Recommended Reading

William_Gass,_Middle_C,_cover Middle C
by William Gass
2013, Alfred A.Knopf,
456 pages

The Library of Congress Cataloguing-in-Publication Data classifies William Gass’s sixth novel as; 1. Music teachers – Fiction. 2. Self presentation-Fiction. 3. Austrians-Ethnic Identity-Fiction. 4. Identity (Psychology)-Fiction. 5. Psychological fiction.  Right handy, and accurate as far as it goes. I would add 6. Academic Interview and Faculty Meeting – Comedy and 7. Museum (Inhumanity) – Tragedy.

 Maybe also Religion, all kinds getting a drubbing until Joseph Skizzen hears a gospel choir in full flight. Then it’s “there is religion. And then there’s religion.’”  But definitely Philosophy. Gass, is a professor of philosophy, now emeritus and in his eighties.  Philosophers don’t generally care a lot for psychology and if the novel is read lonely   only through that lens a great deal of the novel’s richness is lost to the reader. If Freud thought sex was the route of all psychic development for good or for ill, there is very little of it in Middle C, again making psychology a strange classification, unless, unless, sex is present and more notable by its very absence. Though there is the Oedipal thing….

Gass explores whether it’s possible to construct a self  doing no harm by doing as little as possible to add to the Inhumanity Museum, keeping guilt, especially survival guilt, to manageable levels throughout a lifetime. A tall order since Skizzen, even though guided by a strong misanthropic impulse is curious, likes to learn, and teaching enough, to pass as one of us; in the process Gass showing us what it is to become human.

His protagonist, Joseph Skizzen, (the double z’s, yes, a reminder of the SS brand) teaches music at a small American Midwestern college, the culmination of his reconstruction as an American academic having arrived in the United States as a child, fatherless and paperless. His Austrian father opposed the Anschloss, insisting his family assume Jewish identities, escaping to London in time for the Blitz.  The assumed identities, the Blitz, and the disappearance of his father after he wins enough money to do so on a long-shot bet at the horse races, provides the psychological phlegm for Skizzens neurotic future.

Skizzen is obsessed with  man’s inhumanity to  man,  reflected in a sentence introduced on  page 32 as “The fear that the human race might not survive has been replaced by the fear that it will endure.”[1] Skizzen reworks the sentence throughout the novel, its theme and many variations.

The sentence is the notation of his larger obsession. Joseph keeps an Inhumanity Museum in his attic. Human Rights Museum librarians take note.  He reads newspapers and clips articles about the horrors, reported almost daily, of mass killings while reflecting on Holdomor (promoted by another J.S.) and the Holocaust. These he pastes to walls, windows and flypaper hanging from the ceiling, evidence that as long as people survive on earth they will keep tormenting, torturing and killing each other.

His father’s legacy

He [Rudi] was a rare man he told his wife [Miriam], a wary man, a man of the middle, of leave-me-be, someone trying to stay out of moral trouble, a man of peace.”(p. 22)

“I want to think my father ran away from more than blame, Mother; that he tried to do no harm when harm was a universal habit.” p128

The (Self) Education of Joey Skizzen (A Bildungsroman?)

 After arriving in small town Woodbine, Ohio where is mother finds work in a plastics factory turning out dish racks, Joey takes piano lessons from the arthritic Mr. Hirk.  Joey gets a job at the High Note Music Store selling sheet music, records and instruments in while attending high school. “Joey’s education was advancing by octaves. He already sensed the importance of airs, which, just before he went to work, he put on as regularly as his shirt.” (p 83) only to be betrayed by a jealous co-worker in a Hitchcockian set up for thievery. Joey loses his job though not charged for lack of evidence. This incident adds to Joey’s angst of discovery as a fraud for the rest of his life.

Joey Skizzen continues his musical education, listening and reading; acquiring a “record player so technically adept it had three speeds, 33, 45 and 75 rpm” (p 103) during his stint at the local Augsburg Community College, his next stop, paid for by his duties as janitor and accompanist. He is a poor student dropping out though indicating his completion on subsequent documents needed to move on.

Joey applies for a job as a librarian in Urichstown , nearby his mother’s home where he continues his education reading, reading, reading and with the help of a colleague creating the papers he needs to get a driver’s license and developing an identity and his first real connections, however platonic, with women. Urichstown is known to some in the county as “Whichstown,” (the spelling possibly the author’s quirk?)because a witch or two may have been burned in the town square long long ago.  The women in his life have names that start with M  like his mother’s.  He reads about and listens to music, becoming familiar enough with contemporary music to pass as an expert later at Whittlebauer University.

Joey, though in regular conversation with Joseph, is nowJoseph for his next move up the academic ladder. Howard Palfrey President of Whittlebauer University is impressed with Skizzen’s  cv proclaiming his proficiency “in six instruments, learned in musical history, and an Austrian exactly, and with an enviable experience with solid publishing promise.” (p109) After one of the funniest (academic) job interviews I’ve ever read he is hired as head of the music department. Congratulations Professor Skizzen!

Do you like this garden? We evict those who destroy! (Malcom Lowry, Under the Volcano.)

Joseph lives with his mother who his father unsuccessfully renamed Mary, so Miriam she is. Broke, while working for his tuition in Augsburg, Joey steals a packet of seeds from the campus grounds- keeping shed, giving them to his mother for her birthday. She appreciates the gift and the gesture but is a little puzzled, never having showed any interest in gardening.

Eventually she does plant the annuals, and the garden begun with a screwdriver and a spoon gathers her interest.  The dirt, of which there was so much in The Tunnel, becomes the place where Miriam finds happiness, it’s pursuit having eluded her for so long.  Here though dirt  is fecund, enriched with manure, producing flowers and plant life photosynthesizing like nobody’s business, running counterpoint to Skizzens  misanthropy – which extends to anthropomorphized nature, which he can demonstrate is as violent and as destructive as humanity.

This may be one of Gass’s more autobiographical fictions, and it wouldn’t be complete without his dedication to his wife Mary, an architect; likely an avid gardener, much watched by her husband William.

Gass continues to show a sharp wit in his prose, often coiled like a whip ready to correct the stupid or the lazy with a flick of the wrist.  “Joseph realized that religion went for a liberal education like an assassin for the jugular.” (p.216) Or talking about moves to modernize stimulated by Vietnam, hippies, and student unrest;“Three African Americans were captured in an admission’s raid, while an Asian without solicitation, enrolled. Diversity had been achieved.”

n Middle C, Gass gives us Herr Fradulent Professor Joseph Skizzen, from his disastrous first class to an acceptance of who he is in this iteration, developing a knack for the classroom, realizing he may actually, even if accidently, have done some good, and certainly no harm. Gass has never been funnier.

Not since Joseph McLeod’s neglected Zinger & Me has there been a more hilarious depiction of a faculty meeting in fiction.

Even while entertained it’s hard not to learn something; about contemporary music, at least as how Herr Professor Gass sees it;  Skizzen proposing the real revolution music came when “the dominance of voice and dance was replaced by the rule of the instrument in both composition and performance; for that was when pure music came with pain and exhilaration into being.”  (p.218)

And how Anton (von) Webern and Bruno Schulz died.


On re-reading I realized my unruly mind still insisted on putting Joseph Skizzens story in linear chronological order, unlike the text itself. I noticed second time through that there are significant flashbacks to his time working in the Uhrichstown Library, in Skizzen’s Whittlebauer years, largely reworking the theme of identity with each reflection of the future on the past, and the past on the future, thickening our understanding, like a good cream sauce.

At 2,458 words including afterthoughts and out-takes it’s probably better to stop. Middle C is good reading, recommended for any time of year.

Middle C  reminds me of

  • Hans Werner’s The Constructed Mennonite, about his father coming to Canada after WWII and making for himself that I intend to read and have someone else review in Rhubarb magazine.
  • Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man
  • Middle C reminds me of What it Means to be Human receivedfrom poet DC Reid in exchange for two-thirds of a bottle of Ballantine’s.
  • Middle C reminds me of Max Frisch’s, I’m Not Stiller, just in reverse.
  • Middle C reminds me of an Alfred Hitchcock movie, not The Birds, but one which turns on mistaken identity or false accusation.
  • Middle C’s … of Celine


Metaphors, Similes, Phrases, Aphorisms, Jokes, Lists (as clauses, and clauses as lists); Language that caught my attention .


  • ‘as new as a store shoe’ p.30
  • ‘Nonsense, he shouted. Professor Skizzen spoke harshly to himself– to his “you” – as he was frequently forced to do , since his objectified “other” often required correction.’  p. 32 ( yes, psychology is important to and in the novel, but it’s not the only way to look at it, same as with people).
  • “Let glaciers advance like motorboats, he bellowed threatening a book with his fist.” p. 36, Skizzen reflecting on the certainty of the coming Armageddon.
  • “Americans love to feel sorry for others and are happy to have someone worthy of their concern.” p.  43
  • “He abbreviated his time in life, solely as a youth, to a boy called Joey, a kid who hated sports but could ride a bicycle.” p. 44
  • …”[Mr. Hirk’s] livelihood,  as a meager as it had been, taken from him by the stiffness in his fingers and the popularity of the guitar, which could apparently be played by sociopaths without any further training, its magnified twings and twangs emerging from an electrical outlet as if the little holes spoke for appliances of all kinds and unoiled engines everywhere.” p47
  • “And in spite of every imaginable catastrophe salvage at least a remnant of his race with the strength, the interest, the spunk, to fuck on, to fuck on like Christian soldiers, stiff pricked still, with some sperm left with the ability to engender, to fuck on, so what if with one leg or a limp, fuck on, or a severed tongue, fuck on, or a blind eye, fuck on, in order to multiply, first to spread and then to gather, to confer, to wonder why, to invent, to philosophize, accumulate, connive:  to wonder why, why this punishment? to wonder, why this pain? why did we – among the we’s that were – survive? p.67
  • “in short, beauty was protection against the ordinary way of being. And rural Ohio had a lot of ordinary.” p.85
  • “Never fail, merely pass.”121
  • “It must be rather wonderful to assume that the world would receive with interest whatever came into your head.” (Sort of like my website, or any facebook entry….or this)
  • “Your sister doesn’t have to work. She doesn’t have to drive. She married well, a man who nearly went to Yale.”      p. 163
  • “After all, he would explain, con temporary electronic music was stagnant because it hadn’t discovered how to representation on nicely ruled paper what it was doing. He had read that symbolic logic had been in the same fix, whatever symbolic logic was.” p. 218
  • “Pronouns  were simply pseudonyms trying to be names.” p. 249



Memorable characters;

The two most interesting and fully developed characters are Miriam and Joey/Joseph, but you’ve heard a lot about them already. Gass populates the novel and this part of Ohio with several memorable women. Namely:

Madame Mieux – his French teacher, or rather teacher of French at Augsburg

Miss Spiky(-Hair) and her teddy bear,
bus traveler, junkyard owner that sells Joey a car, chorister and soloist.

Marjorie Bruss – the employer librarian and social tutor, whose garage serves as Joey’s accommodation

Miss Moss “her complexion a pale airborne shade of bruise, as if her veins had become pools, or perhaps spills, beneath her skin.” p.196  who repairs and reshelves books, and aids Joseph’s getaway.


What’s Not to like –

  •  The German Opfer translated as victim instead of sacrifice or offering, and I’m pretty sure Gass knows his German which he uses effectively here and there in Skizzen’s conversations with his mother.
  • Misidentifies, to my mind, a spiky Mohawk as a mullet, though to be fair it does fall down her back, like a mullet would.
  • From time to time the grumpy old man’s peregrinations appealed to me, but some may put off an earnest young reader without a developed sense of humour or horror.



Middle C has the best cover of any of Gass’s  fifteen books, even on a Kobo. Thirty dog-eared bookmarks. No books harmed in the making of this review, though there was plenty of random banging learning to better use the Kobo, and my thinking all higgledy piggedly slap dashed below.

[The Act of Killing is screening here in Gimli during this Film Festival weekend, a grim coincidence.
It’s a documentary where the filmmakers provide men guilty of crimes against humanity, including the slaughter of thousands, resources to make a film depicting their acts of killing in a film genre of their choice from westerns to Hollywood musicals.  It screens in two hours and I don’t know whether to go into town to see it. Decide no.]

Many writers and artists talk about feeling like impostors, not feeling as worthy of any successes they have. Here Skizzen presents an impostor, who plays by ear, sees Middle C as desirable mediocrity, the  ultimate harmony of “fitting in” who does only what he needs to do to get by. He creates his self and his Museum, and loves his long-suffering mother happy in her garden.

[1] “The sentence had simply passed through his ears and lodged in  his head like a random bullet from a drive by gang.” p. 37






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