“I Write Because I Hate”: William Gass - Souls

Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays - Cynthia Ozick 2016

“I Write Because I Hate”: William Gass

Of all living literary figures, William Gass may count as the most daringly scathing and the most assertively fecund: in language, in ideas, in intricacy of form (essays zigzagging thought); above all in relentless fury. “I write because I hate,” he declaimed in a 1977 Paris Review interview. And to a French journalist, decades on: “I wish to indict mankind.” A Swiftian project: Gass’s plenitude of evils swarms named and naked in Middle C, a novel prodigal in deceits and impostures. From its opening notes until its coda, this unquiet Bildungsroman is designed to detonate its mild and middling title. Even more telling, the crooked limbs of its deceptions pass, as if heritable, from father to son.

The father is Rudi Skizzen, an Austrian born in Graz, a changeable man who can play a merry fiddle. Conscious of the spreading stain in his native country even before the Anschluss and Vienna’s jubilant welcome to Hitler, he departs with his family for England, not as a dissenting Austrian but as a fleeing Jew. In London he is reinvented as Yankel Fixel, an Opfer, a victim (“Jew” reduced to foggy metaphor), and compels his unwilling wife and children to take on what he imagines to be Jewish custom, costume, and uneasy repute. It is a brief and clumsy phase, made harsher by the depredations of the Blitz, and cut short by a phantasmagorical row of black-hatted accusers, baleful Elders of Zion who “denounce” the false Jew. Better to morph into a spotless Englishman, so Rudi’s next impersonation is as Raymond Scofield, a janitor who wins big at the track, abandons his family, and vanishes out of the narrative. Motiveless and unexplained.

He leaves behind for young Joey, his London-born son, a malignant legacy: Joey will become, like his father, a liar. The lie is integral to his very name, Skizzen, the plural of the German for “sketch”—quick improvisation, the liar’s tool. (Listen also for the echo of schism, schizoid, even scissors, the split into doubleness and duplicity. Gass’s nomenclature delves deeper than any Dickensian whimsy.) Nor did the lie leave Joey and his mother and sister when the lying paterfamilias left. Still pretending to be pitiable Jewish refugees, they hoodwink a bureaucratic path to America, and come to rest in Ohio, where they can throw off their reluctant disguise and grow, if they wish, into middle Americans. Joey’s sister succeeds in her quest for the ordinary, while his mother, remembering the flowery fields of her home village, sets out to dig a humble garden, tossing unwanted worms into a coffee can.

But Joey harbors the ghost of his father’s fiddle, and is drawn inescapably to a battered old upright found in the street, and to Mr. Hirk, a music teacher with crippled hands who tutors him in scales and the mastery of “Indian Love Call.” In time he ascends beyond Mr. Hirk, from the simple to the sublime, leaping the rungs from Beethoven to the pinnacle of Schönberg. He takes a job in a record store, where he is permitted the use of the piano, and where, though innocent, he is charged with theft, and learns what it is to feel helpless before injustice; yet he steals packets of seeds for his mother. He begins to read thirstily, inexorably. He attends a Lutheran college devoted to narrow piety (which doesn’t prevent a French teacher’s attempt to seduce him), and is excoriated for sectarian disloyalty; he has been playing the organ in a Catholic church. Though he has come into the country illicitly and has no Social Security identification, he finds work and a kind of friendship in a public library, where his own amateur forgery of a driver’s license is perfected by a skilled preservationist.

In all these plot-rich incidents, and in scores more, Gass appears to be a straightforward sympathetic psychological storyteller, despite a hovering nimbus of things awry; of flaw and fraud. But soon enough a wilderness intrudes: the tender and aspiring young Joey, immersed in books and music, living with his mother after his sister has gone off to marry a potato farmer, is revealed to be an obsessive, a secret prevaricator who will always be living with his mother. In middle-C Ohio he is a diabolus in musica, a discordant and anomalous note. What seizes Joseph Skizzen (who will become Professor Skizzen, Whittlebauer College’s published and respected professor of music), what claws at his brain, are the pullulations of all the world’s evils. Indefatigably, he collects newspaper clippings of global catastrophes, from tribal animosities to sex crimes and genital deformations, from HIV and Holocaust atrocities and the burning of the Library of Alexandria to mudslides and tornadoes and capsized ferries. Taint and trauma and torment. His scissors is his rake, and he heaps up these jumbles of horror in what he calls his Inhumanity Museum. He sees how pain and wickedness fructify, even as his mother’s increasing skills proliferate into the busy contradictions of a garden teeming with blooms and larval infestation. He is like the man in the fairy tale whose sight is so powerful that he must bind his eyes with a blindfold lest he see too unbearably much: every droplet on every leaf, every particle of foam in every sea, every wound in every heart; only Joseph Skizzen’s eyes are unbound, and every drop is shed blood.

Nor is this the whole of his obsession. Growing parallel with his museum of cuttings, Skizzen’s forgeries, and his misgivings, multiply. His academic credentials, his college degree and his doctorate, and his music studies in Vienna are all fakes and inventions. Like his father before him, he seems to be what he is not. And his unrelenting aim is to crush into a single sentence God’s crucial query over the fate of the cities of the plain—ought humanity, so inhumane, to endure? An elusive sentence, which he works over and over again, shaping and reshaping it, until it can fit, just so, and under the sign of Schönberg, into twelve spare words.

Gass’s sentences are, happily, not so succinct, and they are most exhilaratingly ingenious when they venture into unexpected and dizzying keys, diving from vernacular directness into an atonal Niagaran deluge: so many ironies, so many propositions, so many juxtapositions, so many interleaved passages of youth and maturity, so many ripe monologues and mazy musings, so many catalogues and refrains, so many instances of horrific calamity, so many digressions (they all finally stream into Gass’s oceanic scheme). What are we to make of this world-devouring novel, and of the title that is its warning sentry? Ought we to believe Skizzen when he claims that “his lifelong ruse … was the equivalent of Moses’s tablets before they got inscribed: a person pure, clean, undefiled, unspoiled by the terrible history of the earth”? That the leveling of middle-C mediocrity can be an escape from becoming an agent of evil? That middle C offers the quasi-innocence of the bystander?

Or is the concept of the Inhumanity Museum itself defiled, not simply by the filth of its contents, but by its inherent intent? An indiscriminate welter of wrongs and ordeals levels all woe; it lacks the hierarchy of purposefulness. Is there to be no moral calculation applied to the sources of suffering, no asking who ordered it, or why? Is drowning by tsunami equal to suffocation in a gas chamber? Or overgrazing to germ warfare? In Skizzen’s muddled museum, nature and man are equal offenders, unranked evil is everywhere middling, happenstance and massacre stand cheek by jowl in chorus, there can be no worse or worser. Then under the sway of random equivalence, who will presume to indict, and how can one not wonder whether Skizzen’s museum might be Gass’s too?