writer’s block: “trapped within the rhymes of reason”

"Reading Gass is like reading Thomas Mann: The Tunnel‘s moral seriousness matches The Magic Mountain‘s and Doctor Faustus‘s, but I find Gass the better writer."


—James McCourt, The Yale Review



The narrator of the tunnel, William Frederick Kohler, is a professor at a midwestern American university. He has nearly completed his magnum opus, Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany, and sits in his cellar trying to finish thebook’s introduction. Instead, he writes produces an accounting of both his work and his life. Kohler considers possible reasons for his inability to finish his book:


Who thus constricts my chest? Confucius? that old chink? Livy then? Gibbon? O la! Tacitus? Gilgamesh. How many times have I fallen inside a sentence while running from a word? Winckelmann, Kafka, Kleist. You would not believe that long bodiless climb from Descartes to Leibniz. Lewis. Lemuel Gulliver. Catullus. Gogol. Constant. Sterne. I live on a ledge—a sill—of type—a brink. Here. Pascal. Alone. Among the silences inside my books… Frege, Wittgenstein…  within the rhymes of reason… the withheld breath, the algebra of alliteration, the freedom of design… Dryden, Zeno, Stevens, Keats… At the edge of space… I beg you, let me come out alive.

—William Gass, The Tunnel, p. 96



more from william gass’ the tunnel

"A bleak, black book, it engenders awe and despair. I have read it in its entirety 4½ times, each time finding its resonance and beauty so great as to demand another reading. As I read, I found myself devastated by the thoroughness of the book’s annihilating sensibility and revived by the beauty of its language, the complexity of its design, the melancholy, horror and stoic sympathy in its rendering of what we used to call the human condition."


—Michael Silverblatt, The Los Angeles Times

Bookseller Photo 

Life in a chair

Yes, I’ve sat too long, no wonder it’s painful, though this is the great Tabor’s own chair, which I had shipped from Germany.  It swivels smoothly, tips without a sound.  In the mornings he lectured at the university.  Scholars, statesmen, writers, filled his afternoons.  My day commences, he said to me once, his fingers grazing on a slope of papers, when I come to rest in here at the end of an evening and begin making Greek and Roman history up out of German words, French wit, and English observation.  He scrawled his famous smile across his face, hastily, like an autograph; but he was old, already ill, and his hand trembled.  German words, he said, not German feeling.  Tabor spoke ironically, of course, yet what he said was true: he woke because his neighbors slumbered; he spied upon their dreams; he even entered their dreams eventually, and brandished a knife in the nightmares of Europe, Magus Tabor.  Mad Meg, they called him.  One day they’d say he wore the decade like a diadem.  His baldness glistened like a forest pool.  There’ve been times when this chair’s been my only haven, he said, and his lids closed over his protruding eyes.  Night had fallen behind them-in Mad Meg
s head.  You see how obedient it is; how swiftly it turns, like fortune in history?  He spun the chair hard, his eyes still in lids.  So I find it easy to reverse my position.  He laughed with the stutter of an angry bird and I managed a low social chuckle.  It really was a dream for him, all this: our conversation, the lecture of the morning, the interrupting applause and tumult of shouts at the end, the famous I and powerful who waited for him while he spoke with an unimportant, young, and dazzled American.  Those deeply curtained eyes reminded me that we were drifting through the middle of his sleep, and that I was just a wraith who would evaporate the instant he sank into his circuiting chair-sank into the past-into death-into history.

The study of history, gentlemen

the study of history

The hall was full.  There were hundreds-crowds in the doorways, everyone still.  The heads of the great grew like blossoms from the pillars lining the walls: in a rise along one side-Lessing, Herder, Hegel, Fichte, Schelling; in a fall along the other-Möser, Dilthey, Ranke, Troeltsch, Treitschke.  My first time in that room I had sat by the bust of Treitschke and read the inscription plaqued beneath it on the column:






It was longer than I care to admit before I realized that for Mad Meg, too, truth was the historian’s gift to history.


That’s not nearly strong enough.  And my
my what?my naiveté? my admiration? my vanity?somethingprevented me from understanding what he wrotehe preachedso many times so plainly.

The window of the car would not roll up and Lou’s face looked warm from the cold wind as if freshly slapped or shamed or elsewhere loved.  My hand fell to hers, too, somewhat like a discarded glove, and she took it with a squeeze, so that the chilled soon lay within the chilled, I thought, like a bottle of champagne.  Cold hand, moist part, I said.  Hers slipped away.

Drafts lapped my neck.  I cobble history, Tabor shouted when he saw me again, placing his huge, rough-knuckled fists against my chest.  We met at a large impersonal affair, a reception held at a chancellery, and I had finally burrowed to the stair to scan the crowd, perhaps to find a friend or two, when I observed him in the middle of the room, over his head in hair and shoulders, burning quietly, the only thing alive among the potted ferns and suits of armor.  The icy marble floor was flopped with Oriental rugs and steadily enlarging spills of people.  He was alone, ill.  I was astonished to see him in such a place.  I cobble history the way a cobbler cobbles shoes, he said.  Wretched fellow, I thought: in the midst of this crush, you’re composing a lecture.  If it were not for me the Roman Empire
here he made a hard white ball of his handswould not, an instantI heard his harsh laugh bubble from the crowd-stay togetherand his hands flew apart with startling violence, fingers fanned.  There was a terrible energy in that gesture, although he was, by this time, a sick old man, so weak he tottered.  His ears seemed unnaturally fastened to his head, and his arms emerged from the holes of his sleeves as if the flesh had remained as a lining.  I swaddled my neck in my arms and would have turned my collar if I’d dared.  Light spewed from the chandeliers.  Countless pairs of glistening boots reechoed from the marble squares.  Then an angry woman in a powdered bosom passed between us, and I was glad to be carried away.  Poor Tabor.  His lips were still moving when he disappeared behind a heavily forested Prussian chest.  Wise eyes slid sneakily down the stairs.  Voices were impeccably coiffed.  A moist mouth relieved a sausage of its stick.  Long gowns whispered like breezes together, and I saw several backs begging to be amorously bitten.  Bellies were in belly bras.  Consequently postures were perfect.  Since coming to Germany and manhood at the commencement of the thirties, I had known few such opulent days.  There were so many bits of brilliant metal, so much jewelry, so many cummerbunds and ribbons, a gently undulating sea of silk-tossed light, that the gilded ceiling drew away like heat and seemed a sky.  Thus I beheld him for the first time (or anyway eyed him out); and I felt the smile I’d penciled in above my chin fade like the line beneath the last rub of an eraser.  Never mind.  There was no need then for fidelity, only for entertainment.  Elaborate and lie.  Describe the scene to your quam diu friends: Link, Hintze, and Krauske¾friends who faded, whom heat cannot bring back even in the palest outline like lemon juice on paper.  Describe¾and make it rich, make it fun, full of rhetoric and episode¾Mad Meg in the Maelstrom.

I faced the four corners, cupped the bowl of my glass like a breast, began the construction of my anecdote, and let the wine die.

gass’ the tunnel: “the world… the world, alas. it is alice committing her tampax to the trash”

The Tunnel is a stupendous achievement and obviously one of the greatest novels of the century, a novel to set beside the masterpieces of Proust, Joyce, and Musil as well as those of Gass’s illustrious contemporaries.”  


—Steven Moore, Review of Contemporary Fiction

book cover of </p> <p>The Tunnel </p> <p>by</p> <p>William H Gass

 Anaxagoras said to a man who was grieving because he lay dying

in a foreign land, “the descent to hell is the same from every place.”





What I have to tell you is as long as life,

but I shall run as swiftly, so before you know it,

 we shall both be over.






It was my intention, when I began, to write an introduction to my work on the Germans. Though its thick folders lie beside me now, I know I cannot. Endings, instead, possess me . . . all ways out.


Embarrassed, Im compelled to smile. I was going to extend my sympathy to my opponents. Here, in my introduction, raised above me like an arch of triumph, I meant to place a wreath upon myself. But each time I turned my pen to the task, it turned aside to strike me.


As I look at the pages of my manuscript, or stare at the books which wall my study, I realize I must again attempt to put this prison of my life in language.


It should have been a simple ceremony: a wreath to honor death and my success¾the defense of my hypothesis concerning Germany.


And when I wrote my book, to whom was I writing if not the world? … the world! … the world … the world is William welshing on a bet; it is Olive sewing up the gut of a goose; it is Reynolds raping Rosie on the frat-house stair; it is a low blow, a dreary afternoon, an exclamation of disgust.  And when I wrote was I writing to win renown, as it’s customarily claimed? or to gain revenge after a long bide of time and tight rein of temper? to earn promotion, to rise above the rest like a loosed balloon? or was it from weak self-esteem? From pure funk, out of a distant childhood fear or recent shame? … the world . . . the world, alas.  It is Alice committing her Tampax to the trash.


I began, I remember, because I felt I had to.  I’d reached that modest height in my career, that gentle rise, from which I could coast out of gear to a soft stop.


Now I wonder why not.  Why not?  But then duty drove me forward like a soldier.  I said it was time for “the Big Book,” the long monument to my mind I repeatedly dreamed I had to have: a pyramid, a column tall enough to satisfy the sky.  Duty drove me the way it drives men into marriage.  Begetting is expected of us, and in those days of heavy men in helmets the seed was certain, and wanted only the wind for a womb, or any slit; yet what sprang up out of those foxholes we fucked with our fists but our own frightened selves? with a shout of pure terror, too.  That too-that too was expected; it was expected even of flabby maleless men like me.  And now, here, where I am writing still, still in this chair, hammering type like tacks into the page, speaking without a listening ear, whose eye do I hope to catch and charm and fill with tears and understanding, if not my own, my own ordinary, unforgiving and unfeeling eye? … my eye.  So sentences circle me like a toy train.  What could I have said about the Boche, about bigotry, barbarism, butchery, Bach, that hasn’t been said as repeatedly as I dreamed my dream of glory, unless it was what I’ve said?  What could I have explained where no reason exists and no cause is adequate; what body burned to a crisp could I have rebelieved was bacon, if I had not taken the tack I took?


And last night, with my lids pulled over me, I went on seeing as if I were an open window.  Full of wind.  I wasn’t lying in peaceful darkness, that darkness I desired, that peace I needed.  My whole head was lit with noises, yet no Sunday park could have been more lonely: thoughts tossed away, left like litter to be blown about and lost.  There were long avenues of footfall, leaf flutter lacking leaf or tree, barks unreturned to their dogs.


My hypothesis … My word … My world … My Germany …


Of course there is nothing genuinely German about me, though my name suggests that some distant ancestor doubtless came from that direction, for I have at least three generations of Americans safety beneath me.  My wife, a richly scutcheoned Muhlenberg and far more devoted to armorial lines and ties of blood-all such blazonry-than I could ever bring myself to be, has already tunneledthrough five layers of her own to find, to her unrelenting triumph and delight, the deepest layer lying on American soil still, and under the line of the nineteenth century, if only by a spade’s length.  So my name, and the fact that I speak the German language fluently, having spent a good many years in that exemplary country (though there is nothing genuinely German about me), help make the German nation a natural inference.  I was there first as a student in the middle of the thirties, and I must confess I was caught up in the partisan frenzy of those stirred and stirring times; yet when I returned it was ironically as a soldier behind the guns of the First Army, and almost immiediately afterward I began my term as a consultant on “dirty Fascist things” at the Nuremberg Trials.  Finally, on the fore-edge of the fifties, with my fourteen hundred francs of fame, to alter the French reviewer’s expression in my favor, I purchased my release from the paws of the military and was permitted to become a tourist and teacher and scholar again.  Yes, by that time I had a certain dismal renown as the author of the Kohler thesis concerning Nazi crimes and German guilt, and this preceded me and lit my path, so that I had to suffer a certain sort of welcome too, a welcome which made me profoundly uneasy, for I was met and greeted as an equal; as, that is, a German, a German all along, and hence a refugee: I was William Frederick Kohler, wasn’t I? wasn’t I fat and fair, with a dazzling blond wife and a troop of stalwart children fond of-heaven help them-hiking about with bare knees? and so why not? … no, there was no mistake, I had the name and knew the language, looked the part, had been wisely away through the war, and, of course (though no one said it, it was this which pinned that wretched label to my coat like a star), had written that remarkably sane, peace-seeking book, so close on the event, too; a book which was severe¾all right, it was severe, perhaps severe-yet patient, fair and calm, a Christian book really, its commentators, my hostesses, their guests, all my new friends, smiling pleasantly to pump my hand, declared (as though history had a fever); yes, so calm and peace-seeking (came Herr Kohler’s cool and soothing palm), so patient and perceptive, so serene (while he lay bitterly becalmed himself)with a quotation from Heinrich Heine just beneath the title like a tombstone with a grave-that the French reviewer (and there was only one at first) spat on his page (he had a nose like a dirk and spectacles enlarged his eyes): It will be fourteen hundred francs spent on infamy, he said, and you will get your money’s worth.  Of peace-seeking, peace-making, peace-loving Buch.  A good buy.


A friend of mine did the French version, but it was I, quite unaccompliced, who betrayed my English to the German.  At twelve marks it continues to have a brisk sale.  I redid my study with a recent check.




I had intended to introduce


This is to introduce a work on death by one who’s spent his life in a chair.




I could not hold my father in much love, my mother either.  Indeed, I learned to love far later, as it proved, than they had time for.  So perished they without it. None of us grieves.  I’ve played a few sly tricks upon insanity since then, and now life holds me as it once held them-in a dry fist.  Hearts held that way wad up eventually … trees did. Once—once only—my heart burst bloodily in that grip.  But what has this to do with me now, or with Germany?