Classical Gass

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Author: Robert Alter
Editor: Sharon K. Hall
Date: 1986
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay; Excerpt
Length: 1,208 words

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[Alter, an American literary critic, has written several studies of the novel as a genre as well as works on individual authors and reflections on Jewish writing. His works include Rogues's Progress: Studies in the Picaresque Novel (1965), Defenses of the Imagination (1978), and Motives for Fiction (1984). In the following excerpt Alter evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Habitations of the Word, finding that Gass's inventive and eloquent style is often at cross-purposes with his expression of ideas.]

To the extent that one can discern a general critical argument in [Habitations of the Word], there appears to be a shift in emphasis from Gass's earlier essays. A decade ago, he was typically insisting with acerbic wit that novels are made out of nothing but words, or even, that what any writer finally cares about is words and words alone. Now, perhaps because the post-Structuralists have made this stress on the sheer textuality of texts rather uncomfortably fashionable, Gass strives to recover a sense of lived individual experience embodied in, or rather transmuted into, literary texts. In accord with this sense, he passionately argues, contrary to Deconstructive notions, that what is primary in the literary use of language is not writing but the pulsating presence of the spoken word, reworked and heightened in the formal complexities of a literary style.

There is much musing here, in a baroque mood and mode, on the painful transience of human existence, and so the effort to get life into words, “The Soul inside the Sentence” (as one of the essays is called), is seen as the most urgent and poignant of undertakings. Here is Gass, sounding this theme at his eloquent best in the long lead-essay on Emerson that is probably the strongest piece in the book:

In fact, in time, the dross body drops away, the...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420003194