Book Discussion Announcement: The Recognitions

At long last, I finally have the time and attention to devote the subject I brought up here too long ago — a book-discussion group.  We had a lively discussion, several suggestions were given, and I went back and forth between a book we could all feasibly read & finish together and a book that I simply wanted to read again (& everybody else who doesn’t keep it up can go to hell). After much consideration and conversation, we’ve settled on our original intention, William Gaddis’ The Recognitions. This is a book, I feel, cries out for discussion. It is too often relegated to unread thesis manuscripts and/or obscure references by critics who may or may not have read it but appreciate the relative status bestowed upon those who have.  I, however, think there is a lot there that deserves reflection and conversation. Whether you do, too, well, we shall see.

As a practical matter, reading The Recognitions is both laborious and time consuming.  But rarely, I should note, tedious.  Clocking in at just over 900 pages, for people with jobs and or a life at all, it will probably take between 1.5 to 3 months to finish. I’m under no illusion that everybody who starts it will finish it. There’s no shame in that, though, and you’re welcome to join in the discussion, too, provided you can adequately pretend you’re up to speed on the reading. There will be no tests. (For all the pretenders, as well as those of us who aren’t pretending but are still confused about what the hell is going on, The Gaddis Annotations is absolutely indispensable.)

Several commenters have already explicitly expressed an interest in The Recognitions. I trust they are still aboard. Those who were opposed to it (read: Hill) or preferred another book are obviously invited to reconsider. Should you do so, please let me know, simply so I have a vague idea of what kind of participation we can expect. The plan, such as one exists right now, is to read between 75-100 pages per week. Each week there will be one post or open thread devoted to the discussion. If you are especially blown away by a particular week’s reading, let me know and you can write something up. Otherwise, I hope most of the legwork will be done in the comment fields.  (Side note: if, as the weeks pile up and we have no comments, we will safely assume nobody is reading, and we’ll all silently agree that this was either a really bad idea in general or a very book choice, and nothing more will be said of it.)

As to a start date: you can begin when you want. But those who wish to participate, let’s shoot for having having the first 75-100 pages read by Nov. 13. That gives us all a couple of weeks to buy or borrow a copy, as well a chance to read through enough of it to know whether it is something we think we’ll stick with for a few months.

Below the fold I’ve attached one of my favorite sections from the first chapter.

The eve of All Souls’ lowered upon that sea in desolate disregard for sunset, and the surgeon appeared prodded from behind down the rolling parti-lit deck. Newly shaven, in a clean mess-boy’s apron, he poised himself above the still woman to describe a phantasmagoria of crosses over his own chest, mouth, and forehead; conjured, kissed, and dismissed a cross at his calloused fingertips, and set to work. Before the mass supplications for souls in Purgatory had done rising from the lands now equidistant before and behind, he had managed to put an end to Camilla’s suffering and to her life.

The subsequent inquiry discovered that the wretch (who had spent the rest of the voyage curled i a coil of rope reading alternatively the Book of Job and the Siamese National Railway’s Guide to Bangkok) was no surgeon at all. Mr. Sinisterra was a fugitive, traveling under what, at the time of his departure, had seemed the most logical of desperate expedients: a set of false papers he had printed himself. (He had done this work with the same artistic attention to detail that he had given to banknotes, even to using Rembrandt’s formula for the wax ground on his copper plate.) He was as distressed about the whole thing as anyone. Chance had played against him, cheated him of the unobtrusive retirement he had planned from his chronic profession, into the historical asylum of Iberia.

The first turn of the screw pays all debts, he had muttered (crossing himself) in the stern of the Purdue Victory, where the deck shuddered underfoot as the blades of the single screw churned Boston’s waters beneath him; and the harbor itself, loath to let them depart, retained the sound of the ship’s whistle after it had blown, to yield it only in reluctant particles after them until they moved in silence.

Now he found himself rescued from oblivion by agents of that country not Christian enough to rest assured in the faith that he would pay fully for his sins in the next world, . . . bent on seeing that he pay in this one. In the United States of America Mr. Sinisterra had been a counterfeiter. During the investigation, he tried a brief defense of his medical practice on the grounds that he had once assisted a vivisectionist in Tampa, Florida; and when this failed, he settled down to sullen grumbling about the Jews, earthly vanity, and quoted bits from Ecclesiastes, Alfonso Liguori, and Pope Pius IX, in answer to any accusatory questions. Since it was not true that he had, as a distant tabloid reported, beem trapped by alert Federal agents who found him substituting his own likeness for the gross features of Andrew Jackson on the American twenty-dollar nose, Mr. Sinisterra paid this gratuituous slander little attention. But, like any sensitive artist caught in the toils of unsympathetic critics, he still smarted severely from the review given his work on page one of The National Counterfeit Detector Monthly (“Nose in Jackson portrait apepars bulbous due to heavy line from bridge . . .”); and soon enough thereafter, his passion for anonymity feeding upon his innate modesty amid walls of Malebolgian acclivity, he resolved upon a standard of such future excellence for his work, that jealous critics should never dare attack him as its author again. His contrition for the death which had occurred under his hand was genuine, and his penances sincere; still, he made no connection between that accident in the hands of God, and the career which lay in his own. He was soon at work on a hand-engraved steel plate, in the prison shop where license number tags were turned out. (4-6)

9 thoughts on “Book Discussion Announcement: The Recognitions

  1. I’m going to try to get my hands on a copy and see what happens. My novel-reading chops are pretty rusty, so I’m definitely not making any promises. There is a chance of my having to spend two weeks in Florida doing some experiments, however, which could involve substantial amounts of free time in which to read.

  2. I’m tentatively aboard, but it will be difficult with school and the looming GRE re-take. Generally, I’ve found that trying to stretch my artistic side with poetry or literature amounts to a relax from the stress of everything else, so I think I’ll be fine.

    Our library doesn’t have a copy, so I just ordered a cheap used copy from abebooks. Hopefully the guilt from that will keep me going until I get hooked on finishing it. I’m looking forward to this!

  3. My new copy is sitting right next to the computer. I’ve also noticed that at least the first couple multiples of 75 pages have a convenient division within a range of a couple pages.

  4. “Aboard” is a nice way to indicate participation, tentative or not, in the reading of a book that begins as The Recs does. So I’m aboard too, intermittently at least.

    Also I would like to say that, despite the fact that I have spent countless hours and days, even weeks and months, over the years working on the annotations on the Gaddis web site, I would very strongly recommend first-time readers go for the unmediated experience of the book. I believe that everything you need to know about it is in it. And checking everything out will ruin the pace and rhythm. It’s a beautiful book.

    “Information is the enemy of art –” was that Benjamin?

  5. My book came in the mail today, so I’m pretty excited to get started in the reading (so much so that I continue to procrastinate on the internet!).

    I liked this bit from the introduction:

    “A typesetter, it’s said, refused to continue work on the text and sought the advice of his priest, who told him he was right to desist. Naturally the novel, when it appeared, won an award for its design.”

  6. I would like to participate, though a mere layperson who only recently stumbled upon this blog by typing “Why does Brian Leiter hate Derrida?” in Google search…

    I read The Recognitions several years ago, unmediated, cover to cover,as suggested by Victoria, and look forward to return to the novel to study it in greater depth. It is one of my top reads of all time.

    Don’t know if I have any particular insight to offer as art school grad and NY gallery employee, but this is definitely an awesome book for group read and discussion.

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