Review of William H. Gass’s Middle C

A good many of you will, I think, find much joy from reading William H. Gass’s forthcoming (March 12) novel, Middle C. If most of us cannot totally relate to its depiction of a scholar who has faked his way into her/his profession, I am surely not alone in identifying with the proliferation of selves & self-doubts that themselves identify the novel’s protagonist. Where William Kohler in The Tunnel is the diabolical embodiment of the banality of evil, to grab at a blurby cliche, Joseph Skizzen in Middle C is the clumsy bumbling into the evil of banality. What’s the difference, you may wonder? My short reply: where evil as a banal inevitability renders us more or less complicit as we wait for the hammer to fall (think the lull just before the final blast of Mahler’s 6th Symphony and the suspense that endures every subsequent listen), banality as necessary evil discovers the notes that survive the din of life’s repetitions (think the B-flat tonic whirr of the computer breathing into your consciousness like a breathy crank-caller when you’re reading Twitter).

And if that doesn’t sell you on it, there are a number of amazing lectures on the history of modern music that will have you racing to build a Spotify/Pandora soundtrack.

In any event, this is all a prelude to a link to my review, which I think turned out pretty well.

Excerpt from William H. Gass’ “Abstractions Arrive”

The following is an excerpt from William H. Gass’ recently published essay, “Abstractions Arrive,” available here. (Note: presently it is only available for IPad 2 users. I’m told the publishers are working to widen the net eventually.)

The essay as a whole is very good, as is the interactive features with the astonishing artwork of Michael Eastman. I will perhaps have more to say about it later. For now, though, I want to feature this bit about cities. Arguably, it is about as optimistic as Gass ever gets, but is so in a way that gets at something more than wishful thinking or hope. There has long been talk about beauty in ruins & decay — typically with a series of artful forward and backward glances, both in their respective ways aiming to turn the object into a static, crumbled icon, and thus tending too often to neglect the movement this very moment, amidst even the dust and bones, taking place. This, it seems to me, is what Gass has in view.

I appreciate the publisher giving me permission to post this. I hope you like . . .

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More painted plates by Lucy Pimber.

Now folks today we’re going to auction off Missus Pimber’s things. I think you all knew Missus Pimber and you know she had some pretty nice things.

The first two sentences of the book introduce Lucy Pimber. She is scarcely mentioned in what follows. The character gets only a couple of lines. If this were a movie, the actress playing her would not have made the credits. Nevertheless, she is everything to the book. And not just because she is crucial to the story. She is the example of how one can create without waste of words. If not Gass as godly author then at least as a magician summoning up realities with nothing more than an ink-filled wand.

Lucy Pimber is the Higgs particle to B(r)acket Omensetter’s omnipresence. Lucy keeps it together. Read the rest of this entry »

William Gass and the Music of Prose

In response to trying to produce a critique of Omensetter’s Luck as a whole, the biggest challenge has obviously been to narrow down which direction to take. As someone who tends to absorb and/or retain art and literature in terms of affect, I’d like to briefly touch on the part of the work of most interest to me psychologically, or in this case, psycholinguistically.

Before I sway too easily into the grave error we’ve been cautioned against that leads down the road of merely looking for insights into characters and ‘moral lessons,’ I’d like to keep just a moment more in regards to Robert’s thoughts on syntax and conceptual music. I have very much enjoyed (coming from a strong music theory background) seeing terminology one also uses in musical structures (i.e. phrase, period, subject, and later assonance and consonance when dealing in sound devises such as those in Frost, Swinburn or Emerson) being employed here.

A couple of days ago, I read a lovely essay by an Italian student at the University of Bologna entitled Dwelling upon Metaphors: The Translation of William Gass’s Novellas. What caught my eye in this dissertation were his thoughts on Gass’s essay in Finding a Form, “The Music of Prose” specifically. In this portion, he sees this ‘conceptual music’ as a type of second syntax:

 Musical form creates another syntax, which overlaps the grammatical and reinforces that set of directions sometimes, or adds another dimension by suggesting that two words, when they alliterate or rhyme, thereby modify each other, even if they’re not in any normally modifying position. Everything a sentence is is made manifest by its music (Gass, 1996).

This sheds an interesting light toward the question Brad previously posed, “Which has more influence over the other: does the note-level aspect inform the larger-scale musicality, or is it more that the larger-scale musicality making possible the hearing of the note-level aspect at all?” I mentioned briefly that I also had wondered this, and on first instinct was inclined to agree with the latter. Would we have even taken the chance to note the more intimate underpinnings of the text (the sentence Brad noted on p. 145, “Omensetter’s stones did not skip on forever…” being an excellent example) without previously taking in the ‘larger-scale musicality?’ I’m inclined to be doubtful.

In defense of the conclusion being the latter, where the larger-scale musicality makes possible the emergence of the smaller intricacies, what immediately struck me about Gass’s literary style even upon a cursory reading was this: simple diction and syntax. Except it’s not simple, not at all. It is what caused me to read and reread Tott’s indiscriminating rants on his imagined travels as metaphor for his pain time and time again. Of the entirety of the work (and I have mentioned it already in an earlier comment) my favorite is as follows:

 His dreams were not embarrassed by clichés, but in each he always knew the precise feel of the air, what  manner of birds were singing, the position of the sun, the kind of cloud, the form of emotion in himself and others, and every felicity of life (13).

I can’t recall ever reading something quite like it. In the complete chaos that surrounds Tott’s rambling, out comes this complete lack of repetition, a conclusively original thought and absolute clarity of mind. Gass’s sentences are so incredibly thick that they insist on being read time and time again. He has been called an unabashed sensualist, to which I feel there can be little dispute. I find it is the sentences-his use of diction and syntax-that ceaselessly hold blame for his linguistic success. Though they are unarguably essential, I feel it is his combination of words, not necessarily his aping vowels or repeated consonants that really render the work.

At the end of the day, we can already begin maneuvering the ins and outs of either side, and I know a good case can be made for both. However, this process could also clearly result in the dog chasing his tail. If we widen our gaze and apply this question to a broader spectrum of art and literature, could we pose it again and come to the same conclusion? Or is this a quandary best left specifically to this subtly explosive form?

On Some Sentences of William Gass

I.
This is a post about Omensetter’s Luck by William H. Gass. It will take the form of a bunch of scattered observations and hypotheses. But first some introduction of the perspective from which I’ve written what follows in section II, et al, and which I’ve gleaned from nearly constant perusal of Gass’s many books of essays since I discovered them a year or so ago.

After reading the essays, one has to notice at least two things: first, that Gass is radically constructivist about fictional worlds and characters; further, that he is a writer of sentences first – of scenes and stories a distant second.

As a constructivist he compares the author to God, and he relates the history of the development of the novel to the increasingly problematic question of the author’s moral relationship to the world he creates within his words. “Before us is the empty page, the deep o’er which, like God, though modestly, we brood.” The historical move from omniscient narrators, for example, into a preference for radically limited perspectives is a move as if God created a world to run according to lawful processes and then used those laws to excuse himself from responsibility for the tragedies that consequently befell his creatures. “Novels in which the novelist has effaced himself create worlds without gods.”

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A horrifying thought

In days of old, I would’ve shared this post and it would be on display in the sidebar. But, alas, in their infinite wisdom Google has removed this technology option. If any link warrants a post of its own, though, it is a new audio interview with William Gass. So, here you go.

A favorite line:

I used to love teaching philosophy for may reasons. One of them being that I could feel fairly confident that no student listening to me would ever believe what I say. Imagine being believed. It is a horrifying thought.

Oh, and yes, the Omensetter’s Luck reading group WILL take place. I will be contacting all those who expressed interest this week over the holiday, and we’ll get down to business very soon. It’s not been forgotten.

“Household Apples”: A Reading

It’s a scandalous to admit and weird to think that it has only been roughly a year since I first discovered how much I adore the fiction of William H. Gass. A glance through the archives of AUFS will show a solitary, fairly short post written about his first novel, Omensetter’s Luck, which doesn’t nearly do adequate justice to the impact his writing has had on me the past year. Friends will testify to the incessant emails and IMs sent to them whose only content, without benefit or hindrance of context or commentary, is a quote of his, sometimes just a phrase, that for one reason or a million pricked my ear. Gass is famous for doing a lot of “pomo” gestures in his writing, especially with regard to the visual elements of the page–how text is laid out, erratic font changes, etc.–but for me, the visual element is subordinate to the aural. His prose has a musical quality to it that I’m not entirely sure I have the tools adequately to describe.

Tonight I finally got around to finishing his short story collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. At some point, I may get around to writing something about the collection. (Or perhaps if one or two of you are interested, we might set up a format by which we can discuss the stories for all the blogosphere to see.) For now, though, I thought I might share a bit of this aural element as a kind of experiment: to see, that is, if it translates, or if it is “just me.” Upon reading for the first time this passage from the collection’s title essay, in a section labelled, “Household Apples,” I immediately raced to the living room, muted the television, and begged my wife to listen as I read it a second. Still wishing to read it again, a third time, I scrambled for the phone so that I might this time record myself. This is all quite self-indulgent, I know, pretentious even, but so be it. I delight in the fact that the reading below, effectively the fourth of the evening, this time might be for you. [Here's a MP3 if for some reason you'd prefer a download.]

In a state of mitigated exasperation

I don’t want to inundate you with quotes, but my desire will not stop me from doing so. For upon encountering the following two passages from, yes, William Gass’ The Tunnel, I realized his narrator was, in the course of describing a colleague, also describing many a participant in this digitized forum we call the theological blogosphere. Regular readers of our fair blog will get the gist of the jab. I suspect everyone else will not need their hand held either though.

“There may be some truth in what you say, Herschel says, with his customary Cream of Wheat agreement: mildness of a sort which could never cause a bilious blowup, bland as ordinary atmosphere and nearly as impalpable. I call him the hedgehog because he is such a believer in both sides. You have a point, he likes to say, he enjoys saying; there is more than a little merit in that, he declares, as if removing a pipe from his mouth (actually, Herschel never declares, or asserts, or avers–I do that; Governali avows and Planmantee affirms; they do that–Herschel assents, or suggests; he elaborates, or gently opines); yes, well, what you say seems, yes, well, plausible to me, upon my brief entertainment of it anyway, yes, at first glance a nice notion, on the face of it a pleasant guise; but will such an idea survive a long haul over stony ground, you think? the scrutiny of a dental pick? the footsteps of many a traveler across the same ground? and will it survive journalists and cameramen, you know? town meetings? picnics spread out abundantly open?”

“It is impossible—not to say, nettlesome—to carry on a debate with Herschel because he is invariably prepared to grant you your point . . . after he has blunted it. He is quick to applaud your overall attitude (for the most part, of course) (on the whole) (by and large) (in the main). Meanwhile, he has so effectively clouded the countryside that you can never perceive the defining edge of anything, or circumscribe an ordinary outline in order to locate its elbows or touch its tits. Blur, fuzz, smear: that’s what he does—his specialty. It’s not that . . . he hates distinctions, but rather that he makes too many, and lays them down on top of one another repeatedly like an angry scratch-out of lines. On the other hand, you can never come to an accord, either—sing harmony. Not with Good King Qualification, Handsome Prince Perhaps. Not with Mister Maybe. . . . Not with every idea developed as an endless polyhedron. No, you cannot quarrel with Herschel, yet the Hedgehog lets nothing pass. If thoughts wore ties, he’d always feel compelled, in his wifely way, to straighten them. So with Herschel one is habitually in a state of mitigated exasperation.”

Oh that last sentence especially. So delightful. It is tattooed in my brain now.

‘Doom’ vs. ‘Der Schicksal’

I’m still plowing my way very slowly, but  more quickly in recent days, through William Gass’ troubling masterpiece, The Tunnel. I think I’ve managed to write more notes on some pages than there is text, what with the horrific gems on every tenth or so page. I offer this up for your edification, nude of context, in its birthday suit, as it were:

‘Doom’ has become a comic word as well: “Der Führer went recklessly to his doom.” It’s silly–’doom.’ But I write down ‘doom’–I prefer the word ‘doom’ to others–because of its skull-like eye-holes, sockets into which darkness can be screwed like a dead bulb. Sein Schicksal ereilte ihn. Adolf Hitler could go to his doom because he had one. Only those who have made a pact with the devil have a doom. Hitler, Faust, Don Juan, Leverkühn, have dooms. I’m sure none of my students merits such distinction. The devil does not sign contracts with just anyone. Upon the tens of tons of anonymous millions, no judgment is pronounced. For them there is death, of course, but no doom. The trouble with history is its incorrigible and horrifying  honesty. Only the truly damned matter a damn to it. History is the abyss of the doomed. How does that hit you, Henry? Doom. Yes. ‘Doom’ is securely Middle English. ‘Doom’ is not der Schicksal. Der Schicksal cannot hack it. Der Schicksal is a shop where you can buy pork. So I write down ‘doom’–I prefer the word ‘doom’ to its brothers–because it looks like a busker’s malevolent mask; the consonants hook over the ears. And those same ears do not fail to hear the snickers which arise from my class like a rustle of leaves when I complete block-lettering the big pair on the blackboard and turn my unsmiling face to them. Damn you, I think. What do you aspire to? Nothing. Me too. But I want to be made an offer. I want a doom to go to. I aspire to the abyss.” (William Gass, The Tunnel, p. 185).

Pastured!

I’ve been broadcasting this short quote throughout my various social-media manifestations, but I keep returning to it, aghast (in a good way) and aglow (in an even better way) by the use of the word “pastured” in this bit of physical description from William Gass’ novel The Tunnel. I simply had to share it with you, the AUFS reader, as well:

“Work had pastured his face the way weather wears a field. Past burning, beyond tanning, not even any longer leathered, it seemed the sorrowful smoothing out of some angrily wadded paper, his bones like the shadows of bones behind his skin, a gift from the butcher for the dog.”

That is all.

Posted in The Tunnel, William H. Gass. Comments Off
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