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William Gass on literary quest at Schapiro Center lecture

“I recently had to do a retrospective piece. It was a horrible experience.” So wrote William Gass in an e-mail interview, cautioning against reminiscence: “Don’t look back; complete immobility may be gaining on you.” Gass, the author of experimental fictions and a raft of critical works, seems to take his own advice—though, at age 84, he could be forgiven for resting on his laurels.

In the course of a decades-long career, Gass has come at the workings of language from many different angles: as a student in philosophy at Kenyon and Cornell, as a reader whose personal library houses tens of thousands of volumes, as a writer of acclaimed short stories (such as “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country”) and devilishly clever novels (including Omensetter’s Luck and The Tunnel), as an essayist whose work earned him the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in 2007, and as a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, where, in 1990, he founded the International Writers Center. He is as credentialed a man of letters as one could hope to meet.

But this vaunted status hasn’t satisfied Gass, who continues to search (quest, even) for new ways of understanding language and literature. In describing his current projects, he rattled off quite a list—“a novel called Middle C, a little book called On Some Passages in Jeremy Taylor, getting a couple essay collections together, still working on The Architecture of the Sentence”—and then added, “essays now and then for Harper’s.”

This productivity is typical. Since his retirement from teaching at the start of the decade, he has published two collections of essays, Tests of Time and A Temple of Texts (whose alliterative titles correspond to those of earlier works such as Finding a Form and The World Within the Word), and completed an audio recording of The Tunnel.

On Wednesday, Gass’ muse will lead him to the Davis Auditorium of the Schapiro Center to speak about “Baroque prose.” The lecture, beginning at 6:15 p.m., will serve as a prelude to his “small book” on the same subject—which the author described as “an oral prose, not a ‘written’ but a ‘spoken’ one.”

Its history begins in 17th-century England, “when the conflict between Puritans, Anglicans, and Catholics was at its height and affecting the nature of the church and what went on during services, principally the sermons.” In this hothouse of rhetoric, Gass locates the seeds of a “performance prose,” marked by “a physicality of language which will require the reader to mimic the writer’s verbal movements, and even chew the words.” (Demonstrating a talent for this style of writing, he insisted, “The ear’s mouth must move.”)

Gass listed John Donne, Jeremy Taylor, Sir Thomas Browne, and Thomas Hobbes as early devotees of Baroque prose. He would be their evangelist today. Indeed, when he compared their works with those by “old young people” currently writing, his enthusiastic preference for the former came through: “A sermon of Donne’s often has more ideas, more energy, certainly more art, than these writers’ entire books. And the meters of Sir Thomas Browne are confounding and should astonish everyone.”

But Gass isn’t an antiquarian. He is for good writing, period—if only it “grasp[s] the lasting quality, rather than the passing changes, of the language.” Asked to list a few of his favorite contemporary writers, he mentioned Paul West and Alexander Theroux. And he allowed for a bit of self-acknowledgment: “As for youthfulness: I value experimentation. In that area, I am one of the youngest writers now writing.”

The full text of the interview with William Gass can be found on Spectacle.

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