William Gass – Middle C


There could hardly be a writer more different from Gert’s mate Karl Ove Knausgaard (see earlier posts) than William Gass, who bounds, saunters and strolls through literary artifice with the panache and chutzpah of a huge imagination and a  brilliant prose style.

And artifice is at the heart of the characters in his latest book Middle C (Vintage Books, 2013). Rudi Skizzen (perhaps the only person to have fled Austria under Hitler pretending to be a Jew), becomes Yankel Fixel and then Raymond Schofield, the non-gambler who takes the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime punt to buy a new passport, another identity, and disappear from his family’s life; his son Joseph, on the strength of a shaky talent, a lot of reading and a calculatedly eccentric persona, becomes perhaps the least-qualified Professor of Music in the history of academia, whose career depends on “the ignorance of others and their natural reluctance to make that condition public knowledge” (301); the ethereal Miss Moss, restorer of battered library books, creates a new Joseph Skizzen in her expert forgery of a driving licence;  Joseph’s mother Nita (Miriam in the Jewish days) unwillingly uprooted from her bucolic existence in Graz finds another version of herself in America as a gardener, her shaky English taking on the weird cadences of seed catalogues and advice about pest-elimination.
The “middle-C mind” is the mind that can sustain mediocrity, the person who understands the bland, the neutral, the ordinary that is “as difficult to strike as oil”,  the person “who disappears because he is so like everybody else as not to count” (303). Gass’s characters can never quite strike middle C.  They are foreigners. They live in attics, in basements, out in the garden, never comfortably installed in living rooms.  They are innocents who know what guilt is. Most of all, perhaps, they are completely outside the narrative of “finding yourself” that powers so much of fiction and popular psychology.
Gert’s heart rejoices in Gass’ insouciance, his huge range and his confident daring.


10 thoughts on “William Gass – Middle C

  1. Gass is not a writer I’d had much inclination to read before, I think it was a review in the London Review of Books that interested me in it. The LRB is a great source for interesting new fiction. I know what you mean about time to read – the Jefferis judging aside. I sometimes feel quite panicky at the thought of all the things I want to read, and I want to read them NOW.

  2. Your post about William Gass reminded me of something Marcel Proust said about literary style. I came upon the quotation in a wonderful essay about translation by Wyatt Mason, (an essay that, incidentally, quotes Nabokov at length). i’ll try and find the link.

    In an interview in 1913, when the first volume of his novel was published, Proust told his

    ‘Style has nothing to do with embellishment, as some people think;
    it’s not even a matter of technique. Like the color sense in some
    painters, it’s a quality of vision, the revelation of the
    particular universe that each of us sees and that no one else sees.
    The pleasure an artist offers us is to convey another universe to

    Style, Mason says, discussing this quotation, turns out to be a matter of ‘bones, not flesh’.

    1. Thanks, Dorothy, this is a really great article. And what Proust says is absolutely right. It made me think of Penelope Fitzgerald, someone I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, as you know. It’s almost impossible to say just what it is she does as a writer, how she gets that utter purity of tone, how she conveys so much about the inner life by a kind of indirection. And it made me think of a subject we’ve talked about before, rules for writing, how-to books, technical advice given to writers. In the end, a unique voice is just that.

  3. I’m glad you liked the article. I thought the account of Nabokov changing from a ‘liberal’ translator of ‘Alice In Wonderland’ into Russian, to a ‘literal’ translator, after he discovered the mess English translators had made of Russian classics, was amusing. I will have to add Penelope Fitzgerald to my TBR pile, which is already too big to contemplate. What you say about conveying the inner life indirectly is very appealing to me! And yes, the how-to books are so often on the wrong track.
    Have you read Proust in French?

  4. I was about to say no to the Proust question when I remembered that we “did” Swann’s Way in French 1 at Melbourne U. I still have it, so you’ve inspired me to read it again. I might make more of it these days.

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