Tuesday, 20 August 2013

As good as Nabokov

     There could hardly be  a writer more different from Karl Ove Knausgaard than William Gass, who bounds, saunters and strolls through literary artifice with the panache and chutzpah of a huge imagination and a boundlessly brilliant prose style. And artifice is at the heart of the characters in his latest book Middle C. Rudi Skizzen (perhaps the only person to have fled Austria under Hitler pretending to be a Jew), becomes Yankel Fixel and then Raymond Schofield, the non-gambler who takes the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime punt to buy a new passport, another identity, and disappear from his family's life; his son Joseph, on the strength of a shaky talent, a lot of reading and a calculatedly eccentric persona, becomes perhaps the least-qualified Professor of Music in the history of academia, whose career depends on "the ignorance of others and their natural reluctance to make that condition public knowledge" (301); the ethereal Miss Moss, restorer of battered library books, creates a new Joseph Skizzen in her expert forgery of a driving licence;  Joseph's mother Nita (Miriam in the Jewish days) unwillingly uprooted from her bucolic existence in Graz finds another version of herself in America as a gardener, her shaky English taking on the weird cadences of seed catalogues and advice about pest-elimination.
      The "middle-C mind" is the mind that can sustain mediocrity, the person who understands the bland, the neutral, the ordinary that is "as difficult to strike as oil",  the person "who disappears because he is so like everybody else as not to count" (303). Gass's characters can never quite strike middle C.  They are foreigners. They live in attics, in basements, out in the garden, never comfortably installed in living rooms.  They are innocents who know what guilt is. Most of all, perhaps, they are completely outside the narrative of "finding yourself" that powers so much of fiction and popular psychology.
      Sodden with the dispiriting realism, the lack of ambition,  of many contemporary novels, Gert's heart rejoices in Gass' insouciance, his huge range and his confident daring.  

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