In Dictation: A Quartet, Cynthia Ozick presents four long stories, three of them previously published: “Dictation,” “Actors,” “At Fumicaro,” and “What Happened to the Baby?” An admirer of Henry James’s work in her early years, Ozick later freed herself from his influence. The title story, “Dictation,” is an exuberantly witty exercise in imagination in which James, his spoken words mimicking his elaborately constructed prose, discusses literary matters with the young Joseph Conrad, the apprentice novelist. James and Conrad were acquaintedthat much is history. The rest of the story is the author’s invention.
Conrad, visiting the master in his country home, learns that James, his hands crippled by years of gripping his pen, has hired an amanuensis to type his dictated words on a newfangled invention, the Remington. Conrad worries: Might the intervention of the typist and her machine break the sacred relationship between the brain and the pen?
Nine years later, after Conrad has achieved success, he meets James again in London. However, Conrad’s hands have been crippled by gout; he, too, has hired a secretary with a Remington. Conrad and James debate weighty literary questions, such as whether a writer’s fiction reveals the dark secrets of his inner self, as Conrad believes, or masks his true identity, as James believes. The comedy turns on the ironic irrelevance of this debate when the two amanuenses, portrayed under their real names, take matters into their own hands and conspire to interfere with the texts of their employers.
Theodora Bosanquit, James’s secretary, is a schemer who sets out to seduce Lilian Hollowes, Conrad’s shy, awkward secretary who is secretly in love with her employer. Conrad has hoped to prevent a meeting between the two women, fearing that his secrets would be revealed. Nevertheless, Theodora outmaneuvers him and introduces herself to Lilian, taking her to tea and ferreting out personal details of her life.
Having failed to seduce her, Theodora plays upon Lilian’s secret worship of her employer and her jealousy of Conrad’s wife. Lilian agrees, albeit reluctantly, to Theodora’s plot. The scheme is intriguing: Is it possible for each typist to copy a passage from her employer’s text and have the other insert it into her writer’s manuscript without being detected? Certainly, says Theodora; the artistic ego, believing in its own genius, will assume that the substituted passage is of his own brilliant invention. The two supposedly altered stories are James’s “The Jolly Corner” and Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer.”
Ozick revels in linguistic play and, with an unerring gift for dialogue, mimics James’s pretentious diction and Conrad’s passionate outpourings. She even hints at a liaison between Theodora and a young Virginia Woolf, identified only as Ginny. Should anyone detect anachronisms, Ozick assures readers, in an impish footnote, that this is, after all, just fiction.
Perhaps this is a diabolical instance of feminist revenge against the great men who treat their secretaries as inferiors. Certainly the story poses an intriguing literary puzzle: If the amanuenses, mere employees in the service of genius, succeed in their scheme, who can claim ownership of a literary text?
In “Actors,” Matt Sorley, the stage name of Mose Sadacca, is nearly sixty, an unemployed actor who prides himself on the wit and subtlety of his work. He pretends to attend auditions, rejecting the “geezer” roles that he is offered, and he disdains his occasional stereotyped roles in television series. Frances, his long-suffering wife, resents having to support them both by creating crossword puzzles. Her arcane vocabulary is the source of much of the humor in the story.
To the rescue comes Ted Silkowicz, a trendy young director who offers Sorley a role he cannot refuse: the lead in an updated version of William Shakespeare’s King Lear (1608), a revival of the bygone Yiddish melodrama. There is one condition; Sorley must agree to meet with the deceased playwright’s father, Eli Miller, a retired actor living in a Jewish home for the elderly. This visit, with Frances along for support, is a masterpiece of comic misunderstanding. Is Miller hovering over the edge of sanity or uttering artistic truth about the greatness of Yiddish theater?
After first dismissing the play as “The Lear of Ellis Island,” Sorley begins to inhabit the role. Abandoning all subtlety, he howls and gestures in an excess of melodramatic emotion. The success of the play will depend upon the audience’s willingness to accept as tragedy the unfamiliar style from the past....
(The entire section is 1930 words.)