Cynthia Ozick Essay - Ozick, Cynthia (Vol. 3)

Ozick, Cynthia (Vol. 3)

Ozick, Cynthia 1928–

Ms. Ozick is an American novelist and short story writer. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18.)

[The] language [of Trust] is always askew, always surprising or disappointing expectation. It is as if Mrs. Ozick is extending—or trying to extend—the frontiers of perception by refusing the available phrase. She wants the arduous struggle for discovery, not the facile shock of recognition. I am only guessing at Mrs. Ozick's intention. I make this generous guess not out of any pleasure in the novel (I frankly confess that the novel gave me little pleasure), but because there is evidence of extraordinary ambition in the scope of the novel and Mrs. Ozick does show on occasion that she can write like a fiend (the long visionary account of the love-making between the heroine's father and a young woman surpasses anything Mailer has ever done, indeed is managed with the ingenuity and resourcefulness of a French cineaste).

There are, of course, honorable precedents for this kind of enterprise. The baroque idiosyncratic rhetoric of writers as different from one another as James, Melville, Carlyle, Whitman and Dickens suggests the places where Mrs. Ozick has sought her artistic freedom. There is a chapter on the Purses and their seven ridiculous children that [shows] Mrs. Ozick's occasional affinities for Dickens in spirit and expression. More obvious and pervasive are recollections of James. Indeed, one suspects that the late novels of James offer a kind of gloss on Mrs. Ozick's intentions. All is indirection, ellipsis and "practised hesitation": the reader is constantly irritated, because he is denied the comfort of his stock responses…. In stretching the sense of possibility, however, one must be careful not to destroy the tension with the real and the familiar, as James almost never does. In Mrs. Ozick's novel, this tension is too easily relaxed and the result is that the extravagant rhetoric doesn't so much extend the possibilities of perception as it estranges from genuine perception. It is as if the line of communication between reality and language were constantly breaking down, and Mrs. Ozick had to depend on the inexhaustible force and energy of her rhetoric to sustain the semblance of credibility….

[It] is hard to say what the novel is really about. The massive accumulation of detail, the constant nuancing of every situation obfuscates the fable…. The obfuscation is compounded by an uncontrollable propensity for the most witless kind of punning, a propensity that becomes epidemic toward the end of the novel…. [One] doesn't really know what to make of the Christian-Jewish theme of the novel. It seems simply to feed the curious resentments of the heroine: her Jewish stepfather is one more humiliation in her unhappiness.

The source of the trouble with Trust is its heroine. From the very beginning she speaks as if she has the taste of ash in her mouth. She is not disillusioned, because she was never illusioned…. Her impertinence, unredeemed by wit, is rampant throughout the novel. Everyone she deals with remarks this of her. Since she is the narrator and voyeur of the novel, the effect is to sully every character she presents. It is a case of reverse sentimentality: not the false roseate glow of a sentimental narrator, but the fog of chronic dyspepsia in the narrator….

Mrs. Ozick … deprives the heroine of every grace a woman can have. But it is precisely her ungraced condition that compromises the gift of perception and expression that she must possess as narrator. The climactic moment in the novel (the visionary account of lovemaking between her discovered father and a young woman) is simply observed by the heroine, who has no other privileges in the world of experience than to observe the lives of others. Brilliant as this passage is, it seems unmotivated. One might say that the general condition of the novel is a discontinuity between language and reality or between expression and feeling. The language expands and develops like a tumor or a wild growth that quickly conceals its roots in feeling. So that the lyric passages, for instance, appear as gratuitous flowerings on the barren ground of the heroine's sullennesses….

One wants to mitigate the harshness of the judgment of the novel, because the novel shows symptoms of power and talent. But the inescapable impression that the novel makes, despite every desire to wish it well, is that the book is a performance from ambition, that if Mrs. Ozick is to write a successful novel she must achieve a more authentic accommodation between her language and her feeling.

Eugene Goodheart, "Cynthia Ozick's Trust," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. IX, No. 2, 1967, pp. 99-102.

Cynthia Ozick comes forward in this masterful collection [The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories], not as a Jewish writer, but as a Jewish visionary—something more. All of her characters are, to begin with, distraught, distended by the world, trapped by misunderstanding, incommunicativeness, loneliness, exhaustion. But their distraction is only a starting-point. The stories are never simply descriptive or evocative….

Cynthia Ozick is always refining and winnowing obsessions and for the projection and substantiation of obsessions, thought is indispensable. A writer has to mind the language when obsession is at stake. It isn't enough to record the experience, because the experience is not given. It is wrested free from the encumbrance of normal perception and wrenched apart, examined like the entrails of a haruspex, and sewn up again differently. For this work all of the literature, philosophic, moral, mythological, and all of the language, its unfamiliar words and its delicious words have to be used. And Cynthia Ozick does all this, the language textured by a network of associations, reminiscences, allusions to the vast intellectual tradition of the West which has tried to crack the hard nut of thought with its bare teeth….

All the stories end with a kind of bleakness and disturbing obduracy. Perhaps the only one which suggests an ultimate nobility without a scream, the questing Rabbi Isaac Kornfeld in the title story, concludes in apotheosis. In all of Miss Ozick's stories there is the effort to call out over the horizon of human existence to the nameless one. The nameless one does not answer. He doesn't recognize his name. And we don't know the right one.

Arthur A. Cohen, in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), September 3, 1971, pp. 461-63.