History Boys: William Gass’s Middle C

Ryan McDermott

New York, NY: Knopf, 2013. 416 pages. $28.95.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

William Gass believes we control language just as much as it controls us. His latest novel, Middle C, explores the limits of language in representing the self. Set in post–World War II America, the relatively plot-thin Bildungsroman is centered on the eccentric life of its protagonist, Joseph Skizzen, a disenchanted music professor at Whittlebauer College whose own identity is an amalgam of fraudulent self-fashionings. The novel’s narrative shifts between three selves comprising Joseph Skizzen (first Joey, then Joseph, then Professor Joseph Skizzen), an oscillating trifecta that produces frequent shifts in mood and tense. At once breathtaking and frustrating, Gass’s language mimics the instability of the self, shaking to its foundation the idea of self-knowledge and our efforts to bring it into consciousness.

The novel opens with Joey’s birth in London, where his father, Rudi Skizzen, relocates with his pregnant wife and daughter from Austria in 1938 to escape Nazi influence. As he claims, “To be an Austrian, now, is a calamity and will become a curse.” Pretending to be Jewish, Rudi changes his name to Yankel Fixel, his wife’s (originally Nita Rouse) to Miriam Fixel, and his daughter’s to Dvorah. Yussel (soon to be Joey) is born during the Blitz, when the Fixels squat in an abandoned building. As Miriam later laments, “[He] pulled us up out of our own earth so that now we had nowhere to grow, nowhere to flourish, losing our looks, our youth, our energies, our dreams, for nothing, in order to live in other people’s catastrophes.” By supplanting an identity already imbued with the idea of fabrication (as we learn, “Skizzen” means “sketches”) with a Jewish one, Rudi swaps one history for another. This cycle of substitution continues when he changes his name to Raymond Scofield. Having taken up betting, he Anglicanizes himself to seem more authentic. He then disappears after winning some money, leaving the family to wonder whether he was murdered or whether he fled the country.

Just as the family’s move to London is characterized by a symbolic death (of their Austrian heritage) and rebirth (of their counterfeit Jewish identity), so is their move to America marked by a symbolic ending and beginning. When the Fixels, sans paterfamilias, move to Woodbine, Ohio, they reappropriate their original family name, Skizzen. Distraught with her new American identity, Miriam frequently bemoans the loss of her Austrian heritage. “We shall remain as we were,” she says, “as old as an Alp.” Joey attends the local high school, and following a short-lived job at a music store, he enrolls in Augsburg Community College. Like many of his endeavors in the novel, this episode is transitory. After the college’s French teacher, Madame Mieux, tries to seduce him, he drops out of Augsburg.

In yet another reinvention of himself, Joey lands a job at the Ulrichstown public library and rents the converted garage of head librarian Marjorie Bruss to live in during the workweek. He forges a learner’s permit to buy a car for the commute, an act that emblematizes his false self: “His identity, Joseph Skizzen slowly realized, was wholly his affair. Further, the best security for that secret self was the creation of a faux one, a substitute, a peephole pay-for-view person.”

Middle C morphs into a kind of academic satire by the time Joseph swindles his way onto the music faculty of Whittlebauer College, whose description Gass renders in an overt reference to his alma mater, Kenyon College (“every college in Ohio, maybe every college ever built, had to have a hill and be said to be ‘on the hill’ and therefore come to be called, not the college, but the Hill”). Despite his phony credentials, Joseph achieves tenure and is given access to a depreciating Gothic house that he and Miriam inhabit. The novel’s climax coincides with an ethics committee meeting that, up until that point, Joseph had assumed was about his fabricated career. He reflects on the fractured self that Gass has regarded as symptomatic of the postmodern condition: “Think of the hours I devoted to my other selves: how often I had to dodge dangerous questions; commit to memory enlargements of one myth or other, rehearse sequences, qualities, effects; practice timing as though I were playing a concert, disguise my incompetence in that regard.” By a stroke of luck, it is revealed that another faculty member’s faulty background was the source of the investigation.

Among Joseph’s philosophical musings, the most bizarre is his obsession with the “Inhumanity Museum,” which he erects on the attic walls of the house he shares with his mother. A Casaubon of the horrors of history, Joseph fills the museum with newspaper clippings, books, photos and drawing of human tragedies. He sits at a desk there and repeatedly rewrites the sentence “The fear that the human race might not survive has been replaced by the fear that it will survive.” He pens hundreds of versions “to capture the moment when we fear that we are all going to die transmutes into relief knowing that it will end.” As the urtext is put through the ringer of Gass’s dizzying prose machine, we return to the original utterance, as we do throughout the novel in the arc of Gass’s classically Steinian linguistic somersaults (“Joey imagined that if old—when he would be old, if he could be old, because in his dream he was always dressed the way he was dressed when he dreamed—he’d wonder what his death would be”).

For Joseph, the Inhumanity Museum ultimately embodies the failure of human self-consciousness, its perpetual death. However playful Gass’s approach to death sometimes seems—“death is nothing but a detail—a little cough that causes your ribs pain—a siren that stirs you up to sit up on your deathbed and regurgitate a ricocheting nail”—it is the recurring end point of history and language’s perpetual undoing. Gass has managed to show that language, however arduous our attempts to contain history within it, will always exceed the graspable boundaries of the self.

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