Cynthia Ozick Long Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2200

After her disappointment in her first novel, Trust, which took her fourteen years to write, Ozick felt that she did not have the time, given her methods of composition, to write another work of such length and complexity. Trust is a Jamesian novel in important respects: its theme of...

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After her disappointment in her first novel, Trust, which took her fourteen years to write, Ozick felt that she did not have the time, given her methods of composition, to write another work of such length and complexity. Trust is a Jamesian novel in important respects: its theme of “Europe versus America,” its concentration on upper-class characters, its situations of personal discovery, its virtuoso technical devices. Trust contains only one Jew, Enoch, a young man who, significantly, discovers his Jewish identity as well as a meaning of history different from that held by the Gentiles in his work cataloging Holocaust victims.

Expansions of Enoch’s quest form the basis for Ozick’s later work. In her essays, she announced a new direction: Literature is for the sake of humanity, she declared; it is not an idol of the imagination. Literature is a recognition of the particular. She denied the tenets of the dominantNew Criticism and its “intentional fallacy,” which declared that writers should dissolve their explicit intentions into the forms they discover. This artistic turnabout affected her subject matter. As she saw it, two standards distinguish the Jewish sensibility from that of the Gentiles: The Jews abjure idolatry, which is found not only in the worship of art but also in other secular religions such as Freudianism and Marxism, and they maintain a tradition of interpretive commentary, as evidenced by the Talmud. She seized upon English, now spoken by more than half the world’s Jews, as the medium to replace the dying Yiddish language. What she meant by a Jewish literature in English was soon illustrated in her shorter fiction. In “The Pagan Rabbi,” for instance, theprotagonist, an assimilated Jew, visits a Hasidic community in New York State and is humbled by the spiritual commitment he finds there. A strong narrator, one with a broad knowledge of Jewish tradition and allusive powers, became her principal character.

The Cannibal Galaxy

The Cannibal Galaxy clearly serves Ozick’s aesthetic and moral program. The protagonist, Joseph Brill, had been a “hidden child” in a French convent during the Holocaust. In his youth he seeks to become an astronomer, to look ad astra, toward the cold heavens, to escape what he has experienced. He soon compromises his ambition, however; he emigrates to the United States and seeks mediocrity as his refuge—as principal of a middling school in the middle of the country, far from coasts and foreign dangers.

Brill’s idol becomes the “Dual Curriculum,” a mixture of Jewish and non-Jewish culture that finds a small, fashionable following but that to Ozick represents assimilation killing the roots of culture: “When a Jew becomes a secular person he is no longer a Jew.” Brill’s escape into dullness continues for years, but it is finally interrupted by the introduction of Hesther Lilt, a brilliant and aggressive intellectual. She is a self-described “imagistic linguistic logician” who enrolls her daughter, Beulah, in his school. Hesther fascinates Brill and reminds him of his many compromises. He is particularly obsessed with the relationship between mother and daughter.

Beulah is an ordinary child, without any of the spark shown by her mother. How disappointed the mother must be, Brill thinks. In a central conversation, he accuses Hesther of failing her daughter because she lacks a maternal instinct. In return, she tells him that she is “nothing but maternal” and that he has stopped too soon in maintaining his hope for Beulah. Her obsession with Beulah’s development is in fact her idol, and it finally cannibalizes her as Brill’s idol has cannibalized him.

Brill, freed from his obsession with Hesther, marries another woman, fathers a son, and sinks into a stupor of boredom and frustration. One day years later he sees Beulah being interviewed on television. In a startling switch of personality, she has become a fashionable avant-garde artist. She publicly demeans her mother and ridicules her education at his school as meaningless. Hesther has accomplished the creation of her idol at the cost of destroying her relationship with her daughter. Brill’s son, Nephali, meanwhile, seems enormously talented, a prodigy, everything Brill’s idol-worshiping heart could have wished. As he develops into manhood, however, he becomes a mediocrity, “a business major at the University of Miami,” showing none of his early promise. The end of Brill’s life is a coma of boredom, a result of his having failed to meet life in its immediacy.

The Messiah of Stockholm

In The Messiah of Stockholm, Ozick further examines the themes of the earlier novel in an entirely different background. Lars Andemening, a Polish refugee who has taken a Swedish name and who supports himself as a once-a-week book reviewer, believes himself to be the son of Bruno Schulz, a Polish Jewish writer and victim of the Holocaust with a phantasmagorical and prophetic style. Lars has no proof whatsoever of his identity, only his dreams and conjectures from Schulz’s work. He seizes upon rumors of a lost manuscript by Schulz, The Messiah, and devotes his life to finding it. His quest leads him to Heidi, the proprietor of a bookstore, and Dr. Eklund, her shadowy husband, who is “an authority on texts.” They too are refugees with uncertain background, and it is unclear why they should bother with the penniless and apparently deluded Lars. The mystery deepens when Adela, a woman representing herself as Schulz’s daughter, appears with a manuscript she claims to be that of The Messiah in Schulz’s own hand.

Dr. Eklund pronounces the text authentic, and Lars is confronted with a reality that lays waste the fragile structure of his fantasies. The text itself is a dreamscape of Schulz’s hometown of Drohobycz, now emptied of people and dominated only by idols who have no one left to worship them. Finally the idols themselves are destroyed by a small bird carrying from the synagogue a bit of hay that had been slept on by a saintly Jew. The text, therefore, declares the fallacy of the idolatry of which Lars has been guilty.

Dr. Eklund urges Lars to use his newspaper column to introduce this literary discovery. Lars, however, denied his illusions and his special status in respect to Schulz, accuses Eklund and Adela of attempting a literary hoax—the actual truth about the manuscript hangs rather ambiguously. Lars burns the manuscript, figuratively burning the idolatrous dream out of his life. No longer does he see his father’s eye peering down on him in his sleep. Like Joseph Brill, he sinks into a mediocrity without vision. His newspaper column, now devoted to popular writers instead of middle European visionaries, becomes a huge success. On a direct level, the novel seems to illustrate the truth of the Second Commandment. Questions remain, however—notably, has Lars fared better or worse without his illusions?

The Puttermesser Papers

Ozick developed The Puttermesser Papers into a novel from two stories about Ruth Puttermesser (her surname means “butter knife”) that had appeared in her collection Levitation: Five Fictions (1982). Though the supernatural and the improbable had been common elements in her preceding fiction, in this work Ozick ventures freely into the fantastic, using material from the Kabbala, Jewish mystical writings dating back to the Middle Ages. The novel’s formlessness, improbability, and swift changes of direction show an increasingly greater distance from the ideals of Henry James.

In a manner that suggests Franz Kafka, the novel takes readers through Ruth Puttermesser’s entire adult life. Initially she is a repressed, bookish woman, a lawyer and a bureaucrat in New York City’s Department of Receipts and Disbursements, still living in the Bronx apartment in which she was brought up. She yearns for a Jewish identity, which her assimilated parents did not give her. She fantasizes a relationship with an imaginary Uncle Zindel and immerses herself in Hebrew and arcane Jewish lore.

When Ruth is forty-six, her regulated life is smashed into pieces. She loses her job in an unfair political maneuver; her married lover, Morris Rappoport, walks out on her; and she loses her beloved apartment to the arsonists of a changing neighborhood. Even her gums are giving way to periodontal disease. Then a miracle happens. From the earth and water of her flowerpots, combined with the sacred name of God, Ruth inadvertently creates a golem, a being whose creation ritual is described in ancient Jewish writings. The golem insists on being called Xanthippe, after the shrewish wife of Socrates, and wants to be regarded as Ruth’s daughter.

The story becomes wildly comic. Through the golem’s power, Ruth becomes mayor of New York. The city is magically transformed into something close to paradise on earth: Gangs disappear, graffiti is erased, and civility rules the streets. Xanthippe’s powers turn to rebellion, however—the created idol, wanting to be human, demands more and more from Ruth—and the city once more decays. Ruth is compelled to return the golem to its original elements.

A major episode again illustrates the idolatry of art. Ruth, a fervent admirer of English novelist George Eliot (the pen name of Mary Ann Evans), wishes to find a mate similar to George Lewes, Eliot’s married lover, with whom Eliot had a fabled romance of powerful mutual interests. She lures Rupert Rabeeno, who reproduces the paintings of the masters on postcards (a thoroughly noncreative activity) into a fascination with Eliot and Lewes. Rupert, the unimaginative duplicator, focuses instead on Johnny Cross, the man who tried to imitate Lewes after his death. Once again, Ruth’s idolatrous attempts to incorporate meaning into her life lead to personal disaster. Rupert leaves her on their honeymoon in Venice—as Cross left Eliot in the same city.

The novel ends with Ruth in heaven. She had looked forward to a time when she could live entirely in her imagination, with all eternity to seek out the pleasures that fascinated her. Heaven itself, however, is a disappointment. Though everything is available there, nothing sustains itself. Ruth should have relied on the texture of life being lived. Idolatry and the uninterpreted life caused her suffering despite her goodwill.

Heir to the Glimmering World

A departure from many of Ozick’s previous novels, which often call on the supernatural or fantastic as plot elements, Heir to the Glimmering World focuses on theme and character, centering on the Mitwissers, a family whose world is lost when they emigrate to New York from Germany in 1933. Professor Rudolph Mitwisser, the paterfamilias, was brought to New York by a small Quaker college under the misunderstanding that he would teach on a Christian sect called the Charismites. Mitwisser’s passion and field of inquiry, however, is the Karaites, a small Jewish sect whose members take a fundamentalist approach to the Hebrew Bible and do not accept interpretation.

Rudolph’s wife, Elsa, was a scientist and academic in Germany who finds refuge from her reduced circumstances in aberrant, sometimes even self-destructive, behavior. Distraught, she largely confines herself to her room and, like her husband, ignores the responsibilities of caring for their five children. It is left to their sixteen-year-old daughter, Anneliese, to care for her three younger brothers and her toddler sister.

Rose Meadows, the primary narrator of the novel and an orphan, arrives into the disarray of the Mitwisser household as an assistant to the professor. She is not entirely alone in the world, as she retains a tenuous link with her cousin Bertram, who took her in after her father’s death. He turned Rose out when he fell in love with an active Communist, who eventually abandoned him for the cause. Thus Rose, at the time she is growing into adulthood, settles uneasily into the Mitwisser household as a place to get her bearings.

James A’Bair, a young alcoholic who was once the model for his father’s successful series of children’s books based on the Bear Boy, admires Rudolph Mitwisser’s work and enjoys the chaotic family life so different from his own upbringing. He ingratiates himself with everyone in the family except Elsa, and serves as a financial benefactor to them. He narrates several of the chapters of his own life in a tone of sophisticated boredom that echoes the emptiness within.

Eventually, James seduces the innocent Anneliese, impregnates her, then takes his own life. Anneliese returns to the family home, in which Bertram, after falling on hard times, has found a haven. Bertram marries Anneliese, whose infant daughter inherits James A’Bair’s large estate, allowing the family to partake of comfortable circumstances. Elsa, now a grandmother, rises to the occasion and returns to her role in the family.

Rose, realizing her work in the family is over, leaves to seek her fortune in Manhattan with the excellent secretarial skills she has developed during her time with Rudolph. Her experiences with the Mitwissers have confirmed her view of life as chaotic and subject to coincidence, luck, hope, and disillusionment, yet as Rose sets off for her own life, the reader feels confident she will find her way. By the end of this coming-of-age novel, it is clear that Rose will blossom by escaping the stagnant world of the Mitwissers.

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