Book: The Recognitions, by William Gaddis

(c) 1955; pp. 933; publisher: The New York Review of Books

“My dear fellow, the priest is the guardian of mysteries. The artist is driven to expose them.”

At 70 shy of 1,000 pages, this difficult 1953 novel is the most exhaustive tale of fakery, art, and religion one could hope for. Through the activities of forger Wyatt Gwyon, and his shadowy agent Recktall Brown, we discover how straightforward it could be to: adopt an old Dutch Master; create a composite scene from earlier works found in books; then to paint this new work; chemically age it; and identify a likely attic in which it may be turned up and then sold for big money.

Forged banknotes and passports also find their way onto these pages. The scenes in which these are created and exhibited smoulder with Faustian hellfire. And a cast of more of less bohemian characters drift in and out of rooms, foreign lands and extended parties as they discuss matters both existential and low brow, in lively pages of dialogue which can run on for pages at a time. Hanging over all the events the threat of damnation; Wyatt is the son of a church minister and atmosphere of 1950s Spain, the piety and the poverty, together with the godless bars downtown Manhattan are just two of the precisely evoked milieu.

Because the most remarkable thing about this epic novel is the precision with which Gaddis writes. His prose is like razor wire: angular, cutting, at times dangerous – given the satirical approach to Christianity and the art world. The American author has an unsentimental view of his characters, moving them in and out of scenes like sacrificial chess pieces; I find no one to root for, but plenty to laugh about given Gaddis’s comic regard for human life.

Yet all of the above is an aside. The elephantine tome in the room is the complexity of this book, described by Jonathan Franzen, saga merchant for the present age, as the most difficult he has every voluntarily read. I admit I was lost for passages at a time and points of narrative were lost on me. But the reading experience was consistently rewarding; the book is full of set pieces, witty observations, and evocative allusion, enjoyment of which allayed my anxieties about plot.

Regulars to this blog may wonder at the inclusion of this book review in the context of the PhD I’m working on. Well, since imitation is central to my thesis, I thought I might find an epigraph or two. There was the comment at the top of this post, from dealer-character Basil Valentine on p.257, which I’m sharing by way of a taster. If you like bon mots, you will find much to like here.

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