Can a novelist successfully integrate the following, apparently wildly disperate, themes:
— the mid-1930s commencement of the diaspora of scholarly and scientific German Jews as the Nazis begin their persecution.
— the dysfunction of one of those families in the America that has “adopted” them.
— the adult angst of Christopher Robin Milne, destined to be remembered forever by everyone as a boy in short pants with a bear of very little brain.
— the never-ending conflict between literal and interpretive readings of fundamental texts and indeed literal and interpreted meanings of life experiences.
— the intellectual wasteland of pre-Depression up-state New York.
— a handful of love stories, each characterized by the fact that only one-half of the couple feels the love.
— the maturing of an intelligent, if confused and passive, young woman who is personally affected by all of the above?
That’s a very quick summary of the challenge that Cynthia Ozick has set for herself in Heir to the Glimmering World (2004) her eighth volume of fiction and most recent novel. It is called The Bear Boy in the UK version — I much prefer the North American title because it at least hints at more than one of the themes, instead of focusing on perhaps the most obvious one. And while the image on that UK cover is very appealing, I am afraid it is a total misrepresentation of the book.
Reading Ozick is a too long delayed project for me and this book is the first extended work the I have tried. I had nothing but praise for Dictation, a quartet earlier this year. And I can’t improve on John Self’s Asylum review of her short masterpiece, The Shawl. As my opening indicates, however, Heir is a work of completely different magnitude — and a challenge that I think this outstanding author meets most successfully.
Here’s the opening of the book:
In 1935, when I was just eighteen, I entered the household of Rudolf Mitwisser, the scholar of Karaism. “The scholar of Karaism” — at that time I had no idea what that meant, or why it should be “the” instead of “a”, or who Rudolf Mitwisser was. I understood only that he was the father of what seemed to be numerous children, and that he had come from Germany two years before. I knew these things from an advertisement in the Albany Star:
Professor, arrived 1933 Berlin, children 3-14, requires assistant, relocate NYC. Respond Mitwisser, 22 Westerley.
It read like a telegram; Professor Mitwisser, I would soon learn was parsimonious. The ad did not mention Elsa, his wife. Possibly he had forgotten about her.
You will note how many of those themes are at least hinted at in these three short opening paragraphs (you don’t have to know anything about the Karasites — I didn’t — to pick up on the literal/interpretive theme). Ozick, perhaps best known as a masterful short story writer, doesn’t waste a word, regardless of the length of what she is writing.
So let’s look just a bit at some of those streams. Professor Mitwisser is “the” scholar of the Karasites, an obscure Jewish sect from about the year 1,000, who totally rejected any rabbinical interpretation of religious texts. He lost his academic post as part of the first Nazi wave — the forgotten Elsa, a more than competent physicist with close connections to one who would soon win a Nobel Prize, soon lost hers. A Quaker community in Albany, New York, mistaking Karasites for Charismites (a sixteenth century, mystical Christian sect), adopts the family and brings them to the United States. Mitwisser is cheerful about teaching the Charismites but, as the ad indicates, he needs to get to New York City to have access to papers that will feed his main research obsession. It is lonely and all-consuming work — that is why he is “the”, not “a”, scholar.
The professor and Elsa have five children, two daughters bracket three sons. Elsa has not merely retreated from her scientific work, she has pretty much retreated from the world. With a totally-preoccupied father and isolated mother, what little organization takes place in the family is done by the eldest daughter, Anneliese. She is the first “heir” in the book; her father regards her as the natural heir to his work. The three sons and youngest daughter, Waltrup, are comic studies of the first order.
I will let Ozick herself explain the literal/iinterpretive theme:
It would be grandiose to call my novel a novel of ideas, but I hope I may venture that it is a novel of at least an idea: the idea of the necessity of interpretation, but also the danger of interpretation. What makes a human being? Language first, and then imaginative interpretation, the human mind cannot live without it. Like all literalists, the Karasites stood against imagination and interpretation, and they vanished out of history’s mainstream. The author of the Bear Boy books weighed down his son with so much ineradicable embellishment that the man could never free himself from the invented boy. Whether interpretation is too little or too much, a withering will follow.
(Major reviewer digression: Those of us who try to follow the American debate over whether Supreme Court judges should read the Constitution literally as the framers wrote it or apply interpretation to it can’t help but applying Ozick’s thought as a metaphor in that debate — I know I’m interpreting there, but still. End of digression.)
My apologies — the Bear Boy slipped in there without a proper introduction. Ozick has also said he was inspired by an obituary of Christopher Milne, who did spend most of his adult life trying to escape being Christopher Robin. In the novel, he is James — who as a five-year-old inspired his father, James Philip A’Bair, to write The Boy Who Lived In A Hat. The A’Bair boy became the Bear Boy (partly because he resembled a bear), fourteen other books followed and a franchise was born (even without the help of Disney for those of us who know our Winnie-the-Pooh history). Jimmy’s mother rouged him and dressed him in lace shirts to help support the franchise. He now rejects it all (hence the James) but with the death of his father he is now heir to the continually expanding fortune. He has done his best to spend as much as he can on travel and drugs but it keeps expanding. James has now adopted the Mitwissers and is their sole means of support — although given his lack of respect for any structure it is an on-again, off-again thing.
All of these threads are gathered together through the observant eyes of the eighteen-year-old who responded to the ad, Rose Meadows. The daughter of an upstate mathematics teacher who was more interested in drink and gambling than math, Rose has been well-schooled in the arts but not much else, including life. When she signs on with the Mitwissers, she’s not really sure if it is as nanny, governess, mother-minder or amaneunsis to the scholar — turns out it is all of these things, depending on the circumstances. Also trying to keep James under control and watching out for her cousin Bertram, who himself is enthralled with the radical woman, Ninel, (spell it backwards) and headed into his own life of ruin (sorry, there are only so many threads I can deal with in this review but he too is an interesting character).
I realize it is asking for a leap of faith to believe that all of this works — it does. In one sense, it is as if Ozick, the short fiction writer, has written five or six novellas and then, rather than publishing them sequentially, has braided them together in a single novel. It is arranged chronologically but she moves confidently from one theme to another and then back again. Even if you like some themes or characters more than others (that would seem to be inevitable), you can plunge on with confidence, knowing that the author will soon return to one of your favorites. And she does.
I noted in my review of Dictation that Ozick frequently gets mentioned in what I will call the American female triumverate — with Toni Morrison and Marilynne Robinson (who just won the Orange Prize for Home). I do think the three deserve to be mentioned in the same breath and that it is an individual reader’s tastes that will determine which you think is “best”, because they all have exceptional strenghs. Having said that, my tastes say Cynthia Ozick. Her short fiction is as good as anyone’s — this novel also stands in the first rank.