So whispered a woman a few rows in front of me last night at St. Louis’s Left Bank Books. We were there – 40 or 50 in total; several apparently friends of ‘Bill’ – to hear local lit hero William Gass read from his new essay collection, A Temple of Texts. (My favorite pre-reading comment was from someone referring to Gass’s Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, and welcoming Willy Loman into the title.) Left Bank’s Barry Leibman gave some brief and wonderfully warm opening remarks – stating how proud he was to have hosted Gass events in the past, and how the author’s “intellectual rigor has been a beacon for this store” – which were followed by a more formal introduction.
Gass began by reading part of the essay “Influence,” collected in the new book. The piece was written to introduce the book’s title piece – “A Temple of Texts: Fifty Literary Pillars,” an International Writers Center exhibition / booklet from the early 1990s – and part of its purpose was to make sure readers didn’t take this as a 'best books’ piece. (Several reviewers have somehow missed this; even Michael Dirda, in his glowing and informed review in the Washington Post, called the Temple a list of Gass’s “favorite books.”) He then moved into the Temple itself, reading 15 entries over 30 minutes or so. He covered books by, among others, Joyce, Beckett, Mann, Ford Madox Ford, Henry James, and Gertrude Stein, about whom he’s wild. He described his discovery of Stein’s Three Lives this way:
I read with an excitement that made me nearly ill, and having finished the book at 1:00 a.m. (having never contemplated reading it in the first place, having been lured, suckered, seduced), I immediately began reading it again from the beginning, singing to myself, and moaning, too, because this tension had caused my stomach to hurt quite fiercely. My head also ached. I was sort of sore-eyed. Was this how it felt to have a revelation? […] And so at the end, I was sick, and though hanging over the mouth of the john (where my fears were not confirmed), I knew I had found the woman my work would marry.
Gass ended with the Temple’s four entries for Rainer Maria Rilke, his primary literary obsession. Throughout the evening, the crowd was appreciative, and there were several laughs at good lines (Beckett “writes equally well in two languages: Nitty and Gritty”) and nods of recognition and gratitude at brilliant ones.
While I’m here: My 3,000-word review of A Temple of Texts will be published soon at Identity Theory. I’ll post a link here when it’s up.