At his best, William Gass is a voice that starts with an insistent, tickling trickle and ends in a flood, the sluice gates open to a welter of words and the sky falling.
Now, with as many candles on his cake as a piano has keys, he has published “Middle C,” his third novel and sixth volume of fiction. Neither as physically imposing nor as psychically threatening as his 1995 opus, “The Tunnel,” Gass’s new novel is nonetheless extraordinary. Stuffed with allusions ranging from Keats to Yeats and replete with puns and rhymes and run-ons, its prose is as knowing as Gertrude Stein’s rose. And while “Middle C” can be read as the realistic story of a good and sympathetic man struggling to be moral in the second half of the 20th century, it is also a religious allegory and a philosophical meditation on language and consciousness as the source of evil.
Twice transplanted from their native soil in Austria — first to London, thence to “Woodbine,” Ohio — the Skizzens (Joey, his sister, Debbie, and their mother, Miriam) flourish, particularly once Debbie marries and moves out of town and Joseph and Miriam take up residence in an old Victorian owned by Whittlebauer College, where Joseph teaches music.
The novel’s first two chapters serve as a program note, rendering in broad strokes the fluidity of identity in Austria before the war and in London during the Blitz. Of Joey’s father, Gass writes, “Gradually, a week at a time, the Rudi Skizzen who had wrapped himself in Yankel Fixel began to emerge as Raymond Scofield.” From the outset, then, the novel challenges the notion of an essential self. “Joey was self-taught,” Gass later observes with a wink, “but what self got taught, and what self did the teaching?”
The novel’s overall structure resembles that of a concerto, with the protagonist’s three solo instruments (his identities as Joey, Joseph, and Professor Skizzen) alternately contending with the orchestra (institutions educational, religious, and civic) for freedom and equality. “Joey” is the child, the son of Rudi and Miriam Skizzen; “Joseph” is the young man with his first car and first full-time job, striving for independence and an education while working to establish a social and public identity; Joseph Skizzen, associate professor of music at Whittlebauer College, is the adult figure, performing his identity as if his life and the well-being of his aging mother depended on it.
The three identities of Gass’s protagonist seem to correspond to the way we perceive, understand, and then speak about the world. “Joey” is nearly nonverbal, his manner of being in the world primarily physical — it’s Joey who “cower[s] by the boxes” when Joseph is caught reading on the job rather than sorting books, just as it’s the Joey in professor Skizzen who likes to kick empty cans into a makeshift goal in the attic. Although more verbal than Joey, “Joseph” is still in the process of synthesizing the world. While working at a library, he reads books by the wagonload, and the verbs Gass assigns him emphasize cognition: “Joseph realized,” “Joseph wondered,” “Joseph thought.”
“Joseph” is not yet ready to play his part on the stage that is the world, but by forging a driver’s license and some academic credentials, he has begun to learn his lines.
It is in professor Skizzen that we see most clearly the self as verbal performance. He dislikes sports, is asexual, barely eats. The opposite of Joey, professor Skizzen is intellectual and metaphorical rather than physical. For 30 years he “sentences” humanity for its cruelty by obsessively rewriting variations on a theme, a prediction about the fate of humanity that doesn’t leave much room for hope. His credentials may be phony, but his knowledge of music and devotion to documenting human cruelty are authentic.
Indeed, the history of human cruelty threatens to overwhelm professor Skizzen. In the opening pages, Joey’s father warned him that “Austrians . . . were both coarse and cultivated, and on the road between them was a stop called cruel.” Nearly 400 pages later, as Skizzen makes his way to a meeting of the college ethics committee and the novel’s climax, he stops to talk to a neighbor, who offers kind words: “I’m glad to see you bring some culture to the college . . . [T]hese kids need some polish before their insertion into civilization.” It’s vintage Gass, plying streams and dreams of language — what is coarse may be polished; cruelty too has its opposite. And these words are but four tones in the novel’s final chord, struck when Miriam, a self-taught gardener, reprises Voltaire’s Candide. Miriam resolves to cultivate her garden, and professor Skizzen resolves to do the same, although the kinder he will cultivate are college age.