Cynthia Ozick is a distinguished and respected writer who has excelled in a wide variety of genres, including novels, novellas, short stories, essays, reviews, and literary criticism. Her work has attracted the attention of readers and critics ever since her first book, the novel Trust(1966). Of all her fiction, best known is the widely anthologized Holocaust story “The Shawl” (1980), set in Germany in World War II. The short story was republished in The Shawl (1989) along with the novella Rosa, which depicts the mother years after the events in “The Shawl.” The powerful emotional impact of the short story and its sharp imagistic style resonates as a cry for humanity and justice. In her nonfiction, too, Ozick is a meticulous stylist and a voice of conscience. Her essays often start with a specific incident or situation and then sweep forward to illuminate enduring moral and intellectual issues.
Quarrel and Quandary is Ozick’s fifth collection of essays, following Art and Ardor (1983), Metaphor and Memory (1989), What Henry James Knew and Other Essays on Writers (1993), and Fame and Folly (1996). The essays, or versions of them, originally appeared in such publications as American Scholar, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Yale Review. The nineteen essays cover a wide range of topics, from “A Swedish Novel” (on Göran Tunström’s The Christmas Oratorio, which Ozick ultimately finds overly poetic); to “The Ladle,” (in praise of the dipper, as in to dip soup from a pot); from “Lovesickness” (a personal experience of irrational infatuation) to “Public Intellectuals” (on the responsibility of writers and public thinkers in promoting social values). Whatever her topic, Ozick’s writing style itself commands attention.
Several of the essays, in one way or another, take up the question of art and its relation to politics, broadly defined. The first essay in the collection is “Dostoyevsky’s Unabomber.” Here Ozick compares Raskolnikov in Fyodor Dostoevski’s novel Prestupleniye i nakazaniye(1866; Crime and Punishment, 1886) to the late-twentieth century convicted terrorist Theodore Kaczynski, known as the Unabomber. The analogy seems rather strained, and indeed to a large extent Ozick abandons the comparison to focus only on Dostoevski. Yet this opening essay demonstrates Ozick’s ability to juxtapose events from literature with current events, often in thought-provoking ways. As a reviewer inThe New York Times notes about this collection of essays, “Even when you disagree with her, she electrifies your mind.”
In “Who Owns Anne Frank?” Ozick emphasizes her view that Anne Frank, despite her young age, was first and foremost a writer. While hiding from the Nazis in an attic with her family and others in Amsterdam during World War II, Anne kept her diary not only for it to be her “friend,” but with the goal of documenting the horrors and eventually publishing it and continuing to be a writer. The betrayal that led Nazis to their hiding place meant her family’s extinction in a concentration camp, with only her father Otto Frank surviving. He heavily edited Anne’s manuscript, the first of many changes to come. Ozick argues that the way the publication was promoted, and especially the emendations in the subsequent popular stage play and film, thoroughly distort Anne Frank’s story because the end is missing, the ending of her life in a concentration camp. What was Anne Frank’s diary of fear has been “bowdlerized, distorted, transmuted, traduced, reduced. . . . A deeply truth-telling work has been turned into an instrument of partial truth, surrogate truth, or anti-truth.” The innumerable editions and stage/film versions have minimized Jewish victimization, minimized German Nazi culpability, sweetened and infantilized Anne to the point that a young actress in 1997 said of the play and her lead role as Anne Frank: “it’s funny, it’s hopeful, and she’s a happy person.” Ozick traces in detail the evolution of the false myth of Anne Frank over half a century: this floating over the truth of evil has done justice neither to Anne Frank nor to the cause of social justice.
The theme of writers or filmmakers distorting realities shows up in “The Rights of History and the Rights of Imagination.” Ozick cites, for example, William Styron in his novel Sophie’s Choice (1976) portraying his Auschwitz concentration camp victim not as Jewish but merely as Polish. Creating such a characterization without any commentary blurs the historical realities. In “The Selfishness of Art” Ozick suggests that the novelist Henry James, long an admirable and interesting figure to her,...
(The entire section is 1960 words.)