Award-winning author William Gass gets musical in new novel

Reuters News
Posted: Mar 15, 2013 7:59 PM

By Andrea Burzynski

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Nearly 18 years after his novel "The Tunnel" grabbed critics' attention, 88-year-old writer William Gass is back making literary music with a new work of fiction.

"Middle C," published this week by Knopf, is Gass' first full-length novel since 1995's "The Tunnel," which earned him the American Book Award. As the title suggests, the book incorporates music into both its structure and plot.

"Language is to a writer what notes are to a musician," Gass told Reuters in an interview. "It's a modulation, a refrain."

The book centers on Joseph Skizzen, an Austrian émigré who moves to a small town in Ohio with his mother and sister as World War Two winds down. Introverted and feeling out of place, he spends much of his time playing the piano and becomes a professor at a local college.

Joseph carves out a niche as an expert on composer Arnold Schönberg, the Austrian exile who originated atonal music.

The structure of "Middle C" mirrors Schönberg's musical style. Instead of having the plot build up, crest and ebb, the book flows evenly in a series of anecdotes and recollections of the protagonist's everyday life.

Throughout the book, Joseph is constantly trying to wrangle a certain sentence into what he feels is its best form. The sentence's repetition serves as a harmonizing chorus.

"It expressed the situation as I thought of it," said Gass, who said he wrote many more permutations of the "musical sentence" than actually appear in the book.

As Joseph moves through life, he presents various credentials and personae both to the outside world and in his own mind, many exaggerated or fabricated.

He inherited this inclination from his father, who disguised the Catholic family as Jews in order to escape Austria on the eve of World War Two and start anew in London. Joseph's father eventually leaves the family to reinvent himself yet again.

The process of trying on and sometimes fabricating different elements of identity is common, Gass says, but living in the digital age complicates things. The anonymity of the Internet makes crafting alternate identities easier and more appealing, he says, but also makes it easier to spot dissemblers.

"We can create, are begged to create, new selves all of the time," Gass said. "But it's also easier to catch people."

At 88, the author says he is lucky to have had a good sense of himself early in life that endured into his twilight years.

"I knew what I wanted to be in high school," he said. "It's really a great advantage to not have to wonder, as so many do."

Gass said he has been "like a machine" with his writing process over the last several decades, and has no plans to retire. He says working has become slightly more difficult as he has advanced in age, but that hasn't stopped him.

He is currently working on several nonfiction projects, including a collection of essays on painting, music, and the arts. "Instead of playing golf or collecting stamps, etc. I pursue my work," he said. "It's what I can still do."

(Reporting by Andrea Burzynski; Editing by Jill Serjeant and Todd Eastham)