The Recognitions – William Gaddis

“-A steady hand! he said, and drank down the brandy.  -Do you think think that’s all it is, a steady hand? He opened the rumpled reproduction.  -This…these…the art historians and the critics talking about every object and…everything having its own form and density and…its own character in Flemish paintings, but is that all there is to it? Do you know why everything does? Because they found God everywhere. There was nothing God did not watch over, nothing, and so this…and so in the painting every detail reflects…God’s concern with the most insignificant objects in life, with everything, because God did not relax for an instant then, and neither could the painter then.











I finally completed it.

After a gruesome eight weeks of lugging around the nearly 1,000 page novel, I finished The Recognitions.  I decided to read Gaddis’s giant after all the positive buzz from the good people over at biblioklept. Unable to find a used copy anywhere,  I shelled out $25 at Barnes & Nobel and bought the novel new. The pricy purchase actually ended up in my favor: New York’s two-month long monsoon season has really taken a toll on my copy’s binding:

As you can see, it’s been an intense 60 plus days of reading. I’ll  address my thoughts on epic books later, but now let’s  discuss The Recognitions: 

William Gaddis’s novel loosely follows the life of Wyatt Gwyon,  the son of a crazed Calvanist minister from New England. After the loss of his mother at a young age, young Wyatt’s home-life consist of religiously moral ridden Aunt May and his theologically paralyzed father Reverend Gwyon.

Rather than following his family’s footsteps of  life in the pulpit, Wyatt is inspired by Hiermonyous Bosch’s Seven Deadly Sins, an iconic painting in the Reverend’s possesion, and decides to pursue art school in Europe.

Three years later, we find Wyatt in Paris after finishing school in Munich. While at academia, a painting of the young artist is sold by teacher and mentor, Herr Koppel, as a re-discovered Memling. Fed up with the Parisian art scene and discouraged by a disgruntled critic on the eve of his art show (who offers a good review if he receives a 10% cut), Wyatt returns the United States with no intention of returning to the art world.

Picking up almost a decade later, Wyatt is now employed as a draftsman who designs bridges (for his supervisor to sign as his own) and occasionally paints in the style of his adored Flemish painters. After a chance meeting with the novel’s clearest antagonist, Recktail Brown, the money crazed art collecter propositions Wyatt to sell his paintings as re-discovered masterpieces for a hefty profit.

Though finally persuaded by Brown, an obvious nod to Goethe’s Mephistopheles, the forging causes Wyatt much distress about artistic authenticity.  After meeting Basil Valentine, Brown’s art critic acquaintance who approaches the Flemish forger about painting a Hubert van Eyck: Jan Van Eyck’s older brother who may not actually exist. The paradoxical offer causes Wyatt to blow a nerve and share his negative sentiments concerning counterfeiting to Valentine.

(It should be noted that we do not see “Wyatt” written anywhere after this chapter)

Valentine’s insightful, but destructive influence compels Wyatt to burn his paintings. Living in a state of pyschological agony, Wyatt returns to his home where Reverend Gwyon has also gone through a breakdown and converted to Mithraism. With not only his artistic, but not religious conviction abandoning him, Wyatt now must confront what’s true and counterfeit.

The Recognitions is by no doubt a very complex and difficult novel. It’s no wonder that sites likeThe Gaddis Annotations have been established.  Johnathan Franzen has been noted saying, “by a comfortable margin, it is the most difficult book I ever voluntarily read.”

Though it only covers roughly half the novel, the above synopsis concerns the main character: if we can apply this label to Wyatt. Much like the multi-dimensional paintings of the early Flemish masters, so are the side characters in The Recognitions. Throughout the 956-page behemoth, we are also immersed into all the intricacies of other New Yorkers, all loosely connected to Wyatt.

Throughout the novel I found myself questioning the authenticity of Gaddis’s cult fame. Yes, there were fifty pages that I absolutely adored, but there were imbedded in two-hounded that were mediocre. After finishing the novel, I found these dull lapses not to bother me in the least.

Nowhere did I despise The Recognitions or feel that it was over my head, on the contrary; Gaddis’s critique of post-war American society is just as culturally relavent in modern culture as it was half a century ago in 1955.

“I do ask something of the reader and many reviewers say I ask too much . . . and as I say, it’s not reader-friendly. Though I think it is, and I think the reader gets satisfaction out of participating in, collaborating, if you will, with the writer, so that it ends up being between the reader and the page. . . . Why did we invent the printing press? Why do we, why are we literate? Because of the pleasure of being all alone, with a book, is one of the greatest pleasures.”

^ Gaddis said about the complexity in The Recognitions and his following novels (which includes the National Book Award winning- J R).  I find myself of the same mindset as the author. The act of reading a larger book is always a commitment that I’ve never known not to be fulfilling. Tavis and I have spoken about this before during our attempt at Infinite Jest. He had purchased an actual copy of the 1,000 plus page novel simply for the “relationship.” My time lugging around The Recognitions is one I won’t forget, but not one soon repeated.

While it does have it’s faulty moments, The Recognitions is surely a novel that still holds relavance and a labor-of-love with fantastic rewards.


7 thoughts on “The Recognitions – William Gaddis

  1. I just want to mention I’m very new to blogging and site-building and honestly loved your web page. Likely I’m going to bookmark your blog post . You certainly come with perfect articles and reviews. Regards for revealing your blog site.

    • Gaddis novel with the exception of the surrealistic and mind boggling party scene is simply not worth the agonizing effort required to read it for more months than one cares to spare.too bad he didn’t publish the party scene with a short prologue of sorts as a novella..

      • Frank G,

        Thanks for checking out the site.

        You know, I occasionally believe my positive opinion of The Recognitions is one built from the incredible strain of reading the novel; a Gaddis apologist might be an accurate term. Yet something, possibly the allegory and allusion, publication date, author, makes The Recognitions an unnecessary seminal work, in my eyes; you and I are it discussing at the moment.

        Sorry to hear you only enjoyed the party scene. Hope your current reading experience produces a more positive aftertaste.


  2. Nice review. I have very fond memories of this book, but reading it was a real struggle! I had the pink-covered edition that weighs a good few kilograms. iirc i mostly got through it waiting in the freezing cold on the platforms at milton keynes train station.

  3. Pingback: Time’s 100 Best Novels (And how they apply to you!) « Living with Literature

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