It’s pretty rare that we post two posts to our blog in a single week. This one is pretty special. It’s an interview by Crystal Alberts with William H. Gass that appears in the tribute that we published in NDQ 86.1/2.
Do check out Prof. Alberts’ introduction to the Gass tribute. If you like what you’re reading and want to read more, consider buying the issue or even subscribing to the Quarterly. Because of copyright issues, we’re not able to make the entire issue available online, but if you’re a fan of Gass, we think that it’s worth the $18.
An Interview with William H. Gass
What follows is an interview that took place at William H. Gass’s home in St. Louis on May 12, 2005, between Gass and Crystal Alberts, at the time a graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis [WashU], who was working on her dissertation that included an analysis of William Gaddis’ (1922– 1998) work and his archive, which had recently been acquired by WashU. Slight edits have been made to the transcript, usually involving the removal of false starts. However, some content has been omitted for length. Ellipses in brackets note omissions; all other ellipses represent pauses. Occasionally, Alberts inserts a note in brackets to correct dates or clarify other information.
Crystal Alberts: How did you meet and become friends with William Gaddis?
William H Gass: Well . . . sheer chance, actually, because I’d known his work, of course, for many years. I had really no desire to meet him. I was put off , I think, by the fans: he had this cult, which is not his doing of course, [. . . so . . .] a lot of the time, when you met people who were Gaddis fans, they were all pretty peculiar types. So, I wasn’t in any hurry to meet him. And then, by chance, I was a member of the jury for the National Book Awards [. . . .] And Mary McCarthy was another judge, and there was a journalist [ . . . ], I didn’t like him at all. We were to meet in New York and decide what five books we wanted to nominate as possibilities for the National Book. J R was up that year, it turned out, and I had read it with astonishment, but astonishment not because it was good— I expected that— but because it was so different from The Recognitions. I went to New York with a chip on my shoulder thinking, “I’m going to have to fight for this,” and so on. Well, it won. And Mary McCarthy simply brushed off any possibility of anybody else winning, which was good of her. So, then, I met Gaddis at the banquet in New York when the prize was awarded. And, we shook hands and were introduced [. . . .] I really didn’t talk to him much that evening, on and off . And then, it was quite a few years before I met him again.
Alberts: What brought you two together again? Was it when he came here [WashU] as a Hurst Professor in ’79?
Gass: No, because when he was here as a Hurst Professor, I wasn’t around. I don’t remember seeing him. Didn’t J R win in the 80s?
Alberts: It was in ’75 [actually, it was published in 1975 and won in 1976].
Gass: ’75? Well then, oh, [. . . .] I remember: he was here partly at my urging. Th at’s another time. [ . . . ] [I]t was in Florida, if I’ve got my dates right. I went to Sarasota at the invitation of Joy Williams and some other people, Rust Hills, for a conference of some sort there. And Gaddis was there. And that’s the place I remember where I got to know him. We had long talks and so forth. [. . . .] He was well disposed to talk to me, which was not true of everybody, because I’d been a judge, but he didn’t really know me at all, because we had had no time to talk in New York. And he didn’t know my work. Th at didn’t surprise me any. But, we really got together while he was there. And he was there, really, because he usually didn’t do this sort of thing, because he was in some sort of vain pursuit of his wife, who [ . . . ] was he said a waitress in Key West or something.
Gass: Yeah. And he was down in the dumps and sort of distraught, and I remember having long conversations. And, it was the beginnings of our long conversations. And I finally told him that what he needed really to do was to find a rich wife, and he did [laughs].
Alberts: Although he didn’t marry her . . . [laugh]
Gass: No, no, that’s right. Well, in effect, [laughter] yeah. [. . . .] I never inquired about his private life at all. He would tell me things sometimes [. . . .] But, he didn’t vent; he never discussed those things. We discussed [chuckles]— we disgust— we discussed the dreadful human race mostly.
Alberts: You called him a “creative complainer” once.
Gass: Yes. Oh I did?
Alberts: Yes, you did.
Gass: Well he was, that’s true.
Alberts: What did you mean by that?
Gass: Well, I mean [ . . . ] he complained a lot about the state of affairs— every state of affairs— and did so not in a way that you thought, “oh, God, here he goes again,” but you were, at least I was, happy to hear it put that way, you know? So, he always found new ways to express the same, I think, regrets about existence.
Alberts: Did you ever talk about your writing?
Gass: Never. [. . . .]
Alberts: If you didn’t talk about your personal life, and you didn’t talk about your writing, did you talk about things other than the state of . . .
Gass: [interrupts] We talked about other literature, some. He liked to talk about movies until a night [. . . .] I expressed my utter detestation of Woody Allen. [Laughter] So! And he was fond of Woody Allen, and so he just . . . we never disagreed, and he looked surprised, he looked at me, and we didn’t discuss movies again [chuckles]. But we did discuss things like that, we discussed people [ . . . ] or we chewed over things, especially when we traveled together. We chewed over events of the day, like an old married couple, sort of. But, a lot of it was not even very thoroughly or eloquently put, we just, we would share sighs together [chuckles], you know, things of that sort about the various things that were happening. And, partly it was because, with respect to certain literary and world matters, we knew the same things, thought exactly the same way, which was astonishing to both of us, I think. [. . . .] Never discussed art, cartooning, music, any of those things. He was not interested in theorizing or any academic mode of discourse.
Alberts: That makes sense.
Gass: Yeah . . .
Alberts: Did he ever talk about Greenwich Village and the Beats at all?
Gass: Not, no, no. Again, I think, it’s possible that he didn’t discuss this because he . . . Well, we shared a very similar attitude when we traveled with Ginsberg, for example, in the Soviet Union.
Alberts: Which was what?
Gass: It was in the ’80s sometime . . .
Alberts: Yeah, ’87 [the trip to the Soviet Union was actually in 1985].
Gass: Yeah, see, you know it. Because he didn’t like Allen much, or his work much; he was bemused by Allen. I was variously outraged and infuriated and appreciative, but not of his work. And I don’t think [Gaddis] thought well of the Beats production at all. I just don’t, nope. But he knew that I had a very great dislike. And there were certain other areas, like, we never discussed poetry, I mean, he showed no particular interest in it, at least not while I was around. On a few occasions, something would come up and, in the Beat line, I remember confessing to him that not only did I not like the Beat poets, but I really didn’t dig Whitman. I just couldn’t go with Whitman. He didn’t say “neither can I” or “I’m surprised, I love Whitman” or anything about that, but, so that was not discussed much.
Alberts: You know that one of the things that Matthew [Gaddis] said to me, in my first phone conversation with him, was that he thought that his father’s work should be associated with the Beats, The Recognitions . . .
Alberts: . . . as sort of a precursor. What do you think of that?
Gass: Oh, oh, I don’t think so at all. [. . . .] I would always stress not so much attitudes involved in it, but the way that it’s done. It’s done with far too much care, far too much art, far too little— for the Beats— of personal show- off . Tremendous dedication to getting a major work of art composed. I mean those things. Allen’s famous remarks that the first thought is always the best one . . . is not Gaddis, I think. Now, there was an element that would associate, of course, with him, and that’s Burroughs, but that only, in my mind, was because he clipped things out of papers [chuckles], and he saved them for the right moment of usage [. . . .], but he didn’t let things go to chance, that’s not because I’m looking over his shoulder while he works, but looking at the results. These are various devious books, full of third- and fourth- rate levels of connection and shrewdly arranged things that suited Gaddis’ basic paranoia. I mean, he writes about conspiracies and fakes and frauds and those things because he is living in that world every minute and thinks you need to, to almost be [on] constant surveillance or you’re going to catch it, you know? [ . . . ] So, he had a basic suspicion of people, quite rightly, because people who approached him generally were wanting something. And, even when what they wanted was relatively benign and even flattering, it was, “they’re trying to take advantage; they’re” . . . and so forth, and that was, of course, right down to signing books. Th ere was none of the Ginsbergstyle “hug the world” either. Th ere was, like Burroughs, a much darker view. With Burroughs, yes, it makes sense with Burroughs. Even though Burroughs’ composition methods, if you can call them that, are not like Gaddis’, but there is something there in that sense, and also in some of the effects that Burroughs gets at by the mixed voices and so on, yeah. [. . . .]
Alberts: [. . . .] Other than the Soviet Union, where did you travel together?
Gass: Well, it was just to the Soviet Union, really, it was that one trip. I traveled with Allen Ginsberg to China and the Soviet Union: two trips in Russia with him and one in China, so I saw him in action a lot, but [ . . . ] one trip to Russia. [. . . . We] also traveled to Germany together for his triumphal return, or not return, arrival of J R’s translation [ . . . ] and that was great. Th at was a great thing. He was of course on oxygen or getting jolts now and then; oxygen was nearby. We didn’t travel so much together as meet places: met, of course, under the Lannan auspices in California, spent some very wonderful hours with him in L.A., when he got a big award from the Lannan Foundation, and spent this time in Cologne, Germany. But that was not traveling together; I mean we arrived to distant ports, separately, sort of.
Alberts: When he was here, I mentioned it before, but he was here as a Hurst Professor, and then when he was also here for the Writers in Religion Conference [October 23– 26, 1994] . . .
Gass: Yeah . . .
Alberts: How did that go? How did he interact at WashU? With everyone?
Gass: Well, I think he interacted very well with people who he could feel were sympathetic and so forth. But with others, he was pretty standoffish and could be brusque and short, sort of. He was wonderful in our Conference, but people were either enormously pleased with him or enormously put off by his presentation, and he would fall asleep while on the panel [chuckles]. I don’t blame him. [chuckles] He tended, when he gave talks, to ramble and pull strings of clipped or little notations from his pockets and stuff . He didn’t take these things seriously. He found them pretty stupid on the whole. He would never have come to the Religion Conference at all if— I mean, he didn’t like doing these things— if he hadn’t come to see me. [ . . . ] I was taking advantage of him, but he allowed it to happen. [. . . .] [B]ut, I mean, what I did see, by and large, fine. Compared to someone really reserved and difficult like Coetzee [also at the Religion Conference], he was charm and open and pals-y. Coetzee is really another thing [ . . . ].
Alberts: You told me some stories before. If you wouldn’t mind, would you tell them again so that I have them?
Alberts: The debate over the Sistine Chapel and Jack Daniels.
Gass: The debate over? What in the world?!
Alberts: You said that you used to . . .
Gass: Remind me of what that is!
Alberts: You said you used to sit and drink the kitchen . . .
Alberts: . . . all night and . . .
Alberts: . . . have an ongoing argument over what man’s greatest achievement . .
Gass: Oh, oh, yes, yes, yes! [. . . .] Well mainly it was a Rilkean enterprise. It was triggered by some lines in a Rilke elegy [ . . . ] was there anything that human beings had done that could redeem them. And, I thought, well, no! [laughter] I mean, there were redemptive actions, and there were lots of good things that had happened, but [they] wouldn’t excuse the events that sort of darkened our history. And, we drank a lot of whiskey while we were talking about this. Now the question is: did he have any that he thought redeemed them? [. . . .] What did I tell you?
Alberts: You said that [ . . . ] you thought that Jack Daniels was man’s . . .
Gass: [interrupting] Oh yes, of course! Yes. Oh, the reason I didn’t remember that is that I, of course, never [ . . . ] really believed that [laughter] Jack Daniels was! [chuckles] He was a scotch person himself, so he was not about to buy my view. Yeah, yeah, I’d forgotten that part. Yeah, there was, there were a couple things. Chartres, of course, was offered by Rilke: and, of course, immediately Chartres was a religious object and therefore [ . . . ], you know, was not going to get a pass, as he was constantly saying, [ . . . ] not about Chartres, but about things of that sort, he might say, “Oh nice headlines, but bad news.” So, you know, looked good, but basically no, and so forth. He also spent a good deal of time wishing that the Rapture people were right, because he wanted to be in on watching that happen. He was ready for Armageddon. So am I, I want to be around for it, but you know [. . . .]
Alberts: Th ere was another story. It involved a potted plant on Thomas Pynchon’s chair.
Gass: Oh yeah. Th at I remember. When I was elected to the Academy [American Academy of Arts and Letters], which incidentally, and oddly for him, he took very seriously. He enjoyed going to Academy affairs, did not miss them— I mean he went regularly— [. . . .] he also put in his time on committees, he served and he could become close friends with people like those who [ . . . ] will do Academy work, even though their whole writing approach or attitude toward things was quite different. And he became, on the trip to Russia, very close with Arthur Miller and with Louis Auchincloss. Now Louis is, you know, a marvelous man. Both of these people were wonderful people, or are, Louis is still standing. But Auchincloss was a New England Patrician, and the kind of man I think Gaddis once would have liked to have been, but now had to scorn, but couldn’t with Louis. I mean, he is just, you know. Anyway, he got along with people like this whom you would at first think, well he writes so differently, his attitudes are so different, he’s, you know, this and that. But, in fact, Gaddis, who was not politically active, could get along and admire Arthur Miller immensely. And Gaddis, who scorned the society that produced both of them— Auchincloss and himself— really was able to like Auchincloss and his wife immensely, as we did, indeed. I was sort of surprised, too, that I liked him, but I certainly did. So there was this connection that he had with the Academy that made my election— this was all a preface to this— my election to the Academy a big deal for him, and for a number of other of my friends in the writing business [ . . . ] I was quite touched by it. Anyway, Donald Barthelme, who was living in New York at that time, decided there ought to be, as a celebration for this affair, a banquet, a party. And he arranged the party and invited the guests. Not everyone came, but it [was] indeed a collection of the so- called “postmodernists.” They even invited, not everybody could come, but they invited even Susan Sontag and my agent, Lynn Nesbit, who did come as I remember. And Pynchon, but Pynchon didn’t come, and therefore a potted plant by Donald was placed in the [chair], we had a private room in a restaurant in Th e Village that Donald had arranged— it was a great dinner. Absent was Stanley [Elkin] because of his ailments I gather, or I remember. But all of us, I mean, the “group” was there. Th e only other time we were together that completely was when Jack Hawkes retired and [Robert] Coover threw a party for Jack. But Gaddis wasn’t at that one. He was the absentee.
Alberts: Who all was there?
Gass: At which?
Alberts: At the one in The Village.
Gass: Well, let’s see if I get everybody. [Walter] Abish, Barthelme, Coover, Hawkes, uh . . . all of those people, except Abish, were in the Academy already. And, of course, wives. And . . . oh . . . a sort of odd man out . . . what’s his name? And, now I’m trying to think of the names of his books, and I can’t do that either . . . Slaughterhouse-Five guy?
Gass: Vonnegut was there. He . . . it was because he was a friend of Barthelme’s. And Vonnegut’s wife, who was a photographer, was there. Now, [have] I left anybody out, I think that’s . . . Paul West wasn’t there and Stanley wasn’t there, and, of course, Pynchon wasn’t there. But it was a great party, nevertheless, and I very much appreciated it. Donald was great that way. Coover and he liked, both, to organize things.
Alberts: Why do you think [Gaddis] created an archive, especially since he always claimed he didn’t want his work to be read biographically?
Gass: Well, he said, he told people— including myself, but not just I— that [ . . . ] it was all he had to give to his kids. I think in the last few years of his life, the archive became important because he knew it was the last few years. And in the light of that totally diminished future, he started to think about other things. He certainly was not interested in having an archive that would be plundered by biographers. [ . . . ] I have no idea what’s in it in that sense anyhow, but he did want to have something that he could will to his kids. And he’d had a rocky relationship with them [ . . . ] and they got together at the end, and he was very relieved and happy about that. It was the thing that would make him a soft ie when you were talking to him. He went on about this at great length at the Lannan celebration. And that’s when he talked mostly about his archive. And when he would phone me, and we had phone conversations, and he was out at the Hamptons “working on his archive,” as he said— what he was doing, I didn’t know and didn’t ask— one reason I got on with him well was I never asked personal questions. But he would’ve, I think, allowed his dislike of personal publicity to be overridden. I do know that he had a tendency to want to rule from beyond the grave, and we discussed that a few times. I said, you know, aft er you’re dead, you don’t care, because you are not there to care. Anything that happens is not going to bother you, nothing. So, it’s over and, you know, so you can pretend not to like thinking about yourself and what things will happen aft er, I said, but you know that the world aft er you’re dead will be no better than it is now, so all of the things that you dislike will continue to go on, and you just might as well get over that now. [chuckles] So we used to have a little, he agreed with me, but he couldn’t help still . . . But the very fact that he has an archive means that he was aware of his future, but also that he just wanted to be able to sell it. Money for a change was important. He kept saying, but I have nothing, I have no pension, I have no nothing, no insurance, no . . . .
Alberts: I always wonder what he would think of me doing what I’m doing with the archive right now.
Gass: He wouldn’t like anybody messing with his archive, you know?
Gass: While he was alive, no! But he made an archive. You’re quite right [ . . . ] and that means people are going to. And if they couldn’t, then it would have no value, and if it had no value, he couldn’t will it to his kids. [. . . .] It was, I think, a hard thing for him in that respect.
Alberts: He guarded his personal life very, very carefully in the archive. There’s hardly anything there.
Gass: Uh- huh, I’m not surprised. I’m not surprised.
Alberts: That actually brings me to the next question. Many people that knew Gaddis seem to be really protective of his memory and have frequently said that they wouldn’t speak to me.
Gass: Oh really?
Alberts: Yeah, and so . . .
Gass: They’re thinking about . . . well maybe they know things, I certainly don’t know.
Alberts: I’m wondering what you think about that. I mean, what was it about him that inspired such fierce loyalty and protectiveness of his memory?
Gass: Well [ . . . ], I can’t say for other people really, except that that was one way you became a friend of his. Th at is, that you knew, you understood this about him. You did not make demands upon him; you did not use him; you did not pry; you didn’t . . . you know, that sort of thing. And you certainly didn’t encourage . . . for example, I would’ve been very reluctant to say to somebody, “oh, while you’re in New York, look up Gaddis, he’s an old friend of mine.” No, you didn’t do that. And so on. All of those things were a part of your membership requirement. And so it would be natural to carry that on. But also Gaddis was, not just a great writer, he was an icon; he was the flag. When this group of people met in New York, each one of them, knowing writers, each one of them thought they were THE icon, you know, the figure that really represented all of this, and so on. But the fact is that HE was the one who really did, and he represented a certain stance taken toward literature, toward life, society, etcetera that people were guarding as well. So, they’re not going to try to give the enemy any ammunition, and they don’t know who is an enemy and who isn’t, or at least not right away, you know. [ . . . ] Th at was certainly true for me, he [ . . . ] stood for certain kinds of integrity and value and [an] approach and so forth that you wanted to emulate and so on. Th ere were people like Jack Barth. I don’t know that Barth was ever a fan of Gaddis’. When Barth talks about the writers he admires, Hawkes always is leading the list, but I never heard Gaddis. I just have no notion where the chief rival, I guess, to Barth’s early preeminence, especially in the BIG BOOK, you know, and all of that. Of that group, I think that there’s no doubt that I was the most outspoken proponent of Gaddis, but I was an outspoken proponent of all of these people, so I mean . . . except Vonnegut, of course, who, who was just, whose popularity is a mystery to me, so. But all of these other writers, you know, I’ve thought very highly of, but as highly as I thought of them, nevertheless, as wonderful as Hawkes is, for instance, he was never an icon like Gaddis was. And icons become that for wrong reasons too. [. . . .] Gaddis had received the scorn of the establishment so it was a . . . just as it’s a great pleasure to me to always be able to talk of quote: “Norman Mailer’s dismissal of ‘Waiting for Godot’” [chuckles], you know? So there’s this imaginary little war going on, to make it short, and he was the chief land you were fighting over really. [. . . .]
Alberts: What do you think of Agapē [Agape]? Th e reason I ask this is I’ve spoken to other people who knew him and they said that they couldn’t read it, because they heard too much of Gaddis in it.
Gass: Well there’s a lot of Gaddis in it. [end of side one of cassette tape] [. . . .] But, you know, the rant is wonderful [chuckles] [ . . . ] I didn’t have any trouble in that sense. He kept his standards extremely high. Th is is a book, lesser book, but he never, I mean had he had years in front of him, this book would’ve morphed into something else, it would never have come out the way that it did. Th at’s okay, I mean, it’s the way things happen. Anything from him is to be appreciated and so forth. But, it just wasn’t . . . he had a way of never letting go of anything; he would’ve reworked everything. There’s Gaddis in everything he writes in one sense, but it would’ve been less concentrated.
Alberts: Technically, he started that in ’51.
Gass: Yeah, yeah, well that’s, you see, that’s another thing I share with him, I think. Everything I do is one hundred years old, initially, and if it isn’t, boy is it bad [chuckles].
Alberts: [laughter] But he never threw anything out, sooner or later, it . . .
Gass: Yes, yes that’s right. He’d find a place for it. So you know, this is just material for something else, which would’ve later developed in some way.
Alberts: Well, I think that’s all of my Gaddis questions, but I do have one other question, if you don’t mind?
Alberts: In “Autobiographies,” your essay in Finding a Form, you said that history and fiction are different disciplines, and I’m wondering if you’ve changed your mind, considering all of the, sort of, mingling of history and fiction now?
Gass: No, all the more so. Th at is certainly to be expected, I think deplored, but it’s to be expected. Th ere’s been this interaction between the two media now for some centuries. Because fiction is made- up history in lots and lots of ways, but history then has also adopted a lot of the techniques of fiction in order to gussy itself up and look like fun. And this attempt to make it seem as if the fact that Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation wearing suspenders is something, you know, it’s a part of making history real to novel- reading public or something. And autobiography has become simply confessional slop [ . . . ] and that’s not surprising, I mean, it isn’t that wonderful examples of all of these things won’t still be written. It’s just that there will be more and more stuff that appeals to mass markets and a lot of that will ultimately seep back into academic work and sort of infect it as it tends to. And one will have to, if one’s going to do an autobiography, they’ll have to go back to reading, you know, really marvelous autobiographies which are instructive about how it should be done. And history will have to pay the price of wandering around and so forth. But [ . . . ] there will be a revolt . . . well there was, but historians decided to be statistical, numerical, positivist in order to get rid of fictional stuff and fictional devices, really. But historians will have to reassess what’s important in history, as opposed to what’s important in fiction. And it’s always been a major interest of mine. Th e Tunnel is full of thoughts about it— most of them crackpot, because I like crackpot ideas, because they’re fun to work with, but it is a real issue. And even one of the nicer issues is really how important is it to have what might even be dimly regarded as an honest history? So what? I mean, you know, what’s important about getting it right? And, of course, there will be plenty of people who will be eager to say, “well you see, you can’t get it right, there’s no way of getting it right. And therefore you don’t have to worry about it” and so forth. And it’s a way of satisfying sophistical impulses.
Alberts: I was just thinking about the question of history and popular history, kicking around the old idea of highbrow and lowbrow. It seems like we have a highbrow history and a lowbrow history . . .
Alberts: . . . and somewhere along the lines, because of mass marketing, it seems that the popular audience doesn’t know, or make, the distinction between history and fiction. They read fiction . . .
Gass: [interrupting] Oh yes, sure!
Alberts: . . . as if it’s fact, and it gets . . .
Gass: [interrupting] Oh yes, sure! I’m having the miserable experience right now of reading, recording Th e Tunnel. And the guy, who’s the tech, is very nice man and very competent, and who has, I must say, gotten interested [chuckles], and he has to sit there very carefully and listen to what’s going on. But he never says anything to me about it, but he does talk to Lorin Cuoco, who is producing this aft er I’m out of the way [laughter].
Gass: And he says, “gee this is all about Gass, isn’t it?,” you know. He’s told “no,” but there’s no way, you know. But there are times, as we’ve gotten further in the book, where he thinks, “hmm that’s alright.” And this was, of course, one of my points; it terrifies me. But, he’s a very nice man and very well meaning and all the rest of it. But he’s just going to be like an ordinary, you know, layman. And, in fact, it’s oft en enough true that certain fictional elements, or elements in a fiction, are true about the person that gives, you know, people license to think it’s all true, but also that they fail to understand the whole notion of relations, because they don’t understand form. And so, they think that a particular bit of information, which in the abstract might be true about the writer, placed in this context, which is quite different oft en as you move pieces of your life all over the place and so forth, has a completely different meaning and a completely different flavor and completely different motives, you know, all of that. And they just don’t understand it. I mean that’s why Ulysses is so autobiographical and so forth. But they don’t understand that. Even a factual detail, which [ . . . ] was important to Joyce to get about Dublin, into the book, right, you know, if you got [ . . . ] some pub on the wrong street, it was going to really bother him that was a personal little thing he had, going about these things. But that data put into the paragraph is where it’s located, if that’s its street and, you know, that’s where it will be and that’s where its drinking buddies all are, all of the senses around it and all the meanings and so forth, and then it’s completely different, which is one of the wonders of fiction, I mean. And the historian’s problem is to get companions that are all true— HA! HA!— and put it in the relationship that somehow presumably existed at some time in the real world. Bless their hearts, it’s so hard. I mean really hard, if not impossible. So anyway, [ . . . ] I think the way to write [. . . a] writer’s biography: first thing is I wouldn’t read their work first. I’d go and find out about their life, independently, first, so I know where the autobiographical elements were coming from, because when it gets into the fiction, it is just transformed, I mean, it is not the same. And that’s particularly true of emotions, thoughts, ideas, attitudes, which if actually held or expressed by the individual in the real world aimed at real people would be repulsive to them; they play with the greatest joy in books and so forth. It’s a transgression that you’re allowed over in that world. Actually, I think hardly any writer is ever as bad in real life as they are in their books. I mean they exaggerate everything. Even when they think they’re telling, you know, like Graham Greene under slight disguise telling us something, and he thinks he’s really being sinful, you know? Th at wouldn’t hold true of André Gide, that’s one of the monsters of . . . but, you know. [ . . . ] I would hate to try to be a biographer. Boy, it’s hard.
Alberts: I’m not attempting to be a biographer, but I can imagine how difficult it would be . . .
Alberts: . . . the amount of material . . . and you get attached, especially snooping through somebody’s archive.
Gass: Oh sure . . .
Alberts: You start not wanting to tell the whole story . . .
Gass: Mm- hmm.
Alberts: . . . because you don’t want to hurt his memory either.
Gass: Yeah, yeah. But, of course, it’s not possible to hurt their memory [. . . .] yes, you could hurt people who think this and that, but [ . . . ] once the individual, the author, is seen as a really important figure, then anything you add to that increases importance. Th ere’s no way, oh momentarily you can disgrace Conrad by doing something, but it just adds to the mix. They get bigger the more controversy, more difficulty, more everything around them. It just never works that way. And you make the books . . . if Jane Austen turned out to be a promiscuous tart, you know . . .
Gass: . . . that’d make everything more interesting.
Alberts: I might actually be able to stomach some of those novels! [laughter]
Gass: [laughter] Yeah. [laughter]