An Inventory of Inhumanity

Middle C

by William H. Gass
Knopf, 395 pp., $28.95
Dominique Nabokov
William H. Gass, New York City, 1986

In the attic of his college-owned Victorian house, Professor Joseph Skizzen sits surrounded by horror. The walls are all covered with “atrocity pictures, some of them classics,” like the naked girl running along the Vietnamese highway. But there’s also a set of Goya etchings, “in poor reproductions to be sure,” and then Grünewald and Grosz as well as “machine-gunned refugees…photographs of instruments of persuasion…buffalo hunts, seal cubs as they were being clubbed…[and] notable assassinations.” He keeps a pair of scissors in every room of the house, ready to snip any suitably appalling bit from the newspaper, and now has boxes of clippings about executions and rigged elections. Bookshelves hold the Newgate Calendar along with volumes on all forms of “racial cleansings from then to now.” Special exhibits in what he calls his “Inhumanity Museum” get stuck to hanging strips of flypaper, an upended forest beneath which the professor must duck his head.

Almost forty years ago William Gass told The Paris Review that in order “to produce my best work I have to be angry…. I write because I hate. A lot. Hard.” The protagonist of Middle C is a naïf in comparison to his creator, and though he has a bit of the gusto with which Gass has in other works defined his own disgusts and dislikes, he can’t quite rise to jeremiad. Skizzen makes his list of wretchedness in something closer to sadness than hatred. He does, however, share Gass’s obsessive care with language, and his real work in this curatorial project lies not in assembling its contents but in putting together its catalog, in the struggle to write the one sentence that will pose his museum’s lesson:

The fear that the human race might not survive has been replaced by the fear that it will endure.
Joseph Skizzen caught himself looking at the sentence as if he were seeing his face in his shaving glass. Immediately, he wanted to rewrite it.

In German die Skizze is a sketch or an outline, a rough draft, and that’s exactly what the professor has produced. The cadence is deliberately off, and Gass will keep it that way, putting the leading character of his third novel through several dozen skizzens spread over many chapters, and with each one immediately subject to criticism:

One’s concern that the human race might not endure has been succeeded by the fear it will survive.
“One”? A word that distanced responsibility. A cowardly word, “one.” Why not another number? Why not the can in a corner pocket?…

Some of these revisions will go on for a page of boldface type; some won’t limit themselves to just one sentence. Yet Gass will finally allow the character to tighten it into epigram; at the end, he will get it right.

The professor calls himself Joseph Skizzen, but while that’s his real name it’s not his legal one. His music students at Ohio’s mythical Whittlebauer College give him that title, and he does indeed teach and publish. Still, “Professor”? Everything about Joey Skizzen is false except his sincerity, and the fraud goes back to before his birth. In Austria there was once a printer named Rudi Skizzen who could see “the future as if he were reading it on one of his broadsides” and wanted no part of it. Or maybe he smelled it “in the mug and on the platter.” He knew that inner emigration wasn’t going to be enough, not for a man of fighting age; smelled it and decided that the best way for a good Catholic not to participate in the coming Reich was simply to become what it hated. It might even be the easiest way for a man with no money to get out, if he can only latch on to one of the organizations smuggling Jews to England. So Rudi moves his wife and daughter from Graz to Vienna, “pinning a yarmulke to his hair…and informing anyone interested that his name was Yankel Fixel.” For who would claim in such times to be Jewish if they were not Jewish in fact?

The scam works, and the Fixels are already in London when the boy they name Yussel is born. They make it through the Blitz, living in a rubble “of noise and fear and fire,” and Rudi soon finds that he likes being a Jew. It confirms his sense of patriarchal authority. Then five bearded men in wide-brimmed hats appear at his door. He has eaten unclean words, they say, and has never been touched by the Torah; he is “foreskinned as far as [his] face.” They don’t turn him in, but the confrontation makes him wonder if as a fake Jew he might somehow be deported, and he begins to search for a new life. Rudi can fill “roles like a baker,” and now turns himself into someone called Ray Scofield, a bookie’s clerk. “He bought a cloth cap. He practiced raising a finger to its bill.” One day he hits big on a bet—and vanishes. The police later find that he’s bought a passport and a ticket to Canada, but his family won’t see him again.

Nevertheless his wife Nita, now Miriam, has learned enough from him to know she must claim to be still in touch; indeed, so long as reuniting such “families was a holy and patriotic duty” she had better keep calling herself Fixel. At last the visa for America comes, and in their new world Yussel and his sister Dvorah are soon “no more Jewish than they had ever been.” Skizzen once more, they become Debbie and Joey even as their mother decides to stay Miriam; though she never loses her longing for schnitzel.

Gass uses Middle C’s opening pages to present this complicated back story, though Joey himself learns about it only when Miriam convinces herself of her husband’s death. The novel then cuts to that attic room, to the professor and his sentence, and the burden of Rudi/Yankel/Ray’s choices drops out of the book almost as completely as the character himself does. It’s really just a pretext, a MacGuffin that Gass uses to set his man loose in an America of which he’s never quite part. The rest of the novel’s forty-five chapters slip back and forth in time between Joey’s present work with his scissors and paste, and the story of how he made his way to tenure without the benefit of any degree whatever. But he remains the most innocent of tricksters, and though his tale is in the end less affecting, Joseph Skizzen proves as befuddled an academic wanderer as anyone this country has seen since Nabokov’s Timofey Pnin.

Debbie will escape into American normality; a cheerleader even, a fate that ensures her “negligibility.” Joey will instead find Mr. Hirk, a piano instructor so arthritic that he can no longer even play, with his “hands like two ill-fitting boots.” Rudi Skizzen had been a third-rate fiddler, and the boy’s own plonking won’t get much better, but he does at least have a proper teacher, gruff and bitter and inspired, who tells him that his fingers must be “soft, as on a nipple, swift like a snake’s strike.”

By this point Joey is the old man’s only pupil, and they spend most of their afternoons together listening to a hand-cranked Victrola; Joey always gives it a last wind before leaving because Mr. Hirk’s twisted digits can no longer manage it. One Saturday the boy tunes in by accident to the Metropolitan Opera while hunting for a football game. “All its throats were rapturous,” and from then on he and Mr. Hirk will talk singers and, eventually, a bit of theory. Whatever the key, the old cripple says, you should play “as if for, as if in, the major third, the notes of praise. Play C.”

An indifferent student, at school Joey settles for Cs of a different kind, and goes from Mr. Hirk to a job at a music store, where he puts himself through an autodidact’s reading of liner notes and absorbs everything from Glenn Miller to Gianni Schicchi before being “swept away by the inevitable but notorious Schoenberg.” The Second Vienna School will in fact become his specialty, and Professor Skizzen will appear to speak of it with authority, having turned his vagrant father into a second violinist at the Vienna Philharmonic. He leaves the music store when a jealous fellow-employee frames him for a robbery, and afterward Joey finds himself playing the organ at a third-rate Lutheran college in exchange for tuition. They too throw him out when he’s discovered moonlighting at the local Catholic church.

He gets something seemingly more permanent at a nearby public library, and even buys himself a battered old car. Still, Joseph Skizzen has no legal existence. His papers are all in the name of Fixel, but in this he is his father’s son and soon mocks up an unconvincing driver’s license; then, with the help of the library’s bookbinder, he forges a good one, and a few other things besides.

Even this place has its dangers, though. It’s run by the tart-tongued Marjorie Bruss—“the Major”—who corrects his diction and whose prescriptions are legion. “How I hate highlighters,” she says, things used only by “the dog-ear people” or by students who “will grow dog-ears in due time…. Do not…rest your elbows on a book…. Don’t put your palms down on illustrations.” She rents him a room in her garage, and soon little plates of cookies begin to appear on his nightstand. He enjoys the work, and the cookies too, and what comes next seems entirely predictable. Or it would to anyone but Joey, who simply runs off when the Major sits down on his “bed with the familiarity of one who has made it,” and closes her palms around his face.

So much for the library. Still, he does take away a set of useful documents, and with these “slightly squinked credentials” manages to impress the president of a local college. Not a good college. Whittlebauer is as carefully described as the Benton of Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution, but it makes that place look like the Institute for Advanced Study. It’s a snug harbor at last, however, and a place in which Skizzen can talk himself into his father’s illusion, into the belief that he can stay “reasonably clean of complicity in human affairs.” After a few years and a couple of publications he is given a house, rent-free; a little while more and he becomes chair of the music department’s “trio of cacophonists.” He cultivates some eccentricities, he provides a home for the aging Miriam, and though “the habits he had were not his own” his position appears secure. In his attic room Professor Skizzen notes the details of the latest African massacre, and puts his sentence through yet another draft.

But with Gass isn’t all this plot summary just a bit beside the point? With Gass, and with the first generation of American postmodernists of which he’s now the senior member? He has written a warm and funny essay about being confused with William Gaddis, but some of the names do seem to come in pairs. Think of Barth and Barthelme, and then add in John Hawkes and Robert Coover. All of them were born in the decade that began with Gaddis’s birth in 1922, with Gass himself dating from 1924. (Of course other writers came out of that decade too: Mailer in 1923, O’Connor in 1925, and Morrison in 1931, with the slightly younger Roth and McCarthy to follow.) Gaddis doesn’t share Barth’s metafictional conceits, and none of them have Barthelme’s fascination with the froth of contemporary life, yet despite their differences these consciously experimental male writers seem a coherent group. Hawkes might have been speaking for them all when he claimed that “I began to write fiction on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting and theme, and having once abandoned these familiar ways of thinking about fiction, totality of vision or structure was really all that remained.”

Gass himself said in a 1978 interview that he sees character as “any linguistic location of a book toward which a great part of the rest of the text stands as a modifier.” That, he suggested, was a simple account of the concept, but twenty years later he winnowed it down: character is “a noun qualified by the rest of the text. It’s Hegelian.”

His 1995 The Tunnel was “meant to be the inside of narrative, its pulp and seeds, not the rind,” a book that wouldn’t be held together by any shape-defining skin of a plot. What it relies on instead are sentences, and there’s perhaps a touch of self-parody in the job he sets his professor, a sentence to be skizzed and reskizzed, poked, prodded, and kicked. For Gass believes in sentences. He believes in assonance and alliteration; in dissonance too. Prose should have meter, the sound and pace of song, and some of his own best sentences take the form of a list, a deliberate dazzle like a vaudevillian’s patter. He loves the Elizabethans for their insistence that “what is not metaphorical, is not,” and admires the repetitive hammer strokes of Gertrude Stein. In his essays he will sometimes pause over an exceptionally interesting bit of grammar, and diagram it.

By now his essays fill six substantial volumes, along with more tightly focused books about Rilke and On Being Blue. They will form a central part of whatever estimate literary history finally makes of him; for some readers they are more important than his fiction. These essays rarely pursue a single line of thought. Instead they offer an experience, all feints and nuance, and with the argument vanishing within the sportive accretions of his prose; but then that play of mind is itself the argument. His taste is at once varied and consistent. In a career of over half a century he doesn’t seem to have ever changed his mind about a favorite, and A Temple of Texts (2006) provides something like his own private canon, a set of persistent touchstones: Gaddis and Hawkes, along with The Golden Bowl and Finnegans Wake, Mallarmé and Hölderlin, Hopscotch and Le Morte d’Arthur. Colette too, and in other essays he comes back repeatedly to Ford Madox Ford and The Fifth Queen. He finds his most frequent title character, however, in the idea of the sentence itself, in pieces with names like “Narrative Sentences” or “The Sentence Seeks Its Form.”

Except that novels are not only sentences. Few American writers have written as barbed and sensuous a prose; and few in their earlier work have given their readers less reason to turn the page. For there’s often nothing on that next page but more brilliance; no sense of shape or development, let alone a move toward closure. Gass has defined his process as that of “exposing a symbolic center. When I think the exposure is complete, I am finished with the story.” The metaphor is spatial, and yet fiction remains an art of sequence—one word following another—with the sense or need of an ending hardwired into the language itself. Hawkes’s dictum may set a limit, but all that group were in pursuit of some formalist extreme, their work a programmatic attempt to push at the boundaries of the modernism newly institutionalized in the universities in which most of them made their careers.

Gass’s first novel, Omensetter’s Luck (1966), is as elliptically inward as Virginia Woolf at her most difficult—a Woolf who might have begun her career with The Waves. His second, The Tunnel, took him almost thirty years, though many parts of it appeared as short stories along the way. He wrote it, he says, using Schoenberg’s twelve-tone scale as an organizing principle, but while there are twelve sections in its 650 pages it’s almost impossible to hear the differences between them, and no reason at all why its last page is last.

He has also described The Tunnel, though, as a book about the Midwest, and then too as one about fascism—a “fascism of the heart,” of a soul clotted into cruelty. Its narrator and only real character, William Kohler, is a historian who imagines himself as the leader of his own party, the PDP, the Party of Disappointed People. He’s on the verge of finishing a study called Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany, but instead of writing its last pages he has retreated to his basement. There he spends himself on a task that isn’t quite, or isn’t only, a metaphor. He digs away at that eponymous tunnel, burrowing ever more deeply into the gnarls of the self, but also simultaneously trying to carve out an escape route from his own life, his colleagues, his marriage, his memories. His wife mustn’t be allowed to know—and how can he get rid of the dirt? The novel was extravagantly praised and condemned in equal measure; Louis Menand in these pages described it as performing “very large circles around a stasis.” Gass himself has said that he wanted “to give grandeur to a shit,” and yet his phrasing invites its own reply; not grand, but grandiose.

Middle C may be the last large work that any member of Gass’s cohort will produce, a book that stands as The Tunnel’s antidote, and as generous as its author’s best essays. A lot of his fiction involves men in tight places—the snowbound houses of “The Pedersen Kid,” the snug titular “Bed and Breakfast”but these two long novels make that thematic burden especially clear. Kohler works in his basement and Skizzen in the attic, and despite the professor’s fear of the future, the difference between these books lies in the difference between those spaces, in the choice between dankness and air.

Gass may write out of hatred and the world may even warrant it, but The Tunnel is a black hole. Nothing in it offers the tactile pleasure that this novel provides in its account of the long-vanished Rudi, or Mr. Hirk the music teacher, or even the simple sound of a voice. Skizzen would enjoy this life if only he weren’t so afraid of it, and it’s not only the state of the planet that worries him. Whittlebauer’s president has summoned him to a special meeting, and he now believes he’s been tripped up at last, his forgeries discovered. This time he’ll be bounced out for good, his tenure revoked and his home, his mother’s home, lost once more. For what makes it all the more ominous is that Miriam seems finally at peace. Over the years she’s become an expert gardener, starting from a few packets of stolen seeds, and the curtain of green that now surrounds their house has redeemed the lost alps of her childhood.

Gass introduces this little drama with the president early, and then threads it through the novel, returning to it in each of the chapters he sets in Skizzen’s present. So the meeting looms for three hundred pages, becoming ever closer with each version of his sentence:

Many have wondered whether man would survive the catastrophes to come; one alone worried that some just might.

Which means that Middle C is driven by plot, by a largely comic chain of cause and consequence; one reads in the expectation that something will happen, and that expectation is rewarded. But the novel has another source of narrative tension as well. It has Joey’s sentence, and his battle to perfect it is both an aspect of that plot and a parable of writing itself. Will the right words come—and come in time? So maybe Hawkes was on to something. Novels aren’t only sentences but they are sentences too, and all the necessary things that Hawkes defined as the enemy wouldn’t exist without them.

The performative zest with which Skizzen makes his inventory of inhumanity belongs more to the author than it does to the professor himself; Kohler was a more plausible stand-in. It doesn’t matter, and the sentence’s final version emerges from the obsessions of both the character and his creator alike. It grows from Skizzen’s realization that his interest in “the perpetual variation of a single idea” can be expressed according to a twelve-tone scale. The same few notes, all evenly spaced, and with no single note reappearing until all have been used:

First Skizzen felt mankind must perish, then he feared it might survive.

Twelve words, with a break midway; twelve different words. The analogy can’t be perfect, but he thinks of it as a sentence that might even be good enough for Schoenberg, a man immune to “the middle-C mind.” Yet that immunity is a failure in itself, an inability to imagine “the bland, the ordinary, the neutral.” Joey Skizzen isn’t ordinary, but after those early years of displacement he believes that safety lies in not being noticed, in the colorless life he hopes he’ll be allowed to keep. Gass does him justice; grants him that balance of tone and scale. The man writes a good sentence and then, knowing that he’s finally gotten it right, goes off to face judgment.