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the Complete Review
the complete review - literary criticism

Tests of Time

William H. Gass

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To purchase Tests of Time

Title: Tests of Time
Author: William Gass
Genre: Essays
Written: (2002)
Length: 319 pages
Availability: Tests of Time - US
Tests of Time - UK
Tests of Time - Canada
  • These essays have been previously published, "in a somewhat different form", in a variety of books and periodicals
  • 2003 National Book Critics Circle award winner

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Our Assessment:

B+ : spirited essays

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The New Yorker . 15/4/2002 .
The NY Times Book Rev. A 24/3/2002 Benjamin Anastas
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Summer/2002 Thomas Hove
San Francisco Chronicle . 24/3/2002 Martin Rubin
World Literature Today . Spring/2003 David S. Gross

  From the Reviews:
  • "The collection goes astray during its middle third, which is devoted to political essays (.....) Gass is more convincing when he writes about the things he loves" - The New Yorker

  • "Test of Time (...) continues his exploration into the nature of narrative, the flowering of literary excellence and the fate of language in society." - Benjamin Anastas, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Gass’s meditations on the nature of literary creation reveal a highly complex -- and subtly instructive -- awareness of writing’s capacity for social use and abuse, and his topical sermons put the lie to the fear that such a complex awareness cripples political and ethical judgment." - Thomas Hove, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "Quite often, Gass resorts to far-fetched ways of making rather obvious points. This, he would probably argue, is what literary artists do, as there are no new ideas, only better or worse ways of presenting the ones that already exist. (...) The pervasive tenor of Gass' perspective may be a little dour and naysaying for some tastes. Rather than affirm a value or a principle, his general approach is to lambaste its opposite. But his wry wit, dynamic style and strongly held opinions have a bracing astringency." - Martin Rubin, San Francisco Chronicle

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.

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The complete review's Review:

       Tests of Time collects fourteen pieces. Though mainly focussed on literary matters, Gass' scope extends far beyond. Literature is the center of Gass' world -- and for him it also extends everywhere. It is the obvious point of reference.
       Gass is a spirited writer, and he lets loose nicely on these pages. Three of the pieces are "Stuttgart Seminar Lectures" -- lectures that even Gass acknowledges "fly a few feet from convention". The rest are more straightforward essays -- though still with an energy and dazzle that can easily overwhelm.
       The book is divided into three sections. The first is titled "Literary Matters" and deals with these most directly. Two essays deal with specific books: "Sidelonging" is a book review of Peter Handke's My Year in the No-Man's-Bay, and "Invisible Cities" is a longer consideration of Italo Calvino's book of that name. These show Gass' literary interests nicely, and are good introductions to the books.
       Other pieces in the first section look at broader literary subjects. "The Nature of Narrative and Its Philosophical Implications" differentiates stories and fiction. A clever survey of what stories and story-telling mean, it is an excellent introduction to Gass' own literary approaches. Many examples and quick summaries are effectively used to make his points. And there are many of these -- for example: "Story is eager to reach its climax; fiction is all foreplay."
       "Anywhere but Kansas" is a more conventional piece, looking at the the idea of experimental fiction (and using childhood chemistry experiments as an example). "Many fictions which appear to be 'experimental' are actually demonstrations", he notes.
       "I've Got a List" exhaustively considers list-making over the ages, an encyclopaedic whirlwind tour. "Tests of Time" considers what the tests of time (for art, specifically) are, and what the consequences of them are -- a single failure on the constantly repeated test, after all, likely destining a work to eternal oblivion.
       Gass heaps examples and arguments on the reader -- or rather: he throws them and shoots them, a barrage that can easily overwhelm. There is so much here -- so much everywhere, on each of the pages -- that it can literally leave a reader speechless (and certainly breathless). Gass is unrelenting -- though admittedly that is much of the fun. His style is an odd mix of the erudite and the ... unusual. Describing the failure of art to civilise mankind, for example, he writes:

A derisive noise is appropriate here. As the moral educators of mankind, masterpieces have been one big floppola.
       The second section of the book, on "Social and Political Contretemps" then begins with a piece on "The Writer and Politics". He calls it "a litany" -- as if much of what came before wasn't. But this truly is a litany, a literary romp of brief mentions of authors who have had their troubles with the law and politics. Some stories get a few sentences or two, some sentences are little more than lists. Still, it is compelling: a demonstration of the myriad troubles the writer can (and too often: has) had. Though Gass, tongue half in cheek, can note:
Prison is an excellent place to put authors. It gives them a sense of grievance, and we know that grievances are among a writer's more powerful motives; it removes them from temptation, and we know how easily writers are tempted by bosom or bottle to imbibe; it eliminates distractions (.....)
       Certainly his cries should be heeded:
What is unthinkable ? Think it. What is unutterable ? Utter it. What cannot be spelled without a dash ? Fill in the dashes with doubts. What is obscene ? Dream it. In all its tones, in seamy detail, at indelicate length. What is too horrible to contemplate ? Describe it.
       "Tribalism, Identity, and Ideology" looks at the oppression of writers again: the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the assassination of Tahar Djaout. "The Shears of the Censor" looks at another form of repression, in a broader survey of different forms of censorship (and the consequences).
       "Were There Anything in the World Worth Worship" is a distinctly Gassian take on the the question of worship and religion. "How German Are We ?" is, in large part, an explanation of Gass' novel, The Tunnel (see our review), mixing biographical detail and a warning that it can, indeed, happen here:
How German are we ? my novel asks. Its answer has pleased few. Its answer is -- very.
       The final section of the book collects the three "Stuttgart Seminar Lectures" -- creative, ambitious attempts at presenting his material, weaving fiction into a discussion of fact, offering a take on Flaubert, moving neatly from nursery rhymes to ugly reality in another lecture, closing finally with a piece on (and, again, of) "Transformations".

       Literature is everywhere. Gass sees and explains almost all in relation to literature -- and he does it well. He has a great deal to say, and he expresses it well -- and firmly and in a way guaranteed to make an impression. It can be a bit much. Or far too much. But it is generally worth the effort.
       Tests of Time is an exciting collection. Gass is passionate, and passion carries many of his pieces. He has seen (and read and written) a great deal. He is always looking to examine matters anew, to shed different light on them. And he still believes -- strongly, convincingly -- that literature matters.

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Tests of Time: Reviews: William H. Gass: Other books by William Gass under Review: Other books with introductions by William Gass under review: Other books under review that might be of Interest:

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About the Author:

       American author William H. Gass lived 1924 to 2017.

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