Middle C

by William H. Gass

Middle C

Paperback, 395 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $15.95 | purchase

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NPR Summary

Born in Austria and raised in Ohio, Joseph Skizzen lives an uneventful life; you might even call it insignificant. But in his own mind, he is the great Professor Skizzen, charged with cataloging the many sins and shortcomings of humanity. In his first novel in almost two decades, Gass explores an introvert's inner life, deploying his characteristically dense prose to probe and blur the tentative line between fantasy and self.

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Excerpt: Middle C

... it repented Jehovah that he had made man ...

Chapter 1

Miriam, whom Joey Skizzen thought of as his mother, Nita, began to speak about the family's past, but only after she decided that her husband was safely in his grave. His frowns could silence her in midsentence; even his smiles were curved in condescension, though at this time in his absence, her beloved husband's virtues, once admitted to be many, were written in lemon juice. He had a glare to bubble paint, she said. Her recollection of that look caused hesitations still. She would appear alarmed, wave as if she saw something gnatting near her face, and stutter to a stop. Joey was helped to remember how, at suppertime, for only then was the family gathered as a group, the spoon would become still in his father's soup, his father's head would rise to face the direction of the offending remark, his normally placid look would stiffen, and fires light in his eyes. His stare seemed unwilling to cease, although it probably was never held beyond the lifetime of a minute. But a minute ... a minute is so long. Certainly it continued until his daughter's or his wife's uneasy expression sank into the bottom of her bowl, and the guilty head was bowed in an attitude of apology and submission.

When the soup was a clear broth, as it often impecuniously was, Joey could occasionally see his face floating in a brown dream, and he thought of his mother's real self submerged in a brown dream too, beyond the reach of life. His father sent his spoon to the bottom, and they could hear it scrape as he ladled, faster and faster as the level dropped. He was a noisy eater because he felt noise signified relish and appreciation. Whenever a meal was especially skimpy, Yankel, as he insisted he was, slurped his soup, he sucked his teeth, and he exclaimed Aaah! after a set of swallows. When they had bread, he would strenuously rend it just above the surface of the soup so that flecks of crust would fall as snow might on a pond. Then he'd allow the torn piece to follow after, his hands aiming it somewhat like a bomb. His father would watch the hunk slowly tan, gradually sog, and finally sink. Joseph knew he had to finish his bowl, whose basin would have to seem licked, but he hated to put his own implement down there in the dream and see it thrust through his own moist eye or quivery cheek because down there his thin bit of all-purpose tableware suddenly became his father's wide one, ready to scoop up his nose or chin and inhale him spoon by spoon the way, later, he read that the Titan who was called Saturn had swallowed his children.

They had reached London by then, where Joseph was born Yussel, and where his father finally got a job printing leaflets for the army; leaflets that were to be dropped on the Germans to threaten or cajole. Yankel was proud of the errors he had caught in the texts. He laughed the way stout Austrians would laugh at anything inauthentic. He often described the leaflets for the family, demonstrating the size of the sheets, summarizing their messages, enacting the way they would flutter out of the sky. Heads will turn and hearts will fail, he said, spinning like a waltzer. Each littering page is hastening your father back from exile — thanks to the RAF and the government's printing offices — back to Vienna, perhaps even to Graz. His wide hands wavered for each leaf — a wiggle here, a wobble there — and then he would bend down to show, on the floor, how they'd land and even how they'd blow about the street. Already a bit of me is back, he bragged. They will pick up each piece. You know how neat we are. For the mayor he made a face that was puffed as a frog's; for the mayor he mimed a body bent to hold its belly from the ground; and, for the mayor, he pretended to read a quivering sheet in a quaking voice: Citizens of Graz ...

The Fixels endured the Blitz as so many others did, huddled in cellars, but Joseph could bring back from those damage-filled days nothing specific now, only a nighttime world of noise and fear and fire. As well as the warmth of friendly arms. His sister, older by two years, also remembered with fondness hours of being held by one parent or other, though they both preferred their mother, who cradled them while gently rocking her arms, whereas their father squeezed them as if, any minute, they might break free and run away, when it was the squeeze that inclined them to scoot. The dents in their skins, they both vividly recalled, were made by his metal coat buttons.

A long way from Graz, his father would mutter many times a day. A long way. His head was close-cropped, already gray, his clothes simple to the point of penury. They made their lodging more in a pile of rubble than in a building, for one wall of the tenement was down, some stairs had collapsed, and many windows were broken. There is nothing here the Germans would want to bomb, Miriam remembered he often said when they sat at their single table in the middle of a ruined room to dine on dreams and reassurance. For their meals they set fires like tramps, and the shell of many a house in their sector was consumed by soup being warmed long before the incendiaries could get back to bomb them again.

Yankel, as he was officially known then, felt he had to keep the family's spirits up, especially those of Joseph's sister, who was inclined to mope and who simply refused to call or even think of herself as Dvorah, the name Yankel had picked out to harmonize with his; so, to do so, to keep their courage, he would uncase his cheap pinewood fiddle (as Miriam reminded Joseph, when they were both in a story mood) and scrape through a few jolly reminiscent peasant tunes. Ach, he was so bad he couldn't play gypsy, was the line she repeated when, in her tale, the fiddle's moment came. But she never referred to the instrument as a pinewood box while they were Jews because, as a Jew, Yankel was the head of the household the way, he felt, as a Jew, he ought to be: as completely in charge as any Austrian husband, but with the full backing, now, of Jehovah. All that Austrians have, he said sadly, shaking his head, all that Austrians have got is God; the Jews have Yahweh. Well, which is it, Jehovah or Yahweh, Miriam asked him once. Jews are not permitted to pronounce his name, Yankel said, so they are constantly changing it. I thought they had just one God, like most people, Miriam said, in receipt of a glower. Ha! just like you used to have when you were a Catholic, her husband replied angrily. Father, Son, Holy Spirit, Mother Mary, the Four Evangelists, Gabriel and an army of angels, perhaps the pope, all the saints, more than the mind can count. Miriam stuck to her guns: One God ought to be one God, no more, no less. Even busy as he was. With a reach wide enough to attend his chores. Worship Allah, then ... Allah is one God, Yankel would answer, triumph in his voice.

Miriam was accustomed to domineering men — fathers, judges, generals, businessmen, bosses, all behind one beard, one fog of smoke, one vested chest. But the Rudi who had courted her was deferential, shy, calm, musical, not the stern bullyragging majordomo Yankel had become because he thought patriarchy was essentially Jewish. That's where his glare came from: the stage. Yet it seemed more genuine than the slow smile whose lips she'd first kissed.

Rudi Skizzen had barely reached manhood when he met Nita Rouse at a country wedding he had been hired to fiddle for. Rudi had ridden his bicycle when he could and pushed it uphill when he had to, traveling out from Graz on narrow grass-grown roads notable for the heads of rocks that poked through everywhere, so that he dared see no scenery but the ground. At eighteen he was a better fiddler than he was at twenty-eight, and Nita, herself fourteen, with great round black eyes not like raisins, rather like plump grapes in her round face, kept her wide eyes on him while he played, and the company tried to dance the country dances, although they had already forgotten the steps they had been taught as children. The old ways were wearing thin, Miriam said, and no longer kept anybody warm. But the new ways were worse, and hell was their deserving.

Nita's courtship, when the time came for it, was carried on in the country, too. The couple went for long walks on those same green lanes Rudi had earlier cycled over, hoping to achieve some solitude for themselves and their chaste embraces. Rudi remembered birdsong, because he had an ear for music and for poetry, while Nita saw flowers she knew well enough to name, and she frequently stooped to inspect those that forced their stems up between the many rocks to bloom yellow, blue, and white like bursts of pleasure, but she was careful to stoop without letting go of Rudi's hand, an attention that made her dawdling delightful for him.

I always knew we'd have a plain and simple way of getting on, Miriam said, for we were not privileged people, though we were not spared their worries. I was Nita then and could play cards and joke with men. I did hope to have a country life, away from hard roads, noise, and rancor, but Rudi wanted to be where he could use his music, and I thought him a fine fiddle player then, before I'd heard otherwise, and before his fingers grew foreign to the bow. The truth is no one could have squeezed a sweet tune from that soft cheap flimsy wood of his. What if he had had a decent violin? Maybe the opera in Vienna would have heard him, or in a café a gypsy — to his strains — whirl her skirts.

Nita's new husband found for his family a small leaky roof in Graz, and the printer's trade, learned from Rudi's father, put a modest living on their skimpy table; but Rudi Skizzen's talent lay nowhere near the typesetter's trays or music's page; he had two great gifts: first, he was a seer; he saw the future as if he were reading it on one of his broadsides; and second, he was born for the stage; he had as many colors as the chameleon; he filled roles like a baker; indeed, it was a Yankel he one day became, moving his family to an outskirt of Vienna and turning all of them but Joseph, who had not yet been born, into Jews simply by pinning a yarmulke to his hair with a bent wire and informing anyone interested that his name was Yankel Fixel. His wife heard this news without hearing. Was their name henceforth to be Fixel? Their name and the name of the boy who would be born, no longer under Bethlehem's star, was Fixel? Yussel Fixel? A clown's cap, Miriam thought. When the baby came he was circumcised, though the bris was as imaginary as the rest of life, and performed — who knew? — on the wrong day. Moreover, the mother of the recently brutalized child was now named Miriam. To her surprise. To her confounding.

The family didn't look very Jewish, but who, Yankel argued, would admit they were Jewish if they weren't Jewish? and why would they say they were Jewish in such uncomfortable times for Jews, when anyone who was Jewish and had any sense would put on Catholic habits in a thrice if they could get away with it, or twirl like a dervish, or leap like any Leaping Lena, if it would do the trick. Yet, as though Rudi had waved a wand and cried presto-changeo to impress a crowd, mass was now modified until it reached kosher. Although what was kosher confused Yankel. Jews were forbidden to see milk and meat on the same plate let alone seethe a kid in its mother's milk or drink and chew simultaneously. Jews were often thought to be otherwise than everybody, but who would want to mix milk and meat that intimately anyway? even bites of the same stew had to succeed one another. But by six hours? so they wouldn't have an intestinal confrontation? Well, he couldn't afford two pots for each person, two bowls, two dishes, two spoons. And every animal was unclean except those that resembled Satan — he of the cloven hoof — or those who looked silly, chewing their cud. And threw up. This was confusing. Fish without scales and fins were forbidden? who had ever heard of any? Did they mean whales? In addition, the Jews had special killers for their cows. Never mind, he was too poor to have much meat or too worried to practice rites in public and thereby advertise mistakes.

Nita claimed Rudi was especially comfortable in his role as Yankel when it came to the Jewish abhorrence of blood. They drained and buried the blood of the animals they killed, and they didn't hunt. His hatred of hunting, which his son shared, was certainly not Austrian. They were peace-loving, he thought, the Jews. All to the good. But why did they have it in for shrimp, lobster, mussels, clams? Being a Jew would be confusing; it would mean sacrifice; yet Yankel felt there was no time to lose, so the changeo must be presto, whatever the risk. Yankel Fixel had learned that there was a small underground organization smuggling Jews out of Austria to England. England was where he was bound, but he had no money in the pocket and person of Rudi Skizzen for the passage, so Yankel Fixel, a case for charity's mercies, he became.

It was Rudi Skizzen not Yankel Fixel who had the accomplished nose, and who could sense rot reaching a hazardous level. Rudi was not vastly lettered, but like most Austrians, he knew of Karl Kraus and of Karl Kraus's unpopular pacifist opinions. He had few beliefs he cherished, but one was that wars were always started by the powerful to be fought by the powerless who numerously suffered and died in them, though they were never better off whatever the outcome. He knew that of all the creatures God had put into this world, humans were the untrustworthiest and the meanest, another sentiment his son would share. In Eden, no snake had been needed. The Fall could be performed a cappella. He remembered how Karl Kraus admired dogs because a dog could smell shit a long way, though it be hidden in leather trousers, though it be squeezed from beauteous buttocks; but maybe it was not yet shit the dog smelled, but piss left in the pants, or a little blood released by a puncture, or pus from a wound long in service. Anyway, Rudi Skizzen smelled it — in the hunter-green coats, the embroidered blouses, the lederhosen, in the discreet farts from comfortable bellies, in the social rudeness of the properly positioned, and, above all, in good times: in the mug and on the platter, in raucous communal song, immersed in the smell of kraut, sausages, and beer. Austrians, he said, were both coarse and cultivated, and on the road between them was a stop called cruel. Cruelty came easy to engines of mastication, to people who didn't keep the door closed between milk and meat.

Excerpted from Middle C by William H. Gass Copyright 2013 by William H Gass. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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