Cynthia Ozick

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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...

(This entire section contains 858 words.)

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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

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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 land. She can even forgive his envy of those who achieve a spurious kind of communication.

Satiric indictment and sympathetic acquittal of petty Yiddish writers is not Ozick's primary concern in "Envy." The story allows her to express her affection for Yiddish, the mamaloshen, the mother tongue, in which childhood endearments, shtetl solidarity, and a closeness with God are conveyed. Moreover, she laments the American Jews' abandonment of Yiddish for English, a language they consider more secular and thus more aesthetic. Abandonment of the Jewish sources for creativity in pursuit of more worldly fame is also the theme of "Virility," the next short story Ozick wrote after "Envy." On the surface, "Virility" appears to be a feminist comedy of literary manners revealing the double standard in the world of letters. Edmund Gate, born Elia Gatoff, has come to America from Czarist Russia via Liverpool to make his literary fortune. His first attempts at poetry are marred by contrived alliteration and polysyllabic diction. Though his work is continually rejected, he is a confident male and still believes in his talent. After several years of persistence, his poems miraculously improve and appear in the best magazines. Promoted by a married woman with whom he has had two illegitimate children, he publishes five volumes of poetry, each entitled Virility. The critics, more impressed with the title of the poetry than with its substance, single out what they consider its masculine virtues and overpraise them…. (pp. 182-83)

It turns out, however, that Edmund Gate is not the author of these poems. They have been written by Tante Rivka, his spinster aunt who cared for him in Liverpool…. Three years after her death, he has nearly exhausted the supply of her poetry and faces artistic sterility. A Jamesian mentor convinces him to confess his plagiarism and do right by Tante Rivka. Her remaining poems, which were to comprise Gate's Virility VI, are published under her own name as Flowers from Liverpool. This collection contains Tante Rivka's finest poetry, yet the reviewers are unimpressed. Employing phallic criticism, they find her book to be "Thin feminine art."… (p. 183)

"Virility," however, is not exclusively an attack upon male parasites and male supremacists. Ozick includes an element of the ludicrous within Edmund Gate's treachery for the purpose of jest and symbolic import. Since he has appropriated a woman's talents, Ozick has him fear he has acquired a female's gender as well. Clutching his genitals to confirm his sex, his last words to the narrator are: "I'm a man."…

Gate's uneasiness about his anatomy is symptomatic of his uneasiness about being a Jew. He readily saps the creativity of Tante Rivka, Ozick's allegorical figure representing Judaism, but he is reluctant to acknowledge his indebtedness to her. Once in America he ceases to communicate with her and lets her starve to death. If he had provided nourishment for her, she would have survived many more years and prolonged Gate's poetic career. Instead, Tante Rivka, productive until the end, died with dignity, whereas Edmund Gate, disaffected Jew and poet manqué, committed suicide.

In a recent novella, "Usurpation (Other People's Stories)," Cynthia Ozick mocks herself as author for pilfering other writers' fiction. That the novella's narrator-protagonist is a woman writer who has plagiarized from the works of male writers is not at issue. Her prime concern is not the invasion of the males' literary domain to redress the wrongs perpetrated against her sister writers. Rather, she is an asexual spinner of tales who jests about the snags in her narrative technique and the literary larceny she commits. (p. 184)

One of the purposes of "Usurpation," other than providing the true confessions of a story thief, is to ridicule the writing of fiction itself. It is revealed not as a miraculous process whereby the finished product emerges fault-free from the divinely inspired head of the creator. Rather, it is shown to be a suspect art, relying on counterfeit experience, dubious techniques, and contrived language to achieve its lifelike effects. Ozick also mirthfully punctures the inflated position of the writer. Her narrator-protagonist is a vain, short-tempered opportunist who values public renown over the perfection of her craft. For her, no edifying relationship exists between tradition and the individual talent. She is too busy exploiting the talent of others to appreciate tradition and to cultivate her own creativity.

Ozick disapproves of the art of fiction not only on aesthetic and ethical grounds. For the Jewish writer, fashioning a make-believe reality through words is an idolatrous act, in direct violation of the Second Commandment…. But her greatest objection to story-telling is its usurpation, since the author appropriates from God the role of creator. (pp. 184-85)

[Ozick] suggests that as long as the Jewish storyteller writes in this world, where he is exposed to an alien culture and must employ a secular language, he will be an idolatrous fiction-monger. And if he chooses to write about the heathen rather than the holy in the next world, then the pagan inhabitants of Paradise, like Hitler in this world, will not allow him to forget that he is a Jew. He will be caged and instructed: "All that is not Law is levity."…

Fortunately, Cynthia Ozick has not been caged, and she writes about levity and Law…. She has not taken refuge in the hackneyed jokes of Jewish masochism or mocked things Jewish with a self-advertising bravado. Her humor does not confine itself to stereotypes, nor does she exploit ethnic externals for ready laughter. Steeped in the Jewish tradition and aware of its conflicting viewpoints, she deftly reveals its wry paradoxes. A comedienne of ideas, she transforms the farcical into the philosophical. But because of her wit and imagination, her "philosophical stories" do not "make excellent lullabies." They keep her readers awake and amused. (p. 186)

Sarah Blacher Cohen, "The Jewish Literary Comediennes," in Comic Relief: Humor in Contemporary American Literature, edited by Sarah Blacher Cohen (© 1978 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois; reprinted by permission of the author and the University of Illinois Press), University of Illinois Press, 1978, pp. 172-86.∗

Edward Alexander

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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, because of the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel, exchanged their traditional roles within Jewish life, with Yiddish, now the language of martyrdom, acquiring a sacred status, and Hebrew, used (often badly) by bus-drivers and peddlers of unkosher meat in Tel Aviv, becoming the language of the folk and the street. Yet this very transformation and elevation of Yiddish into the language of a coterie, who seek meaning and salvation through continuing to write in it, would itself seem the final confirmation that Yiddish language and literature, which for centuries actually did perform many of the functions of a homeland for people who had none, can no longer do so. The elegiac note in this mainly comic story can be deeply moving: "'In Talmud if you save a single life it's as if you saved the world. And if you save a language? Worlds maybe. Galaxies. The whole universe.'" But how can a language itself in need of salvation save others?

Cynthia Ozick sought an answer to this question in her lecture/essay of 1970 entitled "America: Toward Yavneh." Yavneh traditionally and literally, of course, refers to the place in which, in the year 70, following the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans, the sage Yohanan ben Zakkai established an academy that became the spiritual center of Judaism after the nation ceased to be an independent political entity. (pp. 138-39)

By applying, however tentatively, the term Yavneh to America, Ozick does not, like some subsequent exploiters of this metaphor, intend to congratulate American Jewry on a moral or intellectual character superior to that of Israeli Jews. On the contrary, she makes clear that American Jews for the most part remain in their corner of the Exile because they love to be flattered for having those very traits that are so easily (and often fraudulently) claimed by people without power or responsibility, their devotion to "Mankind" (rather than to Jews), their pacific character, their widespreading, indiscriminate philanthropy…. Indeed, her whole thrust up to this point in her essay is that when the Jews went into Exile their capacity for literature seemed to abandon them, especially when they chose to address, as most American Jewish writers still do address, the principle of "Mankind" rather than the culture and problems of their own people. Nevertheless, she finally expresses the hope that just as Spain was for a time in the Middle Ages a sort of Jerusalem Displaced, so can America be.

"'Yavneh,'" she says, "is an impressionistic term, a metaphor suggesting renewal. The original Academy at Yavneh was founded after the destruction of the Temple; the new one in prospect coincides with the restoration of Zion." She expresses the hope that the Yavneh of America can share responsibility for Jewish destiny with the Jews of Israel. (pp. 139-40)

The main instrument of this reconstruction will be a creative union between Yiddish and English that Ozick labels New Yiddish, and that she hopes will become, just as "old" Yiddish was, "the language of multitudes of Jews, spoken to Jews by Jews, written by Jews for Jews." If doubters ask who is to invent such a language, her answer is that it has already been invented, that her essay itself is written in it, that Norma Rosen's Touching Evil and Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet are novelistic examples of it. Just as a dialect of Middle High German was once changed into Yiddish by being made the instrument of Jewish peoplehood, Jewish necessities, so too can English be transformed into New Yiddish by Jewish writers who have found their proper subject—the Holocaust and Jewish fate—and can transmute the characteristic rhythms and intonations of Yiddish into English.

Although few readers have failed to be impressed by Cynthia Ozick's brilliance of mind and style, many come away from the essay feeling that she is something like the magician who puts eggs into a hat and brings forth—eggs. Her procedure is similar to that of the Gothic revivalists of the nineteenth century who thought to recreate the civilization of the Middle Ages by imitating its architecture, even as they maintained that all architecture was inevitably an index of the ethical values of the civilization that produced it. But if criticism cannot create a new culture, perhaps it can, as Matthew Arnold believed, create a new literature. Cynthia Ozick's call for American Jewish culture to assume, alongside Israeli Jewish culture, responsibility for the reconstruction of Jewish life, has already stirred a response among younger writers…. (p. 141)

Edward Alexander, "The Holocaust in American Jewish Fiction: A Slow Awakening," in his The Resonance of Dust: Essays on Holocaust Literature and Jewish Fate (copyright © 1979 by the Ohio State University Press; all rights reserved), Ohio State University Press, 1979, pp. 121-48.∗

Robert R. Harris

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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 event; experience versus consequence; deed versus outcome; feeling versus connecting; seeing versus seeing-into…." These tensions are ever-present for Ozick.

A perfectionist, she has written just one novel, Trust, and three collections of short works: The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories, Bloodshed and Three Novellas, and now Levitation: Five Fictions. Yet she is one of the best. Because she deals with ideas—many of them steeped in Jewish law and history—her stories are "difficult." But by difficult I mean only that they are not in the least bit fluffy. No word, emotion, or idea is wasted. They are weighty, consequential tales, lightened and at the same time heightened by their visionary aspects.

Ozick writes magically about magical events. But she distrusts sorcery, the stock in trade of fiction writing. This irony gives her work a thought-provoking dialectical quality. Her stories are elusive, mysterious, and disturbing. They shimmer with intelligence, they glory in language, and they puzzle.

In the title story, two writers, husband and wife, seemingly live a serene existence, sharing "premises." [Each] has published a novel. They think of themselves as "literary friends and lovers, like George Eliot and George Henry Lewes." Yet they realize—but can't accept—that they are "secondary-level" people, with secondary-level friends, "not the fiercely cold-hearted literary critics, but those wan and chattering daily reviewers of film." (p. 58)

To a party they invite Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, William Styron, and other guiding lights of literature. None shows up. Husband and wife are resentful. The husband—bitterly obsessed by the atrocities committed against the Jews throughout history—joins with some fellow Jews to begin a trance-like discussion of the Holocaust. From the sidelines, the wife, a convert to Judaism, observes the room rising into the air, carrying the "real" Jews away from her. She "decides it is possible to become jaded by atrocity. She is bored by the shootings and the gas and the camps, she is not ashamed to admit this. She is bitter because she does not share "the glory of their martyrdom." Both husband and wife avoid confronting the palpable bitterness of their unfulfilled lives. And it is bitterness that they share, and bitterness that separates them.

In "Puttermesser: Her Work History, Her Ancestry, Her Afterlife," we first meet Ruth Puttermesser—34, an unmarried lawyer, something of a feminist—while she is living in her family's apartment in the Bronx…. Ruth is assistant corporation counsel in New York's Department of Receipts and Disbursements, "not quite a civil servant and not quite not a civil servant—one of those amphibious creatures hanging between base contempt and bare decency." She dreams of an Eden where she eats fudge and reads "Non-Fiction into eternity; and there is still time for Fiction!" Twice a week she visits Uncle Zindel the Stingy for Hebrew lessons. Ozick intrudes to note that Zindel died before Puttermesser was born. "But Puttermesser must claim an ancestor," writes Ozick. "She demands a connection—surely a Jew must own a past." Her illusion provides her with a history, in effect, creates her. And Ozick warns us not to examine her "as an artifact but as an essence." (pp. 58-9)

"Puttermesser and Xanthippe," the longest of the five fictions, is an almost perfect novella. Ozick's character, Puttermesser, now 46, is still single. She is still working for the city government…. When the mayor ousts her boss, political appointees take over…. Patronage is in; Puttermesser is out; the city is falling apart.

Puttermesser, pushed beyond fantasy, creates a golem—an artificial creature of cabalist lore—out of the earth in her potted plants. When Puttermesser is fired, the golem, who insists on being called Xanthippe after Socrates's shrewish wife, gets her elected mayor of New York.

Under Puttermesser's rule, the city is transformed….

Again Ozick returns to the theme of creation that runs through her stories:

Puttermesser made Xanthippe; Xanthippe did not exist before Puttermesser made her: that much is clear enough. But Xanthippe made Puttermesser Mayor, and Mayor Puttermesser too did not exist before. And that is just as clear. Puttermesser sees that she is the golem's golem.

Golems turn on their makers. Xanthippe, who like all golems has not stopped growing, discovers sex, becomes insatiable, and thereby, in hilarious fashion, destroys Puttermesser's administration. Puttermesser—disgraced, unmade—unmakes Xanthippe. New York is delivered back unto chaos.

Like Ozick, Puttermesser is an intelligent rationalist. Puttermesser makes a golem; Ozick makes up stories. Ozick equates the magic in her stories with the magical process of writing fiction. So writing about rooms levitating and golems becomes writing about writing, about making magic. For Ozick, fiction is magic. (p. 59)

Robert R. Harris, "The Complex Magic of Cynthia Ozick," in Saturday Review (© 1982 Saturday Review Magazine Co.; reprinted by permission), Vol. 9, No. 2, February, 1982, pp. 58-9.

Leslie Epstein

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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 pieces seemed to be stories, while others, although made up and works of the imagination, were not what we think of as tales. But a closer reading has proved unsettling. Each of these works, however dazzling, original and even beauteous, does shy crucially from the kind of resolution we rightly demand from imaginative fiction. I'll attempt, in what follows, to explain.

The two works in the middle of the book are the furthest from story form. "From a Refugee's Notebook" consists of two fragments supposedly left in a rented room by a European or South American refugee. The first is a meditation on the subject of Freud's room, the burden of which seems to be that Freud, in his attraction to the cauldron of the unconscious, to the irrational, wished to become a god….

The second fragment discusses the fad of Sewing Harems "on the planet Acirema." These were women who sewed up their vaginas but occasionally managed to conceive anyway when they rented themselves out, en masse, for the pleasure of wealthy businessmen. Most of this Swiftian exercise focuses upon the unfortunate children, who band together in Momist sects, produce offspring of their own and in time come to spread their totems, "great stone vulvae," over the surface of the globe. This "fiction" is less sterile and recondite than it is private—by which I mean it reveals nothing of the personality or situation of the refugee, its putative author. We are refused entrance to a fictional world. (p. 11)

The two [Puttermesser] stories are the best in the book—often humorous, wonderfully quirky and possessed of a Dickensian delight in depicting the cracks and crannies in the Municipal Building and the Kabbala. And yet, I fear, my thesis holds. For example, the finest moment in the first Puttermesser story occurs when she travels to the run-down flat of her Uncle Zindel for a Hebrew lesson. Here is a character! Here is a voice!…

Yet no sooner does Uncle Zindel take shape before us than he is vaporized. "Stop, stop! Puttermesser's biographer, stop!" In that halt we are told the old man has been dead for decades, the lesson never happened, the meeting never occurred. Could there be a plainer instance of how our text, our "biographer," quails before the demands of, the power of, imagination? Let us put it another way: Puttermesser is not to be examined as an artifact but as an essence. No wonder the ending is but a cry for help: "Hey! Puttermesser's biographer! What will you do with her now?"…

It is time to call a halt, time to determine—perhaps we can only speculate—what is going on. The clue to this turn in Cynthia Ozick's work is her concentration upon language, upon sheer words—lists, syllables, names, letters. There is hardly a page of this book not, to one degree or another, obsessed by the magical power of writing. The golem is assembled after Puttermesser has held the Sunday Times (a world of woe in print) in her arms, just as Feingold and friends began to levitate only after the same edition of the paper had been burnt in the fireplace. Every golem is made of holy syllables, and some from 221 alphabetical combinations; each may be undone by reciting the same formula backwards…. In broad terms, I think the issue here is again one of translation—how to turn our secular language into holy script; how, in a sense, Puttermesser's list of Russian bureaucrats (who hinder Jewish emigration) or former mayors can be simultaneously translated into, let us say, Hebrew incantations or the names of the Rabbis of Baghdad, of Prague, of Worms. There is great danger for a writer here. At the end of the list is the Name of Names, which of course is ineffable, which is silence.

Our author knows her dilemma and has addressed it before. In her preface to "Bloodshed" she speaks of her frustration at not being able to write in a Jewish language instead of profane, biased English. And more: in that preface, as well as in a remarkable essay, she writes of the blasphemy of the imagination as if the impulse to create were a violation of the Second Commandment, "as if ink were blood," as if her stories were the idols themselves. So there ought to be no doubt what the golem (like the camera, like the shabby novels of the Feingolds, and perhaps even Freud's cauldron) represents. It is her art, by which we may be purified and saved; by which we may be engulfed and even destroyed. It is awesome to watch this great and generous talent turn with such intensity upon itself. One longs, in spite of the impertinence, in spite of the risk of blasphemy, to cry out! Cynthia Ozick! Walk counterclockwise! Make seven circles! Undo what you are doing! God is—as one of your own characters tells us—in details. (p. 25)

Leslie Epstein, "Stories and Something Else," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 14, 1982, pp. 11, 25.

Adam Mars-Jones

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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 story, there is tension between a carefully rendered milieu and the wildly elaborated fantasy which arrives to transform it. Within the sentence, there is a running battle between a realism that describes things as they are, and a rhetoric that takes constant liberties with the appearances….

The story of Puttermesser and her creature ("Puttermesser and Xanthippe") takes up over half the book and contains most of its high points; the fantastical elaboration, ballasted by an intimate knowledge of bureaucracy, of Puttermesser's rise to worldly power (Mayor of New York, inevitably, given the book's priorities) is oddly balanced by a matter-of-fact account of her progressive gum disease.

The pair of sketches entitled "From A Refugee's Notebook" are by far the weakest in the volume. The first portentously analyzes the décor of Freud's house in Vienna; the second is a surprisingly leaden fantasy about a craze, on the planet Acirema (which no doubt should be read backwards), for Sewing Harems: groups of women who can be hired to sew themselves together. These fragments contain the ingredients of Cynthia Ozick's successful fiction, but wilfully separate them into one piece of non-fiction and one aimless improvisation.

When the materials are properly combined, the results are formidable; the text flushes with the idea of Jewishness and the idea of New York. The sense of history and the sense of place become resources of fact and feeling for an entirely new enterprise, and the whole unlikely rocket takes off, trailing sparks and coloured rain. After a vivid and exhilarating flight, admittedly, all that comes clattering down through the trees is a scorched stick; but with very little more discipline and expertise Cynthia Ozick will produce fireworks that can carry passengers.

Adam Mars-Jones, "Fantastic Flushes," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1982; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4125, April 23, 1982, p. 456.

A. Alvarez

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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." Although there is nothing stiff or overcompacted about her writing now, she still has the poet's perfectionist habit of mind and obsession with language, as though one word out of place would undo the whole fabric….

Miss Ozick is very much a New York intellectual, like Puttermesser, the heroine of two of the five stories in Levitation, who "had the habit of flushing with ideas as if they were passions," and whose idea of paradise is an eternity of books and candy … [and time to read].

[The pair of Puttermesser stories] is a witty, elegant, and invigorating fable, but Miss Ozick is not kidding. For her, redemption is racial and religious: it lies in Jewish conscience, Jewish history, Jewish magic, and the Hebrew language. In the preface to an earlier book, Bloodshed, this most subtle of stylists paradoxically confessed to a profound unease in writing English while remaining so intensely Jewish in her apprehension of the world…. (p. 22)

Certainly, she is too authentic an artist to go running after immigrant rhythms or Hester Street kitsch. The English she writes is pure and controlled and, in a wholly twentieth-century way, classical. Yet she seems, nevertheless, to hanker after Bashevis Singer's shtetl with its superstitious peasants and dybbuks and what she has recently called "the centripetal density and identity of a yeshiva society." So Puttermesser … creates for her salvation a golem, as though all her cosmopolitan intelligence and sensibility were a secret source of guilt. In the same way, Miss Ozick bends her subtle, beautifully controlled prose and strange imagination to the service of folk magic. It is, in the end—despite the brilliance, despite the humor—an odd and uneasy displacement, like the Chagalls in Lincoln Center. (pp. 22-3)

A. Alvarez, "Flushed with Ideas," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1982 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXIX, No. 8, May 13, 1982, pp. 22-3.∗

Anatole Broyard

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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 truth.

She is terribly smart, to the point where it is just a little dehumanizing. Each time you think you have understood her, after considerable labor, she refines her analysis once again, climbing one more rung on her ladder to some ultimate perspective. One wonders, if she were to have her way, whether fiction could survive her demands, whether she might not intimidate it out of existence….

She wonders why, in his novel "The Tenants," Bernard Malamud could not have had a sophisticated black novelist like Ralph Ellison in place of the furious literary primitive called Willie. Then the Jewish novelist Lesser might have had a more balanced exchange with the other tenant in Malamud's house of fiction. This is almost like saying, "Why didn't Hamlet sit down and have a sensible talk with his mother?"

In the same way, the ardent Miss Ozick asks why, in his first Bech book, John Updike refused to "theologize" his Jewish protagonist. He theologizes all of his other major characters, she argues. Why is Bech alone "wholly untouched by the transcendental"? To this, Mr. Updike might reply, "Because I am not you." Or, "Because that's the way Bech is." Miss Ozick admits that she knows lots of Bechs; what she will not admit is that Mr. Updike has sufficient reasons for portraying him.

As a reader of one of these essays said in a letter to Miss Ozick, she is not sufficiently grateful to authors for what they do, as opposed to what they might have done. When a critic becomes too ungrateful, then he or she becomes a reformer with a different set of values. Yet—there is usually a "yet" in speaking of Miss Ozick—isn't it also true that Bech lacks a tragic dimension and that to deny a man a tragic dimension is, on some sublime level, to discriminate against him, to refuse to let him join your club?…

There is something relentless, something humorless, in "Art and Ardor," which also includes essays on Edith Wharton, Henry James, Harold Bloom, Gershom Scholem, I. B. Singer and Truman Capote. Still, Miss Ozick might say that we have had enough of relenting, of humoring our writers. She appears to have chosen for herself, in literary criticsm, the role of the anxious mother who wants only the best for her children, who expects them to be serious. When we don't try for the best in our fiction, she warns, time "dies around a book; and then the book lies there, a shaming thing because it shows us how much worse we once were to have liked it."

"More often than not," Miss Ozick says in one of her many perorations, "the Zeitgeist is a lie." What she doesn't say is that, more often than not, it's a necessary lie.

Anatole Broyard, in a review of "Art and Ardor," in The New York Times (copyright © 1983 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 27, 1983, p. C23.

Katha Pollitt

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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….

Looked at another way, though, "Art & Ardor" is the work not of one Cynthia Ozick but three: a rabbi, a feminist and a disciple of Henry James. Among them, this trio—old classmates, perhaps, or relatives, but hardly friends—have co-authored a fascinating and very odd anthology of essays about Judaism, women and literature.

As rabbi, Miss Ozick's chief target is idol worship, whose ramifications, she argues, include the Holocaust, Jewish assimilation and much modern literature, all of which are the result of substituting "aesthetic paganism" for moral seriousness. "When a Jew becomes a secular person he is no longer a Jew," she writes in "Toward a New Yiddish"; he's merely a neuter, an "envious ape" of gentile culture. It follows that Miss Ozick regards most of the writers we think of as Jewish—Proust, Kafka, Heine, not to mention Philip Roth and Norman Mailer—as Christians manqués, the main exception being Saul Bellow, for reasons I couldn't quite catch. (Actually, the writer who best fits Miss Ozick's criteria is Miss Ozick herself, whose fiction does indeed answer her call for "a new Yiddish," that is, a culturally Jewish-American literature informed by a "sacral imagination" and an engagement with history.)… At her gloomiest, Miss Ozick wonders if "Jewish writer" is not a contradiction in terms.

The feminist Ozick, a more cheerful sort, takes on Anatomy as Destiny. "If anatomy were destiny, the wheel could not have been invented; we would have been limited by legs," she snaps in "The Hole/Birth Catalogue," a masterly demolition of Freud on women. She's outraged by sentimentalists who patronize women by comparing housekeeping or pregnancy to artistic creation….

Miss Ozick reserves particular scorn for the "Ovarian Theory of Literature," whose proponents include feminist literary scholars, the author's own college students … and most book reviewers: "I think I can say in good conscience that I have never—repeat, never—read a review of a novel or, especially, of a collection of poetry by a woman that did not include somewhere in its columns a gratuitous allusion to the writer's sex and its supposed effects," she wrote in 1971. (p. 7)

At this point, the Jamesian Ozick takes over. For her, the imagination is a holy mystery and the writing of fiction the only thing that matters. The Jamesian, knows precisely what was wrong with W.R.B. Lewis's biography of Edith Wharton—it left out her life as a writer. She's devastating on Truman Capote's arch early novels—perhaps too devastating, for she denounces "Other Voices, Other Rooms" like someone going after a hummingbird with a chain saw. The Jamesian even knows that worshiping James is a trap: Art may be all that matters, but one can't be an artist if one lives as though that were true. As I'm trying to indicate, Cynthia Ozick has a complicated mind.

All three Ozicks love a good fight, which is one of the reasons "Art & Ardor" is so much fun to read. They share some less attractive qualities too—a tendency to seize irrelevant moral high ground, and to present Ozick as a beleaguered minority of one (to read her on other feminists, you'd think she was the only woman writer who hasn't retired to a lesbian commune to write prose poems about the Great Mother). She draws wild inferences from ideas she opposes and then uses her extrapolations as a club. How could Harold Bloom possibly answer her charge that his theory of strong and weak poets is a covert defense of human sacrifice?

The problem is not that there is a polemic at the heart of most of these essays, but that Miss Ozick's true targets are not always fully acknowledged. Would she have slammed quite so hard into poor Mr. Capote had he not, as she reminds us in a casual aside, once complained of a "Jewish Mafia" in American letters?… Perhaps, but she does favor hit-and-run tactics, as when she drops into a discussion of the late Israeli scholar Gershom Scholem the suggestion that "the seeds of the Inquisition somehow lie even in the Sermon on the Mount." They do? Where? If she wants to say that Christianity is innately murderous, let her stand her ground and produce her evidence, not deliver a one-liner and move on.

Miss Ozick is fond of grand pronouncements, and she delivers them with such confidence one might almost not notice that many of them are flatly invalid…. To help her praise moral fiction, she denies morality to poetry, dismissing it as a "decoration of the heart" and ultimately evil. Forget the religious, social, political and moral visions of Milton, Blake, Dickinson, Frost, Lowell. We go in one paragraph from "Tintern Abbey" to the Hitler Youth.

Such sweeping overstatements may be pardoned as a byproduct of exuberance. A more serious difficulty, at least for me, was a growing sense that Cynthia Ozick's three selves were not very well acquainted with each other. How, I found myself wondering, does she square her commitment to sexual egalitarianism with her passionately traditional Judaism (for needless to say, she has nothing but contempt for Reform Judaism, the only branch that would let her be a rabbi for real). There are those who argue that Conservative and Orthodox Judaism offer separate but equal spheres for men and women, but I doubt that Miss Ozick is one of them, and anyway, separate but equal is not what she wants. Why is it incumbent upon Jews to write as Jews, even if they must first acquire a whole religious and historical education to do so (not to mention learn Hebrew) but anathema for women to write as women? And if biology is irrelevant to a writer's work, why does Miss Ozick discuss the childlessness of Woolf and Wharton at all, let alone bring in moralistic terms like "solipsistic"? She doesn't tell us which of the male writers she discusses were fathers (although we do learn which ones were homosexual). If it matters that Woolf and Wharton were free from household chores, it ought also to matter that John Updike and I. B. Singer are too. Contradictions and excluded middles of this sort are the reasons why my copy of "Art & Ardor" is as heavily scored with question marks and irritated cross-references as it is with passages underlined for saving. (pp. 7, 35)

I suspect that Cynthia Ozick's three selves do not try harder to make peace with each other because they sense it can't be done. The secular drift she castigates as a religious Jew is, after all, exactly what gives her the freedom to reexamine traditional notions of women, and to posit the imagination as sovereign. All the same, it would be interesting to see what she would come up with if she set herself the task of synthesis. For now, though, it's enough that she has given us this wonderful, if sometimes frustrating book—among whose gems, I must not forget to mention, is a childhood memoir, "A Drugstore in Winter," that is as rich and dense as the best of her fiction. The book it so splendidly concludes deserves a wide readership among women and men, Jews and gentiles, lovers of fiction and lovers of ideas. (p. 35)

Katha Pollitt, "The Three Selves of Cynthia Ozick," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1983 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 22, 1983, pp. 7, 35.

Victor Strandberg

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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 the rebbe, German versus Jew in "The Suitcase"—such scenes bespeak a gift of the first order of talent. Even if not outstandingly abundant in the fashion of Joyce Carol Oates or Saul Bellow, Ozick's stream of creativity has been outstandingly pure.

Although her ensconcement within a minority subculture may initially seem to limit her appeal to a larger audience, I (though not Jewish) have found that the obstacles to understanding her work have little to do with her Jewish materials. They result, rather, from her willful adherence to basic aesthetic principles. A holdover from the Modern Period—the Age of Eliot, Faulkner, Joyce—she is no more inclined to simplify her complex art, so as to ease her reader's task, than she is to falsify her view of reality, so as to thrive in the marketplace. Her Jewish heritage, for the most part, is not more constrictive than Hawthorne's or Faulkner's regionalism.

What matters in the end is the imaginative power to elevate local materials toward universal and timeless significance. By that standard, I judge Ozick's work to be memorably successful. Her variety and consistent mastery of styles; her lengthening caravan of original and unforgettably individualized characters; her eloquent dramatization through these characters of significant themes and issues; her absorbing command of dialogue and narrative structure; her penetrating and independent intellect undergirding all she writes—these characteristics of her art perform a unique service for her subject matter, extracting from her Jewish heritage a vital significance unlike that transmitted by any other writer. In the American tradition, Cynthia Ozick significantly enhances our national literature by so rendering her Jewish culture. (pp. 310-11)

Victor Strandberg, "The Art of Cynthia Ozick," in Texas Studies in Literature and Language (copyright © 1983 by the University of Texas Press), Vol. 25, No. 2, Summer, 1983, pp. 266-312.

Phyllis Rose

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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 vets….

Ozick's positions are unequivocal and often unfashionable. She dislikes the new feminism which celebrates women's separateness. A "classic" feminist herself, she hates the term "woman writer" and opposes the idea of a female nature, calling it "the Great Lie." She thinks Jewish writers will last only if they write as Jews and for Jews. Norman Mailer will one day be no more than "a small Gentile footnote." Her deeply religious nature attacks what she calls "idolatry," the worship of anything other than God. And that includes Art. The book concludes with two masterpieces of autobiographical essay, "The Lesson of the Master" and "A Drugstore in Winter," which make very personal the point about idolatry. Her sterile and premature obsession with Henry James postponed her own growth as a writer. She herself was a worshiper of art, an idolater. Her conversion came late, which explains the virulence of her dislike of idolatry.

Phyllis Rose, "Oates and Ozick: Essays on Art and Culture," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1983, The Washington Post), July 3, 1983, p. 9.∗

Publishers Weekly

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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 folklore, her novel is universal in its warning against "stopping too soon"—fencing ourselves and others in by timidity and shortsightedness.

A review of "The Cannibal Galaxy," in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the July 8, 1983 issue of Publishers Weekly, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1983 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 224, No. 2, July 8, 1983, p. 58.

Barbara Koenig Quart

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[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 contemporary feminism is a case in point. For Ozick, the women's movement has given itself over to "separatism," when it should be tearing down the whole idea of gender difference. In view of the fertility and vitality of contemporary feminism, the rich body of scholarship from women's studies and the generally liberating effect of acknowledging that women indeed have a different—and enormously valuable and interesting—experience, it seems almost perverse for her to argue that separate necessarily means inferior, means the old lists of derogatory stereotypes of women's natures and disparagements by male critics of "lady writers." Ozick argues that in a world of "women writers" (as opposed to writers), "individuality of condition and temperament do not apply"—as if all feminism were a crude Judy Chicago tableau with V. Woolf and E. Dickinson all porcelain genitalia together—but surely she is too intelligent to call the worst case the whole. Her stance is particularly odd in view of her enormous concern for Jewish identity, and her scorn for "universalists" (mainly Jews who insist they are just like everyone else). How can she, of all people, insist that women and men are all just human beings? (p. 87)

[One] feels that buried under the literary sophistication, high intelligence and stylish prose are the values of one's Brooklyn aunt (and I don't mean Park Slope)—the kinds of parental injunctions that Philip Roth's heroes do intense though ambivalent battle against. Ozick, with no ambivalence (but often not quite overtly), promotes those values—prime among them the centrality of blood ties, marital loyalty no matter what and childbearing. They often intrude on literary discussions, as when she finds E. M. Forster's gentle humanism discredited by his childless, homosexual life (she says it in a qualified and complex way but that's what she means). The Wharton essay, ostensibly written to bring her belated justice, instead reproaches her—for finally terminating her miserable twenty-eight-year marriage (Ozick's sympathy is all with husband Teddy); for caring more about the deaths of two longtime servants than about the illness of a brother; for having been attached to dogs rather than children….

Such moralizing is the lower level of Ozick's larger insistence that art must be morally engaged—which for her is a Jewish quality. She notes that while the New Critics were sealing literature off from history and biography, Jewish critics like Trilling, Rahv, Howe and Kazin "put humanity back in." She finds it significant that Bellow, Malamud and Roth continue to write fairly traditional novels about recognizable worlds, although she also finds those worlds too real and scorns them—excepting Bellow's—as gross sociology. With such doctrinaire and restrictive notions about fiction, no wonder she sees herself sitting alone on a "wastepile of discarded artists." And yet, she is indeed different: she holds her Judaism in an ideological embrace that has no equivalent among male Jewish American writers….

Ultimately, Ozick's intense morality rests on religion. The words that recur through the essays, invested with suggestive meaning, are "Covenant," "liturgy," "idols" and "redemption." Although she writes that "as a Jew I am an autodidact," and that "print is all my Judaism," she still upholds Jewishness like a female Moses, giving out commandments straight from God: Rashi and Yehudah Halevi will live on, but Norman Mailer will not. "When a Jew is a secular person, he is no longer a Jew," she declares, unblinkingly disqualifying the vast majority of Jews. Yet because she takes that stance jokingly, obliquely, stylishly, its full severity is rarely apparent.

She is unfailingly eloquent on the subject of non-American Jewish writers, for whom she feels a generosity she rarely extends to other writers….

Finally, after one has argued with one position, admired another and differed with but respected a third, the fact is that summaries suggest a narrower and cruder response than one has when reading the book. Ozick talks a lot about idols, by which she means esthetics (or any other delight of the world) taken as an end in itself. Perhaps she warns against idols so much because she herself is an idolmaker, an anomalous mixture of the esthete and the moralist, obviously in love with style and form, with art. And a good thing too. The polemic edge keeps yielding to the elegance of prose, to the intensity of its engagement with art, with writers and with Jewishness—to an ardor (just the right word) for ideas and books and two cultures. (p. 88)

Barbara Koenig Quart, "An Esthete in Spite of Herself," in The Nation (copyright 1983 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 237, No. 3, July 23-30, 1983, pp. 87-9.

Michiko Kakutani

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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 created has been a favorite subject of Miss Ozick's fiction and essays; and in her new novel, "The Cannibal Galaxy," she examines its implications in terms of both art and human relationships. Although she once wrote that "it is insulting to a poet to compare his titanic and agonized strivings with the so-called 'creativity' of childbearing, where—consciously—nothing happens," she appears to be fascinated by people's continual attempts to "create" their children, to turn them into flesh-and-blood works of art, invested with their own hopes and expectations….

Dense with ideas and philosophic speculation, "The Cannibal Galaxy" is also an organic and beautifully told story of one teacher's attempts to discover his place in history and the meaning of his vocation.

Miss Ozick has a distinctive, idiomatic voice, at once elliptical and allusive; and her moral intelligence uncovers parables in contemporary American life with casualness and sometimes even humor. Because that humor is often directed toward her deluded heros, however, a certain coldness can result; one feels that she not only disapproves of her characters but often actively dislikes them as well….

[Brill is a] French Jew who grew up in Paris …, he attends the Sorbonne where he learns to worship "serenity, absorption, civilization, intellect, imagination." During World War II, Brill is saved from history by a group of nuns who hide him in the basement of their convent. There, in his damp, smelly dungeon, he discovers a cache of books, and the books—a motley assortment that includes everything from catechisms to Corneille—give him an inspiration. If he survives the war, Brill thinks, he will found a school based on a marriage of Hebrew and European Enlightenment cultures….

Brill establishes his school on the banks of one of the Great Lakes….

Instead of achieving a synthesis of two great cultures [Jewish and secular European], however, his school seems to specialize in mediocrity…. Frustrated in his attempts to find a prodigy—that one special child whose talents he can nurture and mold—Brill himself begins to decline….

Then, one day, Hester Lilt, a formidable woman who has achieved intellectual celebrity as an "imagistic linguistic logician," arrives in Brill's life and enrolls her daughter, Beulah, in his school. Infatuated with the mother's air of seriousness and disdain, Brill remains oblivious to the daughter's gifts. She falls through a hole in his school's carefully constructed system, and he dismisses her as ordinary, as dim, as remarkably unexceptional. In doing so, of course, he makes a great mistake—a mistake, as Miss Ozick reveals through several swift cranks of the narrative machinery, that will reveal the narrow solipsism of Brill's own life and mind.

Michiko Kakutani, in a review of "The Cannibal Galaxy," in The New York Times (copyright © 1983 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 29, 1983, p. 14.

Patricia Blake

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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 heritage in the prevailing Gentile culture, a subject that can be fully viewed only in the shadow cast by the Holocaust. The book's governing metaphor is the cannibal galaxy—in astronomy, one of the vast colonies of stars that devour smaller galaxies. The cannibal stands for Europe, devouring its Jewish citizens. Such out-of-the-way images spring naturally from Ozick's prodigious erudition. This novel, like her earlier short stories and novellas (The Pagan Rabbi, Levitation, Bloodshed), is dense with metaphor, often drawn from the rich Jewish resources at her command: the Hebrew Bible, the Midrashim, or Jewish homilies, and the mystic texts of the Kabbalah. At the same time, as The Cannibal Galaxy demonstrates, she navigates the currents of other world cultures with the surehandedness of a true lover of ideas….

The Cannibal Galaxy seems to suggest that it is all but impossible for Jews to break into the surrounding culture with their heritage intact. Their loss, and the world's, of such a vast and distinctive tradition would be a tragedy. As Ozick has warned, "The annihilation of idiosyncrasy assures the annihilation of culture." But we may take heart: the sense of her commanding novel is that Cynthia Ozick has prevailed, as ever more readers are attracted by the universal appeal of her Jewishness. Hers is a triumph for the idiosyncrasy that animates all art.

Patricia Blake, "A New Triumph for Idiosyncracy," in Time (copyright 1983 Time Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission from Time), Vol. 122, No. 10, September 5, 1983, p. 64.

Richard Eder

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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 irony and wit, but her book is not one more satire of academic life. Beyond her wit is a flinty metaphysical poetry. And Brill's school stands for something much more than itself: the deadness of that which seeks to endure through preserving itself. Brill feels an access of foreboding: the perpetual youthful renewal attributed to teaching is a sham, really….

The foreboding is the first eddy before the storm arrives, in the person of a parent. Hester Lilt is a frumpy eminence, a scholar whose works bear such titles as "Metaphor as Exegesis." (p. 1)

[Brill] has presented himself to her, with wry self-disparagement, as a failed thinker, but she will have none of it. It is not that he has failed, she says; it is that he has stopped too soon. Stopping too soon, turning back to secure what is achieved instead of pressing on, it is her pronouncement upon him, and it is the book's pronouncement upon the myriad sinecures that infest our world of intellect and turn it into a vast and rigid bureaucracy.

But there is more to "The Cannibal Galaxy" than the duel between a live intellect and a stratified one. It is the life itself that Ozick is after; and beyond Hester Lilt there is her daughter, Beulah. If Hester humbles Brill, Beulah unseats him.

Beulah is mute and vacant—an underachiever. Brill struggles to arouse her but Beulah won't be aroused.

Hester refuses to treat her daughter as a problem to be worked upon. Instead, she sends Brill her latest paper, an essay on the fertile and significant properties of silence.

And Brill telephones her, in furious triumph. So all her brilliant theories and metaphors are no more than an effort to explain her daughter. Hester hangs up.

Years later, a kind of answer comes. Beulah has become an avant-garde painter, a Parisian sensation. Asked about her childhood education in America, she says she doesn't remember it.

Ozick has made her meaning plain. If Beulah's muteness was the seed of Hester's brilliance, it is a glory, not a shame. It is life, the willingness to respond to it, that preserves the intellect from its own corruption. Ars, in other words, brevis; vita lunga. (p. 7)

Richard Eder, "The Principal Import As a Porsche," in Los Angeles Times Book Review (copyright, 1983, Los Angeles Times; reprinted by permission), September 18, 1983, pp. 1, 7.

Joseph Cohen

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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 point home about the dangers of allowing Western culture to supplant Covenant and Commandment. Ozick has borrowed from the world of physics the concept of larger "cannibal" galaxies swallowing smaller ones whole. This concept she turns into a metaphor for the threat facing the survival of Diaspora Judaism, and develops from the metaphor an illuminating and entertaining parable which will likely be one of the best books of the year.

Joseph Cohen, "'Cannibal Galaxy' by No Ordinary Teacher," in The Jewish News (copyright © The Jewish News Publishing Co.), October 21 1983, p. 2.


Ozick, Cynthia (Vol. 155)


Ozick, Cynthia (Vol. 3)