Archive for the ‘Ozick, Cynthia (4)’ Category

Foreign Bodies, by Cynthia Ozick

February 3, 2011

Purchased at

Cynthia Ozick is a favorite of the KfC blog — this is review number four of her works, which ties her for the lead in the “most books reviewed” category. Having said that, I don’t think she did herself (or her readers) any favors with the advance notices of her new novel, Foreign Bodies. To quote the inside cover blurb: “For her sixth novel, she set herself a brilliant challenge: to retrace the story of Henry James’ The Ambassadors — the work he considered his best — but as a photographic negative, in which the plot is the same but the meaning is reversed”. Admirable as that might be as a motivation (and I am sure it was), it adds nothing but obfuscation, useless expectation and distraction to a reader approaching this book. James is another KfC favorite and I had read The Ambassadors (and loved it) well before starting this blog — yes, there are comparisons between the two (which we can talk about in comments) but Ozick is a distinguished enough name to stand on her own. And that is how I will approach this review. If you haven’t read James’ novel, don’t let it stop you from trying this one.

Bea Nightingale is a New York teacher of English, approaching her 50th birthday, in a down-market industrial area — her students literally smell of the working class, but can be induced into reading by the violence in Shakespeare, since it reflects their lives. It is 1952, with the War still a recent memory, but Bea has saved up her money and is making her pilgramage to the beacon city that drove that generation of readers, Paris:

At that time there were foreigners all over Paris, suffering together with the native population, wiping the trickling sweat from their collarbones, complaining equally of feeling suffocated; but otherwise they had nothing in common with the Parisians or, for that matter, with one another. These strangers fell into two parties — one vigorous, ambitious, cheerful, and given to drink, the other pale, quarrelous, forlorn: a squad of maundering ghosts.

You can place Sartre, de Beauvoir, Baldwin, Hemmingway, whomever or wherever you want in that spectrum. That is what Bea wants to explore.


Her terrible brother, Marvin (an arms manufacturer, wealthy, living in Los Angeles, they haven’t seen each other for decades) has heard of the trip. The siblings have been out of touch for decades, but that does not preclude intervention here. Marvin’s son, Julian, went to Paris on a “gap-year” exploration some months ago (yes, here’s The Ambassadors angle) and hasn’t been heard from since, except for appeals for money. Despite their lack of recent connection and the fact that Bea has never met Julian, Marvin wants Bea to search for his son:

So! A wild goose chase, useless, pointless, it was eating into her vacation time, and all to please Marvin, to serve Marvin, who — after years of disapproval, of repudiation, of what felt almost like hatred — was all at once appealing to the claims of family. This fruitless search, and the murderous heat. Retrograde Europe, where you had to ask bluntly for a toilet whenever you wanted a ladies’ room, and where it seemed that nothing, nothing was air-conditioned — at home in New York, everything was air-conditioned, it was the middle of the twentieth century, for God’s sake!

For those who have read The Ambassadors, that excerpt should be enough to indicate why comparisons are of limited value — different age, different circumstances. James’ novel may be a model, but it is nothing more.

So let’s throw some other plot elements into the picture. Justin has found a lover, Lili, a displaced Romanian, whom he has taken up with. His sister, Iris, whom driven Marvin has high hopes for as a potential Nobel chemistry winner, although she is still a student, enters the picture as a force with influence on her father, brother and aunt. Plus, she has some goals of her own (feminism is part of the “negative” image in the comparison with James). And Marvin has placed his wife, an American Brahmin, in an LA “spa” to deal with her mental disorders. All of this contemporary action brings back memories for Bea of her ex-husband, Leo, now a successful composer of soundtracks for Hollywood movies. Ozick uses all of these elements to remove her novel from the narrative of James.

(I am cheating vistors who want a decent plot outline in this abstract summary. For a much more informative version, visit Trevor’s review at the MookseandtheGripes — it is a fair representation of how the action unfolds. And because he has done such a good job of describing the book as book, let me indulge in a very extended metaphor.)

Picasso Cubist Lady

Consider Ozick’s novel as a literary version of a cubist painting — I’ve chosen a Picasso portrait, but others would do. Now, imagine cutting this image up into a jigsaw puzzle and facing the challenge of putting the resulting pieces together; because that is what Ozick has done with this book. Each of her chapters is a piece of that puzzle; the reader’s challenge is to reassemble them and then figure out the resulting image.

There is a story line that pulls the book together, but, like Cubist paintings, while the elements of it all have consistency, they don’t really fit together in a coherent whole once you have done that work. The author emphasizes that by setting each chapter in different places (New York, Paris, Los Angeles, even in transit) and narrating each from a different point of view. The “glue” — if there is one — that holds them together are chapters which consist of correspondence between the various narrators — Bea, Iris, Marvin.

Like Picasso, each of the pieces of the puzzle is developed in exquisite detail. And there are enough hints, like a good jigsaw, to put them together. But when you have completed the task, the final image is much like Picasso’s portrait — there is much to admire, but you have only begun the task.

For this reader, that is the beauty of this novel. Each of its elements is sketched in the kind of realist detail that you can only expect from an exceptional short story writer (which Ozick, winner of four O Henry awards, certainly is). But when you follow the outlines and stitch them together, and then step back, the resulting picture requires a whole new layer of interpretation.

I certaintly enoyed that and it only adds to my high valuation of Ozick. Having said that, if you have not read her before, I would not start here. She is a wordsmith of the first order (and the short stories show it) but when she writes novels she does take the reading experience to a whole new dimension and that calls for some work. To appreciate that experience, I would advise starting with the shorter works (you could try The Shawl, but you would be starting with her best) — as much as I think Foreign Bodies is a signifcant achievement. This latest novel may require a revisit before I start to understand just how good it might be.


The Shawl, by Cynthia Ozick

September 14, 2009

ozick4Regular visitors to this blog will know that American author Cynthia Ozick is a favorite. Her four story collection, Dictation, a quartet, was one of the first books reviewed here. An enthusiastic review of Heir to the Glimmering World followed a few months later. Knowledgable readers were probably wondering why I was overlooking her masterpiece, The Shawl, and in fact I wasn’t — a review was simply waiting the appropriate moment and that moment has now arrived.

First published in 1980, The Shawl, is a powerful story of only eight pages. Three years later, Ozick returned to the same characters and subject — only in a setting more than 30 years later and an ocean and a continent away — with the novella, Rosa, an admittedly risky tactic. The author succeeded magnificently. Cost conscious readers may question buying a 70-page volume; you can rest assured that you will get full value from this incredible piece of writing.

The Shawl is set on the trek to and inside a Nazi concentration camp in Poland. Rosa, her infant daughter Magda and Rosa’s niece Stella are the three human characters but the dominant image is that of the shawl in which Magda is not only wrapped but from which she draws all her sustenance:

Without complaining, Magda relinquished Rosa’s teats, first the left, then right; both were cracked, not a sniff of milk. The duct crevice extinct, a dead volcano, blind eye, chill hole, so Magda took the corner of the shawl and milked it instead. She sucked and sucked, flooding the threads with wetness. The shawl’s good flavor, milk of linen.

Magda actually survives to become a toddler in the camp, but again it is the shawl that is the source of life and protection. Children would be taken away and disposed of, so each morning when roll-call is announced Rosa wraps her in the shawl and tucks her against the wall. Until one day Stella is cold and wraps herself in the shawl, Magda wanders and the inevitable murder takes place. When you read the closing sentences of the story, it is not hard to understand why the later novella demanded to be written.

Rosa is set in Florida in 1977. By now, Rosa is “a madwoman and a scavenger” who lives in a Miami “hotel” (better described as the permanent last residence of lost souls and the demented). She had lived in New York, running a second-hand shop until the pressure of her memories caused her to destroy the place — the newspapers said it was with an ax, but she said it was simply with whatever was at hand (“Part with a big hammer,….part with a piece of construction metal I picked up from the gutter”). She avoided incarceration only when Stella agreed to ship her out of state. While Stella is now supporting her, the two are not getting along any better. And Rosa hates Florida:

It seemed to Rosa Lublin that the whole peninsula of Florida was weighted down with regret. Everyone had left behind a real life. Here they had nothing. They were all scarecrows, blown about under the murdering sunball with empty rib cages.

There is a glimmer of hope in this existence as Stella is supposed to be sending, finally, Magda’s shawl. It is while she is experiencing the expectant anxiety of this that Rosa comes to the attention of Simon Persky, another Polish refugee but from the pre-war years (“My Warsaw isn’t your Warsaw,” she tells him several times). He wants to pick her up and his efforts bring forward Rosa’s tensions to provoke a flood of painful memories and, because of his persistance, some needed explanations:

“My niece Stella,” Rosa slowly gave out, “says that in America cats have nine lives, but we — we’re less than cats, so we get three. The life before, the life during, the life after.” She saw that Persky did not follow. She said, “The life after is now. The life before is our real life, at home, where we was born.”

“And during?”

“This was Hitler.”

“Poor Lublin,” Persky said.

“You wasn’t there. From the movies you know it.”

I certainly wasn’t there either and it is true that it is from the movies (and the books) that I know it. And I will admit that there are times when the sheer volume of Holocaust film and literature makes it seem too daunting to pick up another volume.

That does not apply with these two pieces — The Shawl and Rosa tell a story with tenderness to underline the pathos, with understanding to offset the tragedy. They do it in prose that is as accomplished as any that you will read anywhere. They deserve their reputation as masterpieces.

Heir to the Glimmering World, by Cynthia Ozick

June 14, 2009

ozickCan 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?

ozick 2That’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.

dictation, a quartet, by Cynthia Ozick

January 17, 2009

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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