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Gass's new novel moves from World War II Europe to a small town in postwar Ohio. In a series of variations, Gass gives us a mosaic of a life--futile, comic, anarchic--arranged in an array of vocabularies, altered rhythms, forms and tones, and broken pieces with music as both theme and structure, set in the key of middle C.
It begins in Graz, Austria, 1938. Joseph Skizzen's father, pretending to be Jewish, leaves his country for England with his wife and two children to avoid any connection with the Nazis, who he foresees will soon take over his homeland. In London with his family for the duration of the war, he disappears under mysterious circumstances. The family is relocated to a small town in Ohio, where Joseph Skizzen grows up, becomes a decent amateur piano player, in part to cope with the abandonment of his father, and creates as well a fantasy self--a professor with a fantasy goal: to establish the Inhumanity Museum . . . as Skizzen alternately feels wrongly accused (of what?) and is transported by his music. Skizzen is able to accept guilt for crimes against humanity and is protected by a secret self that remains sinless.
Middle C" tells the story of this journey, an investigation into the nature of human identity and the ways in which each of us is several selves, and whether any one self is more genuine than another.
William Gass set out to write a novel that breaks traditional rules and denies itself easy solutions, cliff-edge suspense, and conventional surprises . . . "Middle C "is that book; a masterpiece by a beloved master.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2013-01-14
- Reviewer: Staff
The fear that the human race might not survive has been replaced by the fear that it will endure.” This sentence is the secret life’s work of the Austrian émigré Joseph Skizzen, hero of Gass’s first novel in nearly two decades. There are few minds as well-documented in letters as that of Gass, whose own life’s work consists of eight well-regarded books of criticism and the legendary 1995 novel The Tunnel. But the storyline that emerges, after we learn how Joseph’s absent scofflaw father Rudi disguised his family as Jews in Vienna and London during the Second World War (as though to buck the trend), is a comparatively innocuous brand of epic. Joseph grows up in Ohio, with his mother Miriam, and becomes a devoted music lover, amateur pianist, and eventual lecturer. His quiet life, “reasonably clear of complicity in human affairs,” consists of but the smallest intrigues at the local library, which becomes Joe’s refuge, and, later, the school where he fears denunciation by the faculty. Only in his imagination is he the great Professor Skizzen, master of the Inhumanity Museum, a catalogue of the sinful human condition. And yet the novel is crazily rich with thought: there are lovingly observed descriptions of books by Thomas Hardy, Bruno Schultz, and Ruskin, remarkably detailed discourse on Miriam’s gardening, and enough discussion of music for a course in classical composition. Excepting some choppiness in the novel’s second half—and the decision to employ close third-person for material that seems naturally suited for first—Gass beautifully coaxes the unheard music from a seemingly muted life. “Middle C” was the realm of ordinary thought that Arnold Schoenberg abhorred. But for Gass, it is the model of a living, introverted mind and fodder for a symphonic anti-adventure story that is the unprecedented work of a master. Agent: Lynn Nesbit, Janklow & Nesbit Associates. (Mar.)
A multitude of selves born out of abandonment
William H. Gass, acclaimed author of The Tunnel, spent 20 years composing his latest, Middle C, and it shows. An exploration of the multiple identities we humans cultivate, it tells the story of displaced Austrian music professor Joseph Skizzen from birth to middle age, probing his fears and faults, his obsessions and his dreams.
Gass’ long-awaited novel is a modern-day classic.
Except he isn’t Austrian. And he isn’t a music professor—not really. Despite the goatee and affected accent, he’s only ever lived in London and Ohio. And he teaches classes, but his credentials are utter fiction. Living with his elderly mother in a declining mansion that the college owns, Joseph’s life is built on fibs—an odd attempt to follow in his father’s footsteps. For before Joey was born, Rudi Skizzen turned his family into makeshift Jews, changed their names and moved them from Austria to Britain to “escape” the Nazis. After the war, he drained their Jewish blood, named them again and promptly abandoned them. Joey Skizzen’s life becomes an attempt to understand his father’s crime against his family, even as he constructs his own fake self. He probes Rudi’s sin, in part, by curating a “museum” of humanity’s crimes against humanity. From his secret perch in the mansion’s attic, surrounded by news clippings of cruelty, he gazes upon his mother’s beautiful garden and tends a stubborn sentence he’s composing (and recomposing) on mankind’s ugliness.
The story travels back and forth between Professor Skizzen’s present and his youth, revealing his quirks, his charms, his own crimes and the tender heart that belies his domineering pessimism. Gass writes in a style readers will either love or hate: If you love wordplay, you will revel here; if you do not, run far, far away. Dense but dexterous, the language is absolutely packed with surprises. Very, very funny, the book is also sad, laying Joey’s almost quaint innocence in bed right alongside the adult Joseph’s darkness. Highly original—it’s doubtful any other teen character this year will bumble his way into a love triangle with rival spinster librarians—Gass’ tome satisfies on multiple levels while leaving certain questions unanswered. A showcase of 88-year-old Gass’ skill, Middle C is literature at its finest.