Mid­dle C: A Novel

William H. Gass
  • Review
By – June 6, 2013

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.

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

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