Artful Dodger

Deborah Voigt as Cassandra in Berlioz’s Les Troyens, Metropolitan Opera, New York, 2012.
Deborah Voigt as Cassandra in Berlioz’s Les Troyens, Metropolitan Opera, New York, 2012.

What would “late style,” that unholy, messy, and probably overutilized critical category, mean for a writer like William Gass? To turn the sentence around, if William Gass were said to possess a late style—a moment not of well-earned serenity and reconciliation but of what Edward Said characterized as “intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction”—what would it look like for a writer who was notoriously intransigent and defiantly difficult even in his early work?

In Gass’s new novel, Middle C, his first since The Tunnel (1995), there is no apparent falling away from (or in Said’s phrase a “going against”) the author’s signature hyperliterary gamboling. Not as long as its infamously unending predecessor, Middle C is nonetheless the fruit as well of decades spent tinkering with a bulky and ambitious text. The formidability of language and the drive for narrative complexity, which have long put Gass squarely in the neither-nor camp where high-modernist experimentation overlaps with postmodern gamesmanship, are both on ample display, as is the demanding erudition that the author injects in all his work, whether fiction or criticism. In tone, in its black humor and formal self-consciousness, Middle C is, well, classic Gass, and as such the novel’s arrival is a signal event. If it evinces an example of late style, it is perhaps less in tune with Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis than with Berlioz’s Les Troyens, the five-hour-long opera that is staged with about the same blue-moon frequency that Gass delivers his novels—and, as it happens, a work that helps initiate his protagonist, a professor of music at a rinky-dink Ohio college, in faking his way through aesthetic judgment to seem vastly more knowledgeable than he actually is. Acquiring a hound’s nose for what counts as “superior taste,” the young man recognizes “very early the importance of snobbery as a support for principles. Snobs never sold out their class.”

Still, there is no doubt that the eighty-eight-year-old Gass is cognizant of his own lateness in the pages of Middle C. In that paragon of belatedness Doctor Faustus, the American-German music instructor Wendell Kretschmar, who parrots Adorno’s views on late Beethoven in a sputtering style that would be the envy of Gass’s own Austrian-American professor, says that one quality of late works is that they are often considered mysteriously unfinished. Middle C takes this quite literally, concluding after 396 pages of involuted, start-and-stop narrative with a line of fifty-odd ellipses inside brackets. The protagonist of Middle C—I’ve held off naming him because what structures Gass’s novel, among other things, is the progressive disintegration of a single character into three haphazardly orchestrated figures, each maestros of sorts at self-invention—too is drawn like the proverbial moth to endings rather than beginnings, to Schönberg and Webern and Berg, to the Concerto for Orchestra that Bartók revised while dying. He’s attracted to difficult, discordant work because of academic opportunism, but that doesn’t lessen the sense that this is a novel mesmerized by a sense of an ending. And like Said’s many avatars, Gass’s Professor Joseph Skizzen is profoundly stamped with the experience of exile, a feeling of homelessness that haunts (if that word is appropriate for the black comedy of Middle C) every page of the book.

Professor Skizzen’s exile is of a form that is comical from the start. His family has uprooted itself from Austria just before World War II as his father, Rudi, a fiddler from Graz, renames himself Yankel Fixel, a pretend Jew who redubs his wife, Nita, as Miriam; Joseph, or Joey, will be born on London soil. There the Skizzens/Fixels have furtively reinvented themselves as Jewish refugees. “To desire an Austrian nationality,” Rudi argues, “is to accept the acts of assassins, tacitly to agree to—my God—mayhem and massacre. Now that you are no longer Nita, you are free of such disgusting contemplations. Don’t let their sort be lichen on some forest rocks, unseen and unremarked, or taken for granted like the persistent damp of Vienna’s stones, its postered kiosks, its gray streets. To the pure, to the stateless, my Nita, anything is possible.” Middle C is a novel written as an answer to Rudi’s imagined state of innocence and possibility.

As quickly as Rudi becomes Yankel, he just as rapidly transforms himself into Raymond Scofield, replacing his “collection of Jewish jokes with quotations from music-hall songs and Gilbert and Sullivan.” And just as quickly, he is dispatched from the novel, abandoning his family after buying a phony passport and fake papers presumably to start again somewhere in Canada. Yet as much as the opening story of the absent father, and his example-setting exit strategy of deception, represents a bit of a narrative head fake, like a high-concept joke abandoned right before the punch line, his presence sets the table for all the themes that Gass will exhaustively serve up.

We are whisked from the London of the Blitz to Gassland, the lonely hamlets of opaque middle Ohio where the novelist spent his own formative years and where he has returned again and again in his fiction since his debut stories of the 1960s. In this bleak midwestern landscape, what remains of the Skizzen unit finds itself plunked down after the war, with Joey playing the peculiarly convoluted role of innocent abroad—a role that is all the more absurd in Middle C. He is a stranger in a strangely familiar strange land, a raft of sleepy towns that carry the whiffs of Mitteleuropa immigrants in their German place names: There is depressing little Urichstown (or Urichsberg, as Joey mistakenly calls it), where the plucky antihero works after college in a library that takes an inordinate pride in book repair and where his predecessors may have been witches; there is his community-college alma mater, Augsburg, and his current employer, the institute of higher learning called Whittlebauer; there are local authority figures like the humorless rector Dr. Gunter Luthardt. Are we in Austria or America? Gass has as much fun in playing up his novel’s geographical confusion as he does with inventing baroque names for his characters. But above all, this stretch on the map is a mediocre backdrop where very little seems to happen. “Catholics had not prospered here. The county and its seat was filled with Amish, odd Protestants, slow roads, bad organs, and poorer organists.”

The latter facts—bad organs and poorer organists—make this an ideal setting for Joey to perfect his paternal inheritance of dissimulation, and a place where he can begin his lifelong course of “dodging disaster.” The running joke of Middle C is that Professor Skizzen, the erstwhile aesthete and reigning Kultur guru of Whittlebauer, with a CV boasting of a Viennese background and an accent as echt Austrian as a plate of Sacher torte, is in fact little more than an all-thumbs plodder at the keyboard whose understanding of musical theory is a strudel of contrivance and cliché. It is easy for naïf Joey to morph into wizened Professor Skizzen, with the piano and organ offering him his ticket to an Austrian past he only indirectly had. “Joey would find that, in America, at least, if you turned out a tune when you played the piano, then you played the piano; the skill was given you as easily as a second cup; appearances were better than reality; and the sight of someone slightly inept was immensely reassuring to those woefully without ability.”

• • •

To the bland students of Whittlebauer, the mediocre faculty and deans of the college, and the odd townies, Professor Skizzen is a man devoted to contemporary music theory. Skizzen in reality has only one true obsession: the museum-in-progress he is constantly tending on the third floor of his house, a motley private collection devoted to atrocity. He calls it the Inhumanity Museum, and it comes as no surprise that he is running out of room for its holdings. On its walls are the daily clippings of horror, of war crimes and misanthropy, every bit and scrap of hatred he can flypaper to the walls. It is a rogues’ gallery of photojournalism mixed with high culture, where Manet’s Execution of Maximilian sits beside a news item on the market in child slaves in Benin; accounts of ethnic cleansing and genocide share space with Xeroxes of Bosches and stills from snuff films. As much as Professor Skizzen is a connoisseur of fakery in his daily routine, in his nighttime role as keeper of the Inhumanity Museum, he traffics in the most gruesomely real human disasters, a “hobby” and a collection that have no true boundaries, much as he tries to impose them. In fact, you might consider him something of a bad curator. “Only his madness progressed, along with the museum that was its most persuasive evidence,” Gass writes. “It was an advancement that came through accumulation not selection, repetition not interconnection or—he feared—any deeper understanding.”

Unlike the hateful Professor Kohler of The Tunnel and his diversion of designing uniforms for his fascistic Party of the Disappointed People, Skizzen’s obsessive pursuit is terrifically outsized in the guilt department when compared with the relatively minor infractions of his life. Kohler is culpable in all manner of crimes and misdemeanors, not to mention his bottomless loathing; if anything, Skizzen’s crimes seem petty by contrast (he’s more Felix Krull than Adrian Leverkühn). The various transgressions that over the course of Middle C transform Joey into Professor Skizzen—which range from a forged driver’s license to the possible theft of LPs at the record store where he once worked to the progressive elaboration of his family history and musicological background—are overburdened by the monumental aspirations of the Inhumanity Museum. At times in Middle C it feels as if Gass has jammed together three or four different novels, no more so than in his enthusiastic descriptions of the contents of the private museum, which feels somehow more an illustration of the general badness of the world than an imaginatively integrated window onto the character of Professor Skizzen. There’s certainly nothing like “deeper understanding” of just what the Inhumanity Museum means for the character.

But there is, in the museum’s implied acquisitions strategy, a key as to how Middle C itself unfolds. Few recent novels I know of that consider the old, classic theme of how we become who and what we are seem so joyfully hostile to the idea of traditional narrative development as this one. This is a book that doesn’t so much develop as accrete. When Middle C works most effectively as a novel, the reading experience is exhilarating. The effect is like listening to an uncared-for LP—here the needle gets stuck in the scratches, repeating a snippet over and over, there it suddenly glides forward over the dusty surface. I wish I could summon an image that doesn’t immediately come off as negative (or make Middle C sound like a broken record), for Gass’s strategies in constructing his novel are at times as brilliant as they are taxing. “Life, he had learned, was mostly made of themes and their variations,” Gass writes of his great fabricator, a lesson that Skizzen takes to heart and that Gass makes central to the architecture of his book.

Indeed, Skizzen’s other pastime, linked to his Inhumanity Museum, is his devotion to a sentence that he has been obsessively rewriting for decades—ever since it popped into his head one day like an overheard melody. Middle C might just as well have been titled Search for the Sentence: The professor’s syntactic earworm first appears in the novel in the form “The fear that the human race might not survive has been replaced by the fear that it will endure.” Successively, over the span of the book, Skizzen takes stab after stab at rewriting this statement (on first jotting the nineteen words down on paper, he catches himself “looking at the sentence as if he were seeing his face in his shaving glass”). He beavers away: breaking the sentence into its constitutive parts, parsing the weight of its nouns and verbs, quarreling with himself over the semantics of survival and the appropriateness of fear. Like a deranged copy editor, Skizzen rejects version after version, and his sentence becomes progressively elaborated, then stripped down, then bulked up again, a variation on a variation. In one of its most fulsome iterations, Skizzen writes:

Once upon a time there was a professor of music whose best instrument was hypocrisy, and who pretended to be concerned about the fate of the human race, when, in fact, he hoped it would vanish from the face of the earth the way a fog dense enough to obscure the landscape slowly diminishes, rising like steam from a damp land, so that the earth could smile again as it must have once, in the days of simple cells, titanic trees, or even reptiles with necks grown long in order to reach the leaves.

Skizzen’s return again and again to the “same” sentence that thoroughly defeats all his efforts at rewriting reminds the reader of another, secondary meaning of the word fake: a type of sheet music that provides the simplified chord sequences of tunes. In Middle C we get all manner of chord transposition, vast riffs on the mundane affairs in the life of Skizzen that somehow seem to replay themselves over and over, in slightly different form each time, and finally a character who offers a reworked version of his father’s own quixotic attempt to keep his hands clean of the evil he can smell all around him in festering Austria. Elaboration without triumph, finality without completion: In the end, we’re back at the beginning. It’s not a novel departure, but in Gass’s Trojan horse of a book, it is an always adventuresome trip.

Eric Banks is the former editor in chief of Bookforum and the president of the National Book Critics Circle.