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Middle C [Hardcover]

William H. Gass
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
Price: £18.08 & FREE Delivery in the UK. Details
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Book Description

12 Mar 2013
A literary event—the long-awaited novel, almost two decades in work, by the acclaimed author of The Tunnel (“The most beautiful, most complex, most disturbing novel to be published in my lifetime.”—Michael Silverblatt, Los Angeles Times; “An extraordinary achievement”—Michael Dirda, The Washington Post); Omensetter’s Luck (“The most important work of fiction by an American in this literary generation”—Richard Gilman, The New Republic); Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife; and In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (“These stories scrape the nerve and pierce the heart. They also replenish the language.”—Eliot Fremont-Smith, The New York Times).

Gass’s new novel moves from World War II Europe to a small town in postwar Ohio. In a series of variations, Gass gives us a mosaic of a life—futile, comic, anarchic—arranged in an array of vocabularies, altered rhythms, forms and tones, and broken pieces with music as both theme and structure, set in the key of middle C.

It begins in Graz, Austria, 1938. Joseph Skizzen's father, pretending to be Jewish, leaves his country for England with his wife and two children to avoid any connection with the Nazis, who he foresees will soon take over his homeland. In London with his family for the duration of the war, he disappears under mysterious circumstances. The family is relocated to a small town in Ohio, where Joseph Skizzen grows up, becomes a decent amateur piano player, in part to cope with the abandonment of his father, and creates as well a fantasy self—a professor with a fantasy goal: to establish the Inhumanity Museum . . . as Skizzen alternately feels wrongly accused (of what?) and is transported by his music. Skizzen is able to accept guilt for crimes against humanity and is protected by a secret self that remains sinless.

Middle C
tells the story of this journey, an investigation into the nature of human identity and the ways in which each of us is several selves, and whether any one self is more genuine than another.

William Gass set out to write a novel that breaks traditional rules and denies itself easy solutions, cliff-edge suspense, and conventional surprises . . . Middle C is that book; a masterpiece by a beloved master.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 395 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group (12 Mar 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307701638
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307701633
  • Product Dimensions: 24.2 x 16.8 x 3.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 278,949 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A masterpiece 3 May 2013
By JoMo
Gass explores, in typically masterful prose, the problems of identity in the context of the brutality of the 20thc. He is one of the great technical masters of language, and his love for alliteration and simile imbues the novel with beauty and rhythm.

Please note that the one star review is from a notorious amazon Troll, whose reviews should not be taken seriously (as his rambling and poorly written reviews should indicate).
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4 of 37 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Pitch Off 23 Mar 2013
A particular musical note and the nonsensical focus on it rather lies outside the story, a clunky C4 appendage that is just there, hideous in its honorific purpose, a prefabrication tuned to distract a soft storyline who's jumping off point is the Hitler's-its-only-a-matter-of-time motif used, reused, employed, detoured in every other book ever written and this backdrop has made readers inured in a sense to the depravities perpetrated by the Nazis, every inch of occupied land has a footnote, the death camps are household names, fiction has no place in the carnage lest of course it was directly experienced by the fictionist and only if he or she must, yes, dredge it all up again and lean towards miring yourself in a self-defeating state of mind, a horror on every page and a volume poisonous to the touch and so ever forward to Austria, Catholics made out in their figurative faith in the literal garbs of Jews, why did Hitler seek to annihilate Catholics too, I've not heard of it, onward to our husband and wife who land in England, a child is born and the patriarch drifts off into the famous silty London fog ...nevermore... Read more ›
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Amazon.com: 3.4 out of 5 stars  29 reviews
38 of 41 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Humans were the untrustworthiest and the meanest." 17 Mar 2013
By Amelia Gremelspacher - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
At the start of the book, Rudi Skizzen decides to move his from Austria to England to escape the Nazis. He feels that any contact with them would degrade his family, so he fakes being Jewish and is transported as a refugee. He doesn't fool the Jewish community, but he confuses his son Joseph and enrages his wife and makes no real impression on his daughter Deborah. After Rudi disappears, the family ends up in Ohio.

Joseph shares the same gloomy outlook on humanity as his father. He fears humanity will not disappear. He experiences people as a blight. But he regards himself as a fake, a questionable teacher of music and a quixotic music critic. Here he lives in Ohio, in the middle of the country, with a population that are all unequal. He is haunted by crimes against humanity, founding an Inhumanity Museum. Joseph lives in his mother's garden, amongst the rules of nature, and even here he can feel the fraud.

The book revolves around riffs of philosophy, musicology, perhaps the quest for the middle. The language is playful, then devastating, then prosaic. This book has been reviewed as difficult to read, post modern, and uneven. These reviews scared me off for a while, but I was intrigued with the Austrian pretending to be a Jew. I found the writing accessible, mesmerizing, and fantastic in the true meaning of the word. I like Joseph and his quest for the middle that even in music, never sounds alone. I urge you to make the jump, disregarding the warnings. Not much is new in the literary sun, but this book has much that is novel, in the true meaning of the word.
34 of 38 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Middle C 18 Mar 2013
By Leslie N. Patino - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Erudite, accomplished and a successful writer capable of penning this complex novel full of beautiful writing, 88-year-old William Gass is a man to admire. In an age when traditional publishing houses and Hollywood are often interested only in reliable blockbusters, this "Middle C," is a note rarely heard. It makes for unusual reading in that it breaks so many of the bestseller rules. The novel is long, the story winding and the tangents numerous. At times, it's hard to know where Gass or protagonist Yussel-Joey-Joseph-Professor Skizzen and the unconventional punctuation are headed with their riffs. The third chapter is ten pages of Skizzen's obsession with writing a single sentence correctly--an obsession that goes on until the next-to-last page of the novel.

The writing is often dense which, for me, definitely detracted from the pleasure of reading, but Gass is so knowledgeable and intellectual that he kept me going. His humor ("At first Joey appreciated her apparently genuine vulgarity in such a crowd of stodges."), his odd characters (the unforgettable Miss Spiky who Skizzen and I couldn't help but like) and an unusual story with plenty of deep thoughts to ponder carried me through to the end. I don't expect to see "Middle C" at the top of "The New York Times" Best Sellers list, but a big bravo to Gass and Knopf for publishing it.
20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars ... and words are all I have... 6 April 2013
By Patrican - Published on Amazon.com
Middle C is primarily a display of Gass's love of thinking and writing. Put more crudely, it's a dump of his accumulated musings. So, even more than with most books, any evaluation of Middle C is dependent on the tastes of the reader. If you like intellectual mind-games, interweaving word-play, this book is for you. It's compiled around a man whose aim in life is "to pass through life still reasonably clean of complicity in human affairs, affairs that are always and inevitably ... envious, mean, murderous, jealous, greedy, treacherous, miserly, self-serving, vengeful, pitiless, stupid, and otherwise pointless." He's to remain at "Middle C," although the metaphor doesn't seem to me to be a good one. A life journey unnoticed at the center of the pack doesn't lend itself to dramatic excitement as easily as, say, Ulysses' journey home does, but Gass makes of it what he can.

In some of the early chapters (3, 6), Gass relates, with considerable relish, a great many details of horrific murders of people by other people. Not since William Burroughs (Naked Lunch, but especially Thanksgiving Day Prayer) have I seen inhumanity related with such deadpan glee. I don't pick up any sense of outrage, or even disgust, from Gass. He seems almost bored with it. This is the way it is, the way it always has been. The bewildering thing is that somehow people in general continue on, civilization walking around in an incredible, indelible, fantasy of its goodness and mercy. But if Gass thinks he's the first with that news, he's sadly mistaken.

At one point our hero, in his quest to avoid human affairs, mentions: "I am lonely." But it's very late in the book, and that thought is not explored or developed. He's got more than a whiff of misogyny to him; in several passages he's deploring the ways in which women are always trying to entangle him in 'human affairs;' e.g., his sister gives birth and he resents that he's expected to notice or care.

But mostly, this is writing for the joy of expression. In the late chapters there is far too much repetition, especially about our hero's academic life and his home life with his mother. Even though it's all so clever, and written with such intricate weave, I found myself skip-reading through the late chapters. (Gass, describing a house: "The front windows were... faintly bayed like a distant dog.") The biggest rapture in life occurs when, after you've been expecting the sky to fall on you, it lands on your neighbor instead. This peculiar twist on Aristotle's characterization of sidestepped tragedy may be Gass's most perverse original offering here.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not for the faint of heart - but oh, what music to the ears! 10 April 2013
By Sharon - NYC - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
William Gass has presented us with a master class on the modern novel. Along the way, he discusses the major philosophical dilemmas facing mankind, the questions for all time. Set against the backdrop of Nazi Europe and modern day America is an intricate discussion of identity and of man's inhumanity to man. The protagonist Yussel, Joseph, Joey riffs on what is real and what is not, what is good music and what is not and who decides and based on what criteria. If a man is undocumented, does he exist? Which is better: a credentialed fraud or an uncertified original. What constitutes a life authentically lived and is anyone authentic? Which is worse: the fear that mankind will end or that it will survive? And all of these lofty questions posed in a brilliantly humorous prose that keeps you smiling through your tears. I wouldn't give this a middle C, I would give it an unequivocal A for its love of music, its love of language, lofty and profane and its serious philosophical questions posed by a most unlikely anti-hero.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Polly Wolly Doodle All Day 29 April 2013
By David R. Anderson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
"Gass's sentences are . . . most exhilaratingly ingenious when they venture into unexpected and dazzling keys, diving from vernacular directness into an atonal Niagran deluge. . ." is the way Cynthia Ozick describes William Gass' prose in her New York Times review of Middle C (March 28,2012). It's not surprising that it took Gass 17 years to write this novel. In fact, one wonders why it didn't take longer. For me, the word play makes the book. Imagine, if you will, a step dance class of words, bowing and curtseying , dosido-ing their partners in and out and round about, polly wolly doodle all day. Here is a sample of some of my favorite lines and phrases:

"This is the way we smirk and sigh, lurk and spy,favor buy,
this the way we smile and lie
to prepare for the faculty meeting."

"...a commentator, with a voice melting over its vowels, like dark chocolate. . ."

"When he faced his first class, he heard his words toddle from his mouth, their sense of conviction tied to a string for handy retraction."

"...in sum, rudeness heated to the degree of brutality"

". . .you don't feel your future as you feel a thigh . . . because the present is too intense, too sunny, brief as a sneeze, too higgledy-piggledy, too complete, too total a drag already, whereas there is simply so much future, the future is flat as the sea three miles from your eye while the beach you are sitting on is aboil with sunshine and nakedness."

"Bydeebyby . . ."

Tell me, how did Gass come up with that version of toot-a-loo? Original with him, like so much else in this extraordinary book, it is but one of a multitude of expressions, ankle-turning variations on the familiar, that willl make you chuckle, wince, read on because you can't wait for the next one. "Wordulating" for example, as in "When the world ends the word will write on . . .wordulating." (ellipses in the original). All of us who write might be said to "wordulate" as, say, in "undulate" - as dancers do -or pontificate, as politicians do, but Gass, unless I miss my guess, is the first to put a name to what words do when we are not there to keep an eye on them.

If I were to hazard a guess as to what Middle C is about, I would say it's a story about how hard it is to get ahead in this life with one hand tied behind your back. In this case its an an ersatrz professor who lacks the bona fides required for his position and so concocts them out of whole cloth. Moreover, the protagonist (Gass relies on an omnipotent narrator) just wants to keep his head down, to operate in the shadows so that he can keep his flim flam from discovery.

There's more to him than that; he has no use for the abuses man inflicts on his fellows, abuses documented in his ever expanding "Inhumanity Museum". The professor's nephew "will grow up in a nation perpetually at war and indifferent to the safety of its citizens. Cars will carry guns and flags." Gass indicts our age, our country for its warfulness, its greed, its indifference to the needs of the earth and its creatures. As Ozick puts it "He is like the man in the fairy tale whose sight is so powerful that he must bind his eyes with a blindfold lest he see too unbearably much..."

End note. How does Gass feel about his "wordulating"? It comes hard to him. It took him 26 years to write "The Tunnel", nine more than he spent writing Middle C. How come? "I write slowly because I write badly. I have to rewrite everything many, many times just to achieve mediocrity." If, now nearly 88 years old, Gass is unlikely to undertake another novel, we may at least look forward to his essays and short stories. Because, despite what he says, he doesn't write badly, he writes with aplomb, grace and ingenuity that assure his place in our letters.
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