn’t mean to scare you, only reassure you. Note to self: must stop frightening authors. :)

  5. I think I might just have to join you on this – I’ve wanted to read William Gaddis forever. Will have to get a copy of the novel and then pointedly ignore the other piles of books I am meaning to get through in November and December..but that shouldn’t be a problem :-)

  6. You’re very good reading modern American lit–I keep thinking how I need to do more of that, but I reach for other books instead. The Gaddis sounds pretty monumental. I was thinking he was a difficult author, but maybe I am making things too difficult (as I often do!). I’ll be watching you and Dorothy from the sidelines, though. Your winter book list sounds great. I really liked the Booth Tarkington novel (it’s a pity he’s not read much anymore) and the Geraldine Brooks novel, too. Your reading corner sounds nice and cozy and just the perfect weather to curl up with a good book (or books as the case may be!).

  7. First of all, Dorothy and Verbivore – fantastic! I’m so delighted that you’ll do this too! I’m going to get so much more out of Gaddis reading with you. In a little while I’ll send you an email to discuss possible names for the project and discuss how we might like to go about it.

    Danielle – can you believe that before I started blogging I had hardly read an American author (well, apart from Judith Krantz). It’s been one of the great revelations, finding and enjoying all this wonderful literature. You read so much and so widely I can’t imagine how you could possibly fit any more in! But I’m delighted to know that you liked both the Tarkington and the Brooks. That just makes me all the keener to get to them.

  8. What great reading plans! And Gaddis, I’ve been wanting to read him for awhile. I think it would be fun to read it along with you. So what if it is another year before I finish Clarissa!

  9. I like Gaddis very much, and while I can’t participate due to other obligations, will be interested in reading what is said. One thing: _The Recognitions_ is _funny_. Not all of it, no, but when it is, it’s laugh out loud funny. It’s not a ponderous heavy object or like Thomas Mann’s books, say; and the prose is quite something. I was reading it aloud to anyone who’d listen. For whatever that’s worth. Have fun.

  10. JB – it will be wonderful to have you riding side-saddle as it were! I’m always encouraged to know that books are going to be funny, and it’s great to have such encouraging comments from someone who’s read the book and clearly loves it. Thank you for sharing that!

    Emily – that is FANTASTIC! So glad to have you along!

  11. ordered it from my bookstore today, as well as the winterson. got a few others you list here, as well. i totally look to you for my reading list.

    if you have room on your list, add *fragment of the whole*

  12. Emily – I am going to go away and look up Fragment of the Whole as soon as I’m done with comments. I would love to know what you make of any of the books you read and am so looking forward to reading Gaddis with you.

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  14. I read The Recognitions by William Gaddis about forty years ago. I still recall being awe struck by the extreme depth of the author’s literary culture. I plan to reread it.

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