Fame and Folly
Like runners, most writers have preferred distances. Cynthia Ozick is most at home in mid-length forms. Her most memorable fiction has been in Bloodshed and Three Novellas (1976) and The Shawl (1989) and the short novels The Cannibal Galaxy (1983) and The Messiah of Stockholm (1987). With few exceptions, the most impressive essays in her two previous collections have been the ten- to twenty-page ones: extended examinations of Edith Wharton, Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Bernard Malamud, Harold Bloom and “a new Yiddish” in Art and Ardor (1983), and of Cyril Connolly, Primo Levi, Theodore Dreiser, Sholem Aleichem, S. Y. Agnon, and the Book of Ruth in Metaphor and Memory (1989).
In her foreword to Art and Ardor, Ozick acknowledged that most of the reviews, essays, articles, talks, and journalism collected in that book were “instigated or invited,” the products of stimuli that were “inevitably external.” In most cases, in other words, she chose neither their subjects nor their length. The work in Metaphor and Memory was similar: mainly short pieces, written at the request of others. Since Ozick is a thoughtful, often surprising writer and a sensitive, book-obsessed reader, she is almost totally incapable of being uninteresting, regardless of length. Yet beginning with its first essay—a forty-seven-page meditation on “T. S. Eliot at 101” which deservedly attracted a good deal of attention when it first appeared in The New Yorker—it is obvious that Fame and Folly contains essays that are fundamentally different from those in her earlier collections. These essays grow out of her own interests rather than assignments, and their lengths have been determined by her rather than by editorial constraints. The effect has been liberating, so that in Fame and Folly her particular passions and persistent concerns are placed in bold relief.
Cynthia Ozick is a self-consciously Jewish American writer. She is also a connoisseur of failure and disappointment, whose every essay is an exercise in disguised or undisguised autobiography. The ones that stand out in Fame and Folly all seem inspired by a peculiar, occasionally discomfiting, combination of envy and sympathy. The careers of other writers—their ascents and declines, fame and infamy, wisdom and folly, success and neglect—obviously fascinate her. In part, it seems, because she cannot help but comparing them to her own.
Her memoir “Alfred Chester’s Wig” and her essay on Eliot are the most obvious examples of this autobiographical slant. In the memoir, she spends nearly as many pages as she devotes to her essay on the most influential poet of the first half of the twentieth century dissecting her rivalry with a minor American writer who is now almost totally forgotten. She and Chester started out together at New York University in 1946 as precocious and ambitious readers and writers. In the 1950’s and 1960’s—while Ozick was struggling with a three- hundred-thousand-word first novel that she ultimately abandoned—Chester quickly gained publication, reputation, literary friendships, and a small portion of cultural power. His work appeared in Commentary, Partisan Review, and Paris Review; he was an editor of the avant-garde little magazine Botteghe Oscure; he was included in one of Esquire magazine’s annual reports on the “Red Hot Center” of American writing; he traveled abroad, living for several years first in Paris and then in Morocco. By the early 1970’s—as Ozick was just beginning to gain recognition—he self-destructed, dying at forty-two of drink, drugs, and dissipation.
Why, she asks, did he fall apart? She does not seem to ask because she is searching for an answer but because she is already sure she knows it. Based on the several years that they spent together in their youths, Ozick is convinced that it was because of the insecurities and crises of identity created by the childhood illness that left him bald and led him to wear terribly obvious, sadly comic, wigs as a young man; because he was rejected by women he loved and turned to homosexuality in response; because he turned from the friends (like her) who might have supported and sustained him to friends who helped him to destroy himself. Her confidence that she understands Chester’s psychology and sexuality better than he did is startling and more than a little presumptuous—especially since she demonstrates so little knowledge of or empathy for homosexuality.
Finally, this memoir is as much about Ozick as Chester, an effort to disentangle and differentiate her fate and career from his. In her mind, they were rivals. “He was better than I was!” she thinks at one point, but “I was stronger.” She portrays herself as the tortoise to his hare. He speeds ahead into bohemia, only to lose control of his literary style and his life; she plods along among the middle class, quietly laboring to perfect her craft at the little Sears Roebuck desk that she has used since high school, eventually establishing her reputation and surviving into her sixties.
Yet she also sees that they shared a common fate. In...
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