Literary Saloon
Site of Review.

Trying to meet all your book preview and review needs.

the Best
the Rest
Review Index



to e-mail us:

In Association with Amazon.com

In association with Amazon.com - UK


the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Recognitions

William Gaddis

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Recognitions

Title: The Recognitions
Author: William Gaddis
Genre: Novel
Written: 1955
Length: 965 pages
Availability: The Recognitions - US
The Recognitions - UK
The Recognitions - Canada
Les reconnaissances - France
Die Fälschung der Welt - Deutschland
Los reconocimientos - España
  • The Dalkey Archive Press re-issue came with an Introduction William H. Gass, which is now the Afterword of the New York Review Books re-issue, which has an Introduction by Tom McCarthy
  • Note that the Penguin Twentieth Century Classics edition, attractive paperback though it is, carries a list price of $ 21.95. This is an unacceptable and outrageous sum of money, even for a thick book of near a thousand pages. While Amazon discounts reduce the price, it is still unconscionable. Protest ! (I remind you that the 1974 Avon/Bard paperback was priced $ 2.65 -- yes, that was a long time ago, but that was cheap even back then (apparently too cheap -- it doesn't seem to have stayed in print long (and copies are hard to come by))
    • (Updated - February 2004): Apparently not enough of you protested: now the list price is an incredible $24.00 .....
    • (Updated - February 2012): But apparently enough of you refused to shell out so much money; Penguin seems to have dumped the book, and it is now available instead in a Dalkey Archive edition, the list price a slightly more reasonable $18.95
    • (Updated - October 2020): But apparently the Dalkey Archive edition was priced too cheaply for them to hold onto the rights and it's now been re-issued by New York Review Books, at, sigh, $29.95

- Return to top of the page -

Our Assessment:

A- : a demanding tome, a considerable achievement.

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Berliner Zeitung A 5/12/1998 Gustav Seibt
FAZ . 5/12/1998 Joachim Kalka
Harper's . 11/2020 Christopher Beha
London Rev. of Books . 6/3/1986 D.A.N.Jones
London Rev. of Books . 23/9/2021 Adam Mars-Jones
The LA Times . 17/12/2020 Scott Bradfield
The NY Times Book Rev. . 14/7/1974 Tony Tanner
Tages-Anzeiger A 5/12/1998 Denis Scheck
Time . 14/3.1955 .
TLS . 20/2/2004 Stephen Burn

  • The bibliography of Jack Green's Fire the Bastards ! provides a detailed list of English-language reviews.
  • Jack Green's Fire the Bastards ! is an extensive analysis / condemnation of these reviews.

  Review Consensus:

  Jack Green figured 16 reviews were "relatively favorable", 9 "relatively unfavorable", and 21 "noncommittal". See Jack Green's excellent rant (Fire the Bastards !) for more details.
  The German reviews acknowledge it as an impressive classic.

  From the Reviews:

  • "(E)iner der kompliziertesten Romane, die je geschrieben wurden; er gehört zu jenen Büchern, deren erste Lektüre Arbeit ist, während er jede folgende mit immer gesteigerter Lust belohnt. Wer dieses Buch bewältigt, der darf sich trösten, daß er nun in Drachenblut gebadet hat, denn kein Werk der ästhetischen Moderne wird ihn mehr schrecken können." - Gustav Seibt, Berliner Zeitung

  • "Der erneute Blick auf dieses heilige Monstrum der amerikanischen Gegenwartsliteratur ist eine große Freude. Selbst da, wo der Leser von Gaddis enttäuscht ist (hierzu gleich mehr), muß er einräumen, daß es eine Enttäuschung auf allerhöchstem Niveau ist. Das Buch ist großartig und irritierend." - Joachim Kalka, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Gaddis makes clear throughout that he is after bigger, more interesting game; his real target is not fakery but something like its opposite, what a teacher of Wyatt’s calls “that romantic disease, originality”" - Christopher Beha, Harper's

  • "On the page, The Recognitions is all stubborn proliferation and zero paring away of the inessential. (...) Gaddis shows an intimate knowledge of fine art, in terms of both aesthetics and techniques, obviously an asset in a novel that deals with the forging of paintings. His blind spot, unfortunately, is literary prose. He has no feeling for his medium. (...) There's an inability to control dynamics apparent at every scale." - Adam Mars-Jones, London Review of Books

  • "Take too much time away between sittings and you will quickly lose all sense of what on earth is going on. These are entire worlds in themselves, filled with multitudinous voices, urban noise, weather, detailed routines, dirty streets and chatty parties. There are so many characters that if you aren't reading briskly, you will lose track. And more crucially, you will lose that core Gaddis sensation of many different lives happening at once. (...) Time itself is merely alluded to, albeit powerfully, in poetic descriptions of the sky and city in day and night. Everything in Gaddis is experiential. He is cerebral, yet he is one of the most sensual writers in fiction." - Scott Bradfield, The Los Angeles Times

  • "It is certainly a complex structure (.....) It is a novel about forgery of all kinds and all the ambiguities involved in the concept of “imitation.” (...) Any attempted summary of character and incident would be both impossible and inappropriate. To talk of the characters and their language, and the events which together they compose and decompose, as if they were stable entities is misleading in such a world. It is here that Gaddis shows some of his most original handling of the novel form. (...) (U)ltimately I think this is a religious book." - Tony Tanner, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Es gibt keine Patina. Mag es an der Übersetzung von Marcus Ingendaay liegen, mögen viele der von Gaddis visionär vorweggenommenen Tendenzen heute Wirklichkeit geworden sein -- dieser Roman ist jedenfalls taufrisch, tagesaktuell, hot news." - Denis Scheck, Tages-Anzeiger

  • "(A)swim in erudition, semi-Joycean in language, glacial in pace, irritatingly opaque in plot and character, The Recognitions is one of those eruptions of personal vision that will be argued about without being argued away. U.S. novel writing has a strikingly fresh talent to watch, if not to cheer." - Time

  • "An exhaustive account of fraudulence and corruption in the modern art world, the novel has the range of learning and ambition of a modernist masterpiece such as Ulysses" - Stephen Burn, Times Literary Supplement
  Note that Jack Green's book (Fire the Bastards !) offers a wide selection of review-excerpts.


  • "There's something medieval Christian about The Recognitions. The novel is like a huge landscape painting of modern New York, peopled with hundreds of doomed but energetic little figures, executed on wood panels by Brueghel or Bosch, and looking incongurously ancient beneath layers of yellowed lacquer. (...) And yet the book is absolutely of the early fifties. Peel away the erudition and you have The Catcher in the Rye: a grim winter sojourn in a seedy Manhattan, a quest for authenticity in a phony modern world. " - Jonathan Franzen, The New Yorker (30/9/2002)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

- Return to top of the page -

The complete review's Review:

       William Gaddis' The Recognitions is often called one of the "great American novels", a large tome with a fine reputation, acclaimed, underappreciated -- and largely unread. First published in 1955 it received considerable attention from the critics (see Jack Green's acerbic commentary on that in his Fire the Bastards !) before fading into the semi-obscurity of vaunted but daunting texts. Now available as a "Penguin Twentieth-Century Classic" it is at least readily available; one suspects that it is still not widely read. A demanding tome of near a thousand pages it poses a challenge to readers. Welcome though such a challenge should be, passive readers of the modern day might not quite be up to it. The Recognitions requires a reader to make an investment, not only of the exorbitant sum charged by Penguin for purchase of the book, but also of time, concentration, and patience -- all in short supply, one is led to believe in this sound-bite age.
       The Recognitions is a complex book. A number of stories run through it, as various characters whose paths crisscross are, at different points, the focus of the novel. Gaddis' style does not make the task much easier. While not overly complex, much of the novel is in the form of dialogue and it is often not immediately clear which characters are involved in the conversation and who is speaking. Additionally, characters undergo transformations that are also not always readily recognized. The complex design of the book, with characters reappearing in different guises and in different situations, small details taking on new significance as they are reexamined, make it a book that benefits from a second reading -- another thought that will scare off potential readers.
       The novel begins fairly straightforwardly, with Reverend Gwynn, father of young Wyatt, and the story of how his wife Camilla perished. Travelling to Europe Camilla is struck by appendicitis. The ship's doctor is, in fact, a con man (a forger) masquerading as a doctor, the appropriately named Mr. Sinisterra (who continues to figure prominently in the novel) who cannot help Camilla. She dies, and the Reverend has her interred in Catholic Spain -- something that the Aunt May who runs his household and then helps raise young Wyatt can never forgive or comprehend.
       The Reverend does not cut short his European stay, travelling about to places that will also be revisited later in the book. Back in New England then Wyatt becomes more of the focus of the novel, an earnest lad growing up in a religious household -- whereby Aunt May's influence, in that regard, is much stronger than that of the Reverend. He eventually goes to the seminary to take up the family trade, but leaves after a year. Wyatt's true talent is painting.
       Wyatt is a gifted artist, but like so many of the characters in the novel he chooses not to create original work. Instead he forges old masters, albeit in most creative manner. He comes to produce his masterpieces for Recktall Brown, a wealthy dealer, taking great pride in his work. He is not a copyist, and he dismisses those forgers who pull "the fragments of ten paintings together" to make a new one. For him "the recognitions go much deeper". He is creating anew, and as though he were a painter from those times: "I'm a master painter in the Guild, in Flanders," he claims, not a modern reproductionist. Wyatt is not painting copies, he is painting originals.
       Wyatt remains a presence in much of the novel, though he becomes more elusive. Often not referred to by name, he is a shadowy figure. Like others in the book he is, in a sense, consumed by his art.
       Among the other characters is the hapless Otto, first encountered working in Latin America on his grand play. His efforts to write, publish or be produced are the typical writer's nightmare. In addition, Otto is constantly accused of plagiarism and copying from other works (by everyone from Faulkner -- whose work he hasn't read -- to Rilke).
       The counterfeiter, Mr. Sinisterra, also practices his craft meticulously, a master of his art. He, too, links the various characters as he, his various skills (or, in the case of his medical talents, lack thereof), and his counterfeit cash affect the various other characters
       Religion plays a large role in the novel, from Aunt May's puritanism to Reverend Wyatt, who undergoes a remarkable transformation and decides to preach Mithraism to his flock (with predictable results). Even Witkiewiczan Murti-Bing (from Witkiewicz's novel, Insatiability -- see our review) gets a mention. Characters with heavy connotative names such as Agnes Deigh also play prominent roles. The Clementine Recognitions, epigraph source and subject for some discussion, also hovers over the novel.
       The novel is set variously throughout Europe (Rome, Paris, and Spain are prominent locales), New England, New York (from Greenwich Village to Harlem), and Latin America. There is a great deal of travel, and several significant journeys are undertaken.
       The stories twist and turn and cross in this artfully and intricately constructed novel. There's a great deal in this book, and Gaddis ties a remarkable amount of it together, rarely in obvious ways. The text does not neatly unfold, but the connections and cross-references make for a fascinating read.
       Gaddis' style reads well, though the sheer bulk of writing can be intimidating. The novel is dark (and there is certainly no happy ending) but there is a great deal of humour throughout. Many of these scenes are very funny, particularly those involving hapless Otto. Like a Flemish master Gaddis paints his scenes nicely, with a loving attention to subtle detail: skip a sentence and one may have missed a vital piece (or clever aside). Names are dropped, languages flourished (there are exchanges in Spanish and Hungarian and a fair number of bits in other languages), works of art -- musical, visual, literary -- referred to. Steven Moore's excellent Reader's Guide, with its useful annotations to the text, is highly recommended (and available online, in its entirety, for free -- kudos to all involved in that undertaking).
       It is decidedly not a book that will appeal to all. The Recognitions requires some effort. More importantly, it requires patience and a reader's willingness to get caught up in the complex beast -- easier said then done in frantic times. Gaddis writes entertainingly, and in many senses this is a page-turner, but it is a different type of page-turner than your usual piece of popular fiction. It is not too literary, it is not too long, but it might not win over all readers at first glance. Highly recommended -- but be warned !

       Note: the Penguin edition comes with an introduction by William H. Gass (a man occasionally mistaken for Gaddis). Needless to say, it is a perfect introduction, both to Gaddis and The Recognitions, a welcome little bonus.

- Return to top of the page -


The Recognitions: Reviews: William Gaddis: Other books by William Gaddis under review: Other books of interest under review: Other books with introductions by William Gass under review: Other books of interest under review:

- Return to top of the page -

About the Author:

       American author William Gaddis (1922-1998) won two National Book Awards (for J.R. and A Frolic of His Own) and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship.

- Return to top of the page -

© 1999-2021 the complete review

Main | the New | the Best | the Rest | Review Index | Links