Unnoticed life of an off-key mediocrity
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