Un­no­ticed life of an off-key medi­ocrity

Mid­dle C

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Don An­der­son Don An­der­son

By Wil­liam H. Gass Knopf, 416pp, $39.95 (HB)

WIL­LIAM H. Gass, ac­cord­ing to this news­pa­per’s chief lit­er­ary critic Geordie Wil­liamson, is ‘‘ per­haps the most sig­nif­i­cant liv­ing Amer­i­can author this side of Philip Roth’’.

Given the lau­rels be­stowed on Gass — the National Book Crit­ics Cir­cle Award three times for his es­says, the Tru­man Capote Award for Lit­er­ary Crit­i­cism for A Tem­ple of Texts (2006), the Amer­i­can Book Award for his mas­sive and mon­strous 1995 novel The Tun­nel — home­town crit­ics seem to agree.

Roth, aged 80, has de­clared he will pub­lish no more nov­els; Gass, 89 next month has just pub­lished his third, which is his 14th book.

Gass was born in Fargo, North Dakota, a town later im­mor­talised in film by the Coen broth­ers. He has de­scribed his child­hood as un­happy, with an abu­sive, racist fa­ther and a pas­sive, al­co­holic mother. Young Gass took refuge in books. Th­ese fam­ily fea­tures per­haps sur­face in his fic­tion.

Af­ter serv­ing in the navy dur­ing World War II, he grad­u­ated magna cum laude in phi­los­o­phy from Kenyon Col­lege in 1947, pro­ceed­ing to grad­u­ate work at Cor­nell (home to Nabokov and Pyn­chon, among oth­ers), where he stud­ied un­der philoso­pher Max Black and, briefly, Wittgen­stein. It is no ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say the con­cerns of his doc­toral dis­ser­ta­tion ‘‘ A Philo­soph­i­cal In­ves­ti­ga­tion of Metaphor’’ have con­trib­uted to his writ­ings, fic­tion and non­fic­tion, ever since.

In a Paris Re­view in­ter­view four decades ago, Gass as­serted: ‘‘ In or­der to pro­duce my best work I have to be an­gry. I write be­cause I hate. A lot. Hard.’’ He told a French news­pa­per: ‘‘ I write to in­dict mankind.’’

In Mid­dle C, the pro­tag­o­nist Pro­fes­sor Sk­izzen car­ries out this in­dict­ment in his In­hu­man­ity Mu­seum or Atroc­ity Mu­seum, com­posed of cards and news­pa­per clip­pings sus­pended in his at­tic from fly­pa­per. The treat­ment of Aus­tralian Abo­rig­ines is in­cluded. Gass vis­ited Aus­tralia in the 1970s.

But anger and ha­tred are only half the story. Here is the other half, recorded in the 1986 book Amer­i­can Nov­el­ists: ‘‘ I am prin­ci­pally in­ter­ested in the prob­lems of style,’’ Gass said. ‘‘ My fic­tions are, by and large, ex­per­i­men­tal con­struc­tions. That is, I try to make things out of words the way a sculp­tor might make a statue out of stone. Read­ers will there­fore find very lit­tle in the way of char­ac­ter or story in my sto­ries.’’

Anger and stone. Kinesis and sta­sis. The­sis and an­tithe­sis. Gass’s fic­tion might be ex­pe­ri­enced as a ten­sion or de­bate be­tween the two ex­tremes, lead­ing to the syn­the­sis of the work as a whole. Of course, read­ers want­ing the sat­is­fac­tions of story or char­ac­ter alone may find them­selves dis­con­certed or even an­gered by Gass’s de­mand­ing works.

That said, it may be al­lowed that Mid­dle C does tell a story and that it does have at least one char­ac­ter, Joseph, aka ‘‘ Joey’’, Sk­izzen, whose com­i­cal if not cat­a­strophic bil­dung con­sti­tutes the story, and that the story or plot may be seen as a set of vari­a­tions around a theme: Mid­dle C. What­ever the key, Joey’s mu­sic teacher Mr Hirk in­sists one should play ‘‘ as if for, as if in, the ma­jor third, the notes of praise. Play C.’’ At school, Joey set­tles for Cs of a dif­fer­ent kind.

On a pi­ano key­board, mid­dle C is clos­est to the cen­tre. That’s Joseph Sk­izzen, a mid­dleof-the-road yet slightly off-cen­tre pro­fes­sor at a mi­nor ter­tiary col­lege in the US mid­west, who wants noth­ing but ‘‘ an un­no­ticed life’’. What Joey re­ally wanted the world to see ‘‘ was the equiv­a­lent of Moses’s tablets be­fore they got in­scribed: a per­son pure, clean, un­de­filed, un­spoiled by the ter­ri­ble his­tory of the earth’’:

He as­pires to be a mid­west­ern Man With­out Qual­i­ties. Pro­fes­sor Sk­izzen’s life is cen­tred on his In­hu­man­ity Mu­seum and the mu­sic of Arnold Schoen­berg. (He teaches mu­sic to the un­com­pre­hend­ing stu­dents at his col­lege.) Schoen­berg, as Nicholas Spice has pointed out in the Lon­don Re­view of Books, ‘‘ frus­trated and, we may think, naively puz­zled by the fact that peo­ple found his mu­sic dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand, de­clared that all mu­sic is dif­fi­cult’’. Gass may well feel the same about prose.

Schoen­berg, ac­cord­ing to Pro­fes­sor Sk­izzen, ‘‘ was in­ca­pable of the mid­dle-C mind. He was un­able to sus­tain medi­ocrity.’’ Sk­izzen also chooses Schoen­berg be­cause he will be ‘‘ ef­fec­tively fright­en­ing. Such in­tim­i­da­tion might keep peo­ple at a dis­tance.’’

Yet Sk­izzen’s In­hu­man­ity Mu­seum may be in­debted to Schoen­berg and his no­to­ri­ous 12-tone sys­tem of mu­sic. Through­out Mid­dle C, Joey searches for a propo­si­tion — a bold propo­si­tion set in bold type — that will en­cap­su­late his thoughts about (in)hu­man­ity. Af­ter some 700 ver­sions he con­cludes: See me now! Un­tar­nished as a tea ser­vice! I’ve done noth­ing brave but noth­ing squalid, noth­ing far­sighted but noth­ing blind, noth­ing to make me proud, yet never have I had to be ashamed.

It can­not have been an ob­ses­sion be­cause First Sk­izzen felt mankind must per­ish, then he feared it might sur­vive. First Sk­izzen felt mankind must per­ish then he feared it might sur­vive Twelve tones, twelve words, twelve hours from twi­light to dawn.

Writ­ing in A Tem­ple of Texts: Fifty Lit­er­ary Pil­lars (1991) Gass ob­serves of Henry James’s The Golden Bowl: ‘‘ What af­fected me most about Henry James lay not in some sin­gle work, but in his style — that won­drously sup­ple, witty, sen­su­ous, sen­si­tive, cir­cum­lo­qua­tious style — and the Bowl is that style brought to its fi­nal and most re­ful­gent state.’’

The same might be said of Wil­liam H. Gass, and Mid­dle C is an ex­cel­lent place to make his ac­quain­tance.

Wil­liam H. Gass

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