Jim's Reviews > Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts

Life Sentences by William H. Gass
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's review
Jul 15, 12

bookshelves: essaysforautodidacts, literary-criticism
Read from January 17 to June 15, 2012

For the past few months I've dipped in and out of Gass's latest collection of essays until I've read them all. There were only a few doldrums (the essay on Malcolm Lowry) and disappointments (the essay on Kafka). And yes I could live happily without ever reading another word by or about Henry James.

But Gass is impressive whatever his subject. His essay on Nietzsche is the best meditation on that vexing, fearless and pitiable philosopher that I've ever read. "Kinds of Killing" – beginning as a review of Richard Evans's The Third Reich at War – is stunning in its survey of the horror inflicted by Hitler's patriots, which concluded for the Nazis in "a vast wave of suicides without precedent in modern history," and sadly included survivors of the camps who "would kill themselves because they were alive." Despair (and its summation) doesn't get any darker.

The book concludes with brighter reflections on the art of literacy: on form (eidos); mimesis (which Gass finds overrated – "Falsehood and error have played a far larger role in history than truth and correctness, for falsehood always finds a way to be convenient and of use."); and the structure of the sentence.

I've been collecting Gass's remarkable essays ever since I came across On Being Blue in the late 70s. Those collections are still on my shelves – alongside my favorite, Reading Rilke. The writing is strong, the philosophy as bitter as bright metal, and the measured wisdom certain.
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