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Taking It Personally: Greg Gerke’s See What I See

Steven Moore


reg Gerke’s See What I See is a splendid example of the return of the personal in modern literary criticism. Up until World War II, a reader could often sense a flesh-and-blood person behind literary critiques, but upon the arrival of bloodless New Criticism, such writing became more impersonal, and under the influence of the continental criticism of the 1960s it took on a quasi-scientific tone. As the hermeneutics of suspicion took hold of them, critics distanced themselves from the works they interrogated, and it became hard to tell if they even liked literature. Writing in 1892 of the heroine of Swift’s novella Polite Conversation, the great George Saintsbury confessed, “I fell in love with her when I was about seventeen, I think; and from that day to this I have never wavered for one minute in my affection for her.” Can you imagine a professional critic writing that today about a fictional character? (And make no mistake: Saintsbury is a greater critic than any academic writing today.) Unabashed enthusiasm for a book or a character became the sign of an amateur: a member of a neighborhood book club, or a reviewer on Amazon.

On two occasions Gerke quotes T. S. Eliot’s famous line, “The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” But I don’t think that’s always true of artists; if you knew nothing about Eliot’s life, you could pretty accurately guess from his poetry what kind of personality he had, a totally different one from that which emerges from the poems of his free-spirited contemporary E. E. Cummings. Critics, on the other hand, have indeed pursued “the extinction of personality,” even down to the strict avoidance of the first-person “I.” In Gerke’s case, on the other hand, the personal approach is apparent even in his title: See What I See, not what an impersonal “one” sees.

In recent years, however, some critics have woven their personal involvement with a novel into their critiques; I’m thinking of Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece (2012), Maureen Corrigan’s So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures (2014), and Rebecca Mead’s The Road to Middlemarch: My Life with George Eliot (2014), each of which gave me a greater appreciation for those novels than any academic treatises on them. No difficulty here trying to decide if the critics liked the novels they wrote about, nor did their enthusiasm muzzle any misgivings they may have had about any shortcomings.

See What I See is a welcome addition to this trend. This collection puts into practice William H. Gass’s belief that “Works of art are meant to be lived with and loved.” In prose as beautiful and imagistic as Gass’s, Gerke recounts how he has lived with and loved certain authors and filmmakers. Especially in his discussion of books he often mentions the circumstances in which he read a particular author, the binding of the book and font, even the time of day: “Is late afternoon the best time for poetry? With a sinking sun and the stories of our lives in repose after the often fitful midday, aren’t the siesta hours most befitting an artform so benighted by dreams, the sleep of dreams, and dreamlike imagery?” He likes the smell of certain books, is aroused by what he calls (in “Holy Hill”) the “eros of language,” and dotes on the sensuality of reading. After quoting the opening paragraph of John Hawkes’s Blood Oranges, he writes “The passage presses its sweet side to the reader,” as if the prose had metamorphosed into an armful of warm girl. He gets horny at times, trying to decide if he should “[h]op into bed with [Elizabeth] Bishop or Borges?” and wonders if he should add Henry James’s Italian Hours to his “discriminating list of books to shag.” In the same randy essay (“How to Live, What to Read”) we catch him “stroking the spines of a few new books I’ve just bought . . . clothed or naked.”

William H. Gass, it quickly appears, is the tutelary genius presiding over the literary half of this collection. (The book is divided into essays on literature and on film, with an intermezzo on “Real Life.”) He’s one of the dedicatees of the book, and while not named in the first essay is alluded to twice. (“Art has taken precedence. I’ve fallen deeply into it and can barely return to life” is adapted from Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, and “Life in a chair . . .” is from The Tunnel.) There are two essays on Gass, and he is often cited in the other essays in the first half of the book. What Gerke loves most about Gass is his attention to sentences; Gass wrote several essays about sentences, and titled one of his collections Life Sentences, for he felt the main goal of a literary work was to offer as many beautifully crafted sentences as possible. Gerke echoes this belief as he writes of “the music of sentences,” of “that gargantuan or miniature unit called the sentence.” He praises Henry James’s “architectonic sentences,” his “singular syntactical sensations,” and claims “The beauty of James’ sentences victimizes us.” Following in the footsteps of these masters, Gerke offers a steady stream of beautiful sentences of his own, rich in imagery. Of his fellow subway riders, he writes: “They nodded off, punched at or swiped the screens of their phones as if scraping frosting from a cooling cake. An older women, with the hard angles of an Eastern European face and short hair colored by a box of chestnut dye, sat hunched with a heavy book.” Not an upscale bottle or tube of dye but a “box,” and note the alliteration of “hard . . . hair . . . hunched . . . heavy”—perhaps an homage to the ­h- alliterations he had noted earlier in Wallace Stevens’s “A Rabbit As King of the Ghosts.”

In addition to Stevens—the subject of two appreciative essays and lovingly cited elsewhere—another tutelary genius of this book is Gass’s friend William Gaddis, who is mentioned throughout, beginning on the first page. He is the subject of three essays: one on Carpenter’s Gothic, another on A Frolic of His Own, and a review of Joseph Tabbi’s 2015 biography. Even in these critical assessments, the personal touch presides: I’ve read virtually everything written about Gaddis, but never an essay that begins, “There are stolen moments when raising a young child, the let-up during nap-time being a prime example. In one of these recent pauses, I read to my wife the beginning of the fifth chapter or section (they are unnumbered) of William Gaddis’s 1985 novel Carpenter’s Gothic. . . .” In the one on A Frolic of His Own, Gerke explains that he read Gaddis’s legal novel concurrently with his wife, a criminal defense attorney, and adds anecdotes of his own involvement in the legal profession. Gerke reminds us that novels are read in the real world—he often reads on the subway—by real people with real jobs, which is rarely conveyed, or is considered irrelevant, in academic criticism.

The other recipients of Gerke’s loving attention include Rainer Maria Rilke, Louise Glück, Gertrude Stein, Geoffrey Hill, Patrick White, Don DeLillo, and V. S. Naipaul. The final essay in the first half is entitled “Why Write?,” which is not merely an academic question. In addition to essays, Gerke writes fiction too—he has two short-story collections to his name, There’s Something Wrong with Sven (2009) and Especially the Bad Things (2019), with a lengthy novel in the works—which accounts for his sensitivity to the fiction of others. As I’ve written elsewhere, I’ve always felt that novelists often make better critics than academics for the obvious reason that they know what it’s like to actually write a novel: they’ve struggled with conceiving and developing an idea, finding a form, breathing life into characters, plotting the narrative, revising and aestheticizing their work, and finally seeing it through the press, sometimes even defending it from doubtful editors. They’ve walked the walk, and consequently are far more qualified to talk the talk than professors or book-reviewers who have never tried their hand at fiction, and thus have only a theoretical notion of what goes into writing it. Gerke concurs in one of the last essays in this book: “Critics carry the stain of envy into the thoughts they print, especially those emboldened enough to critique without having ever made the art that can exasperate them.”

The personal takes center stage in the four autobiographical essays in the “Real Life” intermezzo, all engaging, masterfully written, and marbled with references to books and films. Then he shares the stage with several auteur directors for the final section, “The Silver Screen.” Gerke confesses in the book’s opening essay that filmmaking was his “first passion” as teenager, and in a later essay on director Paul Thomas Anderson he tells us that he attended film school for two years before leaving with “numerous Bergman-enamored screenplays that would never see production.” He turned to writing instead, switch-hitting thereafter between fiction and nonfiction. I am not a cinephile and haven’t seen many of the movies he analyses, or even heard of some of the directors—is Maren Ade a real name or a playful pseudonym?—but this half of the book strikes me as just as intelligent and well-written as the first half, and if anything is even more personal.

As with the literary essays, the focus is on the roles his favorite films have played in his life, privileging subjective over objective analysis. As Gass said, “Works of art are meant to be lived with,” and in the section’s opening essay on Michelangelo Antonioni—whose Blow-Up is one of my all-time favorite movies—Gerke gives us a perfect example of that sentiment: “I have to admit there is something about Antonioni that is deeply embedded in my soul, and though the psychical manifestation of his art is a little riven by time, its granite face can still proudly display a freckling of mica by my own sun. It is a force that surely resists many people, and though I believe I’ve grown out of taking up a cause to rebuke those I would label impoverished, I only extol to eradicate my own glowering, to teach myself the lesson of how as I get older, much of his work only gets better.” The Italian director would agree with this approach, for Gerke quotes him as saying, “That is why the best way to watch a film is to have it become a personal experience. At the moment in which we watch a film, we unconsciously evoke what is inside of us, our life, our joys and our pains, our thoughts—our ‘mental vision of the past and the present,’ as Susan Sontag would say.” Similarly, in his essay on Stanley Kubrick’s longest film, Gerke asks, “What makes Barry Lyndon my own story? Have I lived to subsume it or have I subsumed it to live?” Sometimes a work of art will tell him “You must change your life”—he quotes the famous last line of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” near the end—and other times he skewers films that can’t be lived with, crass Hollywood productions like The Social Network and Drive that “drain me of my life spirit.”

Although he can intellectually analyze a film with the best of them, Gerke has a physical reaction to his favorites: in his essay on Ingmar Bergman—who, along with Eric Rohmer, plays the same role of tutelary genius for film as Gass does for literature—he writes, “I can always tell how good a film is if my armpits smell afterward. The body doesn’t lie.” All of his film essays convey nuts-and-bolts information about his chosen directors, but any film critic could do that; Gerke mixes the informative with the confessional, and to an extent that not many film critics would dare.

In some of these essays, the personal becomes almost uncomfortably revealing. In the long essay on Rohmer, for example, he aligns the actresses in some of the French director’s Moral Tales series with old girlfriends. While not neglecting technical matters, such as the shade of gray in the 35mm film stock Rohmer sometimes used, Gerke is more interested in what his films tell him about himself. “How can I see my past better in this film?” he asks, “for to come to Claire’s Knee is to be in the company of a woman I lived with the longest until my marriage, and to dwell on that time reminds me of my greatest failings.” He restates this at various times in this section, as in the opening of his essay on South Korean director Hong Sang-soo: “Isn't the miracle of art how we see the panoply of our own lives via a magical panopticon? Every time we look, we see something that's really all about us.” In the wrong hands, this approach can lead to the impatient rejection of certain works of art because one “can’t relate” to them. That’s why he goes on to caution, “It might not be easy to see one's life in film—not in the narrative itself, but in the regard of the camera, the editing, how people say things and what their silences are like.”

In the book’s closing essay, in which Gerke alternates between critiquing director Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner and musing on the role of criticism today, he evokes “poet-critic Guy Davenport, whose essays are jewels, and who claimed to be ‘not writing for scholars or critics, but for people who like to read, to look at pictures, and to know things.’” That is Gerke’s audience too—though “scholars and critics” could learn a few things from his personal approach. Whether writing about film or literature, honeymooning in Paris or consuming Combos, Greg Gerke bedazzles us with his keen intelligence, wide knowledge, and stylistic flair. See What I See is a beguiling collection of belletristic essays meant for those of us for whom art is a passion, not a profession or a pastime but a way of life.

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Steven Moore