Authors: William Gaddis
OTHER WORKS BY WILLIAM GADDIS
A Frolic of His Own
The Rush for Second Place
INTRODUCTION BY WILLIAM H. GASS
by William Gaddis. Copyright © 1952, 1955, Sarah Gaddis and Matthew Gaddis; Copyright renewed © 1983, Sarah Gaddis and Matthew Gaddis. All rights reserved. First published in the United States of America by Harcourt Brace & Co. 1955, and subsequently by Penguin Books in 1985. A portion of Chapter II of this book appeared originally in
New World Writing
, 1952, in slightly different form.
Introduction copyright © 1993, 2012 by William H. Gass
First Dalkey Archive edition, 2012
All rights reserved
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Gaddis, William, 1922-1998.
The recognitions / William Gaddis; introduction by William H. Gass. -- 1st ed.
ISBN 978-1-56478-691-3 (pbk.: alk. paper)
ISBN 978-1-564-78696-8 (e-book)
Partially funded by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, and by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Cover: design and composition by Danielle Dutton, photo by Martin Dworkin, courtesy of Bernard Looks
He had been a floorwalker at Bloomingdale’s. That was one rumor. He was presently writing under the
nom de plume
of Thomas Pynchon. That was another. He had had to pay Harcourt Brace to publish
, and then, disappointed and peeved by its reception, he had the unsold stock destroyed. He died of dysentery or some similarly humiliating and touristy disease at forty-three and had been buried stoneless-in-Spain under a gnarled tree. Among the more absurd was the allegation that he had worked as a machinist’s assistant on the Panama Canal and served as a soldier of fortune for a small war in Costa Rica. He had no visible means. What he did do was traipse. He became a character in books which bore a vagrant’s name. No. He worked for the army and wrote the texts of field manuals. No. He scripted films. They told you/showed you how to take apart and clean your rifle. A rather unkind few suggested he had been a fact checker at
The New Yorker
. Not at all, argued others, he was born a freelancer. And became a ghost who moved corporate mouths while gathering material for a novel he would write one day about America and money. When John Kuehl and Steven Moore edited a collection of essays about him, the honored author turned artist and, for the title page, self-drew himself suitably suited and bearing a highball glass. The figure has no head.
In 1976, when his second novel,
, won the National Book Award, his admirers, confused by William Gaddis’s previous anonymity (very like the chary pronouns above), by the too sensibly priced fumé blanc, and by the customary babble at celebrational parties, frequently miscaught his name, often congratulating a fatter man. Even
, at one low point, attributed his third novel,
, to that self-same and similarly sounding person. Yes. Perhaps William Gaddis is not B. Traven after all, or J. D. Salinger, Ambrose Bierce, or Thomas Pynchon. Perhaps he is me.
When I was congratulated, I was always gracious. When I was falsely credited, I was honored by the error.
These mistaken identifications turned out to belong to William Gaddis’s book where reality already had been arrested; for what can be true in a world made of fakes, misappropriations, fraud, and flummery? Only this: that, if we had two doorsteps, on one would stand a hypocritical holy man, on another a charlatan dressed as a statesman; that among our most revered relics, if we had some, we’d find out our local saint’s pickled thumb belonged originally to a penniless neighborhood drunk, that our museum’s most esteemed painting was a forgery, that the old coins we’d collected were inept counterfeits, and the fine car we’d just bought a real steal. What Rainer Maria Rilke wrote of Auguste Rodin is certainly true of the man in that headless sketch: “Rodin was a solitary before fame found him, and afterward perhaps he became still more solitary. For fame is finally only the sum of all those misunderstandings which gather round a new name.” In our oddly clamorous yet silent times, to be a famous author is to be unknown all over the world. Similarly,
, the work which wrapped William Gaddis in the cloud of its carefully adumbrated confusions, remains widely heard about, reverently spoke of, yet narrowly read. It seems to lead, like an entombed pharaoh, an underground life, presumably surrounded by other precious things and protected by a curse.
Like Malcolm Lowry’s great dark work,
Under the Volcano, The Recognitions
needed devotees who would keep its existence known until such time as it could be accepted as a classic; but a cult following is not the finest one to have, suggesting something, at best, beloved only by special tastes—in this case, the worry was, a wacko book with wacko fans. In fact, a cult did form, a cult in the best old sense, for it was made of readers whose consciousness had been altered by their encounter with this book; who had experienced more than its obvious artistic excellence, and responded to its neglect not merely with the resigned outrage customarily felt by those who read well and widely and wish that justice be accorded good books; it was composed of those who had felt to the centers of themselves how much this novel was indeed a recognition and could produce that famous shock: how it revealed the inner workings of the social world as though that world were a nickel watch; how it combined the pessimisms of its perceptions with the affirmations of the art it, at the same time, altered and advanced; more, how its author, though new to the game, had cared
enough about himself, his aims, his skill, to create greatness against the grain, and, of course, against the odds.
Begun in 1945 without really knowing what or why, and continued in bursts from 1947,
was published in the middle of the fifties, a decade so flushed with success it could not feel the lines of morbidity which were its bones. A typesetter, it’s said, refused to continue work on the text and sought advice from his priest, who told him he was right to desist. Naturally the novel, when it appeared, won an award for its design.
Its arrival was duly newsed in fifty-five papers and periodicals. Only fifty-three of these notices were stupid. But the reviewers’ responses to the book confirmed its character and quality, for they not only declared it unreadable and wandering and tiresome and confused, they participated in the very chicaneries the text documented and dramatized. It was too much to expect: that they should read and understand and praise a fiction they were fictions in. You, too, can let your present copy rest unread on some prominent table. A few critics confessed they could not reach the novel’s conclusion except by skipping. Well, how many have actually arrived at the last page of Proust or completed
? What does it mean to finish
, anyway? Do not begin this book with any hope of that. This is a book you are meant to befriend. It will be your lifelong companion. You will end only to begin again.
It was wrong in someone young to be so ambitious, the reviewers thought; the result was certain to be pretentious, full of the strain of standing on tiptoe. If the author works at his work, the reader may also have to, whereas when a writer whiles away both time and words, the reader may relax and gently peruse. Well,
will lie heavily in any snoozer’s lap. [What is the weight of the one you are holding? You can compare it to the 956 pages of the first edition, which comes into the ring at 2 lbs. 7 ozs., in order to discover how much of its substance has been leached out. Add an oz. for this intro.]
Well, it was ambitious certainly, dense, lengthy, complex. Its author is a romantic in that regard, clearly concerned to create a masterpiece; for how else, but by aiming, is excellence to be attained? It’s not often one begins a sand castle on a lazy summer morning—pattybaking by the blue lagoon—only to—by gosh!—achieve—thanks to a series of sandy serendipities—an Alhambra with all its pools by afternoon. The book was about bamboozlers, the slowest wits could see that, and therein saw themselves, and therewith withdrew. This was not to be a slow evening’s soporific entertainment, it was to be their indecent exposure.
They cribbed from the dustjacket. They stole from any review appearing earlier. They got things (by the thousands!) wrong. They
condemned the subject, although they didn’t know what it was; they loathed its learning, which they said was show-off; they objected to its tone, though they failed to catch it; they rejected with fury its point of view, whose criminal intent they somehow suspected. They fell all over one another praising Joyce, a writer who, they said, was the real McCoy, whereas . . . yet had they been transported to that earlier time, they would have been first in line to shower Ireland’s author with deaf Dublin’s stones.
Many think that it is reviewing which needs to be reformed, but I believe the culprit is the species, which surrounds itself with lies, and calls the lies culture, the way squirrels build their nests of dead twigs and fallen leaves, then hide inside. In any case, as the German philosopher Lichtenberg observed, when reader’s brow and book collide, it isn’t always the book that is lacking brains.
Following the hubble bubble of its initial reception,
was left in a lurch of silence, except for those happy yet furious few who had found this fiction . . . about the nature, meaning, and value of “the real thing” . . . found
to be the real thing. The rumor was that William Gaddis himself had published a pamphlet excoriating the reviewers of his book and citing their malfeasances one by one. The truth, when it lies down among lies, such as those falsehoods, slanders, and distortions with which I salted the opening of this intro (for “yes” becomes “no” in oleo), takes on their odor, and is soon not distinguishable from them. Gaddis did check facts for a living once. He did bananaboat out of South America. It would scarcely matter except that contexts corrupt. Bedfellows bite. Turncoats will steal from their own pockets and betray even linings. Cozenage est une dangereux voisinage. Actually a pseudonymous New Yorker named Jack Green published three articles on the qualities of the bookhacks who had inflicted their skills upon
. He called it, rather directly, “Fire the Bastards!” and the Dalkey Archive Press has recently reissued it in fine form. There, in addition to much of the data I have already used, I learned that one of these gentlemen attributed the book to William Gibson.
So a slender ring of fans kept the work afloat for the next twenty years, but its neglect, I think, was due to factors having little to do with its alleged difficulty or the dubious distinction of having a cult following. If you are to remain known while writing books (for the books themselves are likely to have a Mayfly’s life), you must either court the media and let publicity be your pimp like Truman Capote, or cling like old ivy to the walls of the Academy, passing your person around from campus to campus like a canapé on a party tray. One way or another, you are thus able to appear in public often and collect the plaudits of hands which might as well clap
since they are otherwise empty. You read your book with histrionic polish, or display a practiced wit, and your increasing ease, on talk shows. You review. Yes, you do, you descend to your opponents’ depths, where you’ll be seen as just another shark. You sympose. You give interviews. All of it adding to the stuff about and by you which a student, a critic, a scholar, must consult. For you are as large as your library’s catalog entries. Meanwhile you instruct beginners on how to be a genius, giving selected students a professional boost, and forming around your tutorial self, over the years, growing rings of gratitude: your career likewise enlarging as steadily as the trunk of a weedy tree.