Book: Tests of Time

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Tests of Time

Author: William H. Gass
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf

In these fourteen witty and elegant essays, William Gass (“the finest prose stylist in America”—Steven Moore, Washington Post) writes about writing, reading, culture, history, politics, and public opinion.

In the first of three parts, Gass addresses literary matters and writers, and contemplates, among other things: the nature of narrative and its philosophical implications; experimental fiction and its importance; literary “lists” (including the currently controversial canon of western literature) and their use. In part two, Gass looks at social and political contretemps: the extent and cost of political influences on writers; the First Amendment, the Fatwa, and Salman Rushdie; our view of Germany, as in “How German are we?” Finally, Gass gives us a celebration of Flaubert and considers the problems of writing history.

Tests of Time is William Gass at his most dazzling. It is a high-wire act of thinking and writing that serves up what Vladimir Nabokov called an “indescribable tingle of the spine.”


For those willing to overlook the author’s wandering style and bursts of elitism, William H. Gass’s latest series of essays, Tests of Time, yields many rewards. Gass unifies this ambitious work with a focus on the ethics of writing, and, on a more general level, morality. The first of three sections, Literary Matters, includes essays investigating the nature of narrative, experimental fiction, writing’s effect on memory and experience, and culture and canonization. The second section, Social and Political Contretemps, explores the influence of politics, religion, censorship, and nationalism on writers, as well as the similarities between American and German culture. Finally, the Stuttgart Seminar Lectures section concerns the value of well-documented history and artistic writing. Gass insists throughout that only through creative, brave, and responsible writing can humanity avert moral degeneration—and he often succeeds in powerfully conveying and inspiring this point. His thorough reading of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities beautifully emphasizes the role of poetry in our connection with the past and present. “There Was an Old Woman Who” entertains and informs with its use of a largely forgotten case of urban cannibalism as an example of the need for accurate documentation and a moral view of history. Unfortunately Gass often muddles his valuable ideas with overlong ranting, inflammatory rhetoric, and out-of-touch popular-culture criticisms. The author is easily at his best when he remains succinct and organized yet impassioned, as he does in the collection’s excellent final essay, “Transformations.” Here and elsewhere, Gass delivers a modernist critique in every way exemplifying the courage, skill, and consciousness in writing that he so values. —Ross Doll

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