“…her beloved husband’s virtues, once admitted to be many, were written in lemon juice.” We have entered Middle C by William H Gass. In 1939, a Catholic husband and wife leave Austria with their son and daughter as Jews. Why? So they can get out of what is about to happen. They immigrate to England and become English, so they can get to The New World. We never hear from father again. Fear of is a common theme herein. Fear of what is coming. Fear of not getting out. Fear of mankind. Fear of.
The key word in this novel is ‘ear.’ ‘Ear’ as the part of the body with which we ‘hear.’ Prof Skizzen is in the music department so ‘ear’ and ‘hear’ are crucial. Add to that his great ‘fear’ of so much. ‘Ear’ is the resounding sound throughout the novel and resonates in the theme. Time is measured in ‘years.’ What is between the ‘ears’ is crucial in the children’s development and in appreciating this novel. “Mother, perhaps my father was a ‘fraidycat.” (p105). The habits of listening.
The writing is studied and consciously select, yet flows and entertains. How can you not love a chapter on the rewriting and analysis of a sentence? How can you not love the deconstruction of a sentence through word use? How can you not love the pursuit of the perfect sentence? And they call this fiction. The writing is a temptress, a joy, and mental euphoria. Personifying the sentence, using it as a metaphor is poetry. Orchestrating the words, changing the point of view, waltzing with adjectives and activating the right verb is art.
The son has become a professor of music still living with mom or is it mom living with him. That is the point actually as the professor keeps rewriting a sentence about the fate of man, is it better to have it survive or to disappear. He has a room that is like a scrapbook collecting articles about the cruelty of man to man. Gass presents verbal images in words, phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs of the horror man has done to man. You see as Earth Day approaches, I have never been concerned about the fact that we need to save the earth as much as we need to save man fro himself. The earth will survive, we know that. The misdirected concern is that we should really be concerned with man as is he good professor, in his seven hundredth version, “Professor Joseph Skizzen’s concern that the human race might not endure has been succeeded by his fear that it will quite comfortably continue.” (p63) The waterfalls will continue to fall, the glaciers will continue to melt and reform, the volcanoes will continue to erupt and make new lands, with or without man. Now that is more comforting to me than the professor’s vision. Not only a professor, a fake professor, but also a librarian.
“What’s in a name?” Plenty. The members of the family go from Austrian names to Jewish names, to English names and variations on the theme. The mother even surprises me as she is eager to replace her birth name with her husband’s name which is then changed so often she does not know who she is. Joey, Joseph, Professor Skizzen are interchangeable even in the same paragraph. Just as names are mutable, so to is their religious affiliation. They begin as Catholics in Austria, and then become Jews to get to England, and then Lutherans once settled in Ohio. “All religions are not equal. All but ours are sordid.” (p124) Identity is evasive or is it?
Because of all the name changes and moving from country to country, Joey or Joseph doesn’t know who he is. When it becomes time to get a job or a drivers’ license, proper paperwork is lacking like a birth certificate with a current name. Everything becomes fake, his professorship is just a title, his driver’s license is forged, he himself is a fake.
This is a slow read simply because of the delicious language banquet with metaphor sides that requires proper mastication. And when I got to the end and closed the book, what do you think I heard?