“The recognitions” by William Gaddis has been around since 1955 but – not helped by being almost a thousand pages long – it remains a novel that is mostly unread.
Like “Ulysses”, part of the reason it has acquired a reputation for being difficult is that readers navigate the early chapters but then gradually surrender to what is felt to be a density of language and a meandering plot
Just as Joyce’s novel can be enjoyed to the end with the help of annotations, “The recognitions” can be read in its entirety with the assistance of Stephen Moore’s reader’s guide.
Help, though, is not needed with the early chapters set in the 1920s about Reverend Gwynn and the death of his wife due to appendicitis and a bogus doctor. Gwynn’s son, Wyatt, is brought up with the help of an ultra-religious aunt but he shrugs off her fundamentalism and takes to painting forgeries of old masters, finding and recognising originality through imitation.
There is a temptation to skim and skip sections of the novel and Moore’s online summaries are useful for getting back on track and finishing what is a contender for the quintessential bedside book.
Curiosity about the author will lead to “The letters of William Gaddis” and they reveal a singular man whose younger years were taken up with an obsession to travel, first in his own country and then Mexico, Central America and Europe, partly financed by constant cadging of money from his mother.
Eventually returning to New York, he writes of joining a library in 1951 and reading about “forgeries, counterfeiting, faking, imposture, fraud” – all of which will become the subject matter of his novel.
Four years later, seemingly oblivious to what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he sends a copy to Robert Oppenheimer, praising the physicist for an address he gave (available here) at a university function.
Gaddis, quoting Oppenheimer, says his novel shows “the integrity of the intimate, the detailed, the true art, the integrity of craftsmanship and preservation of the familiar, of the humorous and the beautiful”.
The words (however bizarre an aesthetic from the mind of the ultimate bomb maker) provide an insight into “The recognitions” as the work of a disillusioned conservative aghast at living in a fallen world.
The richness of literary and cultural allusions in the novel embody the idea of art as resistance to a commodity culture where production, as one of his characters puts it, is designed “with only its wearing out and replacement in view, and that replacement to be replaced.”
When a broken piece of pottery is found from a Roman colony in North Africa, its use value, as something made to last, transcends its exchange value and the “tyranny of business enterprise.”
In a letter to an editor friend and his wife, he asks “why am I always the Best Unknown Writer in America?”