William Gaddis’s Visit to Japan:

The Joy of Reading and the Joy of Writing

William Gaddis arrived in Japan in the evening of September 4th by North West Airline. This visit was part of the cultural relations programme between Japan and the US, and these are usually lectures and debates at American centres in major cities such as Sapporo, Fukuoka, Osaka, Kyoto, Nagoya, and in Tokyo. It is quite a hard schedule, but Gaddis managed this in the two weeks before he returned to the States. After being a presenter twice in Tokyo, I was a commentator in Fukuoka and a presenter again in Nagoya. Gaddis’s speech gradually became more friendly and relaxed as the day progressed.

It was the evening of 6th September when I met Gaddis for the first time; it was at the meeting for the ‘Round Table Discussion’ at the Tokyo American Centre the following day. I found out from friends that people seemed to know Gaddis was this year’s National Book Award winner, and he was one of the best American contemporary writers. Yet nobody had seemed to have finished reading The Recognitions or J R. Since even I had not finished reading J R, I asked him to talk about the contemporary American novel, or changes in recent culture and customs in general using the award winning J R as a basis. However, when I suggested this idea, Gaddis said that it was a very difficult request and gave three reasons:

1.      I have already written everything that had to be said in the novel.
2.      America is a country where various writers coexist, and I cannot see them all heading in the same direction.
3.      I am not interested in other contemporary American writers or works of rivals in the same field.

Gaddis was a clean-shaven gentleman, and he welcomed me in his room with his favourite black beer and Coca-Cola for me if I got sleepy after a few drinks. Although he was talking to me politely and expressed his sharp entrepreneurial side once in a while, I was anxious about what he would do with his speech in this situation. 1. ‘The work says everything’ is a common attitude of many American writers and it is a problem, but there is nothing you can do about 2. or 3. Nonetheless, once thought about, it is quite understandable. His first novel The Recognitions was written in 1955, and the second book that he started straight after was finally published in 1975. It is impossible to write one book for twenty years if you are constantly aware of the changes in the trends of the literary world. Consistency in style could not be achieved if you were influenced by each and every writer of the time. Consequently, Gaddis came to the conclusion that his speech would be about ‘Why I Write’. Let us look at his work using some quotes from it.

Gaddis’s work has started to attract attention since perhaps the end of last year. Despite the fact that no one particularly praised his first novel, The Recognitions, it continued to be read by critics and passionate readers of serious literature. His reputation had gone up sharply. Then, he published J R last autumn, and this spring won the National Book Award, which is considered to be the next prize after the Nobel amongst American writers.

Gaddis was born in 1922, so he would be 54 this year. He studied at Harvard, and after editing The Lampoon (a satirical magazine published on the campus) he left and travelled to Mexico City, Spain and Paris without finishing his degree, as if he wanted to get out of America. (It is a publisher’s error to say that he graduated from Harvard in a section introducing the author of The Recognitions.) He particularly liked the environment and the historical background of Spain and stayed there for two years. The Recognitions is based on his experiences then. Wyatt Gwyon is the hero, who is raised in New England; although an artist, he cannot create any original work and decides to follow the Flemish school of Painters. It is a novel that includes about ten main characters who are of the same generation as the hero as well as the other characters around them, and the story develops along various relationships.

When The Recognitions was published, only a few critics like John Aldridge and a young David Burnett gave good notices, and although it was considered the most important post-war experimental novel, it was obviously ignored in effect. Gaddis took no notice of the lack of public interest, and started work on J R. He was already married at the time, and soon after his son and daughter were born. It was not possible solely to devote himself irresponsibly to his creative activities. He maintained financial stability by engaging in promotions for a pharmaceutical company, film productions, and writing speeches for company managing directors and executive board members. What he did mostly was to write speeches for occasions such as shareholder annual meetings and the presentation of new products. He said, ‘I produced drafts for speeches based on the information given by the company, but although I was not allowed to use any exaggerating expressions, I still had to create a persuasive story. It was a job that required quite a lot of skill and technique. Even if my name never appeared when I wrote for others, I was not worried because all I wrote for was the money. It was good to do a job with a distinct result and I was more satisfied with that than with writing essays and stories for literary magazines.’ Moreover, he received funding in a grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1963, and the National Endowment for Arts in 1967, and managed to publish J R in autumn 1975.

He has made an eleven-year-old boy, J R, the hero of his book. The boy is always reading catalogues until they are worn out and from them he learns to buy things cheap and to sell them for profit. At first, he makes money by buying with the military surplus, but later on he even manages to create a large firm by buying a bankrupt company. The title J R arises from the convention of calling entrepreneurs by their initials. The entrepreneur becomes a framework for the novel; but a contrasting world is introduced with composers, scholars, and writers who have no luck whatsoever with this entrepreneurial society, and would prefer to work in a mode that is completely irrelevant to the money society, with which they would have nothing to do. Both the novel J R and the eponymous J R get out of hand and finally collapse. Those who cannot earn money, but do manage to attain spiritual satisfaction are the victims of the American economic system. It is the aim of this book to criticise the economic system by writing about these victims. It is based on the concept that although it has no historical background, the economic system is the only foundation, if there ever was any, that exists in America. Gaddis says, ‘In that sense, it has the same aim as writers from Dreiser to Heller who criticised their own country, America.’ The theme is ‘to seek a sense of values and to find what is the most profitable thing to do. Is making money really worth doing and does it really have value?’

Despite such an understanding of the theme, there are some difficulties in reading and finishing J R. Firstly, there is the introduction that has money as the narrative theme. J R appears for the first time and it is only after 150 pages that the story starts rolling. Therefore, the reader must manage the first 200 pages in order to finish the book. The novel’s 726 pages consist of dialogue, monologue and telephone conversations, and meaningless banter throughout. There is no description of the characters, or explanation of their psychological state. Particularly when a large number of people are involved, there are no explicit clues given about who is speaking. ‘I wanted to let the story tell the story in this work. I wanted to exclude the presence of the writer and the narrator, and not let them take over in sweeping the story along. I tried to make characters interesting by the characters themselves and the relationships they create with others.’ It is an experiment to create a vivid story based on combinations of different conversations, and the story comes across through rapid talk, repeats, and restating sentences. One critic stated, ‘Writing books which are impossible to read is a talent, and Mr Gaddis certainly is a writer endowed with that talent.’ (The New Yorker)

However, that is only written from The New Yorker’s perspective, and they refer to stories and styles that are short and simple, yet have deep meanings. It is natural that they did not recognise a large-scale novel in which the harm and evil of the economic system are severely satirised.

Most critics praised the excellent value of J R. Especially the value of its radical criticism of society, the great black humour, and the original techniques were praised for four pages in a review by John Aldridge (Saturday Review). It is also worth reading the review for its clever references by J. Z. Sheppard (Time), who called J R ‘a novel full of originality’. However, Gaddis has almost no interest in what the critics have to say. It is due to the fact that he is not impressed by the views frequently expressed by American critics about who was influenced by whom and so on. Gaddis responded to a remark made by Mr. Toshitada Iketani in the Nagoya conference about T. S. Eliot’s influence on Gaddis. ‘When The Recognitions came out, many critics stated that a deep influence could be seen from Joyce’s Ulysses, and it was an American version of it. But unfortunately, I have not read Ulysses. I read the Four Quartets by Eliot passionately in my twenties. That was the one and only book that was relevant and it should have been obvious after reading The Recognitions, yet nobody had mentioned it. In the field of biology, the process can be observed where things penetrate not directly but indirectly like a thin film. In the same way, I am influenced by my surroundings. Critics could carry on writing whatever they believe. Many of the reviews are forgotten, but The Recognitions is still read by many people. I just believe that is the way things are … I think it was a small review in a local paper, it said “A man reading J R on a park bench found it so funny that it made him cry.” I was so happy when I read that review.’

‘I enjoyed writing this work so much. If it was enjoyable writing, it is no doubt enjoyable for the readers too’, he says. It must be an interesting work to create extremely funny moments and to develop a story line by a combination of dialogues. Yet there are still many interesting parts only found by a smart reader. For instance, the list of seven published books, reviews and names of critics on page 515. It is very amusing for American readers, as it satirises each and every title, review and critic’s name. However, Gaddis said that he had more fun writing, and explained as follows. The seven books are called I CHOOSE ROTTEN GIN / OI CHITTERING ONES / THE R I COONS IGNITE / THE ECHOES RIOTING / THE ONION CREST G I / THOS NIGER CONTI / THE TIGER ON SONIC, and they are all made from rearranging the letters in The Recognitions. Furthermore, one of the reviews said ‘… the outside world of American life is described so imperfectly and so superficially as to make us feel that the novelist himself has never known it … -M. Axewill Gummer’ was in fact from a review written about The Recognitions. You might guess that it is a joke about Geismar, but would not even think that it is the real thing he is dealing with … From the looks of it, this is a piece of work that is even more full of surprises as I read it in greater depth.

by Yokichi Miyamoto
translated by Emy Smyth and A
yako Kawanami
edited by Victoria Harding and John Soutter

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