Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts

William H. Gass, Author
William H. Gass. Knopf, $28.95 (368p) ISBN 978-0-307-59584-3
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Essayist, novelist, and literary critic Gass (Cartesian Sonata) looks back on a long life of sentences in this thoroughly engaging book. In the quietly humorous "Slices of Life in a Library," Gass recalls learning "what provisions to smuggle in by briefcase" and his moral dilemma over whether to steal an overlooked first edition of Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons. An academic air persists throughout, and though occasionally sentimental, Gass grounds each anecdotal essay in a germane world event, disposition, human flaw, or intellectual concern. Infused with a wistful melancholy, "Retrospection" sees Gass resuscitating some very early, amusing, poetical pursuits while musing on his own authorial habits, among them "jingling" and "whoring and metaphoring." In addition to ruminations on his own writing life, Gass also gives the greats—good and bad—their due, genially and deftly deconstructing Proust, exploring the appeal of the mad philosopher by putting Nietzsche under the philological microscope, and offering his own take on the life of the controversial Nobel Prize-winning "Nordic Nazi" Knut Hamsun. "The Biggs Lectures in the Classics" are intimate and detailed in evaluating more abstract topics, such as form and metaphor. While these and other lectures are successful on the whole, one senses that some of the charm of occasion and place must have been lost in transcription. Though lacking a sense of flow, the erratic nature and unconventional narrative arc is appealing and not only warrants, but rewards revisiting. (Jan.)
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