Cynthia Ozick Ozick, Cynthia (Vol. 28) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Cynthia Ozick 1928–

American short story writer, novelist, essayist, poet, and translator.

Ozick's works generally treat ethnic and language problems unique to the Jewish artist. She treats Judaism as a religious as well as an ethnic and social characteristic, and her work displays an overt reverence for her heritage. Concerned with the creation of a distinctively Jewish literature, Ozick has conceived of a "new Yiddish" which would be comprehensible to speakers of English yet preserve the inflections and tone of the waning Jewish language.

After her first novel, Trust (1966), the story of a young woman's search for identity, Ozick turned to shorter forms in her next three books: The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories (1971), Bloodshed and Three Novellas (1976), and Levitation: Five Fictions (1982). In an interview, Ozick explained that she writes novellas because she cannot write anything short enough to be a short story and no longer has the ambition to write anything so long as Trust, which was six hundred pages long and took six years to write. She said, "I will never again write so well … will never again have that kind of high ambition or monastic patience or metaphysical nerve and fortitude." She did, however, write another novel, The Cannibal Galaxy (1983). She has also recently compiled twenty-three of her previously published critical essays into a collection entitled Art and Ardor (1983). Ozick's critical reputation has grown steadily over the years, and she is now both well known and highly respected by critics. She frequently contributes book reviews, poetry, and short stories to a variety of periodicals and also translates works of Yiddish literature.

In Ozick's short fiction collections, most of the stories revolve around similar themes. The stories in The Pagan Rabbi concern the predicament of the transplanted Jew in America, which Ozick typically presents through a character's struggle with two opposing forces. In the title story, the rabbi is caught between love of religion and scholarship and also between love of nature and magic. "Envy: Yiddish in America" concerns one Yiddish author's attempt to save his language from extinction in America, and contrasts him with another author who has achieved fame in America by being translated. This story expresses the conflict which Ozick feels confronts her and other Jewish-American writers—that of being true to one's heritage yet desiring to be understood in a foreign land. In "Virility," Ozick confronts assimilation and sexism and also introduces the issue of authorial borrowing, which is developed more fully in the later novella, "Usurpation (Other People's Stories)" from her collection Bloodshed and Three Novellas. As the subtitle of "Usurpation" suggests, it is composed of fragments of stories by other writers. Her point in this story is that the writer is always borrowing material from other writers and, more importantly, from God. Ozick's religious concern is that by creating a story, a writer breaks the second commandment which prohibits idol worship, the making of graven images, and adoration of magic. According to Ozick, stories, like statues, are graven images. Thus, there is a conflict inherent in being both a Jew and a writer: "Whoever sets up an image-making shop is in competition with the Maker of the world."

In Art and Ardor, Ozick addresses Jewish, literary, and feminist questions. In the process, she criticizes many of her fellow writers, especially those Jewish writers who use religious background to add ethnic color to their stories while writing essentially secular works. Where feminism is concerned, she is adamant in her contention that separatism should not be tolerated in literature and that such categories as "women's literature" are dangerous. Her ideas about literature are traditional, and she opposes what she calls "self-indulgent" fiction. The quality of her own writing, in these essays and elsewhere, reveals that she believes that ideas should never be so important as to excuse poor writing. Art and Ardor includes two essays which are personal rather than critical. In one of these, "Lesson From a Master," she writes of her obsession with Henry James early in her writing career, pointing out the danger of being too influenced by someone else.

With the exception of Trust, Ozick's work has always been extremely well received by critics. A major problem with Trust, critics contend, is that the language is so opaque that it obscures the world Ozick tries to portray. In her subsequent work, Ozick controls her treatment of language so that, while it remains a dominant feature of her work, it does not get in the way of the story itself. In general, critics seem to feel that characterization and emotive qualities are the weak points of her work, while words and ideas are the strong ones. Art and Ardor, her nonfiction work, is her most controversial. To many critics, she was too severe with other writers and made unreasonable pronouncements. Katha Pollitt and others find a contradiction between Ozick's desire for a uniquely Jewish literature, on the one hand, and her abhorrence of a uniquely feminine literature, on the other. But nearly all consider her handling of language superb and her intellectual prowess stimulating.

(See also CLC, Vols. 3, 7; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1982.)

Sarah Blacher Cohen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A Jewish writer not preoccupied with her characters' gender identity and more sure of her artistic identity is Cynthia Ozick. Finding the designation "woman writer" too confining and essentially discriminatory, she regards the entire range of human experience as the fit subject matter for her fiction. Exploring the consciousness of both male and female characters, she doesn't mind being considered a betrayer to the feminist cause or a trespasser in male territory. What does concern Cynthia Ozick is that her fiction retain an authentically Jewish nature. At the American-Israel Dialogue of 1970, she described the characteristics of a genuine Jewish literature in the American diaspora. Its language, though written in English, will be "New Yiddish." "Centrally Jewish in its concerns," the literature will be "liturgical in nature." By "liturgical" she does not mean "didactic or prescriptive," but "Aggadic, utterly freed to invention, discourse, parable, experiment, enlightenment, profundity, humanity." (pp. 179-80)

Cynthia Ozick's [short story] "Envy; or, Yiddish in America," is an excellent illustration of this liturgical "New Yiddish," since it is a parabolic comedy in which morality and humor are inextricably linked. Edelshtein, the central figure of the story, is a sixty-seven-year-old Yiddish poet desperately striving for forty years to have his talents recognized in America. In one respect he is still the fearful little man of the shtetl who has a Chaplinesque sense of himself as the accidental and insignificant creature barely surviving in the hostile world. In another respect he has the hauteur of the high priest of Yiddish culture, censuring superficial Jewish-American writers and a slickly translated Yiddish author, Yankel Ostrover, who have made financial killings in the literary marketplace. Edelshtein's feelings of extreme inferiority and extreme superiority incur Ozick's humorous treatment. When he is the insecure shtetl figure, she compassionately views him as a saintly fool in his valiant efforts to keep Yiddish alive for American Jews…. But she also harshly mocks Edelshtein when he becomes the supercilious Yiddish purist. This is not to suggest that Ozick totally disagrees with his assessment of American Jewish literature. With the exception of Saul Bellow, whom she respects as the "most purely and profoundly ideational" of the Jewish-American novelists, she generally shares Edelshtein's belief that they are largely ignorant of their Jewish heritage, yet reviewers praise them for their ethnic wit and perception. Indeed, much of the story's amusement stems from the fact that Edelshtein acts as the stringent literary critic who, often expressing Ozick's views, employs the quaint accent and syntax of Yiddishized English to pronounce his unkind judgments. He deplores, for example, the cheap way Jewish-American novelists add Yiddish local color to their work…. (pp. 180-81)

What Ozick finds most objectionable and worthy of satire about Edelshtein is his hypocrisy. Much as he mocks Ostrover, he prefers to be like him. He, too, would like to escape from the "prison of Yiddish" …, if he could achieve fame. He pretends to lament the waning of Yiddish when he actually laments the waning of an audience to appreciate his creativity. His hypocrisy is attacked, however, not by the author but by a twenty-three-year-old Yiddish-reading woman whom Edelshtein implores to be his translator, though she is a devotee of Ostrover…. We are not to side with the young woman, however. Her diatribe shows the limitations of American-born Jewish youth who would readily sacrifice the parochial for the universal and, in so doing, lose their claim to any distinctiveness. Because Yiddish is an indigenous part of Edelshtein, and because Christians and anti-Semitic Jews alike won't allow him to forget this fact, he can't give up Yiddish…. Ozick sympathizes with his desire to communicate and be understood in an alien...

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Edward Alexander

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In 1969 and 1970, Cynthia Ozick published, within a period of a few months, a short story and an essay that defined two American Jewish responses to the Holocaust and the relation between them. The story, a small masterpiece, was entitled "Envy; or, Yiddish in America." In it she ironically but affectionately re-created the ambience of American Yiddish writers, for whom continuation of Yiddish, the language of the majority of the victims of the Holocaust, constitutes the most meaningful form of Jewish survival…. The story conveys its author's profound dissatisfaction with what one of the characters archly refers to as "so-called Amer.-Jewish writers." It conveys too the sense that Yiddish and Hebrew have now,...

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Robert R. Harris

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Self-consciousness about writing fiction can lead to overindulgent prose and the substitution of egoism for ideas. Cynthia Ozick is the most self-conscious writer I know of. Yet she steadfastly shuns overindulgence of any sort, and instead does what too few contemporary fiction writers do on a regular basis—think. Ozick is obsessed with the words she puts on paper, with what it means to imagine a story and to tell it, with what fiction is. The result is a body of work at once as rich as Grace Paley's stories, as deeply rooted in Jewish folklore as Isaac Bashevis Singer's tales, as comically ironic as Franz Kafka's nightmares….

She debates what fiction should strive to embrace: "incident versus...

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Leslie Epstein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The prospect of reviewing a new book by Cynthia Ozick gave me great pleasure, since I believe her two previous collections—"The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories" and "Bloodshed and Three Novellas"—to be perhaps the finest work in short fiction by a contemporary writer; certainly it is the work in that genre that has most appealed to me. Then the bound galleys of "Levitation" arrived, subtitled "Five Fictions." Immediately a voice whispered, "On guard! Why fictions? Why not stories, why not novellas, as the subtitles of the two earlier volumes plainly declared their contents to be? What is a fiction, anyway?" A quick glance through the galleys provided a calming, commonsensical answer. Some of these five...

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Adam Mars-Jones

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Cynthia Ozick is a woman, and Jewish, and a New Yorker; these conditions in combination might be expected to produce a narrow art, if any at all. And certainly there are few men in [the stories which make up Levitation], fewer gentiles, and hardly a single out-of-towner, but the result is anything but narrow; the absentees are hardly noticed.

Cynthia Ozick has the enviable knack of moving, with impressive speed, in opposite directions at the same time; her specialities are prose poetry, intellectual slapstick, meticulous detail, and wild rhetorical fantasy. The result at its best is an audacious and unorthodox balancing of forces, both within the story and within the sentence. Within the...

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A. Alvarez

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ezra Pound once divided writers into carvers and molders. The molders—Balzac, Lawrence, Whitman—work fast, not much worried by detail or repetition or precision, impatient to get down the shape and flow of their inspiration, while the carvers—Flaubert, Eliot, Beckett—work with infinite slowness, painstakingly writing and rewriting, unable to go ahead until each phrase is balanced, each detail perfect.

Cynthia Ozick is a carver, a stylist in the best and most complete sense: in language, in wit, in her apprehension of reality and her curious, crooked flights of imagination. She once described an early work of hers, rather sniffily, as "both 'mandarin' and 'lapidary," every paragraph a poem."...

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Anatole Broyard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The ardor in Cynthia Ozick's "Art and Ardor" is for dissent. She is a brilliant disagreer whose analysis is so penetrating that in this collection of literary essays it often passes right through the book under discussion. Whether this should be called transcending the author's limitations or missing her point may be a matter of taste.

Miss Ozick polices modern literature and tries to arrest what she sees as self-indulgence. She seems to be morally insatiable, to want every author to wrestle with his book, like Jacob wrestling with the angel, until it blesses him, or us. She is the antidote to all the soft reviews, the easy forgiveness. As she points out, sympathy can be an offense against the...

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Katha Pollitt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

We may be living in "an era when the notion of belles-lettres is profoundly dead," as Miss Ozick says in her foreword, but it's thriving in "Art & Ardor," which is by turns quarrelsome, quirky, unfair, funny and brilliant.

Looked at one way, these essays, though originally published in magazines as divergent as Ms. and Commentary, are a unified and magisterial continuation of Miss Ozick's short stories by other names. Admirers of her three story collections … will recognize at once her yeasty, extravagant prose, her intellectual preoccupations (jeremiads against violations of the Second Commandment, for instance—that's the one about worshiping idols) and some of her characters too….


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Victor Strandberg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If we postulate that the "scene" in fiction corresponds to the image in poetry, we may say that Ozick's interplay of fictional devices consistently develops scenes answering to Ezra Pound's Imagist Manifesto of 1913: they "transmit an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time." The pagan motifs converging into the night of Tilbeck's apotheosis; the Pagan Rabbi's breathtaking consummation of love with the dryad; Puttermesser chanting her beloved golem back to a pile of mud; Tchernikhovsky insolently at ease in Zion; Lushinski in Africa contemplating his buried self in Warsaw; the many dramatic verbal battles rendered with a perfect ear for speech patterns: Edelshtein versus the evangelist, Bleilip versus...

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Phyllis Rose

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Art & Ardor, Ozick's perfectionist, self-critical habits produce a book which surprises and delights on every line, a model—except that her prose is inimitable—of the play of mind over matters of life and literature….

Cynthia Ozick puts everything she has into her essays—and that's a lot: wit, fierce intelligence, supple writing, and an absence of hackneyed opinion. Her subjects include literature, Judaism, feminism. Beginning one of her essays, you don't know where it will end up or what strange points she will make along the way. An essay on Truman Capote produces an ironic reminiscence of studying literature at NYU in the post-war years, along with unappreciative Army...

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Publishers Weekly

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ozick's first novel in more than 15 years [The Cannibal Galaxy] displays a complex, elegant style and deep sensitivity to the eternal difficulties of the human condition. Her story of a school principal who becomes aware of the pinched nature of his life through the unexpected blossoming of a student he had considered dull manages to combine brilliantly detailed individual character portraits with a more general philosophical consideration of the unpredictability of life. Ozick's technique is elliptical. She builds characters and delineates ideas bit by bit, dropping each additional mosaic … into place in her larger design with deceptively casual aplomb. Characteristically permeated by Jewish thought and...

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Barbara Koenig Quart

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Even] if one wants to argue with Ozick every step of the way—and I only want to argue with her every third step—one must start by noting how very well she writes. [The twenty-three essays collected in Art and Ardor], on subjects ranging from Edith Wharton to John Updike to Gershom Scholem, with stops in between for mulling over what art should be doing and what Jewishness is, are a pleasure to read for their vividness of thought and language….

Ozick is a writer of passionately held beliefs and values asserted with great confidence and verve, a fierce moralist who often sees herself as the solitary caretaker of truths everyone else is too wrongheaded to understand. Her opposition to...

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Michiko Kakutani

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

When we first meet the middle-aged bachelor named Joseph Brill [in "The Cannibal Galaxy"], he is presiding as the rather sour principal of a small primary school in the Middle West. Like so many of Cynthia Ozick's characters, he spends much of his time alone, and he is alone because he is guilty of hubris. He has not only allowed intellectual pretensions to calcify his heart, but he has also committed what Miss Ozick seems to regard as one of the worst sins of all—in creating a rigid, self-referential system of education and worshiping something other than God, he has broken the Second Commandment: he is guilty of idolatry.

Idolatry and the complicated relationship between the creator and the thing...

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Patricia Blake

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Cannibal Galaxy, Cynthia Ozick's first full-scale novel in 17 years, comes as a welcome reminder of her commanding powers as a storyteller. Her previous book, Art and Ardor, a collection of essays published last spring, revealed her to be one of the most vigorously intellectual of contemporary American authors. Still, no other fiction writer except Isaac Bashevis Singer has succeeded so brilliantly in harnessing what Ozick has called "the steeds of myth and mysticism" in the Jewish tradition. The wonder is that her style has remained as disciplined and supple as it was in her first novel, Trust….

The premise of Ozick's new novel is the uneasy condition of the Jewish...

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Richard Eder

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Cynthia Ozick has stood immortality on its head. What fails and dies in her clenched and scintillating parable is learning and knowledge. What lives is life.

The publishers call "The Cannibal Galaxy" a novel; perhaps novella is more like it, because it is a single sunset, not a chain of days. The sunset is for Principal Joseph Brill of the Edmond Fleg School, set beside an unnamed Great Lake….

Brill has studied astronomy, but he can't quite give himself to the galaxies. He is too cunning for the stars—and too middling. "Middling" is a key word; it is Ozick's word for the mortal Philistinism of knowledge, for the academy, for the critic….

Ozick writes with...

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Joseph Cohen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Cynthia Ozick's new novel, "The Cannibal Galaxy" … is so rich in its tapestries it can be read variously as an incisive though ironic evaluation of the American private school system, as a commentary on the problems of assimilation increasingly faced by Jewish day schools, as a wry report on the aggressiveness of Jewish mothers asserting the educational prerogatives of their children; or as a book dealing with Jewish marginality, power and powerlessness, and generational conflict; or as a study in the "second lives" of Holocaust survivors, who have lost one family, created another, and breathe always the tragedy of the past with the hope of the future in the monomania of the present.

To drive her...

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