Distinguished novelist William H. Gass’s latest novel, Middle C, tells the story of Joseph Skizzen, born in Graz, Austria, following the Anschluss in 1938. His father, Rudi, decides to leave the country because of his hatred of the Nazis. Reasoning that by disguising themselves as Jews they would stand a better chance of emigrating from Austria, Rudi Skizzen renames his family Fixel, and demands that they change their Christian names to Jewish ones. Despite their protests, the family adopt the customs and rituals of Jews as they understood them — a hilarious opening section of the novel. Thus Joseph’s devout Catholic mother, Mary, becomes Miriam, Joseph becomes Yussel, his sister became Dvorah, and his father Yankel.
The novel traces the Fixels to London where Yankel Fixel once again changes his name, to Raymond Scofield, and from there the family moves to the United States, where they shed their fake Jewish identity and once again become the Skizzens. Following the mysterious departure of Rudi (Yankel), the plot follows the travails of Joseph, his mother, and Dvorah, now Debbie. Joseph continues to hide his identity as he moves from teenager to adulthood; he fakes his credentials and becomes aware of the inhumanity of the human race, which leads to his compiling an “Inhumanity Museum,” which chronicles man’s genocidal character and raises questions about God’s role in allowing the enormous bloodshed that characterizes human history. As the novel progresses, Joseph is hired to teach a history of music course at a Midwestern college using bogus credentials to attain his position, and living, for many pages, in fear of discovery.
In the course of the novel, Gass (through his character Joseph) critiques modernism, religion, and the hypocrisy that exists in academia. He also engages the reader in a discussion of the meaning of the Holocaust as it pertains to God allowing the Jews to be murdered (could it be that the Christian God and the Muslim God are anti-Semitic?) One of the many questions raised in this dark, if hilarious novel. As Gass writes:
“Joey did not dare explain to the president of his college or his colleagues or his dean that he had an aim in life they might not understand…it was to pass through life still reasonably clean of complicity in human affairs, affairs that are always inevitably…envious, mean, murderous, jealous, greedy, treacherous, miserly, self-serving, vengeful, pitiless stupid, and otherwise pointless… I have not contributed to the tricks of high finance, I live simply, out of the reach of ambition and conspiracy.”
Middle C tells us with humor and insight much about the human condition: what it is to be a human being, the ways in which each of us uses several selves, and whether any one of them is more genuine than another.