dictation, a quartet, by Cynthia Ozick

ozickCynthia Ozick deserves her place in the front rank of contemporary American writers.  As a novelist Shawl and Heir to the Glimmering World are probably best known), she was one of the judges’ 17 finalists from around the world in the first Man Booker International Prize in 2005.  As a short story writer, she has won 4 O. Henry awards.  As an essayist, Quarrel and Quandary won a National Book Critics Circle award.

If you haven’t read Ozick, dictation, a collection of four long stories (they come in at about 45 pages each), is a very good place to start.  If you have, this new book published in 2008 deserves to be read.

When I say “front rank”, I should qualify that she is usually in what I call the third breath division of that elite group.  As in, “greatest contemporary American writer? let’s see”.  Short pause, breath one.  “Philip Roth?  Saul Bellow? John Updike? Don Delillo?”  Somewhat longer pause, breath two.  “Wait, there’s no woman author there.”  Even longer pause, breath three.  “Uh…Toni Morrison?  Marilynne Robinson? Cynthia Ozick?  Joyce Carol Oates?”

You can put me on the side of those who complain that women authors tend to get overlooked, if not completely ignored, in those kinds of discussions.  That Man Booker list had only four women on it (Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing and Muriel Spark were the others — Ozick keeps good company).  A New York Times feature a few years ago asked a couple hundred authors, editors, critics and academics to name their choice of  the best American novel in the last 25 years.  While Toni Morrison’s Beloved “won”, only one of the 21 other books on the list was by a woman (Robinson’s Housekeeping).  (For a link to that article and a following discussion — involving only males incidentally — on themookseandthegripes click here.  It starts about comment 20).  And in a recent review of James Wood’s  How Fiction Works, dovegreyreader sparked a similar discussion (this time almost all female) with the disappointed complaint that of the 93 books he mentions, only nine women authors were represented (by 11 books).

With luck, dictation and time will help to change that.  Ozick is a wonderful author and this is a very good book.

In her own sly way (and is Ozick ever effective at sly), the title story of this collection is a commentary on that issue.  The framework for the story, which opens at Lamb House in Rye, is the touchy friendship between Henry James and Joseph Conrad.  It had started with the insecure James as Conrad’s mentor — he is already beginning to feel somewhat threatened.  What sets the real action in motion, however, is that James has discovered the Machine (that would be the typewriter, pictured on the cover) and has found that MacAlpine, his longtime stenographer, who recorded his dictation in shorthand and then transcribed it, is not up to working directly onto the Machine.  MacAlpine is replaced by a “highly competent (and cheaper) little woman”.

James eventually takes to spending his winters at the Reform Club in London:  “It was here, on a rainy afternoon in January of 1910, that Miss Lilian Hallowes and Miss Theodora Bosanquet almost did not meet”.  And so we met the amanuenses who are what this story is about.  Miss Bosanquet, a sapphist, is the opposite of her master James — outgoing, curious, with a definite tilt to pranksterism.  Miss Hallowes is introspective, very respectful of her master Conrad and quite a prude — so Miss Bosanquet’s sexual quest has to be put aside, but her little plot of deception will live on.

I can say no more without spoiling the story (like O. Henry, Ozick likes her stories to have an impressive ending).  Let’s just say you end up not only knowing more about James and Conrad (some of which might even be true) and about female friendship, you are definitely chuckling.

The second story, Actors, centres on Matt Sorley, born Mose Sadacca, an actor in New York City who doesn’t get much work.  He has a reputation for arguing with directors; one addresses him as Mr. Surly.  Partly through laziness, partly through ego, he doesn’t go to auditions (although he is afraid to let his wife know that), opting to spend the time in the New York Public Library reading magazines.  She is very well read — as the breadwinner, her job is to create three crossword puzzles a week, so she knows a lot of words.

His wife takes a call from an agressive, young director who wants Matt for the lead in a new play that is “something about King Lear”.  Since it involves no audition, Matt goes to meet the director only to discover the playwright has died the night before:

Matt said, “The writer’s dead?”

“We’ve got ourselves a tragedy.  Heart attack.  Two A.M., passed away in intensive care.  Not that she’s any sort of spring chicken.  Marlene Miller-Weinstock, you know her?”

“So there’s no play,” Matt said; he was out of a job.

“Let me put it this way.  There’s no playwright, which is an entirely different thing.”

“Never heard of her,” Matt said.

“Right.  Neither did I, until I got hold of this script.  As far as I know she’s written half a dozen novels.  The kind that get published and then disapper.  Never wrote a play before.  Face it, novelists can’t do plays anyhow.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Matt said.  “Gorky, Sartre, Steinbeck, Galsworthy, Wilde.”  It came to him that Silkowitz had probably never read any of these old fellows from around the world.  Not that Matt had either, but he was married to some who had read them all.

Director Silkowitz has one request of Matt:   He wants him to go talk to the deceased playwright’s father, a nonagenarian now living in the House for the Elderly Children of Israel and a former actor (“the old Yiddish theater, the old feverish plays.  Weeping on the stage, weeping in all the rows.”)

Matt’s meeting with Eli Miller both motivates him and scares the hell out of him.  All of this takes place in the first third of the story, but again I’ll say no more:  the Lear metaphor is appropriate, there is a ghost and a play (sort of) finally gets produced.

Description of the final two stories will be much shorter, but they are equally as good.

In At Fumicaro, Frank Castle, an American art critic, book critic, writer on politics and morals and host of a weekly radio show where he answers people’s questions about Catholicism, arrives at the Villa Garibaldi in Fumicaro (the timing is pre-war so it is under Fascist control).  He’s scheduled to give a presentation, based on his show, to a seminar, mainly attended by priests, on “The Church and How It is Known”.

When shown to his room, the chambermaid is vomiting in the bedroom.  The story ends, four days later, when Frank is showing his new wife, the chambermaid, around the religious sites of Milan (that isn’t a spoiler — Ozick tells us that on page 3).  Trust me, when I say a lot happens in those four days.

The narrator of the final story, What Happened To The Baby, is a 10-year-old when the story opens whose mother takes her each week to meetings of her Uncle Simon’s society, the League for a Unified Humanity.  Simon is actually promoting his new universal language (GNU) — each meeting ends when the esperantoists at the back begin chanting anti-GNU slogans and rush the stage.  As the story unfolds, we discover that Simon, while hopeless, is a survivor.  Yes, there is a baby and something happened to it.  You’ll have to read the story to find out what.

This is a wonderful book.  Ozick does not waste a single word (unlike this review, alas — sorry) and packs more plot, character and sense of place into a 45-page story than most novels do in a book eight times that length.  The four stories all have different settings and take place in different times — it is an amazing collection. 

Cost-conscious readers may pick dictation  up, note its slim size and say “$24 is too much to pay for a 179-page book”.  (That’s the hardcover price in Canada and the U.S. — the paperback is due in March at $18.95.)

I say “you’re buying a 537-page book and it is great value.”  Ozick is one of those writers who demands and rewards at least three readings.  At the end of the first, you’ve been entertained and know you have missed half the story.  The second reading fills in most of those gaps while being even more entertaining.  Only the third time through do you really appreciate what the author has achieved.  So that’s a dozen 45-page reading segments that can be arranged in any order you want and fit to your timetable, rather than having to read right through.  As I said, great value.

As a final note on this too long post, if this interests you in Ozick but you just don’t like short stories, John Self at Asylum reviews of two of her novels, The Puttermesser Papers and The Shawl,  collected here.

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7 Responses to “dictation, a quartet, by Cynthia Ozick”

  1. John Self Says:

    Great to read about this Kevin – and your ‘third breath’ definition sounds about right, unfortunately!

    It’s worth noting that although this edition is not published in the UK (though is of course available there through the usual sources), all four stories here are included in the UK edition of Ozick’s Collected Stories – which also represents much better value for the cost-conscious. The drawback is that the type is very small and the stories seem robbed of air and space as a result. This is my excuse anyway for not having read any of them yet.

  2. John Self Says:

    Oops, I forgot to close the link tag.

  3. Trevor Berrett Says:

    I’m glad you reviewed this, Kevin. I got Heir to the Glimmering World a little while ago, and I’ve been anxious to update my thoughts on American women writers since. I’ve also been hearing more and more good things about Oates novels that I haven’t looked at. I got her recent collection of short stories High Lonesome. Now, how to fit them into my current reading schedule?

  4. Myrthe Says:

    This is as good a time as any to de-lurk on your blog, Kevin. I don’t know if you “do” awards, but there is one waiting for you on my blog. Take it as an encouragement for your new blog! :-)

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for that data, John. It also provides a good illustration of why I can’t understand the international book publishing business — Collected Stories is not available in North America. Which means that the cost conscious reader in North America who wants to explore Ozick and wants to get maximum value from the dollar is best advised to go to the Book Depository, with its free worldwide shipping (and they are reliable), and order this 512-page volume — the cost will work out to under $20 and my experience with their shipping says it will drop through the mail slot in two or three weeks. A lot more stories for a lot less money, all by shopping overseas. Whoda thunk?

    Thanks for “de-lurking” Marthe and thanks for the award. Have a great weekend.

  6. nico Says:

    Great review, I got the book but haven’t read it yet. Ozick’s impressive short stories are really something else. Did you read ‘Shots’? That’s one of her best! And her novel ‘The Messiah of Stockolm’ is worth re-reading too. That’s just a crazy game where she uses the myth of Bruno Schulz and his alleged lost novel, ‘The messiah’, turning it into something quite fascinating.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I do like the way that Ozick plays with existing fiction as a setting for some of her work. And I would suggest that you can “dip” into dictation one story at a time — like all good short stories, they really do reward contemplation after reading.

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