“Middle C is recommended to readers who enjoy prose gymnastics, postmodern fiction, and experimental juxtapositions of style and form.”
With the publication of Middle C 18 years after his magnum opus The Tunnel William H. Gass keeps his reputation as a prose virtuoso intact.
But where his previous novel was known for its somber gravity as well as for its difficulty in Middle C, Mr. Gass, now 88, demonstrates his verbal virtuosity playfully and with levity.
Mr. Gass’ rich vocabulary will require most readers to keep a dictionary handy, but Middle C‘s prose and the plot are quite accessible, making it a good introduction to its author’s other fiction.
Middle C is a story of immigration and misrepresentation transpiring over two generations. It focuses on Joseph Skizzen, conceived in Austria, born in the U.K., and moved to Ohio at age nine with his mother and sister.
Joseph’s father Rudi was an ardent anti-Nazi who, desperate to get his family out of the country on the eve of the Anschluss and seeing that Austria’s Jewish community had an organized emigration network, has the family pretend to be Jewish in order to emigrate.
Rudi Skizzen becomes Yankel Fixel, his wife Nita becomes Miriam, his daughter is renamed Deborah, and the son they are expecting will be named Joseph and ritually circumcised on the eighth day after his birth.
The scheme works and brings the family to London in time for the blitz. Mr. Gass overlooks the historical fact that when Jewish adults escaping the Third Reich did find refuge in the U.K. they were often interned for the duration of the war for fear that they might be Gestapo agents pretending to be Jews. This and numerous other plot elements require readers to suspend disbelief.
In London the couple find work, Yankel in an off-track betting parlor and Miriam in a commercial laundry. After the war Yankel decides to Anglicize his name to Raymond Scofield, but Miriam refuses to change her name or the childrens’ names.
Raymond wins an enormous wager—enough to allow him to disappear.
Miriam reverts to her native Catholicism as well as her original married surname and moves with the children to America, settling in a small town southeast of Columbus, Ohio, but neglects to legalize their immigration status.
Deborah, now Debbie, becomes an All American girl. Joseph grows up to be a sexually repressed mama’s boy, loner, and nerdy musician whose career path takes him from high school student, to music store clerk, to college student and part-time campus organist, to library clerk, to music professor—time and again failing up via an increasingly padded resume and his employers’ lack of due diligence.
Because of his illegal immigration status as well as his timid nature, each time Joseph is falsely accused of wrongdoing, instead of defending himself he quits his job and moves on.
The title of the book refers not only to the musical note, but also to the gentleman Cs Joseph earns as a student, as well as the low profile he must keep as an illegal resident balancing caution with necessary risks such as using a false social security number, driving with a fake license, and as an academic publishing just enough not to perish but not so much as to call attention to himself.
When not working Joseph creates a private museum filled with examples of mankind’s inhumanity with newspaper clippings and anecdotal captions describing the atrocities, including those committed by his adoptive country. Just as his father left Austria to avoid any association with the Nazis, Joseph does not correct his immigration status in order to avoid the taint of America’s misdeeds.
Joseph also writes and rewrites a sentence expressing an initial fear that humankind will not survive, followed by a later fear that indeed it will. The numerous revisions of that sentence appear throughout the first two thirds of the book, soon becoming tedious.
The variety of prose styles Mr. Gass employs and in which he demonstrates mastery from chapter to chapter (including a chapter in verse) will both impress and puzzle: Is he showing off? Or proving to himself and his readers that at 88 he hasn’t lost his potency? Or is he just plain bored?
On the other hand, Mr. Gass effectively employs a nonlinear narrative—alternating between chapters in which Joseph is a library clerk and ones comprising music history lectures he delivers as a college professor—maintaining a level of suspense that keeps us wondering whether and when Joseph’s lies will be discovered.
Middle C is recommended to readers who enjoy prose gymnastics, postmodern fiction, and experimental juxtapositions of style and form.