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Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts

by William H. Gass

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Life Sentences by William Gass
© Knopf
Alfred A. Knopf, January 2012

William H. Gass has written two novels, three collections of short stories, a collection of novellas, and seven volumes of essays, three of which have won National Book Critics Circle Award prizes and one of which won the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism. His 1995 novel The Tunnel received the American Book Award. Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts fits easily into that tradition of greatness. Gass is known for the amount of attention he pays to the construction of sentences. Just a few pages from the end of Life Sentences, he writes, tellingly, "Nothing should leak out of, or fall idly into, the perfect sentence."

Gass's essays are made up of so many perfect sentences, it's clear that he's spent much of his writing life trying to form them. The essays in the first part of the book, "The Personals Column," are simply luminous. Gass introduces themes that will run throughout: the miracle of art, literary and otherwise; the pleasure and importance of reading; the importance of words. Anyone who loves to read will resonate with "Slices of Life in a Library," in which Gass tells the story of his graduate work in a library carrel: "a small nick in the wall of the stacks that held a mean metal chair and bulb, a sheet of steel to write or rest a book on, a rack in front of my face for volumes taken from the shelves (but on one's honor not to be removed from the building), and a jar of hard candy whose contents were dangerous when wet." The rest of Part I contains a brief, poignant childhood baseball story, a reflection on the first Fourth of July after 9/11, an essay on freedom of expression, and a retrospective on Gass's writing life.
Part II, entitled "Old Favorites and Fresh Enemies" is a collection of literary criticism. Gass reads Gertrude Stein, Proust, Nietzsche, Kafka, Malcolm Lowry, Henry James, John Gardner, Katherine Anne Porter, and Knut Hamsun. The part ends with an essay called "Kinds of Killing" that - despite the vast amount of excellent writing on the Holocaust - stunned me. Gass makes lists, asks questions, and recites facts that highlight the enormity of the murders better than anything I've ever read. His criticism of individual authors was more variable. It's impressive enough to take on the greats, and Gass's writing remains sparkling throughout, but I got bored when I didn't know the author's writing well enough. Definitely a section for a widely-read reader!

In Part III, "The Biggs Lectures in the Classics," Gass combines his training in philosophy (PhD from Cornell) with his love of taking apart language. The three chapters are "Form: Eidos," "Mimesis," and "Metaphor." While the casual reader will have to pay a lot of attention to the lines of reasoning, there are many brilliant moments during which you think either "I wish I'd written that" or "now I see!"

The final part is called "Theoretics." It begins with an essay on lust, which would be surprising except for the hints throughout the other chapters of Gass's earthy side. The book finishes with two essays on - what else? - sentences. If it's been a while since you've diagrammed a sentence, you might be pleasantly surprised at how informative it can be to take sentences apart and really look at what makes them work (or not).

William H. Gass is a writer's writer, and he's funny and charming to boot. Even the essays that make your brain hurt with the challenge of comprehension are worth it. This book is full of important ideas and gorgeous sentences.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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