12 Winters Blog

Accidental Poets: Paul Valéry’s influence on William Gass

Posted in February 2016, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 18, 2016

The following paper was presented at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900, held at the University of Louisville February 18-20. Others papers presented were “The Poet Philosopher and the Young Modernist: Fredrich Nietzshe’s Influence on T.S. Eliot’s Early Poetry” by Elysia C. Balavage, and “Selections from ‘The Poetic Experiments of Shuzo Takiguchi 1927-1937’” by Yuki Tanaka. Other papers on William H. Gass are available at this blog site; search “Gass.”


In William H. Gass’s “Art of Fiction” interview, in 1976, he declared two writers to be his guiding lights—the “two horses” he was now “try[ing] to manage”:  Ranier Maria Rilke and Paul Valéry. He added, “Intellectually, Valéry is still the person I admire most among artists I admire most; but when it comes to the fashioning of my own work now, I am aiming at a Rilkean kind of celebrational object, thing, Dinge” (LeClair 18). That interview for The Paris Review was exactly forty years ago, and viewing Gass’s writing career from the vantage point of 2016, I am here to suggest that, yes, Rilke has been a major influence, but Valéry’s has been far greater than what Gass anticipated; and in fact may have been even greater than Rilke’s in the final analysis. Assessing influence, however, is complicated in this case, I believe, because a large part of Gass’s attraction to Valéry’s work in the first place was due to his finding the Frenchman to be a kindred spirit. Hence it is difficult to say how much of Gass is like Valéry because of Valéry’s influence and how much is because of their inherent like-mindedness.

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A quick survey of Gass’s work since 1976—which includes two novels, a collection of novellas, a collection of novellas and stories, and eight books of nonfiction—may imply that Rilke has been the greater influence, as Gass intended. After all, Gass’s magnum opus, The Tunnel (1995), for which he won the American Book Award, centers on a history professor of German ancestry who specializes in Nazi Germany (Rilke allusions abound); and his other post-1976 novel, Middle C (2013), for which he won the William Dean Howells Medal, centers on a music professor born in Vienna whose special interest is Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg; and, glaringly, there is Gass’s Reading Rilke (1999), his book-length study of the problems associated with translating Rilke into English. However, a more in-depth look at Gass’s work over these past four decades reveals numerous correspondences with Valéry, some of which I will touch upon in this paper. The correspondence that I will pay particular attention to, though, is that between the title character of Valéry’s experimental novella The Evening with Monsieur Teste (1896) and the protagonist of Gass’s Middle C, Joseph Skizzen.

Before I go further, a brief biographical sketch of Paul Valéry: He was born in 1871, and published two notable works in his twenties, the essay “Introduction to the Method of Leonardo da Vinci” and Monsieur Teste; then he stopped publishing altogether for nearly twenty years—emerging from his “great silence” with the long poem “The Young Fate” in 1917 at the age of forty-six. During his “silence,” while he didn’t write for publication, he did write, practically every day, filling his notebooks. Once his silence was over, he was catapulted into the literary limelight, publishing poems, essays, and dramas, becoming perhaps the most celebrated man of letters in France. By the end of his life in 1945 he’d been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature a dozen times.

The title for this paper comes from Gass himself. In his 1972 review of Valéry’s collected works, in the New York Times Book Review, he wrote that Valéry “invariably . . . [pretended] he wasn’t a poet; that he came to poetry by accident” (The World Within the Word 162). By the same token, Gass has insisted in numerous interviews (and he’s given many, many interviews) that he’s not a poet, that the best he can achieve is an amusing limerick. Others, however, have asserted that Gass’s fiction is more akin to poetry than prose, that his novellas and novels are in essence extremely long prose poems; and in spite of his insistence on his not being a poet, he would seem to agree with this view of his work. In a 1998 interview, for instance, Gass said, “I tend to employ a lot of devices associated with poetry. Not only metrical, but also rhyme, alliteration, all kinds of sound patterning” (Abowitz 144). Moreover, about a decade earlier he said that “all the really fine poets now are writing fiction. I would stack up paragraphs of Hawkes, Coover, Elkin, or Gaddis against the better poets writing now. Just from the power of the poetic impulse itself, the ‘poets’ wouldn’t stand a chance” (Saltzman 91). Critics have tended to include Gass in the group of writers whom Gass described as poet-novelists.

For your consideration, from The Tunnel:

A smile, then, like the glassine window in a yellow envelope. I smiled. In that selfsame instant, too, I thought of the brown, redly stenciled paper bag we had the grocer refill with our breakfast oranges during the splendid summer of sex and sleep just past—of sweetly sweating together, I would have dared to describe it then, for we were wonderfully foolish and full of ourselves, and nothing existed but your parted knees, my sighs, the torpid air. It was a bag—that bag—we’d become sentimental about because (its neck still twisted where we held it) you said it was wrinkled and brown as my balls, and resembled an old cocoon, too, out of which we would both emerge as juicy and new as the oranges, like “Monarchs of Melody,” and so on, and I said to you simply, Dance the orange (a quotation from Rilke), and you said, What? There was a pause full of café clatter. (160-61)

And beyond Gass’s poetic prose, he has written actual poems, besides the off-color limericks that populate The Tunnel. In Middle C, for example, there is a longish, single-stanza poem written via the persona of the protagonist, Joseph Skizzen. It begins, “The Catacombs contain so many hollow heads: / thighbones armbones backbones piled like wood, / some bones bleached, some a bit liverish instead: / bones which once confidently stood / on the floor of the world” (337). And, perhaps more significantly, there are the translated poems in Reading Rilke. There was a celebration held at Washington University in St. Louis in honor of Gass’s ninetieth birthday, Passages of Time, and he read from each of his works in chronological order, except he broke chronology to end with his translation of Rilke’s “The Death of the Poet,” which concludes,

Oh, his face embraced this vast expanse,
which seeks him still and woos him yet;
now his last mask squeamishly dying there,
tender and open, has no more resistance,
than a fruit’s flesh spoiling in the air. (187)

It was a dramatic finale, especially since the event was supposed to be in July, near Gass’s birthday, but he was too ill to read then; so it was rescheduled for October, and the author had to arrive via wheelchair, and deliver the reading while seated. Happily, he was able to give another reading, a year later, when his new book, Eyes, came out. (I wasn’t able to attend the Eyes reading, so I’m not sure how he appeared, healthwise, compared to the Wash U. reading.)

My point is that, like Valéry, Gass has downplayed his abilities as a poet, yet his literary record begs to differ. The fact that he broke the chronology of his birthday celebration reading to conclude with a poem—and he had to consider that it may be his final public reading, held on the campus where he’d spent the lion’s share of his academic life—suggests, perhaps, the importance he has placed on his work as a poet, and also, of course, it may have been a final homage to one of his heroes. In spite of Gass’s frailness, his wit was as lively as ever. When he finished reading “The Death of the Poet,” and thus the reading, he received an enthusiastic standing ovation. Once the crowd settled, he said, “Rilke is good.”

Evidence of the earliness of Valéry’s influence or at least recognized kinship is the preface to Gass’s iconic essay collection Fiction and the Figures of Life (1970), which Gass devotes almost entirely to the connection between the collection’s contents and the way that Valéry had assembled his oeuvre. Gass writes, “It is embarrassing to recall that most of Paul Valéry’s prose pieces were replies to requests and invitations. . . . [H]e turned the occasions completely to his account, and made from them some of his profoundest and most beautiful performances” (xi). Gass continues, “The recollection is embarrassing because the reviews and essays gathered here are responses too—ideas ordered up as, in emergency, militias are”; and then he describes his book as a “strange spectacle” in which he tries “to be both philosopher and critic by striving to be neither” (xii). So, Gass recognizes the parallel between the forces at work in Valéry’s literary life and his own. Gass has readily acknowledged the slowness with which his fiction has appeared (notably, it took him some twenty-six years to write The Tunnel), citing two reasons: the slowness with which he writes, and rewrites, and rewrites; but also the fact that he regularly received opportunities to contribute nonfiction pieces to magazines and anthologies, and to give guest lectures, and they tended to pay real money, unlike his fiction, which garnered much praise but little cash over his career.

This parallel between the circumstances of their output is interesting; however, the correspondences between Valéry’s creative process and his primary artistic focus, and Gass’s, is what is truly significant. In his creative work, Valéry was almost exclusively interested in describing the workings of the mind, of consciousness; and developing complex artistic structures to reflect those workings. T. S. Eliot noted Valéry’s dismissiveness of the idea of inspiration as the font of poetic creation. In Eliot’s introduction to Valéry’s collection The Art of Poetry, he writes, “The insistence, in Valéry’s poetics, upon the small part played [by ‘inspiration’ . . .] and upon the subsequent process of deliberate, conscious, arduous labor, is a most wholesome reminder to the young poet” (xii). Eliot goes on to compare Valéry’s technique and the resulting work to that done by artists in other media, most notably music composers: “[Valéry] always maintained that assimilation Poetry to Music which was a Symbolist tenet” (xiv). James R. Lawler echoes Eliot when he writes that Valéry “makes much of the comparison of poetry to the sexual act, the organicity of the tree, the freedom of the dance, and the richness of music—especially that of Wagner” (x).

The wellspring of music composition as a source of structural principles for poetry (or highly poetic prose) is arguably the greatest correspondence between Valéry as artist and Gass as artist. Examples abound, but The Tunnel and Middle C offer the most radiant ones. For the The Tunnel Gass developed a highly synthetic structure based on Arnold Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School’s musical theory of a twelve-tone system. Consequently there are twelve sections or chapters, and in each Gass develops twelve primary themes or images. He said, “[T]hat is how I began working out the way the various themes come in and out. It’s layered that way too. . . .” (Kaposi 135). In The Tunnel, Gass’s methodology is difficult to discern because Gass gave it a “chaotic and wild” look while in fact it is, he said, “as tightly bound as a body in a corset” (134). He achieved the appearance of chaos by “deliberately dishevel[ing]” the narrative with “all kinds of other things like repetitions [and] contradictions.” He said, “[T]he larger structure must mimic human memory, human consciousness. It lies, it forgets and contradicts. It’s fragmentary, it doesn’t explain everything, doesn’t even know everything” (134). For Middle C, the use of the Schoenberg system is much more overt, with Skizzen, its protagonist, being a music professor whose specialty is Schoenberg and Skizzen’s obsession with getting a statement about humans’ unworthiness to survive just right. 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.

Let me return to another Valéry-Gass correspondence which I touched on earlier: their concern with the workings of the mind or, said differently, consciousness. Jackson Mathews, arguably the most herculean of Valéry’s translators into English, begins his introduction to Monsieur Teste with the statement that “Valéry saw everything from the point of view of the intellect. The mind has been said to be his only subject. His preoccupation was the pursuit of consciousness, and no one knew better than he that this pursuit led through man into the world” (vii). Valéry’s interest in the mind was present in his earliest published work, the essay on Leonardo’s method and, even more obviously, Monsieur Teste, that is, “Mr. Head” or “Mr. Brain as Organ of Observation” or something to that effect. However, it was during Valéry’s twenty-year “silence” that he delved into the phenomenon of consciousness most critically. Gass writes, “Valéry began keeping notebooks in earnest, rising at dawn every day like a priest at his observances to record the onset of consciousness, and devoting several hours then to the minutest study of his own mind” (“Paul Valéry” 163). As noted earlier, Gass fashioned The Tunnel, all 800 or so pages of it, to mimic the human mind in its intricate workings. In Middle C, Gass pays much attention to Skizzen’s thought processes, especially his copious writing, revising, critique of, and further revising of his statement about humans’ unworthiness for survival. Such concerns are everywhere in Gass’s work, including his most recently published, the collection of novellas and stories, Eyes. I would point in particular to the novella Charity, a challenging stream-of-consciousness narrative, all a single paragraph, that mercilessly bounces between the main character’s childhood and his present, and, chaotically, various times in between, all the while sorting through his feelings about the act of charity and how he came to feel about it as he does in the now of the story.

In the limited time remaining, I’ll turn to the correspondence between Valéry’s character Monsieur Teste and Gass’s Joseph Skizzen (though I think William Kohler, the narrator of The Tunnel, has significant Teste-esque qualities as well). The convention of The Evening with Monsieur Teste is that the narrator is a friend of Edmond Teste’s, and he goes about attempting to describe his friend’s character. There is very little action per se, and as such almost nothing in the way of plot, in a conventional sense at least (very Gassian in that regard). He tells us that he came to “believe that Monsieur Teste had managed to discover laws of the mind we know nothing of. Certainly he must have devoted years to his research” (11). In Middle C, Joseph Skizzen is obsessed with what he calls his Inhumanity Museum, essentially a record, largely in the form of newspaper clippings and personal notes, of humans’ ceaseless cruelty to one another. The collection is associated with his ongoing struggle to word just so his statement about humans’ unworthiness to survive. Monsieur Teste becomes almost a recluse, desiring little contact with other people. He is married, but the narrator suggests that Monsieur and Madam Teste’s relationship is more platonic than passionate, due to Edmond’s preference for the intellectual over the emotional. Similarly, Skizzen never marries in Middle C, and in fact never has sex—he flees as if terrified at the two attempts to seduce him, both by older women, in the novel. Ultimately he ends up living with his mother in a house on the campus where he teaches music history and theory, his few “pleasures” consisting of listening to Schoenberg, assembling his Inhumanity Museum, and revising his pet statement. What is more, Teste’s friend describe Edmond’s understanding of “the importance of what might be called human plasticity. He had investigated its mechanics and its limits. How deeply he must have reflected on his own malleability!” (11-12). Skizzen’s malleability is central to his persona in Middle C. He goes through several name changes, moving from Austria to England to America, and eventually fabricates a false identity, one which includes that he has an advanced degree in musical composition, when in fact his knowledge of music is wholly self-taught. One of the reasons he gravitates toward Schoenberg as his special interest is because of the composer’s obscurity and therefore the decreased likelihood that another Schoenberg scholar would be able to question Skizzen’s understanding of the Austrian’s theories. But over time Skizzen molds himself into a genuine expert on Schoenberg and a respected teacher at the college—though his fear of being found out as a fraud haunts him throughout the novel.

To utter the cliché that I have only scratched the surface of this topic would be a generous overstatement. Perhaps I have eyed the spot where one may strike the first blow. Yet I hope that I have demonstrated the Valéry-Gass scholarly vein to be a rich one, and that an even richer one is the Valéry-Rilke-Gass vein. A couple of years ago I hoped to edit a series of critical studies on Gass, and I put out the call for abstracts far and wide; however, I had to abandon the project as I only received one email of inquiry about the project, and then not even an abstract followed. Nevertheless, I will continue my campaign to bring attention to Gass’s work in hopes that others will follow me up the hill, or, better still, down the tunnel. Meanwhile, if interested, you can find several papers on Gass’s work at my blog.

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.

Eliot, T. S. Introduction. The Art of Poetry. By Paul Valéry. Trans. Denise Folliot. New York: Pantheon, 1958. vii-xxiv. Print.

Gass, William H. Charity. Eyes: Novellas and Short Stories. New York: Knopf, 2015. 77-149.  Print.

—. Preface. Fiction and the Figures of Life. 1970. Boston, MA: Nonpareil, 2000. xi-xiii. Print.

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

—. Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation. 1999. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

—. The Tunnel. 1995. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive, 2007. Print.

—. The World Within the Word. 1978. New York: Basic Books, 2000. Print.

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

Lawler, James R. Introduction. Paul Valéry: An Anthology. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977. vii-xxiii. Print.

LeClair, Thomas. “William Gass: The Art of Fiction LXV.” 1976. Ammon 46-55. [online]

Mathews, Jackson. Introduction. Monsieur Teste. By Valéry. Trans. Jackson Mathews. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1989. vii-ix. Print.

Valéry, Paul. Monsieur Teste. 1896. Trans. Jackson Mathew. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1989. Print.

Notes on images: The photo of Paul Valéry was found at amoeba.com via Google image. The photo of William H. Gass was found at 3ammagazine.com via Google image.

 

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.