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William H. Gass: The Tunnel

Gass’ magnum opus took nearly thirty years to write and has had decidedly mixed reviews. The moralists have condemned the work as being immoral, as though literature has some narrow role to preach what is right and condemn what is wrong. Many have found it unpleasant, which it certainly is but if literature’s role is only to be pleasant, we should lose much of the world’s great literature. It is also avowedly post-modern. As in Willie Master’s Lonesome Wife, Gass plays with typography and throws in pictures and uses other means to draw attention to itself. More importantly, he (or rather his main character) messes around with text, interposing (physically) different texts.

William Kohler, a professor of history, has just finished writing his magnum opus Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany. He now merely has to write the introduction to it. However, he soon gets sidetracked and, instead of writing the introduction he should be writing, he writes about writing the book, about his not very laudable life and about his political and aesthetic views. Inevitably, this non-introduction takes over and he take to hiding the pages from his wife (who is one of many who comes in for criticism in his ramblings) in the original book. His wife, his children, his colleagues, his parents (abusive father, alcoholic mother) and his mentor (Magus Tabor, who believes that history is created by historians) are all grist to his mill. His various love affairs, including several with students, as well as his unpleasant treatment of virtually everyone he meets, show that he is really not a nice person. Add to that his proposed political party, the Party of Disappointed People, for which he plays around with design throughout the book, with the last page a not very impressive logo, and his somewhat Nazi sympathies, and it is easy to see why some readers were turned off.

Gass is nobody’s fool and his postmodernisation of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany, which some found offensive, is all part of his attempt not to take a moral stand but to show, though a postmodern prism, how life might be seen. Kohler is not a loveable man. He is escaping from his life. (The tunnel of the title refers to an actual tunnel that he is digging in his basement, out of his house.) But Gass is doing this somewhat tongue in cheek. The famous and much maligned statement made by Kohler that there are bedrooms as bad as Belsen (in talking about his relations with his wife) or Kohler’s idea that the Nazis are essentially innocent, that it is the Germans as a whole that are guilty, are not, presumably, Gass’ personal view, though the criticism he has received suggests that some people are unable to disconnect Kohler from his creator. The work is certainly a mishmash but a postmodern work should be a mishmash and this one is a brilliant mishmash.

Publishing history

First published 1995 by Knopf