At 88, Gass is still a magician of the word, the writer of a prose so rich that it makes Vladimir Nabokov’s seem impoverished. I exaggerate, but only to underscore how intense, how original, how witty Gass’s use of language can be: “Panic followed him like a jackal waiting for a show of weakness.” A radio commentator has “a voice melting over its vowels like dark chocolate.” Flaubert once dreamed of writing a novel about nothing, one where the style alone would create excitement and pleasure. Gass actually does this in “Middle C.”
Not that he has totally eschewed a story line. The book’s protagonist, Joseph Skizzen, is the son of an Austrian couple who, in the 1930s, pretend to be Jews so they can escape to a new life in England. Once in London, the Skizzens try to blend in as Cockneys, the father now dressing and talking like a race-track tout, until one day he just disappears. His wife, Miriam, then makes her way to America with her two children, where they settle in Woodbine, Ohio. The daughter, Deborah, goes entirely native, becoming a baton-twirling majorette, later marrying a high school sweetheart who almost got into Yale.
But Miriam, who only in old age discovers some happiness in gardening, and her son don’t quite fit in. From an early age Joseph is reserved, guarded, the kid who always sits in the back of the classroom. In German his last name means “sketches,” and Joseph presents only the outlines of a self to the world: “He didn’t dress up his thoughts like toffs or tarts and parade them about on the avenues.”
Whether he helps out in a music store, attends a Christian community college, works in a library or lands a job as a teacher, Joseph lives a hidden life. He has no friends, no lovers, few possessions. His driver’s license is forged, his college credentials “slightly squinked”; he never acquires a credit card or pays taxes; he makes up a past in which his father played second violin for the Vienna Philharmonic. While growing up, the young man does interact with a series of colorful, slightly insane people, mainly women with lives as stunted as his own. By middle age, though, he has become a professor of music at Whittlebauer College, an institution where “academic standards were so relaxed as to seem asleep.” He specializes in Schoenberg — whose music he doesn’t like.
As you can tell: thrills a minute.
Actually, that’s exactly right, but those thrills mainly derive from Gass’s diction. As he once said, folks who go to books for lifelike characters or plots “are really not interested in literature. They are interested in folks.” As in his many essays, in his fiction Gass always makes his writing the center-ring attraction. Metaphors leap through hoops, similes elicit oohs and ahs, and daredevil paragraphs bring down the house. There’s never any fat or slack to his sentences, though sometimes they unfold quietly, almost slyly, until blossoming into little stories all their own: Annoyed at how people always “excuse” God, Gass here writes, “A tornado might trash a trailer park and the poor wretches who survived would thank him for sparing them, as well as preserving a children’s plate and one photo of the family grinning at the Falls as if they’d pushed the water over by themselves.”
The artist’s task, said Joseph Conrad, is to make you see. This, too, Gass can manage with arresting simplicity: Describing a 19th-century finishing school, he writes: “On warm days girls, aspiring to be ladies, in flowing white garments, could be seen dotting the lawns with sketch pads and easels.” There’s nothing linguistically fancy here, but the scene flashes before your eyes, as if it were a turn-of-the-century watercolor.
Gass can also be quite funny, although his humor often skirts pathos. Miriam kvetches gloriously, the Whittlebauer faculty thoughtfully, splendidly pontificates. Joseph’s old piano teacher Mr. Hirk lost most of his pupils to “the popularity of the guitar, which could apparently be played by sociopaths without any further training, its magnified twings and twangs emerging from an electrical outlet as if the little holes spoke for appliances of all kinds and for unoiled engines everywhere.” Gass is just as good at scorn: Pop stars “knew what their listeners wanted — what they themselves loved and served — substitute feeling and the pointless energies of borrowed life.”
To young Joey Skizzen “no surprise was nice”, and he eventually contrives to live an exceptionally bland life. He is, in effect, a resolute Epicurean, following the celebrated dictum: Live unknown. Don’t try to stand out because this will draw the gods’ attention. Keep one’s pleasures modest, one’s passions tamped down, one’s appetites under control. Early in the novel there is a throwaway reference to the Laodiceans, who, St. Paul tells us, were lukewarm in their religious convictions, “neither hot nor cold.” “Nobody,” Joseph says, “has worked harder to get nowhere than I have.”
Is a life of quiet retreat the most we can hope for in this cruel and capricious world? For years Joseph has been refining a single sentence — the novel offers dozens of variants — that initially reads: “The fear that the human race might not survive has been replaced by the fear that it will endure.” In the attic of his house, Professor Skizzen has, moreover, created the Inhumanity Museum. This consists largely of photographs and newspaper clippings about torture and massacres throughout history, about every form of human vileness and cruelty. Gass lavishes pages on the needless deaths of composer Anton von Webern and writer Bruno Schulz, both non-combatants, both stupidly, absurdly shot by trigger-happy soldiers.
William Frederick Kohler, the protagonist of Gass’s previous novel “The Tunnel,” reacted to insult and injury by becoming insulting and injurious, a bigot and Nazi-sympathizer. In contrast, Joseph Skizzen uses every ruse available to remain “a person pure, clean, undefiled, unspoiled by the terrible history of the earth.” As a result, he can proclaim that he is “untarnished as a tea service!” He has no complicity in human affairs, “affairs that are always and inevitably . . . envious, mean, murderous, jealous, greedy, treacherous, miserly, self-serving, vengeful, pitiless, stupid, and otherwise pointless.”
Yet to achieve this supposedly blissful state of middle C, of desperate mediocrity, Joseph has adopted a life of self-repression, fakery and deception. In this regard, “Middle C” takes its place in that great line of modern novels about inauthenticity, from Andre Gide’s “The Counterfeiters” and Thomas Mann’s “Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man” to William Gaddis’s “The Recognitions” and the works of Philip K. Dick. However, there is nothing sham to William Gass’s art: It’s not just dazzling, it’s the real thing.
Dirda reviews books for The Post every Thursday.