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William Gaddis: The Recognitions

According to Gaddis, the book was named after the Clementine Recognitions, which has some claim to being the first novel. When it was first published in 1955, this novel was not particularly well received, both because of its length – nearly 1000 pages – and because of its complexity, but it has now come to be recognised as one of the foremost post-war US novels. It has a large cast of characters, takes place on three continents and deals with many complex ideas, but primarily revolving around the idea of authenticity and fakery, in its many forms. It is also probably the best novel on the not uncommon subject of art forgery.

The basic plot is relatively straightforward. Wyatt Gwyon is the son of a New England preacher. When his mother dies, he is brought up by his aunt May. His mother died when they were on board a ship, sailing to Spain. She contracted appendicitis and Frank Sinisterra (one of the many characters who has an evocative name) pretends to be a surgeon and operates, unsuccessfully, on her. He will be the first of many fakes in the novel. He wants to be a painter and heads off to Paris to fulfil his dream. Sadly his painting is not recognised, so he returns to the USA, marries and works as a draughtsman in New York, designing bridges. However, he is not satisfied with his life (or his wife) and starts to paint copies of Flemish masters, then graduates to painting”originals”, i.e. works in the style of Flemish masters, which are passed off as newly discovered works by the art dealer, Recktall Brown. Wyatt come to believe that he is a great original and that his creations are great works of art, as, indeed, they are recognised as such.

The novel is peopled with a wide cast of characters, whose stories intersect with Wyatt’s but have their own stories. There is Otto Pivner, the would-be revolutionary and dramatist, who has an affair with Esther, Wyatt’s wife. Esme is a heroin addict who has an affair with Wyatt. Basil Valentine is an art critic who authenticates Wyatt’s forgeries while the beautifully named Agnes Deigh is the literary agent who rejects Otto’s play for, what else?, plagiarism. Religion is a key factor in the novel, from Aunt May’s puritanical fanaticism to Wyatt’s father’s experiments, ending up with Mithraism and his own crucifixion. Indeed, virtually all the main characters seem to change their identities, with Wyatt being called Stephen and working in a monastery, Esme becoming a nun and Otto working as a medical assistant.

The book is not an easy read. It is not only difficult keeping up with the myriad and complicated plot lines and who is who. As he will do more so in J. R., Gaddis writes much of the novel in the form of dialogue and it is often not clear who is actually speaking. Indeed, he clearly does not want to make it easy for his reader. However, there is no doubt that this is one of the great novels of the second half of the twentieth century and essential reading for anyone interested in ideas of identity, authenticity and fakery.

Publishing history

First published 1955 by Harcourt, Brace