cover image TESTS OF TIME: Essays


William H. Gass, . . Knopf, $25 (336pp) ISBN 978-0-375-41257-8

These 14 essays from essayist, novelist and philosopher Gass (Finding a Form, etc.), which first appeared in a variety of other venues, are neatly divided into three sections, "Literary Matters," "Social and Political Contretemps" and "The Stuttgart Seminar Lectures," delivered to a cultural studies seminar. Ardent in his admirations, Gass, an emeritus professor in the humanities at Washington University in St. Louis who is nearing 80, produces remarkably succinct and well-thought-out criticism in a passionate and precise yet easy and vernacular-based language. Some essays start with deceptive lightness, like "I've Got a Little List," beginning with takeoffs on a famous Gilbert and Sullivan patter song, then developing into revealing literary observations: "The list is the fundamental rhetorical form for creating a sense of abundance, overflow, excess. We find it so used in writers with an appetite for life from Rabelais and Cervantes, or from Burton to Browne, to Barth and Elkin." On social and political matters, Gass employs a similarly tuned instrument, as he examines Algerian literary politics, and 1930s American fascism from the moment "I first heard my father refer to his president as 'that rich Jew Rosenfeld'" to Father Coughlin and beyond. All the essays retain care and gusto; even a meditation on history and lies based around the O.J. Simpson trial feels fresh. If Gass finds the prose of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities "elevated to poetry without the least sign of strain," the same might be said for much of this collection. (Mar.)

Forecast:Gass has won a National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism, Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundation fellowships, a Lannan Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award and many other honors. This book is not going to set any records at the register, but it will be well reviewed, particularly in terms of the newly invigorated search for a workable modern ethics à la Richard Rorty.