Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Recognitions (by William Gaddis)

I've been reading The Recognitions since at least last August, so I am thrilled to cross it off my list, even if the introduction does have this wisdom to impart: "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 Finnegans Wake? What does it mean to finish Moby-Dick, 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."

I love that quote but am not sure if The Recognitions is a book that I long to re-read. I'm sure it would be much clearer the second time around, and it is a rich, dense book. But I would put, say, Ulysses, War and Peace, Moby-Dick, Infinite Jest, and parts of Finnegans Wake all on my "tomes to re-read" list before this one, I think. But that is just personal preference.

It's a really interesting (and difficult) novel. There are lots of main characters who are often being confused with or mistaken for each other, mostly by the characters, but I think sometimes by the reader (since Gaddis most often does not name people, and expects us to pick up their identities based on speech patterns, context, and other clues.) People also change names, go by different names, assign other people nicknames. This all works perfectly thematically, as many of the characters are forgers or counterfeiters or masters of disguise. In parts, the novel is darkly comic, but overall it's fairly slow going to make sure you understand what's happening, and most of the characters are unsympathetic, a few of them in funny ways (like Otto, who is constantly obsessed with what effect he's having on other people) and most of them in frustrating ways (like Wyatt, who seemingly never manages to finish a sentence). 

There are also tons of allusions (I enjoyed all the ones to "Prufrock" and "The Wasteland" in particular) and reading it is therefore a somewhat Joycean experience. I referred to the annotations constantly, since I really do think they enhance the text. But phew! Not sure if the effort-to-reward calculus was in my favor here. I will have to sit with this one for a bit. 

Since the book is almost 1000 pages, here are two quotes for the price of one. One wise, one melancholy.

"Why do you treat me as they do, as though I were exactly what I want to be. Why do we treat people that way? But we do, everyone treats anyone that way, saying I have had these defeats and disappointments, but you whom I encounter you know what you will say, moving, in accord with your nature which is here in bloom, but I do not yet understand, I, for myself, do not yet understand. Since I my problems are not yours therefore you must have none, but live alone inside yourself, therefore here are my problems and we shall share them."
(p. 758)

"He came back to his room from early Mass, where he had also got a look at the gigantic organ and confirmed his arrangement to play it later in the morning, and also... sought the intervention of that saint still to be rung in that morning on behalf of three souls equally dear, and equally beautiful. And it was those he thought of, and not the work he thought of, as he stood alone in his room and looked at the work, which was all that was left." (p. 955)

Only four books to go!



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