First Impressions – and Saying Goodbye

Now that I’m no longer teaching literature, one of the things I miss most is critical commentary, the exercise in which you are given a chunk of text and invited to make of it what you will. I used to love doing this and one of the opportunities provided by the new Gaddis blog is the time and space and the right kind of book for just such a reading. When the students used to groan and say they didn’t know where to begin, I used to suggest that they think about the text as if it were a person they had just met, and they were required to give an account of his or her character as it appeared to them. Reading the opening segment of The Recognitions, a passage of about 20 pages (far too long for your average critical commentary, but we’ll overlook that), I was struck by how much the narrative voice lends itself to just such a treatment.

You see, I had the overwhelming first impression of having stumbled upon one of those loquacious old soaks in a dimly-lit bar, someone who relentlessly colonises a corner of a pub and keeps up a running commentary. By rights he should have a hint of an Irish accent and look magnificently destroyed by the vagaries of life. I felt as it I’d arrived in that bar on an indeterminate day, at an indeterminate time, the kind of time when a gloomy drinking hole was the last place I ought to be, and before I knew it, I’d been suckered in to listening to some epic tale whose beginning was lost in the middle of last week. Plunged into some stream of verbiage that didn’t quite make sense until I’d listened to the first ten minutes, because the point of the story, its point of orientation, didn’t reveal itself until the first couple of paragraphs had passed. And by then of course, it was too late, I was listening.

My first reaction was initially one of panic at the thought of listening to a densely-wrought, alcohol-sodden monologue, and one that had little consideration for my ease and comfort. What, 900 pages of this? Cropping up through the swift-flowing current of narrative were the wrecking rocks of a hundred references, nothing more than a word here or there, but enough to break the smoothness and send ripples of reading consternation. It’s funny how you can know that a reference to something unwritten, unexplained and beyond the scope of the story has just passed by your eyes, even if you have no idea what it actually referred to. Eventually, a landscape started to form, one of a reverend who set out to sail to Spain and lost his wife en route, who encountered tremendous difficulties finding somewhere to have her buried, who stayed then in the small town where she finally lay, ill with grief, beset by cunning locals hoping for tangible charity, until he was well enough again to return to America. Yes, I could imagine such a story coming from an enigmatic and yet all-too-open stranger in a bar. The manner of the telling, at first confusing and abrasive, gently began to reveal its charms. The intellectual gloss of the text was more than skin-deep – was the narrator an academic who has crossed the ill-defined line between genius and madness? There are enough of those. Or a lapsed priest? The narrative is thickly studded with religious imagery, religious concerns, above and beyond those necessary for the biography of a man of the church. Or was he simply a poet, so deeply embedded in his flights of lyric fantasy that he had forgotten to come up for air and threatened to suffocate the reader with him, in the mortal coils of his creativity? Academic, priest, poet, none of these voices necessarily negates the other; indeed they interweave well together, all marginalized but piercingly insightful perspectives on the grubby and glorious human soul.

But just when you think things are getting too serious, there’s a lot of cunning here, too. A sly tongue-in-cheek turn of phrase that reveals an amused fascination for deceptions of all kinds. The fact that Reverend Gwyon’s wife dies from an appendicitis operation performed by a fraudster skipping the country and masquerading as a doctor is treated ambivalently, as tragi-comic. Religion is described as ‘sincere theatricals’, and the monastery where he stays is run by an order whose ‘sense of guilt was so great, and measures of atonement so stringent, that those who came through alive were a source of embarrassment to lax groups of religious who coddled themselves with occasional food and sleep.’ There’s also a delight in excess, in the wilder reaches of the human condition that only sit well in this kind of rampaging narrative, like ‘Fr. Eulalio, a thriving lunatic of eighty-six who was castigating himself for unchristian pride at having all the vowels in his name, and greatly revered for his continuous weeping, [who] went blind in an ecstasy of such howling proportions that his canonization was assured.’ But for all the linguistic profusion of these dramatic, entertaining, alarming digressions, it is interesting how often they reflect some quiet but significant pillar of the narrative, how often they reveal the foundation stones that the story otherwise leaps over in a frenzied dance. When the reverend walks through the streets of San Zwingli we are told that ‘he stopped to watch children’s games on the pavements, seeking there, as he sought in the cast of roofs, the delineations of stairs, passages, bedrooms, and kitchens left on walls still erect where the attached building had fallen, or the shadow of a chair-back on the repetitious tiling of a floor, indications of persistent pattern, and significant form.’ Likewise we can see in the games the text plays with us, in the crumbling ruins of an old-fashioned, sturdy, narrative frame, something persistent and significant, something that only arises out of patterns dimly sought that we can piece together only in careful contemplation.

And just occasionally, amongst the play and the parody and the downright confusing bits, there are moments of great beauty: ‘False dawn past, the sun prepared the sky for its appearance, and there, a shred of perfection abandoned unsuspecting at the earth’s rim, lay the curve of the old moon, before the blaze which would rise behind it to extinguish the cold quiet of its reign.’ It’s still a bit over the top, the academic, the priest and the poet all working a bit too hard, or maybe just having a bit too much fun, but there is grandeur in the cracks and crevices of this narrative, a promise of something greater than the sum of its fragmented parts. It was enough that, closing the door on the smoky depths of the pub, as I closed the cover on this doorstep of a book, I was grateful for the quiet and the cool, still air, whilst knowing I would be drawn back to that manic monologue again.

Cross-posted at Reading Gaddis

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Like everyone else, I was shocked and saddened to hear of Dewey’s death. We got to know one another over the summer of 2007 when we realized we both taught French literature and were both suffering from chronic illnesses. That summer we exchanged a series of long emails, exclaiming over the coincidences in our lives, talking about the wonderful world of book blogging and discussing our shared love of reading. When the news had sunk in a bit, it seemed to me important that we should do something as a celebration of Dewey’s time in the blog world. Dewey was an amazing community builder and I don’t think any other blogger came up with so many inventive projects to get us all to interact. I was wondering whether it might be a nice idea to hold a special Bookworms Carnival in Dewey’s honour, as a tribute to her skills. Anyone who wished to could contribute his or her favourite post from among any of Dewey’s many schemes – weekly geeks, one of the tremendous read-a-thons, the bookworm carnivals – or indeed a post that remembered Dewey or was connected to her in any way. Just a few sentences to say why the post had been chosen would make a lovely addition and a memorial to her. I’d be happy to host and organize this, but I need your help. It may be that other people are planning tributes and if so, we could work together. I also don’t know how to spread the word to enough bloggers – any suggestions warmly welcomed. And fundamentally, if people think a special Carnival would be something they’d like to see happen, please do let me know.

13 thoughts on “First Impressions – and Saying Goodbye

  1. Wonderful idea about the Bookworms Carnival as a tribute to Dewey, who was the most prolific book reviewer I have ever encountered. While I don’t know how we could reach her entire community (help from her husband, perhaps?), I would certainly love to contribute something.

  2. Litlove, I enjoyed this first post on Gaddis, and think that the mysteries will deepen, and unfold, in all sorts of ways. There’s so much yet to come. One thing to perhaps help locate the novel is to think of usian literature (mainstream) in 1955, when _The Recognitions_ appeared. Few reviewers were ready for it – few read past the blurbs. Surrender to the narrator is perhaps the best thing to do until you get your bearings. I look forward to what you’ll be saying in the future.

    As for Dewey, I don’t know who he is, but of course I’m sorry for the lost friendship or acquaintanceship you had.

  3. Charlotte – I’m so pleased if you’re interested in doing this! I’ll leave notices up where I can for a week or so, and see what happens. I hope enough people will be keen to take part. JB – Just to set the record straight – Dewey was a woman. As for Gaddis, I can’t imagine many parts of the world that would have been ready for The Recognitions in 1955. But I’m looking forward to those mysteries deepening and unfolding – that sounds wonderful.

  4. You capture the experience of starting this book beautifully! It is very much like coming in on someone’s monologue and having to work and be patient while it all falls into place (if it ever really does). It’s interesting that the passages you quoted are even funnier out of context — it seems like the narrator pulls you along with such insistence that you are almost willing to accept as normal some of the bizarre things he says. And very nice point about the children’s games — the book offers wonderful rewards for very slow reading, which is the point you started on, of course.

  5. I think your idea for Dewey is a lovely one.

    Oh, and, um, this?

    “You see, I had the overwhelming first impression of having stumbled upon one of those loquacious old soaks in a dimly-lit bar, someone who relentlessly colonises a corner of a pub and keeps up a running commentary.”

    Well, that’s just flat-out, BRILLIANT writing!

  6. The book is so completely over the top in many ways, isn’t it? But I love it for that because it doesn’t make any apologies. I like what you say about the foundations of the story being built. At first I didn’t understand why we were following Gwyon and Camilla when the book was supposed to be about someone named Wyatt. But then when Gwyon is revealed as Wyatt’s father, I thought, aha! We are being made privy to the creation of the person that is to be Wyatt as an adult. It is such slow going, but quite enjoyable.

    I like you idea for a Dewey memorial. I didn’t know her very well, but I did participate in her first read-a-thon and what a blast that was!

  7. Dorothy – I’m more relived than I can say that your experience of those early pages was similar to mine! I agree completely with what you say about the narrator’s voice being so encompassing and overwhelming that the best the reader can do at some points is just to go along with it. I found reading your post helped me a lot to start off with mine. I’m so pleased this is a group read! Emily – If I could hug you, I would. I’ve been feeling so down about my writing, so your comment was a lovely and much-needed boost. Thank you so much! Ann – LOL! I think that remark is worryingly near the truth! Stefanie – Completely over the top, yes! And the opening is so very disorienting, what with Reverend Gwyon taking centre stage and heading off to Spain, which is not at all what I expected. I can’t quite believe how slow going it is, but I’m sure that’s good for me, in a readerly way. I need to think about how I’m going to incorporate the book into my week. And I remember reading your readathon posts – I couldn’t have done it myself, but I did enjoy it as an armchair spectator sport!🙂

  8. I promise you: you need NEVER feel down about your writing. Most of us would sacrifice an arm (preferably, not our writing arm) to be able to write as eloquently as you do. So, move on from those thoughts (and onto thoughts of giving us more to read, preferably in shelves of published books form).

  9. I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready to read something by Gaddis, but reading such entertaining posts like this may actually make me contemplate it. Or maybe I can just experience his vicariously through everyone’s posts on the book! Also–very kind words about Dewey. I read her posts via Bloglines/Goodgle Reader, but I never had the chance to participate in any of her reading projects (would have loved to be able to do the 24 hour read-a-thon). That’s very kind that you’re coming up with a Memorial–and I am sure it will be appreciated by her many readers.

  10. Eva – Oh I’m so glad – I was beginning to be afraid (well, still am a bit) that not enough people will be up for it. I will definitely put your name down. Thank you. Emily – okay, I really AM going to throw myself into your arms and sob at this rate! I think I need to bottle you and keep you. Or if Bob is looking for another church, ever, then may I recommend the East of England as a nice place to live?🙂 Danielle – aww, you know we would love to have you on board, but at the same time I can wholly sympathise with any apprehension about reading Gaddis – I cannot tell you how glad I am to have the others doing this with me! And I do so agree with you about wishing I could have had a stab at the 24 hour readathon (but was certainly never capable of it). On a slightly different note, bloglines has been down again for a while, so I am behind with my reading. I quite understand your move to google reader but my heart fails me when I think of all the work involved. I’ll have to see how it goes with bloglines!

  11. I think the Bookworm Carnival is a great idea to celebrate Dewey’s contribution to book blogging. As for Gaddis, this one sounds intriguing but also rather intimidating. Very impressed that you guys have taken it on. Will try and follow the reviews, which are fun in themselves. Sounds like you’re missing the teaching already.

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