A literary event—the long-awaited novel, almost two decades in work, by the acclaimed author of The Tunnel (“The most beautiful, most complex, most disturbing novel to be published in my lifetime.”—Michael Silverblatt, Los Angeles Times; “An extraordinary achievement”—Michael Dirda, The Washington Post); Omensetter’s Luck (“The most important work of fiction by an American in this literary generation”—Richard Gilman, The New Republic); Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife; and In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (“These stories scrape the nerve and pierce the heart. They also replenish the language.”—Eliot Fremont-Smith, The New York Times).
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.
The fear that the human race might not survive has been replaced by the fear that it will endure."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 migr 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.