Agape Agape, by William Gaddis

(Maybe the title would make more sense, if I could figure out how to do accents on WordPress).

I think every writer should write at least one short book, so that I can read it and make up my mind on whether to read any of the longer books. Not that I have any great idea whether this book of Gaddis’ inclines me to read anything else of his. Its virtue is its shortness: if it was longer, I can’t imagine I’d ever get around to finishing it.

This novel is recounted in a style which we will call by the term “rant” – which of course always reminds me of Juan Goytisolo [it should remind you of Thomas Bernhard. The afterword says it’s based on Thomas Bernhard] – Thomas Bernhard, then. Gaddis makes several references to the fact that people (writers, thinkers) keep stealing his ideas before he’s written them down himself (yes, it’s annoying that: – and you have no proof that they were your ideas). – What’s this rant about? It appears to be an old man’s rant about how all art these days is useless: – that in these days of technology and democracy, any elite concept of art has been lost (everything has been reorientated around money, and skill – the pleasure of the craftsman – forgotten).. His main exhibit in this is (perhaps somewhat strangely) the history of the automated piano-player. (I forgot to mention, the narrator is writing all this, fearing that his death is imminent – i.e. in a very Beckettian manner).

It’s very much a stream-of-consciousness affair. Gaddis will quite happy break off one thought in the middle of a sentence, and constantly skips about in a jumble of recurrent ideas. Obviously this doesn’t much help in demonstrating what Gaddis’ point is – unless, of course, Gaddis’ only point is that his thoughts (the thoughts of his character) are a jumbled composite of his obsessions, which he’s never going to gather properly into coherent ideas.

Who’s this kind of thing aimed at? – I don’t know: perhaps precisely the kind of people Gaddis doesn’t really conceive of as existing any more. I guess I should like it more myself: – he references two non-fiction writers I like but whom I’d consider to be relatively (not obscure, just) specialised: E.R. Dodds and Johan Huizinga. I think probably this is a novel you should read in one go – but if, like me, you stop at any point, it’s not so easy to pick up the thread or continue enjoying it exactly as you were (also, like Goytisolo). To be honest, it just becomes tiresome, repetitive, a struggle.

10 thoughts on “Agape Agape, by William Gaddis

  1. Always been disappointed with Bill Gaddis. Given his philosophical training, and his interests, he should be a great writer; but he isn’t. The essays he wrote for the NYRB are full of pseudo-profundity.

    Huizinga is wonderful; and I don’t think you have to be more interested in his particular subjects than the average intellectual in order to enjoy him. Though perhaps I am speaking of the average intellectual entre-deux-guerres. One not dissimilar to Huizinga in producing books featuring both erudition and style of an exceptional standard, is Ernst Robert Curtius. Perhaps today he too is put in the “relatively specialized” category as you put it. Have you read him? His “The Civilization of France” would appeal to you I think.

  2. Gaddis does seem to have a lot of potentiality, and to waste it. There are certainly good sentences in the book. In the afterword, it said he was originally intending to write a non-fiction book, but didn’t think it was original enough, so turned it into a fictional work instead.

    I will look into Ernst Robert Curtius. The one called “European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages” immediately interests me. Of Huizinga, I’ve only read “The Waning of the Middle Ages”. It never really occurred to me that he might have written other books.

  3. Gabe Roth, I never read Gaddis’ articles; his non-fiction certainly doesn’t have the status of his fiction. But if there’s something his novels don’t suffer from, that’s pseudo-profundity.

    obooki, you’re making it look more complicated than it is: it can be read as the rambling thoughts of a dying man rushing to put in order his ideas about how art has become impossible in the modern world. Gaddis explored the same theme in The Recognitions and J R. This isn’t a tortuous riddle, it’s pretty straightforward and filled with many insightful, humane, funny passages.

  4. St Oberose, thank you for your valuable reply: I wrote my original comment thinking of William Gass, whose fiction I have not read, but whose essays on philosophy I think rather poor. Got the Williams confused. Have never knowingly read a word of Gaddis, so cannot comment on his value one way or another.

  5. That’s interesting. I always used to mix up William Gaddis and William Gass too, before I read them. (I wonder what it is?). Gass fits in also with my idea of writers writing short books for me to sample them: I tried his Autumn Sonata once, got about 30 pages in, and decided I had no further interest in him as a writer. (Harsh? – Well, I just don’t have the time). This also fits in with another of my pet ideas, which is: everything you write needs to be of a literary standard you’re proud of, because I, as a reader, intend to judge you entirely on the first thing I come across (and that usually means, about the first 30 pages). What’s more, out of a natural perversity, it’s very unlikely I’m going to read your most famous book first.

    (Pynchon is another example. I read a short book of his years ago – by which I mean, before the inception of this blog – enjoyed it, and then have never read anything by him since. So maybe I should rephrase my dictum as: Don’t write long books, because it’s unlikely I’ll ever read them).

    In terms of Goytisolo, it’s more of an impression in my mind: I couldn’t say I recollect the books I’ve read enough to know which ones any more I’d term as a rant. But I’m inclined to think his style tends towards this the older he gets. So starting with Juan the Landless, what I’ve read is: The Garden of Secrets, Exiled from Almost Everywhere, Blind Rider, The Virtues of the Solitary Bird, Makbara, and Landscapes After the Battle.(It’s possible I’ve also read Siege of State. I think I might (re-)read it, since it’s short, to determine whether I’ve read it or not).

  6. Actually this train of comments brought to mind a concern I have had with balance in an oeuvre. And in particular, where a writer’s essays stand in comparison to his novels, or to his poetry. The important writers who make a serious attempt at success in both, do succeed, e.g. Henry James, TSE, Larkin (who is still undervalued as a critic). I want to say that success in whatever form of writing he turns to, is the mark of a great writer; but then there is Max Beerbohm, a wonderful essay writer with a justly celebrated novel in ‘Zuleika Dobson’ and yet certainly a minor.

    In philosophy, one example does come to mind. I am apt to agree with André Gide and Harold Bloom that ‘Zarathustra’ does not always claim the heights Nietzsche’s other works do. It seems to me that Nietzsche could not consistently maintain in longer form what he achieved in his aphorisms and notations.

  7. I can’t think of much non-fiction I’ve read written by fiction writers. Autobiography, maybe. There’s certainly a group of fiction writers I think were much better at autobiography (Stendhal, George Moore, Anais Nin). Henry James, of course, famously failed as a playwright (though I’ve never read any of his plays). Again, going the other way, Oscar Wilde wrote wonderful plays, but his prose fiction I find tedious.

  8. I have not got round to reading the James plays; but I do not trust the handed down critical rep. For me, theatre criticism and critical writings on post-Romantic dramatic works, are almost all spoilt by the culture surrounding ‘Regietheater’. The prehistory of that practice is difficult, but there are certainly beginnings in the late nineteenth century, specifically in the London theatre audiences of that time. Let us remember that the same audiences who hissed Henry James were welcoming George Bernard Shaw.

  9. It would be interesting to read a play by Henry James. I can imagine it might be lacking in drama (maybe the actors would move in slow-motion, to indicate James’ style).

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