Beginning Gaddis

I am an entire 26 pages into Gaddis’s 950-page novel, and I thought I’d let you know how it’s going so far.  So far, so good.  I can tell it will be a slow read, but that’s okay — slow reading seems to be the thing these days anyway.  The story (as much of it as I’ve gleaned) is interesting, and while the writing can be dense — or maybe I should say that it can shift registers in a way that’s mildly disorienting — it’s enjoyable and entertaining.

I’m especially intrigued by how saturated in religious themes the book is.  You have the Reverend Gwyon who travels with his wife Camilla from America to Europe and poor Camilla dies on the way, leaving very strictly Protestant American relatives outraged that Gwyon is not bringing her body home.  Instead, he comes back with Catholic relics and icons (and also a Barbary ape) after having Camilla buried in a ceremony that would have shocked the relatives more than they could have handled, if they had known about it.  Gaddis’s description of these Christians is delicious:

Anything pleasurable could be counted upon to be, if not categorically evil, then worse, a waste of time.  Sentimental virtues had long been rooted out of their systems.  They did not regard the poor as necessarily God’s friends.  Poor in spirit was quite another thing.  Hard work was the expression of gratitude He wanted, and, as things are arranged, money might be expected to acrue as incidental testimonial.

Yes, that’s one form of American protestantism, all right.  As I understand it, the story is really about Reverend Gwyon’s son Wyatt, who at the age of four is already “finding the Christian system suspect.”  I’m curious to find out how he will respond to these religious roots.

I’m very grateful to Litlove for posting about the annotations to the novel.  Already I have made use of them and found out useful information like the fact that Gaddis doesn’t know how he would pronounce the name “Gwyon”; when asked, he said he doesn’t know because he had never said the name out loud (I find that hard to believe — surely he had to be saying it in his head all the time?).  The annotator says that the name should probably “be pronounced as one syllable, like ‘Gwynne,’ its modern form.”  I was relieved to hear that advice because a two-syllable “Gwy-on” doesn’t work very well.

But more seriously, the site has wonderful notes on all the references and also a plot synopsis that I’m sure will come in handy.  As a matter of fact, I feel a little ambivalent about using the plot synopsis regularly.  On the one hand, I’d prefer just to deal with the text directly and not depend on something like a plot summary to help me through any rough spots (the annotations are another matter — they are just footnotes in a different form).  On the other hand, I’m sure a plot synopsis will come in handy somewhere down the road when I’ve forgotten characters and events from earlier in the novel.  I think I will give up on the idea of having some kind of pure encounter with the text and gratefully use all the help I can get.

Cross-posted at Reading Gaddis.

6 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

6 responses to “Beginning Gaddis

  1. Isn’t it marvelous? Are you finding it funny? I keep laughing out loud. We are in about the same place I think. The annotation website is a fantastic resource that I keep checking in on every 5 pages or so.

  2. I love reading big books with a group of people–I always get more out of it. I won’t be able to manage this one, but I look forward to hearing about everyone’s experiences!

  3. Oh well done, Dorothy, for getting us started! Wonderful post, and I’m hoping to write about my own first impressions towards the end of the week.

  4. verbivore

    Hooray for this – last night I realized I was also on page 25 and then dutifully read on to finish Chapter one. I’m with Stefanie, I keep laughing out loud at certain phrases. I think this will be a strange, hopefully rewarding, read.

  5. Stefanie — it IS funny, which is a nice surprise. And I’ll probably use the annotations in the same way — check them periodically. I’ll probably skim through them and try to find the interesting parts, as they look like they are pretty exhaustive.

    Danielle — yes, a group definitely helps, doesn’t it? I’ve had good experiences with that type of reading — Don Quixote was a lot of fun. It does take work to maintain the website, though.

    Litlove — thank you! I see that your post is up now, and I’m looking forward to reading it.

    Verbivore — oh, am I near the end of Chapter one? I had no idea. I’m glad you’re finding it funny too — who knew it would be comical?

  6. I don’t believe that about not knowing how to pronounce Gwyon, either. Sounds sort of pretentious to me, like, “Oh, that mattered so little that I didn’t bother with it,” knowing full well that it would matter to the reader. And how could a writer possibly not know how to pronounce the name of one of his main characters? Still, so far, you’ve piqued my interest enough to disregard any leanings toward pretension, what with pointing out that description of certain types of protestantism and the Barbary ape.

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