The Cannibal Galaxy
This latest achievement by Cynthia Ozick is another spellbinding, virtuoso performance, confirming her reputation as one of America’s most brilliant writers. Ozick’s craft is a national treasure. Her themes are of the highest importance. Her audience, however, will no doubt remain limited for a number of reasons. She is a fine literary writer in a culture in which higher literacy is quickly vanishing, the enjoyment of Ozick’s work—its intricacy, its polish, its inherited and transformed traditions—is available to fewer and fewer readers. Perhaps more important, her settings, characters, and situations embrace a restricted milieu. Readers needing obvious mirrors of themselves or conventional escape worlds will struggle with Ozick’s rarefied intellects, sophisticated immigrants, and devotees or transmitters of a Judaica nourished in ghettos. The clash of the Old World and the New in The Cannibal Galaxy is powerfully and wisely told, but its terms are very special; some of them already need footnotes.
Joseph Brill, the central character in this novel, is defined as a man caught, or stuck, in the middle. A man in middle age risen to middle heights of success (far less than could have been imagined for him), he is the architect and chief proponent of an eccentric educational curriculum that attempts to blend the two old worlds of his experience: Orthodox Jewish learning and tradition on the one hand, the noble achievements of European civilization on the other. That is, he would stabilize for the youth of the New World that volatile mixture whose explosion in the Holocaust Brill barely escaped. As the principal of a private primary school located right in the middle of the United States, he oversees the workings of his ideal compromise without ever seeing it as the paradox that it really is. His curriculum defines another kind of middle—a norm—but Brill himself sees it as something very special, something transcendent. It is his hope for a personal contribution of the highest order. How did Joseph Brill come to his sense of a special destiny?
Extended flashbacks begin to answer that question. Reared in the Jewish quarter of Paris, a prodigy in his Jewish learning under the revered Rabbi Pult, the young Brill slowly falls under the influence of the expressive non-Jewish culture that surrounds his tradition-bound, closed world. A maverick, he lingers at the monuments and museums of Paris, risking a contamination that could affect his Judaic studies. Particularly fascinating to him is the Musée Carnavalet, which contains the apartment of the legendary Madame de Sévigné, the molder of French literature whose “unreasonable passion for her undistinguished daughter had turned the mother’s prose into high culture and historic treasure.” Brill is awed by the richness of this culture, so different from his explorations into Torah and Talmud.
Brill pursues studies in literature and history at the Sorbonne, finding himself increasingly at home outside the Jewish community. His new friend, Claude, is his guide to Gentile culture, especially the latest fashions in European art and society. Brill trims his Jewish accent only to be wounded by the discovery of his friend’s homosexuality. Avoiding Claude, Brill finds himself labeled “Dreyfus”; he begins to mistrust the enlightened Europe shaped by great men who, like Voltaire, were anti-Semites. Ozick writes: “He was sick of human adventure. He had felt an unknowable warmth and feared it. It had betrayed him and named him Dreyfus.” Brill changes his course of study to astronomy, turning his attention from the deeds and expression of men to the passionless stars.
Suddenly, the Nazis are overrunning Paris. Brill, in attempting to find his old mentor, Rabbi Pult, finds instead a broken door, packed suitcases, and a pile of burned books. He grabs a briefcase containing Rabbi Pult’s Venetian Ta’anit and, reeling with fear, tries to save himself. Although he loses his parents and five of his siblings in the Nazi death camps, his three older sisters manage to survive. Brill himself is taken in by nuns, who hide him in the cellar of a convent school. Here, he undergoes a kind of rebirth, emerging with a clear sense of mission. During this period of confinement, he finds a shadowy double, a figure from the past who helps him to articulate who he is and what he must do.
The nuns who shelter Brill have been charged with sorting out the library of an eccentric priest, and Brill volunteers to help. Among the volumes, he discovers a strange book by one Edmond Fleg entitled Jésus, raconté par le Juif Errant. “And who was Edmond Fleg?” Brill wonders. Fascinated, he searches for more books by this mysterious figure, finding volumes of plays, a cycle in verse, a long essay on Palestine, a metaphysical autobiography—heavily annotated by the priest. From the idiosyncratic works of Fleg (né Flegenheimer), Brill takes a vision of a grand synthesis of Christian and Jewish traditions. Indeed, the priest’s marginal notes in the various volumes point to a similar understanding of Fleg’s work: “The Israelitish divinely unifying impulse and the Israelitish ethical inspiration are the foundations of our French genius. Edmond Fleg brings together all of his visions and sacrifices none. He harmonizes the rosette of the Légion d’Honneur in his lapel with the frontlets of the Covenant on his brow.” Thus, in the wildest of ironic situations, Brill, tutored by the strange tastes and jottings of a dead priest and the harmonizing efforts of a Jewish Parisian playwright, emerges from the convent cellar with an ideal curriculum blooming in his mind. Ozick leaves nothing to mere logic but constantly invents portents for Brill and the reader. Here, the operative one is the virtually exact resemblance between the dark-green, leather binding of the old priest’s volume of Pierre Corneille and that of Rabbi Pult’s Ta’anit—the two cultures strangely twinned.
Discovered by one of the convent schoolgirls, Brill is relocated to a farm outside of Paris, where he spends the remainder of the war, sleeping in a hayloft and doing menial chores around the barn. Here, he is treated less kindly,...
(The entire section is 2548 words.)