Prize-win­ning au­thor-critic Wil­liam Gass dead at 93

The Trentonian (Trenton, NJ) - - OBITUARIES - By Hillel Italie

NEW YORK » Wil­liam Gass, a lead­ing ex­per­i­men­tal writer of the 1960s and ‘70s who went on to be­come an award-win­ning es­say­ist and trans­la­tor and an in­flu­ence on many younger writ­ers, died Wed­nes­day at age 93.

Gass died at his home in St. Louis, pub­lisher Al­fred A. Knopf an­nounced. The cause of death wasn’t im­me­di­ately avail­able.

“Bill was a master writer, thinker, in­spirer and hu­man be­ing,” Gass’ long­time ed­i­tor, Vicki Wil­son, said in a state­ment. “His writ­ing was im­por­tant and dar­ing.”

Along with John Barth, John Hawkes and oth­ers, Gass was among a gen­er­a­tion of writ­ers who opened up, and of­ten aban­doned, tra­di­tional nar­ra­tion. They em­pha­sized word­play, di­gres­sion and self-con­scious ref­er­ences to sto­ry­telling. They were praised as risk­tak­ers who lib­er­ated the art form, and chas­tised for self­ind­ul­gence, mak­ers of ab­stract texts best suited for col­lege sem­i­nars.

By the 21st cen­tury, their tech­niques, la­beled “metafic­tion” by Gass, were widely used by lead­ing writ­ers such as David Fos­ter Wal­lace, Dave Eg­gers and Jonathan Safran Foer. Wal­lace would call his de­but work, “Omenset­ter’s Luck,” one of the “direly un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated” Amer­i­can nov­els of the late 20th cen­tury, and called Gass’ prose “bleak but gor­geous, like light through ice”.

Gass en­dured as only an au­thor can — he wrote. He won three Na­tional Book Crit­ics Cir­cle prizes for crit­i­cism and four Push­cart Prizes for the best work pub­lished by small presses or mag­a­zines. He pub­lished the epic novel “The Tun­nel” and the ac­claimed “Read­ing Rilke,” a trans­la­tion and anal­y­sis of the Ger­man poet he long revered. He was ac­tive into his 90s and in 2015 re­leased “Eyes: Novel­las and Sto­ries.”

Knopf will pub­lish an an­thol­ogy of his work, “The Wil­liam Gass Reader,” on June 8.

Voted into the Amer­i­can Acad­emy of Arts and Let­ters in 1983, Gass never won a Pulitzer, but that, ap­par­ently, was for the bet­ter. The Pulitzer for fic­tion, he wrote in a 1985 es­say, “takes dead aim at medi­ocrity and al­most never misses; the prize is sim­ply not given to work of the first rank, rarely even to the sec­ond; and if you be­lieved your­self to be a writer of that emi­nence, you are now as­sured of be­ing over the hill — not a sturdy moun­tain flower but a lit­tle wilted lily of the val­ley.”

Gass man­aged the more se­cure po­si­tion of fac­ulty ten­ure, at Washington Uni­ver­sity (for­merly known as Washington Uni­ver­sity in St. Louis). He and his sec­ond wife, Mary, lived in an or­nately fur­nished Ge­or­gian-style house, with a vast per­sonal li­brary. He even earned a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame, where he ranked, al­pha­bet­i­cally, be­tween former “To­day” show host Dave Gar­roway and base­ball great Bob Gib­son.

Gass was born in Fargo, North Dakota, in 1924, a De­pres­sion baby whose un­happy child­hood (an abu­sive fa­ther, an al­co­holic mother) scarred him so deeply that he would later say he wrote to “get even.” He was also a glut­ton for books who treated each text as a plate he was re­quired to clean. Study­ing at Cor­nell Uni­ver­sity, he had his first great lit­er­ary en­counter, sit­ting in on classes taught by the philoso­pher Lud­wig Wittgen­stein.

“There was ab­so­lutely no small talk around. In fact, it an­noyed him,” Gass told The As­so­ci­ated Press in 1999. “He would take walks with a few other peo­ple and he’d whis­tle Mozart just to keep every­body else out of his head.”

In­flu­enced by Wittgen­stein, Gass was taken by the aes­thet­ics of lan­guage, how a word looked and sounded as op­posed to what it meant. Gass was also a great ad­mirer of Gertrude Stein, who treated plot and gram­mar as con­trivances rather than nat­u­ral com­po­nents of lit­er­a­ture.

“My sto­ries are malev­o­lently anti-nar­ra­tive, and my es­says are ma­li­ciously anti-ex­pos­i­tory,” Gass once wrote. “I do not pre­tend to be in the pos­ses­sion of any secrets; I have no cause I es­pouse; I do not pre­sume to re­form my read­ers, or at­tempt to flat­ter their egos ei­ther.”

Gass taught at sev­eral col­leges in the 1950s and man­aged to pub­lish some fic­tion in the lit­er­ary mag­a­zine Ac­cent. Oth­er­wise, his manuscripts were turned down count­less times and one was stolen, re­quir­ing a com­plete re­vi­sion. Only in 1966 did his first book, the novel “Omenset­ter’s Luck,” come out.

“I couldn’t even get a let­ter to the ed­i­tor pub­lished. It was a dis­cour­ag­ing time, I must say,” he re­called.

“Omenset­ter’s Luck” and the story col­lec­tion, “In the Heart of the Heart of the Coun­try,” brought Gass wide­spread at­ten­tion. It was a great time for mass move­ments, both in art and in pol­i­tics, and Gass felt he be­longed to an in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity of rule­break­ing writ­ers.

“(Italo) Calvino was just start­ing to dis­cover him­self. You had all the Latino writ­ers and Guenter Grass. Ev­ery­where, it was fan­tas­tic,” Gass said.

But the times moved on, faster than did Gass. His next full-length novel, “The Tun­nel,” would take more than 20 years to com­plete and sold lit­tle de­spite ad­mir­ing re­views, a fate sim­i­lar to shorter works of fic­tion such as “Wil­lie Masters’ Lone­some Wife.”

Mean­while, Gass es­tab­lished him­self as an es­say­ist and critic. He won book crit­ics cir­cle prizes for “Habi­ta­tions of the Word,” “Find­ing a Form” and “Tests of Time.” He re­ceived, most proudly, a PEN/Nabokov award for life­time achieve­ment, and in 2007 was the win­ner of the Tru­man Capote Award for Lit­er­ary Crit­i­cism.

“I have al­ways been in­ter­ested in mir­a­cles — not just the one we are presently cel­e­brat­ing, but es­pe­cially in the sec­u­lar kinds,” he said in his ac­cep­tance speech for the Capote award. “A mir­a­cle is some­thing that can­not hap­pen, and shouldn’t, and won’t again, but has oc­curred all the same, de­spite laws, odds, ex­pec­ta­tions.

“To adorn na­ture with a new thing: that is the mir­a­cle that mat­ters.”

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