LOUIS ó William H. Gass may identify with
"younger writers." But at 88, heís firm that
heís written his last novel.
more novels. I canít live forever," he says,
laughing. "Old as I am now, I only plan to write
novellas at best, or short stories."
novel isnít the same as last book, and Gass has
several in the works.
even if heís shut the lid on "Middle C,"
interviewers have been prying, eager to talk to Gass
about his rare production.
talked recently from his home in St. Louisí Parkview
neighborhood, where he lives with his wife, Mary. Gass,
who says poor heart health will prevent future such
excursions, has recently returned from a trip to Austria
and Germany, where his magnum opus is now available in
translation as "Der Tunnel."
years have passed since publication of "The
Tunnel." That book, which had a 26-year gestation,
was only Gassí second novel, even though heís been
publishing books for almost half a century.
his first novel, "Omensetterís Luck," came
out in 1966, a New York Times reviewer said of the story
set in 19th-century Ohio: "And yet, while the
costumes of the book may be historical, its impact is
after, Gass has been characterized as avant-garde,
innovative or eccentric (thus his identification with
younger writers). Heís been credited with the first
use of the word "metafiction," which refers to
fiction that self-consciously reveals its status as
C," which is not overrun with meta-playfulness,
does include some obvious references. In a list of news
items about human violence, for example, a note:
"*The reader is invited to substitute or add a
similarly focused report whenever this point in the text
Gass has never liked being called
donít really like being labeled," he says. When
writers are lumped together, they often arenít really
very similar: "They usually just dislike the same
things" (plot, say, or character).
it natural to want to categorize writers like species in
a biology book?
ainít science," he says.
he is is a retired philosophy professor. Gass wrote his
doctoral dissertation at Cornell University on "A
Philosophical Investigation of Metaphor." He went
from Cornell back to Ohio, where heíd grown up in the
town of Warren.
taught for a few years at the College of Wooster, where
he remembers the case of a professor who had lied about
his credentials (and was a bigamist, to boot). Echoes of
that professorís academic deception are found in
"Middle C," which is also set in a small Ohio
Wooster, Gass taught at Purdue University in Indiana.
But he is most associated with Washington University
(1969-99), where colleagues included writers Stanley
Elkin, Howard Nemerov and Mona Van Duyn.
reviewers invariably point out that Gassí books have
"backwater" or "bleak" Midwestern
settings, Gass said years ago that he didnít regret
not living in New York. "I am not into that
hobnobbing stuff. Itís not what I care about. ... St.
Louis is a great place to live," he said in 2007,
when he received the St. Louis Literary Award.
is harder at 88, he admits (joking, perhaps, that
sometimes he canít remember how to spell). Heís
working on a book about Baroque prose writers, Baroque
writing being something heís accused of himself, he
says. And Gass plans to finish another book of essays
called "That Other Art," and a collection of
pair of novellas actually led to "Middle C,"
had two with titles that began with "C" and
decided he needed a third for a book. As a kind of joke,
he started calling it "Middle C." Once he had
the title, the story grew.
typical of me. I donít know where Iím going early
C" refers, in part, to music, whose structures Gass
has used for fiction, evoking mood and emotion and
mixing elements the way a musician might. The author
plays no instruments but appreciates music, of course.
Also, "my prose has been referred to as
novelís main character becomes a music professor even
though his immigrant family has little money to buy
records or pay for lessons. Joseph also becomes obsessed
with evil and gathers evidence for his Inhumanity
Museum, which is what he calls his attic of news
the novel, Joseph mulls over and rewrites a sentence:
"The fear that the human race might not survive has
been replaced by the fear that it will endure."
never appreciates reviewers who try to connect him to
his characters and simply notes that Josephís
apocalyptic musings arenít "very good
full of Gassí own big ideas have often been more
pressing work than his fiction and are more desired by
editors, he says. The writer has received three National
Book Critics Circle Awards for his essay collections.
Last year, in a review of "Life Sentences" for
this newspaper, John Freeman wrote that Gass has been
"Americaís best living essayist for an obscenely
fact, Gass says, magazine editors will sometimes reject
short stories he submits. What reason do they give?
donít understand this!í" says the man who
spends years writing and rewriting sentences to perfect
that "Middle C" is published, Gass wants to
focus on his current work, such as the Baroque writersí
questions about what angels look like.
donít have a whole lot of patience with writers
repeating what everybody else does."