Cynthia Ozick Essay - Ozick, Cynthia (Vol. 7)

Ozick, Cynthia (Vol. 7)

Ozick, Cynthia 1928–

Ms Ozick is an award-winning American poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist, and critic. Jewish themes, especially of religious traditions and responsibilities, recur in her writing. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

[Cynthia Ozick's Trust is] another story with a Jewish motif…. The heroine—nameless, a symbolic female of the generation brought up on Marxist parents now saddled with all the comforts of the haute bourgeoisie—finally meets her father who has been conveniently paid to stay away from her. The secret the heroine uncovers is not outstanding. What is outstanding is the author's style and literary richness. Miss Ozick has achieved a Jamesian novel with touches of D. H. Lawrence and James Joyce. One of her characters is described as having a "big waxy distinguished skull, disconcertingly like the heavy-chinned head of Henry James." The same might be said of her novel: it is skillful and slippery. You must hold on, or you will lose the wonderful polish of its style. (p. 273)

Martin Tucker, in Commonweal (copyright © 1966 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), December 2, 1966.

Trust is strikingly assured and yet insubstantial, as if it lacked a sufficient reason for being what it is. It's a novel of manner: illustrating the luxuriance manner can attain when exploited for its own sake, and the variety of manner at the disposal of a striving young novelist.

The debt is mainly to the high art and oblique characterisation of 60 years ago…. The spectacle is one of an acquisitive society with much of the surface of a fine society; the talk extravagantly witty, motives rarely what they seem. It's set up with some brilliance, but only for the purpose of demolition. Edith Wharton had the same way of knocking down her own elaborate social constructions, and already it looked an artificial exercise. Miss Ozick does it for effect at a still greater remove from reality.

The narrator is a grave girl, in the distinguished line of American heroines whose trust is abused. But if she has a cool, discriminating manner, she also has another that wanders off allusively: 'even redemption, that suspect covenant, can be revised by the bitter and loveless Christ to whom alone nothing, not even life, is irretrievable,' etc. Her quest for self-discovery … is largely conducted in the second manner; and not surprisingly it's far from clear, after 560 pages, where the quest has led. It provides, however, a vision of a kind: the girl's discovery of her real father (in a ruined mansion on an island) and an act of sex in which she feels she has 'witnessed the very style of her own creation'. This grandiose passage, with its swooning poetry and Gibbonian inflections, is in the novel's black manner. It suggests a Djuna Barnes of enormous proportions—and correspondingly hollow. (p. 86)

Robert Taubman, in New Statesman (© 1967 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), January 20, 1967.

Cynthia Ozick's novella "Envy; or, Yiddish in America"… brought back for me those early years in adolescence when reading is obsessive, when all literature is new and opens itself out before you with the sensuous and exploding hypnotic draw that real life cannot begin to compete with. After adolescence, there are probably relatively few writers who are able to overtake and own one in this way—Borges, Kawabata and García Márquez come to mind. With the publication of ["The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories"], I think Cynthia Ozick can lay claim to being one of them.

Miss Ozick's first book, the novel "Trust"—rich, convoluted, even virtuosic—revealed a rare quality of mind and a joy and a facility in language that was almost literally staggering but, because of its very complexity, tended at times to be opaque. In this new book of seven stories, all that was best in the novel—that relentless, passionate, discovering and uncovering intelligence—is present and instantly recognizable, but there is now a difference in the prose. It is sharpened, clarified, controlled and above all beautifully, unceasingly welcoming. (p. 7)

[These] people live as much in a real country, a real place … as in a confused and adamantly uncompromising country of the spirit. They puzzle how to live not only within the confines of daily life as it's given to all of us, but with the gnawing agony of the unsleeping, merciless past that carries them into no country that exists: the supernatural.

It is not the familiar science-fiction, super-technology land that they are teased into inhabiting. Rather, because America—what Edelshtein, the embittered, untranslated Yiddish poet calls "America the bride, under her fancy gown nothing"—is so severe a disappointment to them, a lie they cannot forge a compromise with, they push out the boundaries of their imaginations and reach into territories that they know in their hearts, in their history, are forbidden. They cannot make peace with or take part in human life as it goes on: husbands, wives, babies, are so much endless, purposeless repetition seen as ugliness, a species of unalterable decay, sickness and stupidity. What comes upon them—they are forced to it, it's not within their control—is a lust for the supernatural, for God's earthly form in fantastic, inadmissible, demonic creatures. This lust, torturously pursued and grappled with, blinds them, overwhelms them; in frenzy and passion, they feel themselves freed, and at the very same time know that their punishment is not concealed, but in fact embedded in their ecstatic, maddened liberation.

Miss Ozick seems to be constantly struggling with this theme, which is of course a variant of the question: what is holy? Is it the extraordinary, that which is beyond possible human experience—dryads ("The Pagan Rabbi") or seanymphs ("The Dock-Witch")? Or is the holiness in life to be discovered, to be seen in what is ordinarily, blindly, unthinkingly discounted? (pp. 7, 14)

This tension runs through all the stories and all the characters. Yet they are never characters who, as in some fiction, exist primarily to represent attitudes. From their smallest idiosyncratic gestures—their ways of eating, dressing, moving and arguing—to their largest concerns, they are people whom one knows, and not because we have met them before, but because we are meeting them, getting to know them now.

Cynthia Ozick is a kind of narrative hypnotist. Her range is extraordinary; there is seemingly nothing she cannot do. Her stories contain passages of intense lyricism and brilliant, hilarious, uncontainable inventiveness—jokes, lists, letters, poems, parodies, satires. In the last story, "Virility," a young, immigrant, would-be poet tries to learn English and write poetry at the same time by scrawling his poems on the torn-out pages of a dictionary. When asked why he doesn't use "regular paper," he says, "I like words … I wouldn't get that just from a blank sheet."

This book has no blank sheets. It reminds us that literature is not a luxury or diversion or anachronism, but an awakening and a restorative for the center of our lives. (p. 14)

Johanna Kaplan, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 13, 1971.

The characters in Cynthia Ozick's first collection of stories, The Pagan Rabbi are uncommon, and though there is a category of fiction known as "the American Jewish novel", Mrs Ozick's Jewish characters would not be at ease in the company of the people who appear in the work of Malamud, Bellow, Roth and Co. This is to her credit, and it might go some way toward reviving what must be by now a flagging interest in a literary form made up exclusively of extended ethnic jokes and backhanded compliments. She writes of people and situations who are rarely if ever seen in American novels, and one is interested to know whether her own novel Trust had the same imaginative daring….

[The title story] can be seen as a serious philosophic effort, but ultimately it fails, partly because it depends so much upon classical fantasy, and mainly because it is insufficiently dramatized and unpersuasive as a story. "The Dock-Witch" has the same result: a beautiful idea which an excess of fantasy deflates….

Yet two of the stories are excellent in all ways. The first of these, "Envy; or, Yiddish in America", is a portrait of Edelshtein, a Yiddish poet whose special curse is to remain without a translator in a country where the only glory is in being translated into English. (p. 72)

"Virility" [is] her other superb story—this one about an internationally acclaimed poet who is a determined plagiarist (but with a twist: like turning Nabokov's story "A Forgotten Poet" inside-out)—confirms Mrs Ozick's skill and shows her to be a vigorous; sly and accomplished writer, who deserves a very wide audience. (p. 74)

Paul Theroux, in Encounter (© 1972 by Encounter Ltd.), September, 1972.

Miss Ozick undertakes in her preface [to Bloodshed and Three Novellas] to clarify the purpose of "Usurpation." It is a story, she explains, about the dangers of storytelling, "the magic that kills." The gift for invention "can be a corridor to the corruptions and abominations of idol worship, of the adoration of magical event."

What cumbrous ethical baggage this puzzling novella is made to carry! What an unbridgeable chasm there is between Miss Ozick's tumid gloss and the text itself, a conceit of supernatural whimsy and erudite allusion…. Everyone in "Usurpation" is some kind of writer—wouldbe, "promising," dead, young, old—lusting after stories and fame and prizes…. Amid this frenzy of literary aspiration, Miss Ozick sounds the warning that those who choose magic over the Name of Names, Apollo over God, will in Paradise be confined to "a cage for storywriters, who will be taught as follows: All that is not Law is levity."

If the creative imagination leads, as Miss Ozick suggests in her preface, to violation of the Second Commandment—the prohibition against idolatry—then Jews ought perhaps not to be storytellers. But "we become what we most desire to contend with." So she has written in "Usurpation" a fantasy that questions fantasy, a story against storymaking spawned by a dread as ancient as Moses: that art is sacrilege, that stories are the idols of the mind's licentious imaginings.

Yet I doubt that the Mosaic burden of "Usurpation" would have revealed itself to me without the expository clues provided by the author. For all its capricious ingenuity and austere self-distrust, the novella is too schematic. Its moral conundrums stubbornly resist Miss Ozick's attempts to stir them to life. And her prefatory remarks are offered with a portentous air that seems at odds with her powerful intelligence. An uncommonly reflective storyteller and critic, she has come to believe that the conventional modes of realistic fiction are inadequate to the ethical questions raised by Jewish experience. But this admirable discontent is poorly served by pomposity.

There was no hint of moral flatulence in "Envy; or Yiddish in America," the remarkable story Miss Ozick published half a dozen years ago, about an unsung and unread Yiddish poet in New York who is being slowly devoured alive by his jealous hatred of Isaac Bashevis Singer. It is a tour de force of mockery and affection, ruthless observation and pity, written with the witty authority that often takes a lifetime to achieve. Even the novella "An Education," the first story Miss Ozick ever wrote, included in this new collection, has the brio and fluid assurance of a natural.

But the recent novella "A Mercenary," also reprinted here, suffers from calculated virtuosity, complete with an invented African language and religion…. Unfortunately,… "A Mercenary" reads like a dazzling set of variations in search of a theme.

In the title story, "Bloodshed," Miss Ozick more directly confronts an obsessive theme of her current work—the moral burden imposed upon every Jew by the Holocaust…. I don't for a moment question the anguished depth of Miss Ozick's feeling about the Holocaust, or her courageous willingness to confront the imperatives that six million deaths inflict upon the living. But the rhetorical shape of her conviction has become too sententious and literary. The debts of history should not be paid with the coin of self-importance. (pp. 18-19)

Pearl K. Bell, in The New Leader (© 1976 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), April 12, 1976.

In her previous works,… Cynthia Ozick … displayed an uncompromising intelligence wedded to a prancing narrative talent. In Bloodshed and Three Novellas, she skeptically examines her own gifts. What business has a Jew writing stories in an alien tongue, she wonders: "English is a Christian language. When I write English, I live in Christendom." Given the fiat of the Second Commandment against false idols, she questions a bit disingenuously whether a Jew should write stories at all.

So she perversely tells a tale against tale telling. In Usurpation (Other People's Stories) the narrator is "the sort of ignorant and acquisitive being who moons after magical tales."… [The] ghost of a Jewish poet orders her to choose between the "Creator or the creature. God or god. The Name of Names or Apollo." She chooses the Greek divinity and instantly becomes a font of Western literature…. She becomes, in short, a splendid ventriloquist, and the beauty of her adopted speech almost makes her forget that the words belong to strangers to her and her people.

This problem, of course, can be demonstrated but not solved. Is a sacred truth tainted by the human artifact that bears it? Ozick clearly relishes such paradoxes. Her stories are lush evocations of stony mysteries. (pp. 95-6)

No single piece in Bloodshed and Three Novellas quite matches Envy, an earlier tale about a Yiddish writer's comic quest for English translators and renown. But Ozick's skill at thrusting engaging characters into remarkable situations is as enviable as ever. She is self-conscious without being self-regarding. Because she mistrusts her own fluency, her stories constantly strain away from easy observations and cheap resolutions. She demands nothing less of her prose than the ineffable, yet her language does not simply point a finger at prepackaged symbols or detachable interpretations. With remarkable success, it makes a fist around the unknown. (p. 96)

Paul Gray, "Alien Tongue," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), April 12, 1976, pp. 95-6.

[Cynthia Ozick's] most effective stories and novellas are not only steeped in internal Jewish life and lore to a degree that sets them apart from the work of her contemporaries and predecessors; they are actually Jewish assaults on fields of Gentile influence.

In the title story of her first collection, The Pagan Rabbi, a brilliant talmudist falls in love with the world of nature, and, feeling the agony of separation so acutely, he hangs himself to effect a pantheistic reunion. The notes and letter that he leaves behind offer eloquent testimony to the pagan ideal of freedom and passionately declare the pleasures of natural loveliness, but the story is on the side of his pious widow who damns them utterly with the biblical term, "abominations." Into the mouth of the errant rabbi the author has put part of her own aestheticist longing, raising worship of the beautiful to the highest philosophic and religious pitch, but only to oppose it finally, almost pitilessly, in the name of religious values.

The story, though written in English, bears significantly on Jewish literature in both Yiddish and Hebrew. One of the most pervasive subjects of the modern Yiddish and Hebrew literary tradition is the rediscovery of those natural human instincts which would free the dust-choked ghetto Jew from the stifling repressions of halakhah and religious inhibitions. In the works of Mendele, Sholem Aleichem, Peretz, Bialik, Feierberg, and Tchernikhowsky, the physical world of sun, storm, trees, and rivers provides a model of freedom counterposed to the self-denial of shtetl culture. The pagan rabbi of Miss Ozick's story, shaped by that same talmudic culture but inhabiting the contemporary world, sees in nature not a necessary corrective but a competing force that commands an allegiance as fierce as God's. Her story unmasks the ideal of beauty and shows it to be, for the Jew, a force as destructive as any the "Gentile" world can offer. (pp. 41-2)

The struggle against the assaults and seductions of the Gentile world continues to absorb Cynthia Ozick in her latest collection of fiction, Bloodshed and Three Novellas. Three of the four novellas here are directly about that confrontation, and though free of the actual "bloodshed" promised by the book's title, do throb with ominous intensity….

The unsettling effect of both action and style in ["Usurpation," the] last story, is deliberate. The novella blurs the normal lines of demarcation between fact and fiction: the narrator tells us that she attended a public reading by a famous author and heard him read a story that she felt to be "hers"; then gives us the plot of a recently published story by Bernard Malamud that the knowledgeable reader would recognize as his; then changes the ending of the Malamud story and proceeds to find the "real persons" on whom the story was presumably based, as well as the unpublished manuscripts of its main character. In questionable taste, Miss Ozick also incorporates into her novella another story, which she uses as a literary foil, an actual work that she had seen in manuscript (it was subsequently published in Response magazine) by a young writer with a less secure reputation than Malamud's. On this story too she builds her own, in a candid act of plagiarism.

The novella, which freely reworks and passes comment on the works of other writers, is intended to undermine the act of fiction as process and as product. To deflate the mystique of the artist, Miss Ozick presents "herself" as a selfish and somewhat nasty finagler. In place of the grand notions of creativity, she gives us the petty emotions and treacherous techniques, the false bottoms and promises that produce the illusion of fictional magic.

But this act, the "Usurpation" of "Other Peoples' Stories," to use the double title of the novella, is only the lower manifestation of a higher, more significant act of false appropriation to which Miss Ozick wishes to draw attention. The thoroughly Jewish concern of this work is the writing of fiction itself, in Miss Ozick's view an inheritance from the Gentiles and by nature an idolatrous activity. Art—in the Western tradition of truth to fiction as its own end—is against the Second Commandment, she says, and anti-Jewish in its very impulse. As a Jewish artist, Miss Ozick undertakes to subvert the aesthetic ideal by demonstrating its corrupting and arrogant presumption to truth. (p. 42)

Though she admires the transforming, magical kind of art, Miss Ozick is, in fact, an intellectual writer whose works are the fictional realization of ideas. Her reader is expected, at the conclusion of her stories, to have an insight, to understand the point of events rather than to respond to their affective power. Miss Ozick has publicly regretted this quality of hers, and accused herself of lacking what George Eliot calls "truth of feeling." It is true that, marvelously imaginative as she is with words and ideas, Miss Ozick is not on the whole successful at creating autonomous characters whose destiny will tantalize or move the reader.

Because she is a Jewish writer who prides herself on the "centrally Jewish" quality of her work, Miss Ozick has hit a curious snag here. The writer who can achieve "truth of feeling" produces universal art whatever the ethnic stuff of his subject, but a writer of ideas requires a community of knowledge and shared cultural assumptions. In her preface, Miss Ozick says she has to explain the meaning of "Usurpation" because a certain non-Jewish critic had failed to understand it. This failure she attributes not to the story's possible artistic shortcomings, but to its Jewish specificity, which puts it outside the critic's cultural range: "I had written 'Usurpation' in the language of a civilization that cannot understand its thesis." As the prophet of an indigenous Jewish culture in the English language, she might have been expected to hail the critic's failure to understand as a milestone—an authentic breakthrough in the creation of a distinctive Jewish literature. Instead, determined to have both the cake and the eating of it, she anxiously becomes her own translator…. If her kind of art is not inherently universal, she is apparently prepared to provide "art with an explanation" in order to spread the splendor wide.

Saving herself from a lonely ethnic fate, Miss Ozick appears in the preface not simply as an author but as cultural impresario of a new Jewish literature in America. Elsewhere, in book reviews, letters-to-the-editor, and public appearances …, she has launched a veritable campaign to promote the idea of a Jewish literary community with meaningful ties to the past, to Israel, and to Jewish literature in Jewish languages. The thrust of this campaign is the Judaization of English, not only for the small community of Jews but for the wider world, so that Jewish writers may create their own literature and still hope to overcome the natural barriers of distinctiveness and particularism. (p. 43)

Ruth R. Wisse (reprinted from Commentary by permission; copyright © 1976 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, June, 1976.

All of the stories [in Bloodshed and Three Novellas] are finely worked, revealing startling glimpses of our unacknowledged selves. Smugness, vanity, lust, morbid curiosity—lint plucked from our most secret pockets….

["Usurpation"] is an unorthodox tale, outrageously funny and full of magic and pith, slyness and wisdom. It is infused with the wiley craft of Isaac Bashevis Singer and the crazy humanity of J. D. Salinger. All the stories are thoroughbred, but "Usurpation" is the pick of the litter. (p. 22)

Madeleine Kenefick, "Not a Tease," in Pacific Sun Literary Quarterly, Summer Quarter, 1976.