I recently asked him what he was reading. His reply:
The books I’ve been reading pile up in precarious stacks on desk and night table and coffee table. Some get more attention than others. They do not complain of neglect, though I wonder what they say to each other when I’m not around. Pieces of the different books keep stalking each other in my head.Stephen Greenblatt wrote of Gross's latest book: “Shylock Is Shakespeare is a book whose risk-taking, even obsessive plunge into the living character of Shylock has succeeded in reinventing a mode of criticism long thought derelict and abandoned. Shakespeare’s power as a magician — a conjurer able to call forth and release spirits into the world — has rarely seemed as palpable or disturbing as it does in Kenneth Gross’s bold and original response.”
Reading and re-reading combine in curious chains of occasion. I picked up Conrad’s Nostromo this summer because I’d re-read The Secret Agent earlier in the year, and found it so uncannily absorbing -- so timely in its picture of terrorism -- and wanted another long fiction by this author. I re-read A Sentimental Education partly to figure out a remark I’d found in Kafka’s diaries, where he compares the end of Flaubert’s novel to the end of the Pentateuch. I read Günther Grass’s The Tin Drum because I’m going to Germany next year, and then after all his name was much in the news because of the memoir I haven’t read. The three books share little save for a relentless intelligence, and a sympathetic but pitiless fascination with flawed, imperfect consciousnesses during times of historical change and violence.
There are two new books on Shakespeare, both remarkable for ways they draw Shakespeare whole, as a maker, a shaping intelligence. One is Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare, shrewdly edited by Scott Newstok, which gathers published and unpublished writings on Shakespeare’s plays by Burke. It shows him probing the idea of Shakespeare as a relentless rhetorical schemer and man of the theater. “What he believed in above all was the glory of his trade itself, which is to say, the great humaneness of the word, and the corresponding search through the range of all its aptitudes.” Shakespeare the Thinker, by the late A. D. Nuttall, surveys the entire work of the playwright from beginning end. Caught up by their inner energies, the book is about how plays work, well, as forms of thinking, explorations of the mind (a mind) at work, also pictures of the mind’s ways of thinking about the categories of thought, forms of faith, law, love, and knowledge, giving us a poet often at odds with, even ashamed by, his own powers, his own sense of mastery.
Thin books of poetry can feel more demanding than fat novels. John Ashbery’s recent collection, A Worldly Country, is full of curious promises and reveries, honors and half prayers, disenchanted as they are. He lets us know about other things to read:
In late summer we would call each other
over and over until the bitter foam subsided.
Was it coincidence that letters began arriving
faster than fallen leaves, answers to ones
never sent, or so we thought?
And then there is A. R. Ammons’s great, rambling book-length poem from 1976, Sphere: A Form of Motion, which I just re-read. It is about connecting everything with everything, about the sweet and fearful movements of mind in making and unmaking the orders of a changing world, about “learning how to move with / balance among forces greater than your own, gravity, water’s / buoyance, psychic tides,” places where “constellations / of possibility break out,” and disintegration and dissonance are gifts.
Gross has put Shylock Is Shakespeare to the Page 69 Test and imagined it as the basis for a film.
Kenneth Gross's other books include Spenserian Poetics: Idolatry, Iconoclasm, and Magic (1985), The Dream of the Moving Statue (1992), and Shakespeare’s Noise (2001).