In the annals of aesthetic bravado, serial composer Milton Babbitt probably occupies pride of place in our era. In a February 1958 essay in High Fidelity magazine, he wrote an essay upon which an editor slapped the belligerent title “Who Cares If You Listen?” To anyone who’d seriously tried to listen to the total academic rigor of Babbitt’s music (I have manfully refrained from following the word “rigor” with “mortis”), the title’s arrogant contempt seemed to confirm all suspicions.

Nor did the imported title entirely misrepresent what Babbitt actually wrote either. “Serious music.” he contended, had become too complex for a “normally self-educated man without preparation.” So the “serious” or “advanced” composer lived in “a state of isolation” from the broad musical public. What loomed irrevocably for the composer was “total, resolute … withdrawal from this public world to one of private performance.”

Not far from Babbitt’s frostily insular argument that serious music had, perforce, become as abstruse and democratically unapproachable as advanced science or mathematics was William H. Gass’ more merrily hopeless comment toward the end of his 29-year endeavor to write his 656-page novel “The Tunnel.”

“I began ‘The Tunnel’ in 1966,” he said. “I imagine it several years away yet. Who knows, perhaps it will be such a good book no one will want to publish it. I live on that hope.”

No such luck. It was published in 1995 to ignorance and avoidance in all the predictable places and widespread alarm at its self-evident monstrosity among the curious. In it, we follow the life of a modern German history scholar named Frederick Kohler, who was once accused of being soft on Nuremberg defendants in a book on the subject. “Guilt and Innocence In Hitler’s Germany” is the title of the professor’s magnum opus. “Hate has given force and purpose to my life,” says Gass’ Midwestern intellectual who is simultaneously and secretly digging a tunnel in his backyard.

To those who needed help understanding his book, Gass admitted that in composing the book he was, among other things, following the 12-tone compositional system of Arnold Schoenberg (which made Milton Babbitt’s later music possible).

Gass had, in a sense, completely finished off his particular wave of postmodern writers in America – Barth, Barthelme, Coover, Pynchon, John Hawkes etc. “The Tunnel” is often as madly readable as any obscure “loose, baggy monster” could possibly be with such a reader-resistant provenance. It should have concluded a willful novelist’s career in a blaze of paradox whose remnants would be tagged, reassessed and offered up for willful resale in a later, more sympathetic era.

But fate found something else for William H. Gass to do – survive and continue.

He has always been one of the greatest – and most memorably creative – critics of fiction that we have. His volumes of essays – unlike his novels beginning with his first “Omensetter’s Luck” – have been as abundant and inspirational as they are exceptional, every last one of them.

William H. Gass is 88 now. He is postmodern fiction’s oldest authentic patriarch – not its last by a long shot (Pynchon, Barth, Coover and DeLillo still function), but the senior member of his cadre to whom attention must always be paid.

And now, 18 years after the publication of “The Tunnel” comes another novel, a work in praise of flowers in gardens, major triads in music and the authenticity of autodidacts despite the suspicions of academe’s rigors (again, the extra word “mortis” is optional).

At the risk of hopeless inelegance, it is quite the damnedest thing. Even more than “The Tunnel,” it is a concatenation of events – many not worthy of the name – and gloriously drawn characters and sentences of dark, radiant, phosphorescent wit.

Gass spent his professorial life at Washington University at St. Louis (where his colleague was the late Stanley Elkin, leaving their department to claim two of the most exhilaratingly torrential prose styles in America).

Just as “The Tunnel” was about the literally underground life of a professor of German history and scholar under suspicion, “Middle C” is about a music professor whose biography is drenched in pose and fraud even though his autodidact’s authority gives him a passionate authority that radiates in every sentence (and when Gass is wiring up his paragraphs, they are lit from within).

Fraudulence was his patriarchal inheritance. His Austrian father yanked the family away from Hitler’s Europe, put a yarmulke on his head and had them all pretending to be Jewish (Josef became Yankel). And when that got them to Great Britain, he ditched his yarmulke and changed the family name again, this time to Scofield.

When Dad disappeared overnight with the proceeds of a freakish gambling triumph, Joey Skizzen and his mother (who kept her second name “Miriam” but remained 100 percent Austrian at heart) and his sister survived in America by virtue of all the gifts for reinvention and blending in they’d learned evading Nazi horrors.

To his father’s sketchily applied gift for playing the violin, Joey added a genuine gift for music that burst through his initial resistance to reading it. Characteristically, his preternatural gifts for playing whatever he heard on the piano eventually meet up with enough teachers and books to give him a successful professorship at a Midwestern college. The nubility of his older sister made her a thoroughly assimilated American while his mother Miriam eventually wedded her garden.

Joey’s bookish and musical alienation provides Gass with near-400 pages of hallucinated academic comedy.

In all this, Joey Skizzen’s private darkness leads him to cultivate his own private Museum of Inhumanity (whose descriptions bring forth Gass’ most hair-raisingly torrential prose). It also leads him to the constant rewriting of a single ironically misanthropic sentence whose acquaintance we first make on Page 22: “The fear that the human race might not survive has been replaced by the fear that it will endure.” (It is still with us late on Page 352 in a form 12 words long, just to remind us of the 12-tones in Schoenberg’s system of composition.)

There is a cascade of events here. Happenstance teems. Drama is more assumed than real but Gass’ ability to create characters out of words is neo-Dickensian.

And the novel’s voluminous excerpts from Skizzen’s Museum of Inhumanity and his lectures on music are all immensely appealing to all who have consistently followed and loved his essays.

The title comes from the early life insistence of Professor Joseph Skizzen’s most inspirational music teacher, an early piano teacher with hands gnarled into disuse who tells him that “the major third” is “the ground of the garden, it signifies the real right way as Beethoven knew when he wrote the finale of his Fifth Symphony … When Monteverdi wished to say 'joyful is my heart’ he did so in the major third; when Handel refers to life’s sweetest harmonies, he does so in the major third; what is central to the ‘Ode to Joy’ but the major third?”

“If one day, you learn to play,” the old man tells his pupil, “you must play, whatever the key or the intervals are, as if for, as if in, the major third, the notes of praise. Play C. Joey struck a key. There were several C’s but Joey knew which one was meant.”

Middle C.

At the age of 88, William H. Gass knows all about the inhumanity on his keyboard, and the fraudulence. But at his advanced age, he chooses to give us a strange, occasionally wonderful book in praise of the major thirds in life.

And Middle C.


Middle C

By William H. Gass


395 pages, $28.95

Jeff Simon is The News’ Arts and Books Editor.