Jewish history has had many periods of persecution in which Jews have had to pretend to be gentiles, but very few in which it has been advantageous for gentiles to pass as Jews. Yet that latter scenario is the premise for William H. Gass’ Middle C, his first novel in eighteen years, which was published today by New York publisher Knopf.
As I describe in my New York Journal of Books review of Middle C, its protagonist’s father was an anti-Nazi Austrian who in 1938 had the family pretend to be Jewish so they could leave the country. Such a plot might have been more plausible had Mr. Gass set the book in the former Soviet Union in the late 1980s, but that would have required the family to ask permission to emigrate to Israel, and according to Gil Roth’s podcast-interview with Greg Gerke, who interviewed William Gass for the Winter 2012 issue of Tin House, Mr. Gass believes the State of Israel should never have been established.
According to the same podcast one of Mr. Gass’ favorite authors is William Gaddis, author of The Recognitions whose characters include an art forger and a currency counterfeiter. Middle C’s protagonist Joseph Skizzen fabricates credentials to become a professor of music history, just as his father had adopted a false religious and ethnic identity.
Though it’s not to his taste, Professor Skizzen chooses as his scholarly specialty the atonal music of Arnold Schoenberg (who converted to two different flavors of Christianity before returning to his native Judaism), because it intimidates his department colleagues. Professor Skizzen’s students nickname him Professor Digression, and the same applies to his author, though as I note in my NYJB review Mr. Gass’ narrative does achieve suspense.
Before becoming an academic Joseph holds less prestigious jobs, but it is not clear to this reader how long he stays at each one. His first job is in a music store during and after high school. Young Joey would have been a member of his high school’s class of 1956. Mr. Gass’ third person narrator notes that in Joseph’s small town in Ohio rap and hip hop recordings were not available (implying that they were available in larger cities), but Rapper’s Delight, the first widely distributed and commercially successful rap/hip hop recording, was released in 1979. Clearly Middle C’s eighty-eight year old author is more conversant with Twentieth Century classical music, and Professor Skizzen’s music history lectures, even with or indeed because of their digressions, are entertaining and informative.
In another digression Middle C’s third person narrator regrets that most American men have no more than six sex partners in a lifetime, but the book’s protagonist has no sex life and remains a virgin well into his thirties. Joseph Skizzen’s aversion to sex is a trait Umberto Ecco assigned to his villain/protagonist Simone Simonini in The Prague Cemetery. So is Joseph also an anti-Semite? In a conversation with his mother about food Joseph notes that Americans only eat the outside of an animal but not its internal organs. His mother points out that Jews eat liver, to which Joseph replies, “Jews aren’t Americans.”
In my NYJB review I recommend Middle C “to readers who enjoy prose gymnastics, postmodern fiction, and experimental juxtapositions of style and form.” See that review for a fuller discussion of Mr. Gass’ new novel.