An Evening with William Gaddis
Readers and fans of William Gaddis, a writer notoriously protective of his privacy during his lifetime, have been waiting years to read his correspondence. A number of pieces were collected in Conjunctions this past fall, and finally next month Dalkey Archive Press will publish The Letters of William Gaddis, edited by Steven Moore with an Afterword by Sarah Gaddis. The letters span nearly 70 years, from his childhood in boarding school to the months just before his death, addressed to friends, family, children, wives and ex-wives, and fellow writers: Katherine Anne Porter, David Markson, William H. Gass, Stanley Elkin, Frederick Exley, Robert Coover, Robert Creeley, John Updike, Saul Bellow, and Don DeLillo. As Dalkey points out, “these letters function as a kind of autobiography, and are all the more valuable because Gaddis was not an autobiographical writer.”
I had the great pleasure of attending a celebration of those letters and their author last Wednesday at the New School in Manhattan. The roster of participants was appropriately eclectic: Robert Coover, Samuel R. Delany, Rick Moody, and Francine Prose, with Conjunctions editor Bradford Morrow emceeing, and the event was, appropriately, a treat. I imagine if a writer is influential in a certain way he becomes a kind of literary elephant to the blind men (with no disparagement implied on either side of the equation), and leaves an enormously different legacy to everyone who discovers him at the right time in their reading lives. Each of the authors read a selection from Gaddis’ letters and then talked a bit about what his work meant to them, and while each was as different as you’d expect, they were all strongly nostalgic about the moment of discovery—the importance of not just having read the books, but having found them. Or as Francine Prose explained, speaking of picking up The Recognitions during her college years: “Any book that’s not assigned in your class feels like a great important secret.”
Rick Moody led off the pack saying he felt “like one of those comedians going on before Led Zeppelin,” spoke briefly of sharing a starstruck meal with Gaddis as a young author, and then read a long, heartbreakingly funny and longing letter to an absent wife. Prose picked a letter to Katherine Anne Porter that touched on letter-writing and modesty, a good theme song for the evening. Delany, who was indeed, as Morrow said in his introduction, “rocking the best beard in the business,” gave us a New York boy’s story: slumming in Greenwich Village as a teenager and meeting Gaddis, buying J R at The Strand, and reading it during a snowed-in weekend in a Buffalo hotel room. And Coover—Gaddis’ contemporary—sent regards from William Gass, told of partying in hotel rooms during the American Academy of Arts and Letters awards, and then read from a beautifully evocative description of writing in Seville.
Possibly the best part of the evening, though, was mine alone. Gaddis was known for his dislike of public performance, so really only those present who had known him personally would have ever heard him read. I did not know him, but his son Matthew is my friend. And just before the event started he sat down next to me, pressed his iPhone into my hand, and played me a piece from the 16 mm. black and white film he’s working on, titled 3 From a Play. The clip—just a few minutes long—was of his father reading in a hotel room, looking out onto a panorama of churches. And while I’ve been to all sorts of author events, seen many folks from my pantheon up close and personal, that was a little magical. I got to spend the evening listening to some great readings, some wonderful stories, with the ghost of the man’s voice in my ear. I don’t hear people describe experiences as “special” much these days, which is probably a good thing—but it was. And I’m looking forward to reading those letters for myself.