William Gass and the Music of Prose

In response to trying to produce a critique of Omensetter’s Luck as a whole, the biggest challenge has obviously been to narrow down which direction to take. As someone who tends to absorb and/or retain art and literature in terms of affect, I’d like to briefly touch on the part of the work of most interest to me psychologically, or in this case, psycholinguistically.

Before I sway too easily into the grave error we’ve been cautioned against that leads down the road of merely looking for insights into characters and ‘moral lessons,’ I’d like to keep just a moment more in regards to Robert’s thoughts on syntax and conceptual music. I have very much enjoyed (coming from a strong music theory background) seeing terminology one also uses in musical structures (i.e. phrase, period, subject, and later assonance and consonance when dealing in sound devises such as those in Frost, Swinburn or Emerson) being employed here.

A couple of days ago, I read a lovely essay by an Italian student at the University of Bologna entitled Dwelling upon Metaphors: The Translation of William Gass’s Novellas. What caught my eye in this dissertation were his thoughts on Gass’s essay in Finding a Form, “The Music of Prose” specifically. In this portion, he sees this ‘conceptual music’ as a type of second syntax:

 Musical form creates another syntax, which overlaps the grammatical and reinforces that set of directions sometimes, or adds another dimension by suggesting that two words, when they alliterate or rhyme, thereby modify each other, even if they’re not in any normally modifying position. Everything a sentence is is made manifest by its music (Gass, 1996).

This sheds an interesting light toward the question Brad previously posed, “Which has more influence over the other: does the note-level aspect inform the larger-scale musicality, or is it more that the larger-scale musicality making possible the hearing of the note-level aspect at all?” I mentioned briefly that I also had wondered this, and on first instinct was inclined to agree with the latter. Would we have even taken the chance to note the more intimate underpinnings of the text (the sentence Brad noted on p. 145, “Omensetter’s stones did not skip on forever…” being an excellent example) without previously taking in the ‘larger-scale musicality?’ I’m inclined to be doubtful.

In defense of the conclusion being the latter, where the larger-scale musicality makes possible the emergence of the smaller intricacies, what immediately struck me about Gass’s literary style even upon a cursory reading was this: simple diction and syntax. Except it’s not simple, not at all. It is what caused me to read and reread Tott’s indiscriminating rants on his imagined travels as metaphor for his pain time and time again. Of the entirety of the work (and I have mentioned it already in an earlier comment) my favorite is as follows:

 His dreams were not embarrassed by clichés, but in each he always knew the precise feel of the air, what  manner of birds were singing, the position of the sun, the kind of cloud, the form of emotion in himself and others, and every felicity of life (13).

I can’t recall ever reading something quite like it. In the complete chaos that surrounds Tott’s rambling, out comes this complete lack of repetition, a conclusively original thought and absolute clarity of mind. Gass’s sentences are so incredibly thick that they insist on being read time and time again. He has been called an unabashed sensualist, to which I feel there can be little dispute. I find it is the sentences-his use of diction and syntax-that ceaselessly hold blame for his linguistic success. Though they are unarguably essential, I feel it is his combination of words, not necessarily his aping vowels or repeated consonants that really render the work.

At the end of the day, we can already begin maneuvering the ins and outs of either side, and I know a good case can be made for both. However, this process could also clearly result in the dog chasing his tail. If we widen our gaze and apply this question to a broader spectrum of art and literature, could we pose it again and come to the same conclusion? Or is this a quandary best left specifically to this subtly explosive form?

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,475 other followers