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In a series of brilliant variations, William Gass presents a man’s life—futile, comic, anarchic—arranged in an array of vocabularies, altered rhythms, forms, and tones, with music as both theme and structure.
It begins in Graz, Austria, in 1938, when Joseph Skizzen’s father pretends to be Jewish and emigrates to avoid the Nazis. In London with his wife and children for the duration of the war, he mysteriously disappears and the rest of the family relocates to a small town in ...
In a series of brilliant variations, William Gass presents a man’s life—futile, comic, anarchic—arranged in an array of vocabularies, altered rhythms, forms, and tones, with music as both theme and structure.
It begins in Graz, Austria, in 1938, when Joseph Skizzen’s father pretends to be Jewish and emigrates to avoid the Nazis. In London with his wife and children for the duration of the war, he mysteriously disappears and the rest of the family relocates to a small town in Ohio. Here Joseph Skizzen grows up and leads a resolutely ordinary life, but one that is built on a scaffold of forgery and deceit. Outwardly he is a professor of music at a mediocre college; secretly he is the earnestly obsessive curator of a private Inhumanity Museum, meant to contain the guilt of centuries of atrocities. Middle C tells the story of his journey—a story that is also an investigation into the nature of identity and the ways in which each of us is several selves.
“A world-devouring novel. . . . Of all living literary figures, William Gass may count as the most daringly scathing and most assertively fecund: in language, in ideas, in intricacy of form; above all in relentless fury. . . . This unquiet bildungsroman is designed to detonate its mild, middling title. . . . Exhilaratingly ingenious . . . unexpected and dizzying.” —Cynthia Ozick, The New York Times Book Review
“Rhythmic and sonic. . . . A final statement of Gass’s belief in the sound of literary language.” —The Times Literary Supplement (London)
“Gass is a magician of the word, the writer of a prose so rich that it makes Vladimir Nabokov’s seem impoverished. . . . Metaphors leap through hoops, similes elicit oohs and ahs, and daredevil paragraphs bring down the house. There’s never any fat or slack to his sentences, though sometimes they unfold quietly, almost slyly, until blossoming into little stories all their own.” —The Washington Post
“Middle C is driven by plot, by a largely comic chain of cause and consequence. . . . Skizzen proves as befuddled an academic wanderer as anyone this country has seen since Nabokov’s Timofey Pnin.” —The New York Review of Books
“A mischievous variation on the moral dilemmas raised in Gass’s The Tunnel . . . In this exuberantly learned bildungsroman—this torrent of curious facts and arch commentary, puns and allusions—internationally lauded virtuoso Gass reflects on humanity’s crimes and marvels, creating his funniest and most life-embracing book yet.” —Booklist (starred)
“Extraordinary. . . . A religious allegory and a philosophical meditation on language and consciousness as the source of evil.” —The Boston Globe
“Gass orchestrates his fiction with thematic elements as a composer might a symphony.” —Timeout New York
“Exhilarating . . .dazzling.” —Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“Epic . . . crazily rich with thought . . . remarkably detailed. . . . Gass beautifully coaxes the unheard music from a seemingly muted life. . . . The unprecedented work of a master.” —Publishers Weekly
“A masterly work of language and imagery from one of America’s most celebrated authors.” —Library Journal (starred)
“Engaging, melancholy. . . . Gass remains a master of apt metaphors, graceful sentences and a flinty, unforgiving brand of humor; it may be the most entertaining novel you’ll read that half wishes humanity was wiped off the map. . . . Gass, now 88, clearly has endings on his mind, which he addresses with fearsome brio and wit.” —Kirkus
After seven books of philosophical and literary essays that have established William Gass as America's most acute and stylish critic, he has published at age eighty-eight a "first" novel. Not literally his first novel. That is Omensetter's Luck, released in 1966. But the kind of novel with which young writers often begin: an exuberant shape-shifting Bildungsroman and a near Künstlerroman, as its protagonist becomes a music teacher rather than an artist. For those unacquainted with Gass's challenging fictions, Middle C should be the first one to try. Given the high-modernist enthusiasms of his essays, it's unexpectedly almost middlebrow in its attention to callow youth and ordinary folks, its leisurely third-person narration, and sentences readers can see through, not just look at with envy.
Gass has said he doesn't think much about readers, but his opening gambits in Omensetter's Luck? and The Tunnel were prickly dares. Middle C is welcoming from the slightly absurdist start, when an Austrian Christian identifies himself as Jewish to escape the coming Nazis. It has narrative blandishments and concealments, virtuoso performances, and verisimilitude to spare in Gass's descriptions of midcentury Ohio towns and the places protagonist Joseph Skizzen works — a record store, a village library, and, for more than forty years, a small college. In an interview published in the Paris Review more than three decades ago, Gass stated his "work proceeds almost always from a sense of aggression. There's plenty of disgust with human stupidity in Middle C, but it doesn't give voice to a monster as his other two novels do.
Well, maybe a middling, muddling comic monster, like one of Nabokov's ill-fitting immigrant academics. In the late 1930s, Joseph's father decides his family should take on Jewish names so they can emigrate to England, where they arrive just in time for Joseph to be born during the Blitz. After the father deserts the family, mother, daughter, and Joseph move to the United States and end up in a semi-rural Ohio. The father's motive for leaving Austria was to remain guiltless of collaborating with the Nazi takeover he sensed in the future. Young Joey mythologizes his father and vows to imitate his moral purity — a key word in the novel — even if his scrupulosity may require some "innocent" fabrications like his father's change of religious identity.
In Ohio, Joey receives "C" grades in school, intentionally keeping a low profile, unlike his sister Debbie, who becomes a cheerleader and, later, a satisfied member of the middle class. As a teenager Joey enjoys his job in a record shop and becomes interested in serious and, he feels, pure music, but he is framed by a jealous employee and leaves the store. He has no friends, no interest in girls. He attends a community college and afterwards finds a job at a library in a nearby town. Needing a car, Joey forges a driver's license because he lacks the necessary identification documents.
Joey meets two women working in the library: one improves his forgery and helps him fake up his résumé; the other scandalizes pure Joey with a sexual advance. He scrambles home to his mother and applies for a position teaching music at the local religious college. Although Joey taught himself the piano, plays badly, and knows little about modern music, he bluffs and lies his way into the position, where Joey becomes serious Joseph and eventually Professor Skizzen, who affects a Viennese background while growing old teaching at Whittlebauer where he lives in a rented house with his mother.
With the Rabbit-raising Updike gone, only Gass, of American novelists working now, has the technical dexterity and, I suppose, aplomb to make so mundane a life absorbing —both entertaining and enlightening—for almost 400 pages. He employs the good old- fashioned suspense he has sometimes mocked in reviews of plot- driven fiction. Which of Joseph's deceptions will be revealed and when? Will he be able to maintain his ascetic purity? Gass whets readers? curiosity with flash-forwards, juxtapositions that make us wonder how a boy like Joey was ever able to become Professor Skizzen. And early on Gass plants a boldface sentence by Joseph — "The fear that the human race might not survive has been replaced by the fear that it will endure" — that he compulsively revises, expands, and explains. What has Joseph experienced that has elicited this nihilism and caused him to collect thousands of clippings about atrocities for the "Inhumanity Museum" he curates in his attic?
Consciousness, skewed by circumstance, stewed in obsession, has always been Gass's chief concern, so he filters most of the novel through his protagonist's mind, which is a fascinating blend of three overlapping identities: Joey, Joseph, and Professor Skizzen. There are conflicts between what they can't know and what they would like to avoid; between self-imposed purity and natural needs; between perceptions of other people all the Skizzens resent and the external personas they compose to please those others. Unlike the word-crazed and learned narrators who take over Omensetter's Luck and The Tunnel, the protagonist in Middle C is no genius, and his limitations make the novel affecting.
Gass believes that Henry James is the greatest American novelist because he was the master of consciousness. Middle C is like a male companion to The Portrait of a Lady, another novel in which not much happens. With little or no formal instruction, Joseph and Isabel Archer, living in countries not their own, educate themselves through error, protect their "innocence" with repression, and take refuge in their own perceptive but stunted consciousness. As the autodidact Joseph struggles to keep his knowledge a step ahead of his colleagues and students, readers get the benefit of his self-instruction about twentieth-century composers and their music.
Although Gass's early aesthetic theorizing resisted any socially instructive value for fiction, Middle C should receive at least a B-plus from even the most militant Franzenites, for Gass uses the anxieties of Skizzen and the hypocrisies of minor characters to authoritatively represent the self-fashioning, other- directed culture of the 1950s described by David Riesman and Erving Goffman, an era that Gass can recall with the precision of an advanced recording device. And with only a nudge, the novel's small-town social dynamic of self-presentation becomes a metaphor for the contemporary fraudulence of big-time social media — and even for the falsity of political correctness.
Joseph believes that "Changelings required impromptus, variations, bagatelles, divertimenti, to do justice to their nature", and Middle C is the kind of inventive pastiche that first novelists throw together to show off their formal chops and to keep readers interested in pages not made for movies. Several chapters are double-barreled classroom lectures on music-the professor alternating between his delivery to witless students and his witty remarks to himself. Joseph is in turn instructed in great detail about the care of books by an old-maid librarian and about the care of flowers by his even older mother, whose ever-expanding garden becomes a symbol of the growth that Joseph refuses. Gass includes Joseph's notes on students, supplies compact bios of victimized artists Anton von Webern and Bruno Schulz, inserts a poem about catacombs, quotes old popular songs, incorporates news items on index cards, varies typography, and writes a commentary on faculty meetings to the tune of "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush."
Within all the formal variations, word-man Gass is a constant micromanager. Note to note, paragraph to paragraph, his sentences offer pleasures for readers who may enter the book desiring other excitements. In what could be his last novel, Gass has found the subject — music — perfectly appropriate to the sound devices and metaphors both manifested in and analyzed by works such as On Being Blue and the metafictional novella Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife. Here is Gass throwing the voice of Professor Skizzen, sometimes called "Doctor Digress," in his lecture on John Cage:
With our new instruments of bedevilment might we not record all sorts of sounds out there in the world that calls itself — that call themselves — real; where squeaks and squeals and screams are on the menu, where dins assail us by the dozens'the crinkle of cellophane, whishiss of small talk, the fanning of five hundred programs — where we fill our ears with one noise in order not to hear another-yes, record, preserve not only the roil of the sea but the oink of pigs and moos of cattle, the wind rattling the cornstalks like the hand of an enemy on the knob, and put them in-in the realm of majesty, of beauty, of purity, in-in music.Because the context is rhetorical — the uncharacteristically passionate professor trying to wake up dullard students-this passage is more intense and richer (onomatopoeia, alliteration, elaborate parentheticals, simile, an iambic beat) than much of the novel, yet Gass maintains throughout Middle C the kind of stylistic energy and linguistic ebullience that we find busting out in debut novelists, qualities that make mundane material musical.
On the walls of his attic area were everywhere pinned atrocity pictures, some of them classics: the weeping baby of Nanking or the wailing Vietnamese girl running naked amid other running wailing children on that fatal Route I near Trang Bang (even the name a mockery); numerous sepias of dead outlaws with their names on crude signs propped beneath their boots; clips from films that showed what struck the eyes of those who first entered the extermination camps'careless heaps of skins and bones, entirely tangled, exhibiting more knees and elbows than two-pair-to-a-death ought allow?.Voltaire employed a similar strategy of compact excess in his Candide, which overloaded a short adventure narrative to indict false innocence and every variety of cruelty. Former philosophy professor Gass tips his hat to the old philosophe with the last words of Middle C: Joseph's mother, he thinks, "couldn't cultivate her garden forever," a reference to Candide's much-discussed concluding image.
Reviewer: Tom LeClair
Miriam, whom Joey Skizzen thought of as his mother, Nita, began to speak about the family’s past, but only after she decided that her husband was safely in his grave. His frowns could silence her in midsentence; even his smiles were curved in condescension, though at this time in his absence, her beloved husband’s virtues, once admitted to be many, were written in lemon juice. He had a glare to bubble paint, she said. Her recollection of that look caused hesitations still. She would appear alarmed, wave as if she saw something gnatting near her face, and stutter to a stop. Joey was helped to remember how, at suppertime, for only then was the family gathered as a group, the spoon would become still in his father’s soup, his father’s head would rise to face the direction of the offending remark, his normally placid look would stiffen, and fires light in his eyes. His stare seemed unwilling to cease, although it probably was never held beyond the lifetime of a minute. But a minute . . . a minute is so long. Certainly it continued until his daughter’s or his wife’s uneasy expression sank into the bottom of her bowl, and the guilty head was bowed in an attitude of apology and submission.
When the soup was a clear broth, as it often impecuniously was, Joey could occasionally see his face floating in a brown dream, and he thought of his mother’s real self submerged in a brown dream too, beyond the reach of life. His father sent his spoon to the bottom, and they could hear it scrape as he ladled, faster and faster as the level dropped. He was a noisy eater because he felt noise signified relish and appreciation. Whenever a meal was especially skimpy, Yankel, as he insisted he was, slurped his soup, he sucked his teeth, and he exclaimed Aaah! after a set of swallows. When they had bread, he would strenuously rend it just above the surface of the soup so that flecks of crust would fall as snow might on a pond. Then he’d allow the torn piece to follow after, his hands aiming it somewhat like a bomb. His father would watch the hunk slowly tan, gradually sog, and finally sink. Joseph knew he had to finish his bowl, whose basin would have to seem licked, but he hated to put his own implement down there in the dream and see it thrust through his own moist eye or quivery cheek because down there his thin bit of all-purpose tableware suddenly became his father’s wide one, ready to scoop up his nose or chin and inhale him spoon by spoon the way, later, he read that the Titan who was called Saturn had swallowed his children.
They had reached London by then, where Joseph was born Yussel, and where his father finally got a job printing leaflets for the army; leaflets that were to be dropped on the Germans to threaten or cajole. Yankel was proud of the errors he had caught in the texts. He laughed the way stout Austrians would laugh at anything inauthentic. He often described the leaflets for the family, demonstrating the size of the sheets, summarizing their messages, enacting the way they would flutter out of the sky. Heads will turn and hearts will fail, he said, spinning like a waltzer. Each littering page is hastening your father back from exile—thanks to the RAF and the government’s printing offices—back to Vienna, perhaps even to Graz. His wide hands wavered for each leaf—a wiggle here, a wobble there—and then he would bend down to show, on the floor, how they’d land and even how they’d blow about the street. Already a bit of me is back, he bragged. They will pick up each piece. You know how neat we are. For the mayor he made a face that was puffed as a frog’s; for the mayor he mimed a body bent to hold its belly from the ground; and, for the mayor, he pretended to read a quivering sheet in a quaking voice: Citizens of Graz . . .
The Fixels endured the Blitz as so many others did, huddled in cellars, but Joseph could bring back from those damage-filled days nothing specific now, only a nighttime world of noise and fear and fire. As well as the warmth of friendly arms. His sister, older by two years, also remembered with fondness hours of being held by one parent or other, though they both preferred their mother, who cradled them while gently rocking her arms, whereas their father squeezed them as if, any minute, they might break free and run away, when it was the squeeze that inclined them to scoot. The dents in their skins, they both vividly recalled, were made by his metal coat buttons.
A long way from Graz, his father would mutter many times a day. A long way. His head was close-cropped, already gray, his clothes simple to the point of penury. They made their lodging more in a pile of rubble than in a building, for one wall of the tenement was down, some stairs had collapsed, and many windows were broken. There is nothing here the Germans would want to bomb, Miriam remembered he often said when they sat at their single table in the middle of a ruined room to dine on dreams and reassurance. For their meals they set fires like tramps, and the shell of many a house in their sector was consumed by soup being warmed long before the incendiaries could get back to bomb them again.
Yankel, as he was officially known then, felt he had to keep the family’s spirits up, especially those of Joseph’s sister, who was inclined to mope and who simply refused to call or even think of herself as Dvorah, the name Yankel had picked out to harmonize with his; so, to do so, to keep their courage, he would uncase his cheap pinewood fiddle (as Miriam reminded Joseph, when they were both in a story mood) and scrape through a few jolly reminiscent peasant tunes. Ach, he was so bad he couldn’t play gypsy, was the line she repeated when, in her tale, the fiddle’s moment came. But she never referred to the instrument as a pinewood box while they were Jews because, as a Jew, Yankel was the head of the household the way, he felt, as a Jew, he ought to be: as completely in charge as any Austrian husband, but with the full backing, now, of Jehovah. All that Austrians have, he said sadly, shaking his head,
all that Austrians have got is God; the Jews have Yahweh. Well, which is it, Jehovah or Yahweh, Miriam asked him once. Jews are not permitted to pronounce his name, Yankel said, so they are constantly changing it. I thought they had just one God, like most people, Miriam said, in receipt of a glower. Ha! just like you used to have when you were a Catholic, her husband replied angrily. Father, Son, Holy Spirit, Mother Mary, the Four Evangelists, Gabriel and an army of angels, perhaps the pope, all the saints, more than the mind can count. Miriam stuck to her guns: One God ought to be one God, no more, no less. Even busy as he was. With a reach wide enough to attend his chores. Worship Allah, then . . . Allah is one God, Yankel would answer, triumph in his voice.
Miriam was accustomed to domineering men—fathers, judges, generals, businessmen, bosses, all behind one beard, one fog of smoke, one vested chest. But the Rudi who had courted her was deferential, shy, calm, musical, not the stern bullyragging majordomo Yankel had become because he thought patriarchy was essentially Jewish. That’s where his glare came from: the stage. Yet it seemed more genuine than the slow smile whose lips she’d first kissed.
Rudi Skizzen had barely reached manhood when he met Nita Rouse at a country wedding he had been hired to fiddle for. Rudi had ridden his bicycle when he could and pushed it uphill when he had to, traveling out from Graz on narrow grass-grown roads notable for the heads of rocks that poked through everywhere, so that he dared see no scenery but the ground. At eighteen he was a better fiddler than he was at twenty-eight, and Nita, herself fourteen, with great round black eyes not like raisins, rather like plump grapes in her round face, kept her wide eyes on him while he played, and the company tried to dance the country dances, although they had already forgotten the steps they had been taught as children. The old ways were wearing thin, Miriam said, and no longer kept anybody warm. But the new ways were worse, and hell was their deserving.
Nita’s courtship, when the time came for it, was carried on in the country, too. The couple went for long walks on those same green lanes Rudi had earlier cycled over, hoping to achieve some solitude for themselves and their chaste embraces. Rudi remembered birdsong, because he had an ear for music and for poetry, while Nita saw flowers she knew well enough to name, and she frequently stooped to inspect those that forced their stems up between the many rocks to bloom yellow, blue, and white like bursts of pleasure, but she was careful to stoop without letting go of Rudi’s hand, an attention that made her dawdling delightful for him.
I always knew we’d have a plain and simple way of getting on, Miriam said, for we were not privileged people, though we were not spared their worries. I was Nita then and could play cards and joke with men. I did hope to have a country life, away from hard roads, noise, and rancor, but Rudi wanted to be where he could use his music, and I thought him a fine fiddle player then, before I’d heard otherwise, and before his fingers grew foreign to the bow. The truth is no one could have squeezed a sweet tune from that soft cheap flimsy wood of his. What if he had had a decent violin? Maybe the opera in Vienna would have heard him, or in a café a gypsy—to his strains—whirl her skirts.
Nita’s new husband found for his family a small leaky roof in Graz, and the printer’s trade, learned from Rudi’s father, put a modest living on their skimpy table; but Rudi Skizzen’s talent lay nowhere near the typesetter’s trays or music’s page; he had two great gifts: first, he was a seer; he saw the future as if he were reading it on one of his broadsides; and second, he was born for the stage; he had as many colors as the chameleon; he filled roles like a baker; indeed, it was a Yankel he one day became, moving his family to an outskirt of Vienna and turning all of them but Joseph, who had not yet been born, into Jews simply by pinning a yarmulke to his hair with a bent wire and informing anyone interested that his name was Yankel Fixel. His wife heard this news without hearing. Was their name henceforth to be Fixel? Their name and the name of the boy who would be born, no longer under Bethlehem’s star, was Fixel? Yussel Fixel? A clown’s cap, Miriam thought. When the baby came he was circumcised, though the bris was as imaginary as the rest of life, and performed—who knew?—on the wrong day. Moreover, the mother of the recently brutalized child was now named Miriam. To her surprise. To her confounding.
The family didn’t look very Jewish, but who, Yankel argued, would admit they were Jewish if they weren’t Jewish? and why would they say they were Jewish in such uncomfortable times for Jews, when anyone who was Jewish and had any sense would put on Catholic habits in a thrice if they could get away with it, or twirl like a dervish, or leap like any Leaping Lena, if it would do the trick. Yet, as though Rudi had waved a wand and cried presto-changeo to impress a crowd, mass was now modified until it reached kosher. Although what was kosher confused Yankel. Jews were forbidden to see milk and meat on the same plate let alone seethe a kid in its mother’s milk or drink and chew simultaneously. Jews were often thought to be otherwise than everybody, but who would want to mix milk and meat that intimately anyway? even bites of the same stew had to succeed one another. But by six hours? so they wouldn’t have an intestinal confrontation? Well, he couldn’t afford two pots for each person, two bowls, two dishes, two spoons. And every animal was unclean except those that resembled Satan—he of the cloven hoof—or those who looked silly, chewing their cud. And threw up. This was confusing. Fish without scales and fins were forbidden? who had ever heard of any? Did they mean whales? In addition, the Jews had special killers for their cows. Never mind, he was too poor to have much meat or too worried to practice rites in public and thereby advertise mistakes.
Nita claimed Rudi was especially comfortable in his role as Yankel when it came to the Jewish abhorrence of blood. They drained and buried the blood of the animals they killed, and they didn’t hunt. His hatred of hunting, which his son shared, was certainly not Austrian. They were peace-loving, he thought, the Jews. All to the good. But why did they have it in for shrimp, lobster, mussels, clams? Being a Jew would be confusing; it would mean sacrifice; yet Yankel felt there was no time to lose, so the changeo must be presto, whatever the risk. Yankel Fixel had learned that there was a small underground organization smuggling Jews out of Austria to England. England was where he was bound, but he had no money in the pocket and person of Rudi Skizzen for the passage, so Yankel Fixel, a case for charity’s mercies, he became.
It was Rudi Skizzen not Yankel Fixel who had the accomplished nose, and who could sense rot reaching a hazardous level. Rudi was not vastly lettered, but like most Austrians, he knew of Karl Kraus and of Karl Kraus’s unpopular pacifist opinions. He had few beliefs he cherished, but one was that wars were always started by the powerful to be fought by the powerless who numerously suffered and died in them, though they were never better off whatever the outcome. He knew that of all the creatures God had put into this world, humans were the untrustworthiest and the meanest, another sentiment his son would share. In Eden, no snake had been needed. The Fall could be performed a cappella. He remembered how Karl Kraus admired dogs because a dog could smell shit a long way, though it be hidden in leather trousers, though it be squeezed from beauteous buttocks; but maybe it was not yet shit the dog smelled, but piss left in the pants, or a little blood released by a puncture, or pus from a wound long in service. Anyway, Rudi Skizzen smelled it—in the hunter-green coats, the embroidered blouses, the lederhosen, in the discreet farts from comfortable bellies, in the social rudeness of the properly positioned, and, above all, in good times: in the mug and on the platter, in raucous communal song, immersed in the smell of kraut, sausages, and beer. Austrians, he said, were both coarse and cultivated, and on the road between them was a stop called cruel. Cruelty came easy to engines of mastication, to people who didn’t keep the door closed between milk and meat.
Posted March 19, 2013
Posted July 31, 2013
I thought the story was imaginative, but the style was bothersome. The main character would dwell on a topic, saying the same thing different ways, long strings of words that in my opinion got tiresome. I didn't appreciate this aspect of the book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 31, 2013
Posted March 23, 2013
Exceptional prose with a nonlinear narrative. This book won't have a wide audience, but when it is all said and done will be one of the best of the year. Gass is considered a "difficult" author, but is more than worth the effort.
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