Professor Gilbert Sorrentino, avant-garde novelist, dead at 77

Gilbert Sorrentino

Gilbert Sorrentino

Novelist and poet Gilbert Sorrentino, a central figure in the development of experimental fiction in the United States and a professor in the Department of English for nearly two decades, died May 18 of complications from lung cancer in New York City. He was 77.

The author of more than 20 books of fiction and poetry, Sorrentino was one of the great American writers of the 20th century, said Ramón Saldívar, chair of the English Department. Sorrentino, whose major works included Mulligan Stew (1979) and Aberration of Starlight (1980), "set as his role in American letters the transgression of artistic boundaries," the department chair said. During Sorrentino's tenure at Stanford from 1982 to 1999, the acclaimed writer "helped solidify the reputation of the Creative Writing unit of the Department of English into one of the most prestigious in the world," Saldívar said.

Sorrentino was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on April 27, 1929, and attended Brooklyn College, where he studied 16th- and 17th-century literature and Latin and Greek. After leaving college and serving for two years in the Army Medical Corps during the Korean War, Sorrentino returned to Brooklyn College but did not finish the requirements for a degree.

In 1956, Sorrentino founded the literary magazine Neon with college friends and later worked as an editor at Grove Press, publisher of Mulligan Stew and the works of authors including Henry Miller, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg.

Before joining the Stanford faculty in 1982, Sorrentino taught writing at the New School for Social Research, Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University. He was the recipient of numerous awards, including the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature (1981), an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature (1985), a Lannan Literary Award for Fiction (1992) and a Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005. He twice was named a PEN/Faulkner finalist, for Aberration of Starlight and for Little Casino, which was published in 2002.

Sorrentino's commitment to experimentation "brought a wonderful sensibility to the place," said poet Eavan Boland, director of the Creative Writing Program. Deeply influenced by modernist Irish writers Samuel Beckett, James Joyce and Myles na gCopaleen, Sorrentino saw himself in opposition to the realistic tradition of American fiction, Boland said. Although his was a very different voice, Sorrentino often was highly enthusiastic about writers who were not like him, she said.

Sorrentino, whom Boland recalled as "reserved, funny and sweet-natured," had a wonderful youth as a writer, hanging out in the Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village with painters, writers and poets, she said. "He was tremendously conscious of that privilege."

Sorrentino moved back to his native Brooklyn after his retirement from Stanford. He was working on a book until two weeks before his death, said Victoria Ortiz Sorrentino, his wife of 45 years.

"Always affable in casual dealings, Gil kept a kind of distance, more imagined than real, from the rest of us, part of his sense of himself as a member of the 1950s avant-garde," poet and novelist Ken Fields, professor of English, wrote in an e-mail message. "But as Conrad's Marlow would say, 'He was one of us'—a voice that brought its own timbre to our grainy choir."

Sorrentino's first marriage, to Elsene Wiessner, ended in divorce. A daughter from that marriage, Delia Sorrentino, died in 2003.

Sorrentino is survived by his wife, Victoria, of Brooklyn, and their son, Christopher Sorrentino, a novelist; Jesse Sorrentino, a son from his first marriage; and three grandchildren.

Arrangements for a memorial service to be held in New York City are pending, said Victoria Sorrentino. She suggested that gifts in Sorrentino's memory be made to the PEN Writers Fund. The PEN American Center is at 588 Broadway, Suite 303, New York, NY 10012.