‘The Letters of William Gaddis,’ reviewed by Michael Dirda

As in his lifetime, William Gaddis (1922-98) remains a shadowy figure in 20th-century American fiction. When his first book, “The Recognitions,” appeared in 1955, the critics ignored, dismissed or misunderstood it. Two decades then passed before Gaddis produced a second novel, “J R” (1975), which won the National Book Award. In those years between, “The Recognitions” gradually came to be valued by many serious readers as the secret masterpiece of our time. In its vision of universal forgery, fakery and inauthenticity, in nearly 1,000 pages packed with arcane learning out of J.G. Frazer’s “The Golden Bough” and Robert Graves’s “The White Goddess,” Gaddis, it was argued, had produced the American counterpart to “Ulysses” or “The Magic Mountain.”

Some readers regard “J R” — told largely in dialogue — as an even greater book. Gaddis himself thought so. It focuses on a mysterious mogul, a real wheeler-dealer, who is in fact an 11-year-old boy with a flair for playing the market. After this dizzying accounting of money and business in American life, Gaddis brought out a somewhat perfunctory short novel (“Carpenter’s Gothic,” 1985), then returned to form in “A Frolic of His Own” (1994), a satirical look at the law, in which everyone ends up suing everyone else. It collected another National Book Award. In 2002, four years after his death, there appeared the novella-length “Agape Agape” — about, as he writes in one of these letters, “measurement & quantification as indexing thence dictating order & performance” — and a collection of occasional pieces, named after its great essay on failure, “The Rush for Second Place.”

(Dalkey Archive) - ‘Letters of William Gaddis’ by William Gaddis, edited by Steven Moore (Dalkey Archive. 545 pp. $34.50).

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This potted summary of William Gaddis’s career is offered mainly out of a suspicion, a fear, really, that his work is — to paraphrase the closing lines of “The Recognitions” — still spoken of, when it is noted, with high regard, though seldom read. His three masterpieces are each too long to be part of an ordinary college English course. They are reputed to be off-puttingly dense and demanding (though they are also enormously funny). And, most shocking, they seem to go in and out of print. At this moment “The Recognitions” is available only as an e-book, while used copies of its most recent paperback edition are priced at oddly extravagant sums.

Nonetheless, Gaddis has always been lucky in his readers and supporters. These range from the innovative novelists David Markson and William Gass to the editor of this collection of his letters, Steven Moore, who annotates them in meticulous and invariably illuminating detail. A frequent reviewer for The Washington Post, Moore is our leading authority on Gaddis, having published a short critical biography, a reader’s guide to “The Recognitions” and several important essays on the writer’s friends and contemporaries.

For the most part, Gaddis’s letters aren’t what you might call literary. They are written mainly to his mother, a few lifelong buddies, his agents and students of his work asking for information. (Those answering inquiries from the young Moore are by far the best.) A few are addressed to youthful girlfriends, many to his second wife, Judith, and to his children Sarah and Matthew. Gaddis hardly ever alludes to his current reading or writing. We learn little more than that he makes outlines, scribbles lots of notes, engages in intense but somewhat haphazard research and needs years to finish a work to his satisfaction.

An only child, Gaddis corresponds regularly with his divorced mother about his experiences at Harvard (where he excelled mainly as a contributor to and editor of the Harvard Lampoon), his vagabond adventures in the American West, Central America, the Caribbean, Europe and North Africa, and his growing ambition to write an important novel, one for which he needs such scholarly works as Arnold Toynbee’s “A Study of History” and the philosophical essays of Fichte, St. Anselm and Bishop Berkeley. It will be a big book, he explains, one in which he “must get everything in. Everything.”

While working on “The Recognitions,” the young Gaddis often takes blue-collar jobs, yet he nonetheless remains something of a dandy. He covets well-made shoes, pays attention to cuff links and briefcases, writes in a fine italic hand. In Spain he even acquires a walking stick. Living in Paris, he asks his mother to send a clipping he has saved of the Duke of Windsor in a sporty jacket: “It’s the picture of the jacket I want.” In photographs, Gaddis — at whatever age — always conveys an air of Ivy League elegance, even when looking a little seedy in a rumpled white linen suit. The women with whom he falls in love are all knockouts.

Even though Gaddis’s letters tend to be descriptive (of his travels or his state of mind) or businesslike and informational, they never lack for wit: “Spain is not the kind of a country you travel in; it is a country you flee across.” “Have you seen the writing in such things as Exodus and Anatomy of a Murder? Can one ever cease to be appalled at how little is asked?” His first publishers, he says, “treat me rather like a posthumous author now and I wouldn’t ask them for air in a jug.” Again and again, he tells critics and graduate students that he wasn’t influenced by “Ulysses,” which he had never read, only dipped into. At one point he speculates about why anyone would want to become a reviewer or, rather, what he calls, in a brilliant coinage, “a book calumnist.”

In the late 1970s, Gaddis nearly hit bottom, despite having won a National Book Award. He was in his 50s, his two novels — the work of a lifetime — had flopped in the marketplace; he had been forced to support his family by writing corporate brochures and speeches for executives. In 1977, Judith went off to find herself (they eventually divorced), and he was left alone, drinking too much and unable to see how he would be able to pay the college tuition of his children. (His royalty check from Harcourt Brace in 1980 was for $5.56.) But a variety of speaking and teaching engagements gradually pulled him through. He then met again, after many years, a wealthy ex-girlfriend, and the two became a couple, allowing Gaddis a dozen years of uptown ease and privilege. In 1982, he was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant; in 1993, he received a Lannan Literary Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Today, the passionate student of “The Recognitions,” “J R” and the other works can turn to an enormously valuable online treasure trove, “The Gaddis Annotations.” But you don’t have to. In these letters, Gaddis praises readers who simply appreciate how entertaining, how funny, his richly allusive novels can be. Of course, authors of difficult books always do this. They also stress, as does Gaddis here, that what matters is the art, not the artist. To quote “The Recognitions” again, “What is it they want from a man that they didn’t get from his work?” Nonetheless, if you’re a Gaddis devotee, you should definitely acquire this superbly edited collection of his letters. And if you’ve never read him? I recommend starting with his later, most accessible masterpiece, the darkly hilarious “A Frolic of His Own.”

bookworld@washpost.com

Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.

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