William H. Gass

by David Peak

The Wizard of the Sentence Talks Dirty Words and the Pleasure of a Good Point
There isn’t much I can say about William H. Gass without coming off like a hyperbolic weirdo. As a prose stylist—and at the age of 88—he’s officially reached wizard status. It’s likely that his sentences are the most impressive currently being crafted, at least in the English language. His short stories, novellas, novels, essays and articles are often filthy and filled with pricks and shit and righteous indignation; other times they’re as mellifluous as Mahler; and still other times, they seek to brilliantly reflect the complex, associative qualities of memory.

I first read Gass when a friend gave me a copy of his 1995 masterpiece The Tunnel as a gift. I brought it with me on, of all places, a cruise ship—the Regal Empress—the world’s grandest piece of buoyant shit (two months later they sank/flushed it off the coast of Nassau, to stain the bottom of the Atlantic). The Regal Empress’s lower decks were fogged in the stench of piss. The nightly entertainment came from a red-faced Polish guy in a knit Rasta cap, who’d demo his keyboard through carnival-esque renditions of “Red Red Wine” and “In the Air Tonight.” There was a nickel-slot casino that felt like a county jail and the lukewarm hot tubs were crawling with strider-bug thatches of pubic hair. It was the perfect place to dig deep into a 700-page book about a battered and embittered professor histrionically ranting about hatred and the utter vacuity of language. I survived my time on the Regal Empress largely because I let myself get lost in Gass’s text.

I was recently fortunate enough to spend some time on the phone with the wizard himself. We talked about the mechanics of writing, the power of dirty words, the trauma of history and country—and how all of it relates to his newest book, Middle C.

You have been working on Middle C for close to two decades now. Previously, you worked on The Tunnel for thirty years. How does it feel to see another massive project come together? Well…relief. You have to constantly return to the self that began the book, and recover that, so you can write. Over a long period of time, you have that problem — of keeping up with your changes. And so, I always find it’s very pleasant to bury the text once it’s out there. It’s no longer a part of your working life and to hell with it.

What can you tell us about the new book? It’s just another novel. I mean, you can’t really specify these books of mine as being about anything much. But I suppose it’s about self-identity, the difficulties of being one person and finally accepting, or not, moral responsibilities for actions undertaken for others.

Middle C is a note that generally marks the middle range of an instrument. Is that a concept that’s important to the text? Yes. Middle C is a book about mediocrity, you could also say.

I’ve been told that serial music—or serialism—figures heavily into the text. Have you been listening to a lot of Schoenberg and Bartok? I’m always listening to a lot of their work. Schoenberg is particularly useful to the novel though because Schoenberg, and a number of the other composers mentioned in it, are people who started out with one set of beliefs — say, they’re Jewish, and then in order to avoid trouble, become Protestants or Catholics. And Schoenberg went through a cycle of that and then came back for a while to be a Jew again. This kind of process is interesting to me and is one of the threads of the book.

Do you consider the sentence itself a form of music? It’s not musical itself, in the old sense, but it has relationships of parts that use, or are like, musical relationships. The narrator is consumed with trying to manipulate a sentence, it’s obsessive to him, to get that sentence right. And finally he does so by arranging it in 12 syllables.

Could you attempt to explain what efforts you put forth to create some of your longer sentences? For instance, do you write them chronologically? Or do you constantly go back and revise, revise, revise? You start out writing a sentence. And then you think this sentence, “I put on my morning shoes” or something like that. You decided it shouldn’t be your “morning” shoes, it should be your “afternoon” shoes. That’s much more intriguing. So you put that in. And then you decide the next day, no, your piece is entirely about slippers and it goes that way until, for no state-able good reasons, you say that’s it.

Part of what you mentioned when we first started talking is that you’re trying to recapture that person who wrote those earlier passages. So let’s say you write a sentence and that sentence eventually becomes part of a paragraph. In order to move onto the next paragraph, do you go back and reread that first paragraph? Oh yes. Reread it and wait for it to tell you what comes next. And if it doesn’t, then it isn’t written properly. So you go back to those original sentences and try to fix them up so you know what the next sentences will be like.

How important is sound in this process? Very. Essential. Sound relationships are the chief aesthetic set of relationships in language. In language you have, of course, relationships like syntax and semantics and so forth, relationships of words to the world, but when you’re doing these sentences for aesthetic purposes, you have to also include how they sound while they’re doing that.

Is this a process that has been evolving throughout your career? I don’t think I started out with the sense that it was that important. I spent many years trying to get something published and not succeeding. So, during that time, I began to learn about what I myself might decide was a good sentence. The auditory elements were so powerful. Spatial ones are there, too. It’s all very complicated.

While I was preparing for this interview, I went back and reread On Being Blue in which you write that there are “a number of difficulties with using dirty words.” Your characters are often fond of using dirty words, of discussing the body—pissing, shitting, fucking. Since the publication of On Being Blue, has the language of  “dirty words” changed? Where they appear has changed. After all, there was no sound of trumpets today when the New Yorker said “shit.” All of those things were once banned from serious writing. Even today there’s very little appearance of “fuck” or something in poetry. There are some — but not much. Usually that means that the whole literary scenery is being held down. A lot of words — not just dirty ones so to speak, but lower class ones and things of this sort — are being denied the writer for no good reason. I don’t write “sexy” stuff. The words, however, I’m very fond of most of them. They’re very powerful when put in the right place.

And how aware of your own physicality are you during the writing process? Very much. More than my brain.

Do you think people are ever going to be bored with sex? I think they’re bored already, yes. I mean, repetitive, clichés, “caress me with another cliché, friend.”

The narrator of Middle C, Joseph Skizzen, opens something called the “Inhumanity Museum.” What is that? He is somebody who is collecting an indictment against mankind by gathering evidence of its evil propensities. He gets great pleasure out of proving his point, which is that it would be better if human beings did not exist. That’s the extreme. Unfortunately, they probably will continue to exist, is the other part of that sentence that obsesses him.

Is that something that’s influenced by Schopenhauer? There are whole lists. When I was a kid in high school I read people like Schopenhauer and was much moved. As time goes on you shed some of those enthusiasms but the inclination is still there. What can anyone do in a world as awful as this one without calling attention to that fact? And of course, that is so obvious, in a way…

In The Tunnel, your narrator William Kohler explores his own identity by writing an introduction to his text on Hitler’s Germany. Middle C also explores identity and begins in Austria in the late 1930s. What is it about this period of history that continues to draw you in? It’s the best period — the worst period, I should say — it’s one of the worst periods in the life that I’ve gone through. There’s been one war, take a breath. Have another war, take a breath. And another war. It just goes on like this. Now, of course, we’re gathering to our breast all the guns we can find. It’s just hilarious if it weren’t so awful.

Do you believe in the concept of a National Identity? No. I think people who live together and who, over a time, educate their children in certain ways and are in a similar environment are going to, let’s say, all speak the same language. This is a natural event. But it doesn’t mean that somewhere deep inside the germs of the individual — German or anything else — if you take those elements away and put them in another country, what you will be doing is transferring the traits that have genetic character to another place, but nothing else. Not ordinary customs.

How does that figure into modern-day America? Well, we’re still fighting the Civil War. We’re still trying to decide who’s going to run the shop. There are groups who think that, you know, they are the superior sorts. It’s the same old, same old.

Do you think that’s something that’s ever going to be resolved? My character doesn’t think it’s ever going to be resolved but I hope for some improvement. Well, I don’t really. I’ll just write another line and sigh or something.