Middle C is pitch perfect.
‘A literary event — the long awaited novel from William Gass; almost two decades in work, by one of the most revered American writers of our time, author of the universally acclaimed The Tunnel’
If Michael Silverblatt describes The Tunnel as ‘A bleak, black book… Engendering awe and despair’ then Middle C is ‘a spirited and symphonic book, affirming life and individuality’.
It is brilliant. It is beautiful, lyrical, dense and engrossing and for me, sentence-for-sentence is the most eloquent prose, in his novel writing to date.
The protagonist Joseph Skizzen is an immigrant searching for a sense of identity; his family is relocated from London during the war to a small town in Ohio. Joseph’s father abandons the family in London and Joseph becomes a decent amateur piano player, in part to cope with the abandonment of his father and evolves to create, as well, a fantasy self, a professor with a fantasy goal: establish the Inhumanity Museum.
Yes there are similarities here, thematically, to Gass’s earlier novels, the protagonists internal obsession with a physical, structural artefact; with the creation of said artefact. Yes Omensetter’s Luck was located in Ohio and yes there is a protaganist’s preoccupation with history — WWII and the Holocaust — and The Individual’s place within it; individuality and sense-of-self, but Middle C is a greater composition and ensemble story.
Structurally — unlike the quirks, exaggerations or skews in pace and style in either Omensetter’s Luck or The Tunnel — there is an equilibrium at play here; a balance and pitch; a measure and count perfectly sustained. While these earlier stylings resonate with me personally — for I love the weird overly extended inner madness of Jethro Furber[Omensetter’s Luck] and the dark Byzantine inner monologues of William Frederick Kohler[The Tunnel] — Middle C feels the most consistent. The story moves along at a graceful and controlled up-tempo pace and we experience the characters from both our protagonist’s view second person perspective. The dialogue and character interactions attain the same magical quality as hinted at in Omenetter’s Luck (‘What’s Kitt’s cat’s name? Kitt’s cat.’). While the novel, at 396 pages, is shorter than The Tunnel it is certainly more expansive in story, location, character and momentum. There are still moments of discord and darkness but artfully balanced.
As Joseph Skizzen — skizzen in translation means draft or sketch, incidentally — begins to settle in Ohio he encounters several characters from neighbouring towns. These encounters are told in vignettes where their back stories are told in an elliptical fashion. During the course of Joseph’s life he revisits and revises a single sentence pertaining to the existence of the human race — it’s a compelling mirror of Joseph’s evolving self and shifting perspectives over time and allows for some virtuoso sentence craft and word play from the author.
From music shops to libraries; from piano teaching to lecturing, the characters Joseph encounters are all entirely unique and utterly individual. A smorgasbord of peculiarities. The portrayal of his mother; their relationship and their scenes in his mother’s garden are lovely. Joseph’s mother takes not only reprieve and renewal from her garden but romantic transportation back to the old days. And who other than Gass could write such compelling chapter finding parallels between the meditative beauty of gardening and the regimented ferocity of the Third Reich?
Joseph evolves to become a professor of music and in a lecture to his students extols the premise of Bella Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra — he reads directly from the programme, quoting Bartok, as printed for the concerto’s premiere in 1944:
‘The general mood of the work represents, apart from the jesting second movement, a gradual transition from sternness of the first movement and the lugubrious death-song of the third, to the life assertion of the last one’
And it’s possible — outside the novels use of Middle C as metaphor for attaining acceptance via bland conformity — to interpret this as a reflection of William H. Gass’s literary output.
Professor Joseph Skizzen continues to describe the Concerto’s structure as a mingling and clashing of competing kinds of music, the instruments that play them and the totalitarian contexts which the large ensembles necessarily require their musicians to perform. And it is here I feel Gass alludes to the nature of individuality, of an intermingling of nationalities and personalities.
Skizzen describes the piece as break away from the musical ‘tyranny’ (naughty me quoting unccorected proof here) of the diatonic scale.
This uncorrected proof’s blurb reads: ‘Middle C tells the story of the journey and investigation into the nature of human identity and the ways in which each of us is several selves, and whether any one self is more genuine than another’ and it’s in this paradox, this magnificent writing that Gass reaches his perfect pitch.
Beautiful — in both spirit and style. A book I will read many times over. If only he could write these masterpieces quicker…
And the artwork is perfect.
[Is it a coincidence a piano typically contains 88 keys and William Gass is 88]