Cynthia Ozick has been described as one of America’s best writers, one of its leading women of letters, the Athena of its literary pantheon. She has won prestigious awards by the armful: she was recently nominated for the first International Man Booker Prize for career achievement, alongside Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Gabriel García Márquez, Margaret Atwood et al. Consequently, it is sometimes seen as surprising that she is so little read in Britain. Her formidable essays have been published and admired here; but, of her nine works of fiction, only The Bear Boy – published in America as Heir to the Glimmering World – is currently in print. There is, emphatically, no great mystery about this: I would bet good money that she has not been much read in America either, outside the band of academics often described as ‘the Ozick industry’. Ozick has a high Modernist disdain for anything that is easy or easily consumed; she is the implacable enemy of what she sees as ‘the cry of the common culture’, ‘in every instance a pusher of Now, a shaker-off of whatever requires study or patience, or what used to be called, without prejudice, ambition’. There is a lot to be said for her uncompromising and eccentric fiction. But – with the exception of The Bear Boy, something of a departure – it certainly requires study, patience and ambition.
Ozick made her name with the series of stories and novellas collected as The Pagan Rabbi (1971), Bloodshed and Three Novellas (1976) and Levitation (1982). These are hard to categorise, being prone to disorienting and sometimes thrilling changes in style and direction: the guests at a drinks party will suddenly levitate towards the ceiling; an apparently inoffensive narrator will turn out, for reasons unexplained, to have carried a loaded gun into a Hasidic synagogue. The prevailing mode is of a tortuous and ironic intellectual comedy: dense, highly worked and highly allusive, punctuated by learned digressions which make the stories, from time to time, pretty unreadable. Take, for example, this passage from ‘The Pagan Rabbi’, in which, I should explain, a rogue, nature-loving rabbi, who takes the shockingly heretical view that idolatry is impossible because divine vitality exists in all matter, is courting a lascivious tree-dryad named Iripomonoeia:
‘Come, come,’ I called aloud to Nature. A wind blew out a braid of excremental malodour into the heated air. ‘Come,’ I called, ‘couple with me, as thou didst with Cadmus, Rhoecus, Tithonus, Endymion, and that king Numa Pompilius to whom thou didst give secrets. As Lilith comes without a sign, so come thou. As the sons of God come to copulate with women, so now let a daughter of Shekhina the Emanation reveal herself to me. Nymph, come now, come now.’
Like a lot of her work, this doesn’t seem to want reading: it wants exegesis, or perhaps even translation. It has been said that ‘the bewilderment of the goy’ has hampered her reception, since her stories are steeped in Jewish lore and thinking. But this is only part of it. Anyone who hasn’t followed the path of her own wide and idiosyncratic learning is likely to be bewildered.
But the bewilderment can also be an extremely enjoyable experience. Her best stories present a vivid, demented drama of complex ideas, a world ‘crazed by mental plenitude’ – to use a phrase from The Puttermesser Papers (1997). Ruth Puttermesser, the heroine of this striking and completely original novel, is an authorial alter ego: an autodidact, whose idea of heaven is a garden with a first-rate public library, where she would be able to spend all eternity reading and eating fudge. During the course of the novel, she is fired from her job, creates the first female golem, becomes mayor of New York, briefly turns the city into a utopia, even more briefly enters a marriage designed to resemble the union of George Eliot and George Lewes, and is then brutally murdered – before ascending into Paradise. Most of the action appears to take place in Puttermesser’s head: one long solipsistic intellectual vision, enlivened by some terrific rhetoric and a few sharply-drawn grotesques – an authentically crazy performance. Though animated more by ideas and bookish enthusiasms than by narrative or character, it is not remotely dispassionate or unemotional. This is the way of most of her fictions, which tend to be elaborate and circuitous meditations on deeply felt themes: love, ambition, anti-semitism, or the difficulty of maintaining a Jewish identity in a gentile society.
‘It takes a great deal of history to produce a little literature.’ This, from Henry James, is one of Ozick’s favourite quotations. In her case, it is literally true, since the history of the persecution of the Jews in Europe bears down with a terrible weight on nearly everything she has written. She has approached the Holocaust head-on only once, in The Shawl (1989), one of her most direct and realistic novellas, which begins with the murder of a child in a concentration camp, and then moves to Miami thirty years later, where the child’s mother, now ‘a madwoman and a scavenger’, is living out an interminable aftermath. It is rare, though, to find a novel or a story which does not feature some reminder, such as a death camp survivor or a refugee.
Typically, the Holocaust hovers over an everyday feature of American life, throwing it into ambiguous or ironic relief. One of her best stories, ‘Envy; or Yiddish in America’, begins with a lament for the passing of Yiddish:
And the language was lost, murdered. The language – a museum. Of what other language can it be said that it died a sudden and definite death, in a given decade, on a given piece of soil? Where are the speakers of ancient Etruscan? Who was the last man to write a poem in Linear B? Attrition, assimilation. Death by mystery, not gas. The last Etruscan walks around inside some Sicilian. Western Civilisation, that pod of muck, lingers on and on. The Sick Man of Europe with his big globe-head, rotting, but at home in bed. Yiddish, a littleness, a tiny light – oh little holy light! – dead, vanished. Perished. Sent into darkness.
The story’s protagonist is Edelshtein, an obscure Yiddish poet furiously jealous of Ostrover, a thinly fictionalised version of Isaac Bashevis Singer, who has become wildly successful in America. If only, Edelshtein thinks, he was translated, like Ostrover: he too could win recognition and glory; if only Yiddish had not been butchered. The story’s bitter joke is that Edelshtein confuses what is Hitler’s fault and what is down to his own lack of talent. Ostrover punishes him with a Singeresque story, in which a mediocre poet foolishly sells his soul to Satan for the chance to write in other languages, and ends up writing doggerel in Hell. This, too, is typical of Ozick: Singer’s kind of comedy, a Yiddish version of the old generous comedy of human types, becomes something much more rarefied, self-conscious and pinched.
It also takes Ozick a lot of literature to produce a little literature. As much as Borges or John Barth, she is a metafictional author: her subject is books and writers; obsessive readers, people driven to distraction by fiction. Lars Andemening, the protagonist of her third novel, The Messiah of Stockholm (1987), is an orphaned Swedish book reviewer who fancies himself the illegitimate child of Bruno Schulz, Poland’s answer to Kafka, the author of the hallucinatory comic masterpiece The Street of Crocodiles (1934). At the climax of the story, a shifty bookseller offers Lars what may or may not be a manuscript of Schulz’s final work, The Messiah, lost after its author was gunned down in the street by the SS in 1942. The high point of this very curious novel is Ozick’s vision of what Schulz’s lost masterpiece might have looked like. The Messiah comes to Drohobycz, the Polish city where all of Schulz’s fevered imaginings are set, in the form of a giant book, with ‘several hundred wing-like sails’: ‘alive, organic, palpitating with wild motion and disturbance – yet not like a robot, not like a machine’.
Much of her fiction, like The Messiah of Stockholm, takes the form of an eccentric gloss on other works of literature. In the novella ‘Usurpation (Other People’s Stories)’, an Ozick-like narrator attends a public reading, where she hears a famous writer read one of his stories. The story is a modified version of Bernard Malamud’s ‘The Silver Crown’, about a counterfeit rabbi who extorts money out of the desperate by selling them silver crowns which, he claims, have magical powers. Malamud’s story produces in the narrator the deep conviction that this is her story, which has been stolen from her before she has even written it. Thereafter, the intertextual references become even more frenetic. At the reading, the narrator meets ‘the goat’, a young writer who squats in an abandoned synagogue and gives the narrator a manuscript of a story he has written (again based on a published story). This, in turn, is about a young man who visits a famous old writer (based on S.Y. Agnon) in Jerusalem. The old writer gives him a magical crown, which condemns the wearer to be haunted by the ghost of the Hebrew poet Tchernikhovsky, whose love of nature and Greek culture makes him, the story suggests, an idolater. Ozick brings the curtain down on this immensely convoluted story, rather abruptly, like this:
When we enter Paradise there will be a cage for story-writers, who will be taught as follows:
All that is not Law is levity.
But we have not yet ascended. The famous writer has not. The goat has not. The false rabbi has not . . .
The goat inhabits the deserted synagogue, drinking wine, littering the yard with his turds. Occasionally, he attends a public reading. Many lusts live in his chin-hairs, like lice.
Only Tchernikhovsky and the shy old writer of Jerusalem have ascended. The old writer of Jerusalem is a fiction; murmuring psalms, he snacks on leviathan and polishes his Prize with the cuff of his sleeve. Tchernikhovsky eats nude at the table of the nude gods, clean-shaven now, his limbs radiant, his youth restored, his sex splendidly erect, the discs of his white ears sparkling, a convivial fellow; he eats without self-restraint from the celestial menu. And when the Sabbath comes (the Sabbath of Sabbaths, which flowers every seven centuries in the perpetual Sabbath of Eden), as usual he avoids the congregation of the faithful before the Footstool and the Throne. Then the taciturn little Canaanite idols call him, in the language of the spheres, kike.
Harold Bloom, no less, has described this story and ‘Envy’ as ‘novellas unequalled in her generation’. And there is, doubtless, much to be admired: the manic wit, the deft rhetoric, the play of recondite ideas. It’s also interesting to see self-conscious postmodern techniques used to convey a didactic Orthodox Jewish vision. As Ozick explained in an accompanying essay, the story deals with one of her great obsessions: the opposing pulls of belles lettres and the Law, the question of ‘whether Jews ought to be storytellers’. Might writing fiction be a form of idolatry, an offence against the Second Commandment? Nevertheless, ‘Usurpation’ seems to me chiefly an impressive example of what has been, by and large, a depressing drift in the literature of the last forty years: the tendency of the novel, which D.H. Lawrence called ‘the one bright book of life’, to become the obscure book of other people’s books. Reading Ozick often just makes me wish I was reading Schulz, Singer or Malamud instead.
Happily, The Bear Boy doesn’t have this effect at all. Ozick, who was born in 1928, spent most of her twenties writing a huge unpublished philosophical novel, provisionally entitled ‘Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love’. Curiously enough, she has now written the sort of book that she might have written then: on the face of it, a rather traditional, Victorian-style novel about a young woman’s experiences, set in the Bronx of the author’s childhood. The heroine is an 18-year-old orphan, Rose Meadows, a Depression-era Jane Eyre who takes a job with a family of German Jewish refugees. As the large, chaotic and traumatised Mitwisser family moves into a tall, narrow house ‘in a remote corner of the sparse and weedy north-east Bronx’, Ozick builds up a distinctly Gothic atmosphere. There is a harsh and forbidding patriarch, Rudolf, a scholar of Karaism, a heretical Jewish sect which flowered between the ninth and 12th centuries AD. There is a madwoman in the attic, Rudolf’s wife, Elsa – a leading physicist back in Berlin, but now unable to leave her bed. The children are running wild (‘Rote Indianer,’ Rudolf mutters from his study). There are family secrets: their horrible experiences in Germany, histories of adultery, elopements. And then there is the money. Rose soon realises that the family has nothing to pay her with. Gradually, she learns that they are entirely dependent on a mysterious benefactor, James, who looks like a tramp, and comes and goes according to his whim.
The mysterious benefactor is the Bear Boy. The character was inspired by the wretched story of Christopher Robin Milne, forever scarred by his fictionalised childhood as the gingham-smocked sidekick of Winnie-the-Pooh, who used to say that his father had climbed on his infant shoulders and filched his good name; that he scarcely knew what he remembered from his childhood and what was A.A. Milne’s invention. James A’Bair (hence the Bear Boy), the winsome hero of The Boy who Lived in a Hat and 14 sequels, has similar resentments. ‘By the time Jimmy was six years old, he had the most recognisable tiny chin and round ears and furry hair of any child on earth.’ His parents die, leaving him an orphan, and James finds himself with nothing but money and his peculiar fame, forever the Bear Boy, mentally trapped in a nursery world of ribbons and jellydrops and nonsense rhymes, condemned to live out ‘the preposterous future of a fabled child’. He tours the world and finds various temporary diversions: smoking kif in Morocco, joining a troupe of itinerant actors. The Mitwissers are his latest amusement: their ‘precariousness’ and ‘hauntedness’ appeals to him; he is drawn by the father and by Anneliese, the pretty, enigmatic eldest daughter. So he plays with them, as the Bear Boy used to play with his doll’s house.
Only Ozick would or could have written The Bear Boy. But it showcases her recurring obsessions – the lost world of Jewish Europe, the dangerous seductions of America, people driven mad by books, the mesmerised distrust of literature – in an unprecedentedly elegant, moving and entertaining form. It has all the attractions of a Victorian novel, such as the plot and the vivid minor characters: Rose’s father, a man of ‘miniature vices’ and ‘tiny, preposterous plots’, is particularly memorable. But it also manages to be a strange, destination-less parody of the form, gleefully subverting its conventions: the happy marriage, the fortuitous inheritance. The language, too, is probably the most graceful that Ozick has produced: a tie-up between her two main influences – choppy, Yiddish-inflected rhythms, and the mandarin complexity of Henry James – that is both subtle and exhilarating. This is Rose, working as Rudolf’s assistant:
Patient at my typewriter, my arms uselessly dangling, waiting for the coarsening voice to resume, I was, I knew, a blank mote in that blank muteness – the white pool out of which he drew, hesitating and straining, the phantom eels of his thought. He lifted his large ugly knuckles and clawed at nothingness. The grooves in his forehead darkened. And then a single volcanic word would spit from his whole face, a rage of gluttonous spite would overcome him, and his lips would rattle and babble those alien names, Yehuda Hadassi, An-Nahawendi.
The Bear Boy is not an intellectual high-wire act like The Puttermesser Papers, but it is certainly a novel of ideas. The Karaites, we learn, were scriptural purists: they rely only on the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, in its literal meaning. They reject the Talmud – the Oral Law, the complex web of rabbinical exegesis which the mainstream of Judaism regards as equal in sacredness. To James, who wants to strip off the layers of interpretation imposed on him by his father, the Karaites have a special appeal. ‘The Bear Boy was never himself. He was his father’s commentary on his body and brain.’ So the novel asks the question: how much interpretation is inevitable – the Karaites, in spite of themselves, were famous for their scriptural commentaries – and how much is ‘embroidery and fraudulence’? But, unlike some of Ozick’s earlier work, it is never choked by the ideas. It remains fluid and lifelike, rather than clotted and diagrammatic. Ozick has always thought that fiction should have a higher purpose: that, as she once put it, ‘story should not only be but mean.’ She has allowed The Bear Boy to be as well as to mean.