This review of William H. Gass’s novel Middle C appeared in the TLS.
“Digressions are as pleasant as vacations, but one must return from them before tan turns to burn.” So says Professor Joseph Skizzen, a musicologist and – a little belatedly, because his father tries out for the role first – the protagonist of Middle C, William H. Gass’s third novel in nearly half a century (Omensetter’sLuck appeared in 1966, The Tunnel in 1995). Gass has not exactly taken his own character’s advice: he has allowed his novels to ripen and fatten for years, even decades, at a time, absorbing all manner of speculative, essayistic and self-conscious ruminations. They are in some ways inextricable from the stream of short stories, novellas and non-fiction that he has also published in that time. This latest book is, if anything, even more digressive, with its reflections on libraries, music and the shapes of sentences – all subjects Gass has engaged with in his essays. He turns eighty-nine this summer, and while Middle C may not be a late-stylesumma regarding his work to date, it bristles with many of his familiar topics and tropes.
Not least among these is the sound of literary language itself, which may well be his most abiding concern as a stylist, critic and (now emeritus) professor of philosophy at Washington University in St Louis. Gass’s fiction is often, and not inaccurately, linked to the highest phase of American postmodernism; the stories and novels can be, if not as antic then at least as self-aware as the best of John Barth or Donald Barthelme. What distinguishes them from such company, however, is just how much of Gass’s playfulness is textural rather than structural; if his is still a sort of metafiction, it achieves this at the level of a sometimes extreme concentration on the way his sentences sound; they draw attention to themselves with quite fabulous turns of syntax and prodigious flowerings of assonance and alliteration. As its title suggests, Middle C doesn’t stint on the sound effects, but it is also an essay of sorts on the music of prose.
The novel is, first of all, a story of deliberately implausible displacement. Rudi Skizzen is an ordinary Austrian husband and father who has grown disgusted by the cruelty of his countrymen on the eve of the Second World War. They are cruel, he says, even “in the mug and on the platter, in raucous communal song, immersed in the smell of Kraut, sausages, and beer”. Skizzen knows that many Jewish citizens have fled the country, and so he resolves on a plan: he and his wife, with their two children, will pass themselves off as Jewish, and make their way from Graz to London before the Nazis arrive. The ruse works, and before long the family is installed in England, where Rudi, who had briefly become Yankel Fixel and now takes the name Raymond Scofield, gets a job printing anti-Nazi propaganda leaflets to be dropped on Germany. His wife, Nita, now Miriam, remains “dumbfounded” by these sudden alterations to her identity.
Things turn deviously schematic at this point. Skizzen/Fixel/Scofield is suddenly graced with luck and wins a lot of money on a horse: “after a life of undeserving failure, a sudden unmerited success”. He promptly vanishes, apparently having left for the United States, to which further exile his wife and children must follow. They do so, but they don’t find Rudi. Instead, the novel too swerves and reinvents itself as the story of Rudi’s son Joseph, who is quickly – Gass dispenses briskly with the boy’s acclimatization to his new home in Ohio – established as a hapless student at a small community college and projected forwards to middle age as a music professor of dubious academic credentials with an interest in Schoenberg and certain recurring extracurricular fixations. Joseph’s mother hovers in the background, gardening, and his sister Debbie marries into suburban American cliché.
Gass has some fun with the reader’s expectations here; both phases of Joseph’s life threaten to become comical campus novels in themselves. The young man studies French, and his teacher, Miss Mieux – Gass has an absurd way with the names of minor characters – tries to seduce him, but he flees her plushly cushioned home before the crucial moment. In the parallel narrative of Joseph’s career as a professor, we learn a good deal about the petty rivalries between provincial academics – Howard Palfrey, Morton Rinse – and their fear of overqualified colleagues, which Joseph emphatically is not. His approach to playing the piano, Gass tells us, is “like that of someone trying to plug always fresh and seemingly countless leaks”. But he has managed to convince the college that he is an expert on Schoenberg, with whose exile and revisions of religious identity Joseph identifies.
All of this is entertaining, but you don’t come to Gass for mere academic satire. His real interest lies elsewhere, in style. One is gradually made aware that the novel’s amusements at the levels of plot and character are the merest pretexts for a series of extravagant digressions, scenes in which his characters’ rage for order gives rise to floridly self-generating systems and equally wild sentences. At the library, Joseph works with Miss Moss, a wraithlike older woman who instructs him at length on the varieties of damage that may befall a book during its travels. At home, in the midst of long and loving descriptions of Miriam’s garden, Joseph contemplates the invasive tendencies of violets that are “like immigrants, pushing out established plants and covering the earth with an impermeable carpet of dainty-looking but devilish little flowers whose rootlets, in their eager exercise of total war, throttled worms in their runnels”.
A sort of descriptive metastasis takes over at such moments, and it is present too in the adult Joseph’s obsessive curation of a personal archive he calls his “Inhumanity Museum”. He collects images and accounts of appalling cruelties, lingering, for example, over the historical details in a report of a woman burnt at the stake. His fascination and horror at the viciousness of humanity – a barbarism he and his family have fraudulently escaped – are given a linguistic turn when he becomes obsessed with a protean, ramifying sentence of his own devising. It comes to him unbidden one morning, and he subsequently finds himself, at the start of every working day, “compelled to mess with it”. In its first iteration, the sentence runs: “The fear that the human race might not survive has been replaced by the fear that it will endure”. It recurs throughout the novel, at first slightly altered, as if it were the subject of a lesson in rhetoric or composition, and later substantially expanded, so that in its longest form it spans more than a page, spins off into reeling parentheses, stalls several times in ellipses, and includes a colourful, alliterative crowd of “nebbechs, scolds, schlemiels, schnorrers, schnooks, shucks, shlumps, dummkopfs, potato heads, klutzes, not to omit pushers, bigots, born-again bible bangers”.
What is Gass up to with this sentence and its variants? In an essay entitled “The Aesthetic Structure of the Sentence”, published in his collection Life Sentences (2012), he argues that syntax may be a symbol in itself, and the sound of prose an adequate allegory: “A sentence can sometimes give its reader such a strong sense of its overall character that it provokes a flight of fancy, a metaphorical description: it’s like a journey of discovery; it’s like a coil of rope, a triumphal column; it’s like a spiral stair . . . . Its plot is its own performance”. The burgeoning sentence in Middle C is manifestly a version of Joseph’s fretful effort to hedge around the horror left behind in Austria with compulsive and obscuring detail, or to focus so hard on the sound of his own language that he will be absolved of its sense. The sentence, we might guess, has the shape of Joseph’s conscience.
But it is also, like Middle C itself, a late, perhaps final, statement of Gass’s belief in the sound of literary language for its own sake. In an earlier essay, “The Music of Prose”, he robustly defended rhythmic and sonic excess in writing: “Some tunes are rinky-dink indeed, and confined to the carnival, but I get the impression that most of these complaints about the music of prose are simply the fears of lead-eared moralists and message-gatherers”. Joseph’s obsessive tinkering with the recurring sentence leads ultimately to the possibility of real writing; but he has first to practise contriving sentences sculpted solely for their sound or shape, as in a gratuitous line he composes at his new computer keyboard: “We ate our farrow and supposed it was a splendidly healthy, indeed toothsome, way to dine”. Sound escapes and becomes its own sense. In “The Music of Prose”, Gass quotes Gertrude Stein: “I really do not know that anything has been more exciting than diagramming sentences”. This might be a motto for the locked-in, compulsive and ultimately liberated protagonist of Middle C.