CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
Remembering Mr. Gaddis
A memorial tribute was held May 6th for the late William Gaddis, the esteemed novelist who died last December. The course of my life was irrevocably changed by my discovery of his work in 1975, and after nearly 25 years of writing and thinking about his titanic novels, I felt compelled to attend this tribute to the man who, I am now convinced, is the greatest American novelist of the twentieth century.
The tribute was held in the august auditorium of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York City, into which Gaddis was inducted in 1984. As it happens, the last time I had seen Gaddis was in the same building five years earlier, an awards ceremony where Gaddis and the other members of the Academy sat on the stage (like the faculty at a graduation), facing us like totems guarding the gates of American literature.
Gracing the stage this time was a smaller but well-chosen group: Sarah Gaddis, his daughter, began the event on an elegiac note, almost breaking down in tears as she confessed how difficult it was to adjust to the absence created by her father’s death. (She once wrote an autobiographical novel, Swallow Hard, largely about her relationship to him.) She was followed by gentleman-novelist Louis Auchincloss, who gave an overview of Gaddis’s achievement (in a sumptuous Anglo-American accent) and paid tribute to his vast erudition. Auchincloss is known for his legal novels, but he admitted Gaddis’s knowledge of the law far exceeded his.
William H. Gass followed with a brilliant and witty account of the impact The Recognitions had on his generation of writers. Gass’s life intersected with Gaddis’s on many occasions, most recently in Germany, where Gass accompanied Gaddis to a book event in Cologne where he was treated like a movie star: stepping out of a black limo, Gaddis was surrounded by photographers popping flashes as if he were attending the premiere of his latest moviea conceit helped along by the fact that Gaddis had movie-star good looks, resembling Leslie Howard when younger, and William Holden in later life.
Short-story writer Joy Williams was next, first reading a hilarious passage from A Frolic of His Own, then recounting her memories of the man she always called Mister Gaddis, despite their friendship. (I know the feeling: I met Gaddis several times, was even a guest at his house for three days, but considered it unthinkable to address him as anything but Mr. Gaddis.) Painter Julian Schnabel followed, with a somewhat difficult-to-follow account of how Gaddis’s view of painting (in The Recognitions) influenced his own development as an artist. The last guest to speak was filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker (best known for his Bob Dylan documentary, Don’t Look Back), who entertained us with some anecdotes about Gaddis in the 1940s.
Gaddis’s son Matthewthe spitting image of his fatherthen introduced a brief slide-show presentation, ranging from Gaddis as an 8- year-old Eagle Scout and a shot of him as a young man in an improbable cowboy hat holding the reins of a horsea Harvard version of the Marlboro manto photos taken later in life.
The audience was rather smallsomewhere between 100–150 peoplebut made up in quality what it may have lacked in quantity. Among the many writers there were Don DeLillo, E. L. Doctorow, Joseph McElroy, David Markson, Harry Mathews, Ann Beattie, Walter Abish, Bradford Morrow, and Mary Caponegro. Many of us who have written about Gaddis were thereGregory Comnes, Frederick R. Karl, Joseph Tabbi, Christopher Knightas were two of Gaddis’s three wives. At least one of his former publishers was there (Aaron Asher) along with some of his current German ones, and a good many family friends. (There were probably other distinguished guests whom your reporter didn’t recognize.) The only disappointment was the lack of any information on future publications: Gaddis left behind a final novel, Agape Agape, but its publication date remains up in the air. Matthew avoided questions on this topic with lawyerly aplomb. (However, one of Gaddis’s German publishers told me they had already arranged to publish a collection of his essays, along with Torschlusspanik, a radio play he wrote for Deutschland Radio last year, which may be the opening chapter of Agape Agape.)
There were some felicitous coincidences that illustrated Gaddis’s belief in the unswerving punctuality of chance (a phrase that appears in all four of his novels). Looking for a restaurant after the event, Markson, Tabbi, Caponegro, and I were wandering around the West Village when we stumbled upon Horatio Street, Wyatt’s address in The Recognitions. And during my taxi ride to the airport the following day, I passed the brownstone on 96th street where so much of J R is set. Best of all was my in-flight reading choice: James Hilton’s old classic Lost Horizon, which turned out to be the source of a literary allusion in Carpenter’s Gothic that had always eluded me. In that shortest, shapeliest of his novels, Gaddis quoted Hilton’s description of a character who, despite his setbacks, had a sense in which he felt that he was still a part of all that he might have been. This striving to achieve one’s full potential bedevils many of Gaddis’s charactersmost of them failures to some degreebut this memorial tribute was a rousing affirmation that Gaddis became everything a great novelist could, and should, be.
The tributes to William Gaddis mentioned above (by Sarah Gaddis, William H. Gass, Julian Schnabel, D.A. Pennebaker, and Joy Williams) appeared in Conjunctions:33, Crossing Over.