12 Winters Blog

Theory into Praxis: William H. Gass’s Middle C

Posted in Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 20, 2014

My paper, “Theory into Praxis: William H. Gass’s Middle C,” was presented Feb. 20, 2014, at the Louisville Conference on Literature Culture Since 1900 as part of the panel “The New Adventures of Old Debates: Postmodernism and the New Sincerity,” chaired by Nick Curry, University of Louisville. Other papers presented were “‘Everything is ending but not yet’: Post-Modern Irony and the New Sincerity in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad” by Katherine Leake Weese, Hampden-Sydney College; and “Liminality and Dialogism: Dreamscape Narratives in Donald Barthelme’s Postmodern Paradise” by Nicholas Sloboda, University of Wisconsin-Superior. (A much abridged version of this paper appeared as a review in North American Review, 298.4. Search this blog for other Gass papers.)

Middle C image

Theory into Praxis: William H. Gass’s Middle C

by Ted Morrissey, University of Illinois Springfield

A long and complex novel, or series of novels . . . may present us with a world complete through every principle and consequence, rivaling in its comprehensiveness the most grandiose philosophical systems. (Gass, “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction” 9)

With the release of Middle C in 2013, William H. Gass’s third novel, one imagines that Gass has attempted to do just that:  present us with a world complete.  For the past half century, William Gass has been one of America’s most prolific essayists and literary critics, as well as one of its most receptive interviewees.  Consequently, his ideas about writing, especially about writing the novel and what makes a great one, are well documented, and they’ve remained amazingly consistent decade after decade.  Middle C, even more so than his previous two novels, is a praxis of his most heartfelt theories—which makes it a deliberately challenging read, deliberately aimed at a rapidly disappearing readership.  What is more, given Gass’s age, Middle C may prove to be the final argument in his legendary debate with John Gardner in which aesthetics was pitted against morality as the rubric for assessing great literature.

Gass, who was born in Fargo, North Dakota, in 1924, is a self-acknowledged slow writer of his own fiction.  Therefore, his novels have appeared with great gaps of time in between:  Omensetter’s Luck (1966), The Tunnel (1995), and now Middle C—with an iconic collection of stories, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968), a highly experimental novella (?), Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife (1968), and a collection of novellas, Cartesian Sonata (1998), rounding out his books of fiction.  Meanwhile, the professor of philosophy, retired from Washington University in St. Louis, has published ten collections of essays and criticism between 1970 and 2012.  Conversations with William H. Gass, a compendium of just some of his copious interviews, was released by University Press of Mississippi in 2003.

This paper will deal with Gass’s concept of narrative structure that he refers to as layering, his views on characterization, and his sense of morality’s proper place in fiction.

In Middle C, via the novel’s singular focus, music professor Joseph Skizzen, Gass demonstrates the narrative elements he believes to be essential to great fiction, but also the ones that have prevented him from being a best-selling author—though they have garnered him numerous honors and accolades, including the American Book Award for The Tunnel, a ponderous novel twenty-six years in the writing, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Though not a musician himself, Gass has long been fascinated with musical composition and has tried to structure his novels as if they were orchestral arrangements.  More important, Gass’s nonlinear structural technique that he refers to as layering mimics musical composition, he believes, because the goal of a great novel is to affect the reader as a whole creation:  “[T]he linear element in fiction is inescapable and must be dealt with, used just as it is in music, but there are other elements too, equally important.  So I have a kind of view of a work as being layered:  certain layers, or certain aspects of it, are nonlinear and certain aspects are linear. Then what becomes interesting is the tension, the contrasts, contradictions between the layers” (Janssens 60-61).

The result of layering is a narrative that shifts relentlessly between Skizzen’s childhood, adolescence, young adulthood and beyond to nearing retirement age, forcing readers to acquire their temporal bearings with each new section.  It is useful that each phase of Skizzen’s life tends to take place in a distinct setting with different casts of characters (except for the professor’s mother, Miriam, as she is a constant throughout).  Gass also provides some assistance in how he references Skizzen as either Joey or Joseph, but ultimately the two names appear side by side in the novel as if the young and old versions of his character become conjoined twins and experience the world through dual perceptions.

The merciless shifting in time is due to the thematic elements in the book. Gass writes in “The Concept of Character in Fiction,” “But there are some points in a narrative which remain relatively fixed; we may depart from them, but soon we return, as music returns to its theme” (49).  In The Tunnel, Gass employed a twelve-part structure suggestive of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone pattern.  “That is how I began working out the way for the various themes to come in and out,” said Gass. “It’s layered that way too” (Kaposi 135).  In Middle C, Gass has returned to the concept of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system but even more overtly.  For one thing, Arnold Schoenberg and his disciples, like Alan Berg and Anton Webern, are discussed at various points in the novel via Professor Skizzen’s lectures; and Skizzen himself effects the aura of a Viennese intellectual, reflective of Schoenberg’s Second Viennese School of musical composers.  Also, throughout the novel Skizzen wrestles with a sentence, or series of sentences, having to do with the destructive nature of the human race, as he continually composes the thought, critiques it, and revises it.  Skizzen believes he is on the right track when he writes the sentence in twelve beats, and near the end of the novel he feels he has the sentence perfect:

First    Skizzen           felt                   mankind         must                perish

then     he                    feared             it                      might              survive

The Professor sums up his perfect creation:  “Twelve tones, twelve words, twelve hours from twilight to dawn” (352).  Gass, through his narrator, does not discuss the sentence’s direct correlation to the Second Viennese School’s twelve-tone system, but it does match it exactly.  The twelve-tone system has four parts, described as Prime—Retrograde—Inverse—Retrograde Inverse.  As such, the primacy of “First Skizzen felt” is represented literally with the word First, while “mankind must perish” suggests the retrograde movement of the species from existence to extinction.  “Then he feared” marks the inverse of Skizzen’s initial impression, and “it might survive” is the retrograde inverse because it reverses his belief that mankind will become extinct and concludes that it will actually persist.

In a microcosmic sense, Skizzen’s capturing of the perfect expression of his fears about the human race reflect Gass’s overarching strategy of novel composition, which he expressed in a 2012 Tin House interview:  “You want to organize and make sense out of it on a conceptual level as well as a physical, or musical, level.  And indeed, a spatial level.  Like a parking garage, there are a bunch of levels” (Gerke 41).  On the page, Gass, as he often has, uses typographical features to suggest the multilayered nature of Skizzen’s expression, by indenting, tabbing and boldfacing the words, so that visually they draw attention to their deeper meanings and associations. This evolving thought about humanity is associated with another reoccurring element in the novel, Skizzen’s Inhumanity Museum, which is a collection of newspaper and magazine clippings, and handwritten notecards that detail horrific human actions:

The gothic house he and his mother shared had several attic rooms, and Joseph Skizzen had decided to devote one of them to the books and clippings that composed his other hobby:  the Inhumanity Museum. . . . Sometimes he changed the [name] placard to an announcement that called it the Apocalypse Museum. . . . Daily, he would escape his sentence to enter yesterday’s clippings into the scrapbooks that constituted the continuing record. (55)

And just as Gass returns to the evolving sentence throughout the novel, he also references the Inhumanity Museum and its growing record of atrocities.  Hence, the motif of humans’ inhumanity to other humans demonstrates one of Gass’s other important theories about fictional narrative:  that anything can be a character and people don’t make for the most interesting ones.  He writes, “Characters are those primary substances to which everything else is attached. [. . . A]nything, indeed, which serves as a fixed point like a stone in a stream or that soap in Bloom’s pocket, functions as a character” (“The Concept of Character” 49, 50).  Perhaps Gass’s interest in developing ideas as characters and not people stems from his most fundamental affections.   In the Tin House interview, he acknowledged that he “hate[s] the species” and aligns himself with Spinoza’s advocacy of “lov[ing] ideas” (Gerke 33, 36).  People, he says, are less trustworthy than objects, and the singular focus of Middle C, Joseph Skizzen, reflects that lack of trustworthiness in that the music professor is a complete fraud who constructs his career, and his very life, from forged documents and fabricated CVs.

Gass said that Skizzen was based on a real history professor at Wooster College in Ohio who was living under a false identity and on the run from both the English and Canadian authorities.  Gass remarked, “I want to talk about—or deal with—somebody who’s a counterfeit of that sort.  Professor Skizzen obtains his position with false CVs [. . .] but he gradually expands his dreamland to include the classes he starts to teach” (Gerke 37-8).  Skizzen’s falseness even extends to his supposed admiration of Schoenberg, whom he chose as a pet topic because no one knew much about him.  Perhaps Skizzen’s irreverent strategy reflects to some degree Gass’s own choice of Schoenberg’s twelve-part system to use as a controlling structure for his fiction.  In writing criticism, Gass had to stay within the boundaries of expectation, he said, but for his fiction, which has been more important to him, “there are no expectations, there is no job to fulfill,” allowing him “to be more outrageous, or daring” (32).

Gass’s emphases in Middle C on inhumane behavior and on Skizzen’s profound falseness represent another of his theories about artistic, versus popular, writing.  On the one hand, Gass has said that significant novels need to be about significant themes.  In the essay “Fiction and the Figures of Life,” Gass writes, “[T]he form and method of metaphor are very much like the form and method of the novel. . . . [T]he artist is able to organize whole areas of human thought and feeling, and to organize them concretely, giving to his model the quality of sensuous display.” He goes on,

[T]hen imagine the Oriental deviousness, the rich rearrangement, the endless complications of the novel conceived as I suggest it should be, as a monumental metaphor, a metaphor we move at length through, the construction of a mountain with its views, a different, figured history to stretch beside our own, a brand-new ordering both of the world and our understanding. (68-9)

Yet this world-altering effect must be executed via mundane plot details.  Gass said, “. . . I want to avoid as much as possible situations, extreme situations whose reality is strong because then the reader is reading it like a newspaper or something.  If you’re going to write aesthetically about it, you have to defuse its power in order to get anybody to pay any attention to the nature of the prose” (Gerke 42-3).  He said that “ninety percent of bad literature” was due to writers focusing on the sensational act itself, the part of real life that is “quite shattering, or pornographic, or whatever.  And it isn’t art” (43).  As such, Professor Skizzen’s achievement of the perfect twelve-part sentence about humans’ inhumanity acts as a kind of climax for Middle C, and Skizzen’s feared defrocking, which occupies the final pages of the novel, is a sort of anticlimax juxtaposed against the truly climactic narrative event.

This avoidance of the extreme situation has been practiced by Gass ever since his very first written narrative, from about 1951, the novella “The Pedersen Kid,” which carefully sidesteps descriptions of child abuse, molestation, kidnapping, rape and murder, leaving them merely implied on the fringes of the plot.  And in The Tunnel, Gass’s most ambitious work, the Holocaust remains in the background while the novel’s protagonist secretly digs a hole to nowhere in his basement.

Gass is in his ninetieth year, and it’s all but certain that he will not write any other novels.  He’s said that more novellas, stories, essays and literary criticism could be forthcoming, so Middle C may well be his closing argument in his famous debate with John Gardner, who died in 1982.  Gass and Gardner’s debate regarding the chief aim of fiction was often carried out in private, but it also became very public, being transcribed in various interviews and even fictionalized by Larry McCaffery in The Literary Review as a Point-Counterpoint-style “confrontation” (135).  At the risk of oversimplifying their positions … Gardner believed that literature’s highest calling was to put forward a moral, life-affirming message, while Gass believed that literature’s highest calling was to be something beautiful, a work of linguistic art.  Gass said in a 1978 interview, “There is a fundamental divergence about what literature is.  I don’t want to subordinate beauty to truth and goodness.  John and others have values which they think are important.  Beauty, after all, is not very vital for people.  I think it is very important . . .” (LeClair 55).  Gardner’s view was that “you create in the reader’s mind a vivid and continuous dream . . . living a virtual life, making moral judgments in a virtual state” (49-50).

More than a decade after Gardner’s death, with the publication of The Tunnel, whose narrator, history professor Frederick Kohler, seems to sympathize with the Nazis, Gass was still clarifying his position on morality versus art in literature.  He said that his “position [had] been frequently misunderstood, almost invariably” (Kaposi 122).  He went on,

Ethical, political, and social concerns will be present in every writer’s work at every point.  The question is not that; the question is how you write about them. . . . My view is that you don’t judge a work to be beautiful because it’s morally uplifting or tells the truth about things.  And it’s perfectly possible for a work to be beautiful and not tell the truth, and in fact to be morally not a very nice thing.  Ideally of course it would be all these things at once. (122)

Unlike Kohler, Joseph Skizzen is clearly appalled by human behavior, like the Holocaust.  In his lectures on Schoenberg’s Moses und Aaron, Skizzen contemplates how Jews were able to reconcile “the Almighty’s malevolence . . . a punishment long in coming and therefore most deserved” (209).  Thus, in the context of a novel in which nothing much happens, certainly nothing earthshattering, Gass interjects significant moral issues, especially involving humakind’s inhumane treatment of itself.  In The Tunnel, Gass created a character and a book who were “morally not a very nice thing,” and it seemed to distract many readers from its artfulness, its literary beauty.  In a 1998 interview, Gass responded to critic Robert Atler’s assertion that The Tunnel was an immoral book because of the way it treated the Holocaust by saying that it must be “to some sorts of reader an immoral book.  I want it to be for them.  I want it misread in a certain way by certain people.  It’s for me the proof in the pudding” (Abowitz 144). Gass said that he considers Middle C “a much lighter” book (Gerke 38), even though he deals with many of the same issues as in The Tunnel.  What makes it seem lighter, perhaps, is the first-person narrator’s posture toward atrocities like the Holocaust.

In the end, then, Gass has found a way to create a work of literary art while also taking the higher moral ground that his friend John Gardner advocated.  Gardner said in 1978 that his “ambition in life is to outlive Bill Gass and change all of his books” (LeClair 55)—maybe he managed to change Gass’s final novel from beyond the grave.

Gass is adamant that he’s written his last novel as a matter of practicality—after all, eighteen years elapsed between The Tunnel and Middle C (“I can’t live forever,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch)—but he’s working on a collection of essays, a collection short stories (alluded to in the mid-1990s and still not complete apparently), and he’s planning another novella or two.

Let me end on a personal and professional note:  I’m planning to edit a series of books on Gass’s work through Twelve Winters Press, and about a week ago I put out a call for submissions (of abstracts) for the first anthology, titled Critical Perspectives on William H. Gass: The Novellas.  Please visit TwelveWinters.com/submissions for details and to access the submissions portal. You can also follow my 12 Winters Blog and ReadingGass.org for updates on the project.

Works Cited

Abowitz, Richard. “Still Digging: A William Gass Interview.” 1998. Ammon 142-48.

Ammon, Theodore G., ed. Conversations with William H. Gass. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2003. Print.

Gass, William H. “The Concept of Character in Fiction.” Fiction and the Figures of Life. Boston, MA: Nonpareil, 2000. 34-54. Print.

—. “In Terms of the Toenail: Fiction and the Figures of Life.” Fiction and the Figures of Life. Boston, MA: Nonpareil, 2000. 55-76. Print.

—. Middle C. New York: Knopf, 2013. Print.

—. “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction.” Fiction and the Figures of Life. Boston, MA: Nonpareil, 2000. 3-26. Print.

Gerke, Greg. “Many-Layered Anger: A Conversation with William Gass.” Tin House 14.2 (Dec. 2012): 30-45. Print.

Henderson, Jane. “William Gass: At 88, Gass Has Written Last Novel—But Not Last Book.” 10 Mar. 2013 St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Web. 17 Feb. 2014.

Janssens, G. A. M. “An Interview with William Gass.” 1979. Ammon 56-70.

Kaposi, Idiko. “A Talk with William H. Gass.” 1995. Ammon 120-37.

LeClair, Thomas. “William Gass and John Gardner: A Debate on Fiction.” 1978. Ammon 46-55.

McCaffery, Larry. “The Gass-Gardner Debate: Showdown on Main Street.” The Literary Review 23.1 (fall 1979): 134-144. Print.

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