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A Small Apartment in Hell : William Gass' magnum opus shoehorns us into a most claustrophobic space: the mind of a bigot : THE TUNNEL, By William H. Gass (Alfred A. Knopf: $30; 652 pp.)

March 19, 1995|Michael Silverblatt | Michael Silverblatt is the producer and host of "Bookworm," a nationally aired literary interview program produced at KCRW (89.9 FM) and heard in Los Angeles on Mondays at 2 p.m

"The Tunnel" is the most beautiful, most complex, most disturbing novel to be published in my lifetime. It took nearly 30 years to write, including long periods of silence and the author's repeated decisions to abandon the work; but some of us have been peeping over William Gass' shoulder, reading sections as they appeared in literary magazines, beginning in 1969 when a chapter called "We Have Not Lived the Right Life" appeared in the New American Review.

That piece took my breath away. The narrator, William Kohler, a professor of modern German history and specialist in the Third Reich, told us about the Midwestern town where he was born, called Grand ("simply Grand"). The beleaguered town is visited by dust-storms and swarms of grasshoppers, tornadoes and blizzards, no plague more devastating than the invasion of relatives come to celebrate a cousin's wedding:

"Ponderous aunts and uncles, uncles lean as withered beans, aunts pale as piecrust, grandmapas with rheum and gout, cousins shrill as sirens, sounding themselves through the house like warnings of death from the air (later in London, I heard them often), cousins who scratched you under the table, all agloat cousins who told on other cousins, cousins who scooped up fistfuls of mashed potato and let it slime over their wrists; aunts who wore hats in the house, aunts who starched and ironed linens, aunts who stirred pots, flagellated rugs, opened doors for dogs, swatted flies, and reminisced fondly of death and diseases as if they were high school dances, former flames; uncles and great-uncles who, like the hoppers, spat long brown jets of chewing tobacco across the railings while they rocked; nieces and nephews, a few of those too, who peed in their pants, threw up, bawled, and beat you on the shins and ankles with alphabet blocks; relatives at every conceivable remove, but not removed, each noisily present. . . ."

The sentence swelled and flooded over three pages, a vast paragraph wave of nausea written so beautifully, so lovingly that it reads like a celebration, sweeping to such a crescendo that I couldn't stop to savor its phrase-by-phrase marvels of sound, of metaphor, of placement, of compact description. I read it aloud to friends, to teachers, to whoever would listen. Its rhythms entered my conversational speech. As the years passed and "The Tunnel" continued to appear in the literary magazines, I came to recognize that the material was dark and difficult and that the prose was designed to render the intractability of the themes at their different levels of difficulty.

Now at last we have "The Tunnel." For months I have been digging through it. A bleak, black book, it engenders awe and despair. I have read it in its entirety 4 1/2 times, each time finding its resonance and beauty so great as to demand another reading. As I read, I found myself devastated by the thoroughness of the book's annihilating sensibility and revived by the beauty of its language, the complexity of its design, the melancholy, horror and stoic sympathy in its rendering of what we used to call the human condition.

For here you will see the seasons change, and when winter thaws, you will see and hear prose melt. You will sit in weeds by the banks of the Wabash and you will draw rivers in loving strokes down the body of a lost love and witness a prose that can caress as it touches the page. You will be abraded by the harshness of the narrator's rejection of humanity and you will be drawn, miserably, into the contemplation of a consciousness that has seen the nightmares and aberrations of history not as exceptions to the human but as the ultimate expression of the human.

What is "The Tunnel" about? Where are we when we start? For convenience, I will quote from William Gass' own description of his book. William Frederick Kohler "teaches history at a major mid-western university. He has studied in Germany during the thirties, returned with the 1st Army during the invasion as a debriefer, then as a consultant during the Nuremberg Trials. Writes a book called Nuremburg Notes. Its softness earns him some suspicion. He has been working for many years on his magnum opus: 'Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's Germany.' As the novel begins, he has just concluded this book and has begun a self-congratulatory preface when he finds himself blocked and unable to continue. He finds himself writing these pages instead. Since they are exceedingly personal, and he doesn't want his wife to see them, he hides them between the pages of 'Guilt and Innocence,' since he knows she will never read them."

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