This is the good stuff right here, folks It may take me a while before I can explain why But almost all of these essays are awe inspiring. This is Gass s latest collection of essays, grouped into 4 sections The first part is several personal essays, and it s followed by what I think is Gass s foremost quality, literary criticism Three of his lectures on classicism is included, and the book concludes with 3 essays on the technical aspects of writing and grammar.For me the criticism is the backbone of the collection Here s a precious portrait of Gertrude Stein not to be missed I learned even new, useful intricacies about reading Proust One delight of Gass s criticism is his exquisite writing and fresh insight which is even interesting than those he writes about, like his comments on myth in an essay on Katherine Anne Porter or, my favorite, Knut Hamsun seen in terms of the city mouse and the country mouse.Gass always writes clear prose which at the same time burns white hot in the mind with original and jarring images And yet it has the fluidity of conversation and colloquialism In 3 days 30 July he ll be 89 years old and he s still a student of the sentence, though master might be the better word The volume s final 2 essays are Narrative Sentences and The Aesthetic Structure of the Sentence Both display his understanding of the technical aspects of sentences and how they ve been demonstrated in literature That s the salient feature of Life Sentences and what we ll always remember about the prolific writing of William Gass, beautifully crafted sentences about elegant thought. A Dazzling New Collection Of Essays On Reading, Writing, Form, And Thought From One Of America S Master Writers It Begins With The Personal, Both Past And Present It Emphasizes Gass S Lifelong Attachment To Books And Moves On To The Analytical, As He Ponders The Work Of Some Of His Favorite Writers Among Them Kafka, Nietzsche, Henry James, Gertrude Stein, Proust He Writes About A Few Topics Equally Burning But Less Loved The Nobel Prize Winner And Nazi Sympathizer Knut Hamsun The Holocaust Finally, Gass Ponders Theoretical Matters Connected With Literature Form And Metaphor, And Specifically, One Of Its Genetic Parts The Sentence Gass Embraces The Avant Garde But Applies A Classic Standard Of Writing To All Literature, Which Is Clear In These Essays, Or, As He Describes Them, Literary Judgments And Accounts Life Sentences Is William Gass At His Gassian Best Never pass up the opportunity to read a Gass essay He s a master of the form.The opening section, The Personals Column , begins with the solaceful The Literary Miracle The finer works of art are miracles in the sense that they are so unlikely to have emerged from the ignoble and bloody hands of man that we stand in awe of them, and that they have been written or built or composed at the behest of superstitions so blatantly foolish as to embarrass reason, and cause common sense to snicker, is itself wondrous and beyond ordinary comprehension And Slices of Life in a Library A thing on baseball, a thing on 9 11, on freedom of expression, and, given his age, an unavoidable Retrospection There s some political ranting here which may surprise the reader like me like me who understands Gass as a largely disengaged aesthetician but what s political than his masterpiece, The Tunnel Second, Old Favorites and Fresh Enemies is as it mostly sounds Stein, Proust, Nietzsche wish Gass did N as philosopher rather than focus on the biography so often , Kafka, Lowry, H James, Gardner, Katherine Anne Porter, Knut Hamsun and his fascism and a gory piece on the Nazis, Kinds of Killing Then we get a can t miss thing, The Biggs Lectures in the Classics , in which Gass discusses a favorite, form an enemy, mimesis or imitation and an old drinking buddy, metaphor.Closing with Theoretics a charming ode to Lust and two on the classic Gass topic, the sentence, Narrative Sentences and The Aesthetic Structure of the Sentence. For the past few months I ve dipped in and out of Gass s latest collection of essays until I ve read them all There were only a few doldrums the essay on Malcolm Lowry and disappointments the essay on Kafka And yes I could live happily without ever reading another word by or about Henry James.But Gass is impressive whatever his subject His essay on Nietzsche is the best meditation on that vexing, fearless and pitiable philosopher that I ve ever read Kinds of Killing beginning as a review of Richard Evans s The Third Reich at War is stunning in its survey of the horror inflicted by Hitler s patriots, which concluded for the Nazis in a vast wave of suicides without precedent in modern history, and sadly included survivors of the camps who would kill themselves because they were alive Despair and its summation doesn t get any darker.The book concludes with brighter reflections on the art of literacy on form eidos mimesis which Gass finds overrated Falsehood and error have played a far larger role in history than truth and correctness, for falsehood always finds a way to be convenient and of use and the structure of the sentence.I ve been collecting Gass s remarkable essays ever since I came across On Being Blue in the late 70s Those collections are still on my shelves alongside my favorite, Reading Rilke The writing is strong, the philosophy as bitter as bright metal, and the measured wisdom certain. Judgemental as AnythingAll rise The judge is in the courtI write to indict mankindGass almost saidindite , because that would have been really punny He didn t, but he tells us anyway about the pun foregone but not forgotten And so a little titter whatever that is runs through the courtroom and back out the entrance.The Emperor Gassius is a self proclaimed master of the declaratory sentence Here he plumbs the depths of the imperious and obnoxious mode As the subtitle promises, it is plural than singular there are judgements than judgement on display Also, perhaps, accounting than taste Beyond the reach of his acolytes, his spawn shall be spurned Does that sound right Is that how you do it The remainder of this essay is on temporary loan to The Phat Batarde Review of Contemporary Fiction Studies. Reading Jacques Barzun s From Dawn to Decadence when it was first published, I found it difficult, but not impossible, to believe that the author was 92 years old he s 104 now I say not impossible because there s something in Barzun s professorial delivery however intellectually nimble that suggests a comfort with his topic only earned after, well, decades and decades of deep acquaintance William Gass, at 87 years, is by now almost the fogey Barzun was twelve years ago, but I find it even harder to believe in his personal antiquity reading these essays Not that Gass and Barzun have much of a common perspective If Barzun is the wizened professor of yore, Gass though a professor in real life too is the snarky, trouble making student that disrupts class with impertinent questions and leaves a collective sigh of relief in his wake when he finally drops the course.Gass makes some very excellent prose, but I don t like him much He manages to be an irritating adolescent and a dirty old man at the same time He s a misanthropist of the unpleasant sort He s snarky He likes to quote himself Of course Gass doesn t care what I the reader think about him personally, but he has better qualities too If I fingers crossed manage to make it to the doorstep of ninety, I hope I m still as aggressively curious about things as Gass is Curiosity counts for a lot. This book is like no other, and not a quick read.There are four sections The Personals Column, Old Favorites and Fresh Enemies, The Biggs Lectures in the Classics, and Theoretics The Personals Column includes six chapters of personal reflections, and was the most entertaining of the four book sections Two of my highlights from The Literary Miracle chapter in this section The fact that a gay guy painted the Sistine ceiling is not nearly as dumbfounding as the papacy s protection of pederasts in spite of their official attitude toward such objectionable practices one of which ought to be the ceiling itself, for if anything is unnatural, for them, genius is The secular miracle is an incomprehensible juxtaposition of events, not a rare or occasional break in the order of things, but a paired regularity that persists in making no sense the first being the creation of inspired art, and the second requiring a wonder equal to it, namely, that such accomplishments, often, by quite ordinary or even subpar human beings What does make a sentence or a line of verse rise from the dead and walk again, run for a record, and even dance as dancers do when blessed Reading the second section, Old Favorites and Fresh Enemies , left me feeling stupid and inadequately read and I thought I read a lot Writing of 11 authors a range of Proust to Hamsun , Gass refers to multiple biographies, the author s corpus of work, critical reviews, and personal critique I confess to skimming some of these chapters, each about a specific author, generally because I couldn t understand the references Sometimes Gass comes across as pompous I forgive him though, because it is only through my illiteracy that I can label him thus If I were well read, the adjective would be esoteric At the end of section two I was left inspired to read the discussed authors, using this text for consult.The third section covers three concepts form, mimesis, and metaphor This section of the book is worth the price of admission alone These are brilliant essays From Form Although science may use cause, philosophy substance, or theology soul in a distinctive way, individuals living and thinking and coping on a day to day basis may actually have a profile that reflects their own particular personality and intellectual character Some of us will feel persecuted by a lengthy red light others will clock it and prepare to mail a complaint a few of us may even admire the wisdom of such a simple system of permission and restraint In any case, there will be concepts or vaguely, words which will have special significance for each of us, terms that will usually provoke an obstinate opposition, a boil of ire, or a benevolent feeling of approval whenever they appear totemic words, talismanic or irritating The final section, Theoretics, feels like an appendix, in the useless worm like appendage sense, with the exception of The Aesthetic Structure of the Sentence, that could have been a delightful introduction or solo essay.Definitely a book for the reader and or writer you know, those who enjoy the challenge of mixing philosophy, epistemology, ontology, and grammar. The most recent compilation of post millennium Gass essays is as pleasurable and eclectic as the two previous collections, A Temple of Texts and Tests of Time, despite the absence of alliteration in the title Opening with six rare personal essays Gass is not overly fond of childhood reminiscing such as Slices of Life in a Library, where he discusses his customised home cum library, with pictures viewable here, Spit in the Mitt, a very rare short piece about his father and his baseball connections, and the excellent career review Retrospection, where the Maestro looks back over his life in fiction to our giddy delight Up next are eleven outstanding essays on old favourites and fresh enemies, covering Gass standards like Stein and James, alongside two staggering form breaking masterpieces on Kafka and Lowry, the former a re imagining of The Metamorphosis as warped biography, the latter a pseudo script for a film The concluding essays on Hamsun and a Third Reich tome are some of Gass s most powerful and unflinching ruminations on war and the holocaust the latter in particular encapsulating the philosophical darkness in The Tunnel The last six essays comprise a series of lectures in the classics that part of a Gass collection that will test the hardcore fans and three on theoretics, including valuable close readings of what makes timeless sentences with predictable references to James Few writers take the time to close read like Gass The results are instructional and essential for any inkers of fiction out there alongside this brilliant and indispensible collection of greatness. William H Gass s Life Sentences Literary Judgments and Accounts is a remarkable work of criticism on several levels Gass, who is the author of both fiction and literary criticism, is the master of his subject matter, and in the course of the book s 350 pages, he engages the reader both through his delight in the poetry and prose of his favorite writers and his scorn for the propagandizing and sophistry of those who have earned his enmity But where Gass s work really sparkles is in his ability to distill to its essence both the writing process and its devices to understand how ideas are conveyed most elementally and powerfully.The book opens with Gass receiving the 2007 Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism In his address, he emphasizes how, in great writing, the subtleties of sentence structure can perform miracles To adorn nature with a new thing that is the miracle that matters Most prose flows into an ocean of undifferentiated words To objectify through language a created consciousness, provide it with the treasured particularity we hope for for each human being that is the cherished aim of the art Gass asserts that a few inspired lines can turn a sonnet into a masterpiece, but that the critic must also be keenly aware of those writings that merely mimic greatness through grandeur s empty gestures In other words, critics of writing, as with other art forms, must retain a safe distance from imitators grandiose pretenses.In Retrospection, Gass offers a cynicism and skepticism about the human condition that could make Diogenes of Sinope look like a Las Vegas comic He confesses that his own novel The Tunnel arose out of his belief that no race or nation is better or worse than any other but also that the evil man does far outweighs the good And, emphasizing Socratic and Platonic teachings, he equates evil directly with ignorance, in the process declaring D.H Lawrence a fascist chowderhead T.S Eliot an anti Semitic snob William Butler Yeats fatuous William Blake mad Robert Frost a pious fake and Rainer Maria Rilke wrong often than not Henry James, faring somewhat better, might have made a misstep once alighting from a carriage As an octogenarian, Gass begins on a note of personal reflection, by recalling the good, sweet days of his youth in Fargo, N.D., and, in particular, his affection for his father, a former minor league baseball player in the St Louis Browns organization whose exhortation for players to spit in the mitt after an error to warn a player to get ready or simply to encourage concentration could double as one s philosophy of life.Gass s musings on America on the Fourth of July following the September 11 attacks, as complemented by his greater Retrospections , suggest the melancholy fragility not only of our own existence, but also of our cherished institutions, freedom of expression being particularly vulnerable Here, his description of latent tyrannical elements in our society is exquisitely ominous The tyrant ties tongues in knots Speech is so easy it takes than snow to slow its course The tyrant must frighten people from their freedom beat the soles of their feet till they mince their step in time to his goose wide stride But his tone is very much lighter when he discusses how he haunted the libraries at both the University of Illinois and Cornell University the latter being where he completed his doctoral degree At Cornell, the building resembled a ship in some ways and bore me off smoothly, which well suited this World War II navy veteran These experiences instilled in him a life long love of libraries his own library presently consists of nearly twenty thousand books, few of them rare, many unread, none of them neglected James makes a number of appearances in this book, though he is rivaled by Rilke, whose poetry Gass spent decades translating Gass also writes reverently of the enduring accomplishments seemingly against all odds of Gertrude Stein, the Mother Goose of Montparnasse of Marcel Proust, whose society lives like snow in a paperweight, inside the novel s structural imagery and Friedrich Nietzche, for whom in defiance of advice against extreme physical and intellectual exertion writing was his breathing and had to be done, no matter the pain and damage In Gass s pantheon, great writers are highly perceptive observers of the human condition, though their faults are often as outstanding as their literary accomplishments John Gardner was a reckless, yet brilliant novelist who sadly had a tendency to race his motorcycle while impaired Gass s essay on him commences with a telephone call from The Los Angeles Times asking if he might contribute an obituary of Gardner a motorcycle accident had just claimed his life Gass affectionately recalled that Gardner had Falstaff s gift for talk and revelry , and an intensity and warmth in his writing reminiscent of Dickens and Thackeray.Katherine Anne Porter s gift for sensuous yet hard edged prose was matched by a powerful revulsion away from her small town Texas upbringing with a Calvinist s morally severe self righteous hand In part, this caused her to construct a life made of myths, most of them planted there by Porter herself, and many meant to improve her humble beginnings, refigure the course of her early years and conceal the existence of her numerous marriages or frequent affairs Gass s tribute to Malcolm Lowry is a highly stylized piece, written in the manner of a screenplay, which is a perfect vessel in which to pour Lowry s own complex and dramatic background his life in Vancouver, Canada his travels in South America and his novels, works such as Under the Volcano and Through The Panama, which feature protagonists who are restless, besotted, and always questing.Eventually, Lowry became thoroughly enmeshed with the lives of his characters, who became passengers on a ship of hungover self consciousness Malcolm Lowry at the helm, unsteady as she goes Gass s evisceration of Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun, obscure legacy notwithstanding, is necessary and proper, and is bookended by a chilling discussion of books chronicling the Holocaust Gass initially focuses his ire on Hamsun, and throughout the essay, you feel almost taste the disgust Gass feels for this literary Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde Gass notes no one will be able to display the gold medal the Nobel hung around the Hamsun s neck, because Hamsun disgraced the prize by regifting it to Joseph Goebbels, himself a great creator of fictions Gass delivers his most powerful essay in Kinds of Killing, which, in its graphic depiction of horrific acts perpetrated by man upon man during World War II, is matched only if not surpassed by Gass s luminous narrative A primary reference he cites is a monumental three volume work by historian Richard Evans which offers, in excruciating detail, the horrors of the Holocaust as perpetrated from the earliest days of the Third Reich Of the advent of the war in 1939, Gass remarks that like a monstrous babe born from the brow of Rabelais, this war was only a few months old and already it had become a major crime against humanity Evans, whom Gass returns to frequently in the course of his essay, not only writes with the unjaundiced eye and pen of an experienced and sober historian, he also has actively sought out and discredited Holocaust deniers, often in courts of law As to this unfortunate yet persistent phenomenon, Gass quotes New York Times writer Jacob Heilbrunn, who writes The further the Holocaust recedes into the past, the it s being exploited to create a narrative of redemption Gass s writing here is arguably his most vivid poignant similes and imagery abound and only serve to exacerbate the vile inhumanity of Nazidom If there can be such a thing as beautiful writing about undistilled evil, Gass has most definitely accomplished this.In the latter fourth of the book, Gass demonstrates how his immersion in and affection for the classics has mightily informed his own elaborate prose In parsing such concepts as Eidos form , Mimesis replication and Metaphor, Gass clearly reveals his mastery of the written word For him a masterfully written sentence provokes a flight of fancy it s like a journey of discovery it s like a coil of rope a triumphal column it s like a hallway or a chapel a spiral stair For Gass, the fundamental elements of literary expression are a revelry, and this volume is than adequate evidence of that.With Life Sentences Gass makes a major contribution to the understanding and appreciation of great writing the power of words to move a reader or even mountains Lilting, rhapsodic narrative is Gass s trademark, and one can learn much from the beauty and subtlety of his rhetoric.