23. ilb 06. – 16.09.2023

William Gass

Portrait William Gass
© Hartwig Klappert

William Gass was born in Fargo, North Dakota, in 1924. He grew up in Ohio and served in the Marines during World War II. In 1954 he completed his degree in Philosophy at Kenyon College and at Cornell University with a doctorate on metaphor. Ever since, language, style and the interface between literature and philosophy have stood at the centre of both his academic and literary work. After fifty years of teaching Philosophy at various American universities, he became Professor Emeritus at Washington University in St. Louis.

Gass’s experimental texts stand in the tradition of Rilke, Gertrude Stein and Joyce, just as they are inspired by Wittgenstein and Plato. He belongs to those writers who established the genre of metafiction in American literature and therefore has been counted among the leading representatives of Postmodernism. Nevertheless, he remained outside the literary mainstream by adhering to his dense, hermetic, virtuoso work. He made his debut with »Omensetter’s Luck« (1966), a novel written from different perspectives – but without pronounced boundaries – which met with enthusiastic critical acclaim. In 1968 followed his volume of short stories, »In the Heart of the Heart of the Country«. The novella »Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife« (1968) is considered a masterpiece of experimental narration. The complex text protocolls the consciousness of a dissatisfied woman and is a self-referential play with genre limits and reading habits, employing differently coloured paper of many types, miscellaneous fonts and various typographies. With this »essay-novella« Gass began his magnum opus, »The Tunnel«, which was completed thirty years later, in 1995. It tells the story of an unlikeable history professor who attempts to finish a work entitled »Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany«, but instead writes his own life’s story and constructs a tunnel in his cellar.

Alongside literary works Gass has published philosophical studies and literary criticism. »On Being Blue« (1976) is an amazing journey through the history of words, consciousness and literature which emanate from the concept of »blue«. »Reading Rilke« (1999) brings together a brilliant analysis of style, biographical depictions and the problem of translatability. In addition, Gass has written regularly for journals such as »Harper’s«, »The New York Review of Books« and »The New York Times Book Review«. His essays have appeared in collections such as »The World Within the Word« (1978) and »A Temple of Texts« (2006).

Gass has been conferred five honorary doctorates and was Director of the International Writers Center of Washington University from 1990 to 2000. For his work he has been awarded the First PEN/Nabokov Award, three National Book Critics Circle Awards, the Lannan Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award, the Medal of Merit for Fiction, the Award for Fiction from the Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters as well as grants from the Rockefeller and Guggenheim Foundations. Gass lives with his wife in St. Louis.

The author died on December 6, 2017. 

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