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In Levitation: Five Fictions, Cynthia Ozick presents the reader with four short stories and a novella, all of which focus on the problematic relationship between the Jewish artist and history. This book, Ozick’s third collection of short fiction, features women protagonists whose lives are disrupted by their own creations.

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In Levitation: Five Fictions, Cynthia Ozick presents the reader with four short stories and a novella, all of which focus on the problematic relationship between the Jewish artist and history. This book, Ozick’s third collection of short fiction, features women protagonists whose lives are disrupted by their own creations.

“Levitation,” the work that opens and names this collection, begins as a couple named Feingold try to rise above their secondary status as authors by giving a party for famous writers. Although no stars attend, the Feingolds’ apartment fills with minor writers. In the dining room, the guests are either gentiles or very secular Jews. In contrast, the living room is dominated by a Holocaust survivor surrounded by Mr. Feingold and the more intense, serious Jewish guests. Standing in the hall between the two groups, Lucy Feingold, a convert to Judaism, realizes that she rejects the Jews and their fascination with history and anti-Semitism. A dual vision ensues, allowing her to see the living room, with its human links to the past, rise upward toward the ceiling; meanwhile, she imagines herself joining a pagan festival in a park, emphasizing her choice of Hellenism over Hebraism.

“Shots” also focuses on the difficulties posed by an artist’s struggle to understand her relationship to the past; the unnamed, first-person, female narrator has become a photographer in order to freeze people into a moment of time. After capturing a murder on film, the narrator becomes aware of the power of “shooting” someone with a camera. Appropriately for someone fascinated with preserving the past, the narrator develops an infatuation with an unhappily married historian. The story ends as the narrator remains entrapped in this asexual, nonproductive relationship, referring to her camera as “my chaste aperture, my dead infant, husband of my bosom.”

The short pieces entitled “From a Refugee’s Notebook” are introduced with a short passage that explains that two “fragments were found in the vacated New York apartment of an unidentified refugee from an unspecified land.” The first relic is a meditation on a picture of Sigmund Freud’s study in Vienna in which the narrator notes the presence of hundreds of small, carved, ancient stone gods. Speculating that Freud has attempted to become a god by “standing apart from nature” through the invention of the id, ego, and superego, the essay contrasts Freud’s paganism with Moses’ monotheism. The second fragment, “The Sewing Harems,” continues the exploration of the dangers of disrupting nature’s rhythms. Making the locale for this story the planet Acirema, a word meant to be read backward, Ozick satirically comments on America’s fascination with issues of reproduction. In Acirema, women decorate themselves by sewing their skin with thread, and some of these artists of the body band together, sewing up their vaginas to reduce the world’s population. Their plan backfires when these “sewing harems” actually increase the population after societal reaction produces a cult celebrating fertility and motherhood.

The problems of social change are more gracefully explored in the Puttermesser stories; the first of these stories has the long, three-part title “Puttermesser: Her Work History, Her Ancestry, Her Afterlife.” Although she is a New York lawyer and an independent, unmarried woman, Ruth Puttermesser longs for her lost Jewish tradition and imaginatively constructs conversations in which a long-dead uncle teaches her Hebrew. This story ends with a challenge to Puttermesser’s biographer, Ozick herself, to imagine where to go with Ruth’s story.

Ozick picks up Puttermesser’s life history twelve years later in the novella Puttermesser and Xanthippe. Now forty-six, Puttermesser loses her married lover when she prefers reading Plato to having sex; further, her life is complicated by periodontal disease and her demotion at City Hall. In response, Puttermesser, in a sort of fugue state, draws on her knowledge of Jewish folklore and forms a golem, an artificially formed being reputed to aid Jewish communities in times of trouble. Although the golem, Xanthippe, initially helps Puttermesser become mayor, institutes a plan for an urban utopia, and restores order to the city, it ultimately grows out of control. Puttermesser finally unmakes her creation, and the city reverts to its previous, ungovernable state.

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Levitation: Five Fictions reflects Cynthia Ozick’s fascination with the problems of creativity for a Jewish artist. For Ozick, the artistic act always carries within it the danger of creating false idols, thereby betraying monotheism. In this collection of stories, the central characters are female, and the challenges inherent in Ozick’s view of creativity are seemingly complicated by the protagonists’ gender. Ozick’s previously published fiction, however, which includes male protagonists, illustrates that the temptations that she presents to her protagonists apply equally to males and females. Although all of her characters in this collection are women who fail to achieve satisfaction personally and artistically, Ozick clearly indicates that their sterility emanates from their inability to uphold tradition without fossilizing it.

Ozick states in her introduction to Bloodshed: Three Novellas that her function as a writer is “to judge and interpret the world.” Ozick’s harsh judgment of her characters and the twentieth century that they inhabit is reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor or Muriel Spark. This author demands that her protagonists struggle with a world in which the wrong moral choice inevitably leads to violence, death, or slow decay. Through her device of emotionally distancing characters from the reader, Ozick allows their actions to be seen clearly, almost as case studies.

Ozick often inserts magical elements into otherwise ordinary stories to alert the reader to the metaphysical struggles that are present. Through her use of the fantastic, she underscores the displacement of her characters in the world and their resultant inability to produce, physically or creatively. The failed woman artist is the representative artist; by “judging” and “interpreting” such failures, Ozick provides cautionary tales for those women who desire to create.

Levitation

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To readers acquainted with Cynthia Ozick’s power to create charmingly humorous and sophisticated fictional worlds, Levitation will represent an extension of her distinctive talents. The subtitle, “Five Fictions” is a warning to the uninitiated reader who may expect a cautious regard for the coherence of facts and ordinary reality. These are purely literary documents: each story is a “construction,” a work of make-believe, spun out and guided by the intelligence, affection, and beauty of the creative mind behind these often wry and lyrical tales.

Like The Pagan Rabbit and Other Stories (1971) and Bloodshed and Three Novellas (1976), Ozick’s earlier collections of short fiction, Levitation is not designed around a single theme or character. With the exception of the title story, all of the pieces collected here have previously appeared in magazines or literary journals. The stories are nevertheless a unity, held in suspension by the power of dramatic voice and narrative order. In this new book, all that was best in Ozick’s previous work is intensified with charm and style.

“Levitation” returns to a persistent theme in Ozick’s writing: the nature and function of the artist. In a limited sense, this self-conscious examination of the writer draws in the highly touted concerns of metafiction—who is the writer and for whom is he writing? An eternal student of Henry James, Ozick shares his fascination with the art of fiction. Like James, she sees the writer as storyteller, the creator of worlds within worlds. “Levitation” offers no dry philosophical musings about the state of the art today. With flair and irony, Ozick portrays a pair of novelists, husband and wife, as they give a rare literary party.

The disturbance about the State of the Novel had escaped their attention. They wrote “as naturally as birds” and were devoted to accuracy, psychological realism, and earnest truthfulness, also virtue and wit. Lucy and Feingold were literary friends and lovers, “like George Elisa and George Henry Lewes.” Both agreed on a single and fundamental principle: “the importance of never writing about writers.” It was the “wrong tack, solipsism, the Forbidden Thing.” The protagonist must always be someone real, with real work-in-the-world. They were both devoted to omniscience, but they were not acute enough to see what they meant by it. Addicted to counterfeit pity and absorbed by the notion of “power,” they were attracted to the bitter side of life. They joked about their own lives: they were “secondary-level” people, living in a secondary-level house, working at a secondary-level job.

Thus, Feingold and Lucy bumped along, dreaming of the day when power and celebrity would descend upon them. Living in the Forbidden City, they were lured by circular routes to write (Lucy especially) about writers. Aware of the dangers—solipsism, narcissism, tedium, lack of appeal to the common reader—they nevertheless fell into the baited trap. They were always looking “inward,” seeking the secret which would make life luminous.

Feingold and Lucy had invited a long list of famous names to their literary party, but none of these people came. Nevertheless the apartment filled up—mounds of rainboots and closets packed tight with raincoats and fur coats: “The party washed and turned like a sluggish tub; it lapped at the walls of all the rooms.” Bravely, Lucy and Feingold pretend the party is a success, but privately and grimly, they realize “no one” came. Their heady concern for the power of this world blurs in Lucy’s mind, and with magical insight, her spirit “levitates” from the earth. Experiencing an illumination, Lucy sees dancers dancing and children playing. Everything is a miracle, and Lucy sees that she has abandoned nature. She understands her loss of the true religion of life for the oddities, pretensions, and affectations of the “literary” life. “Levitation” thus advocates acceptance of earthly reality without hopeless regrets for a more heightened, “romantic” other world—the land of vain hopes and useless dreams.

Two interrelated stories, “Puttermesser: Her Work History, Her Ancestry, Her Afterlife” and “Puttermesser and Xanthippe,” are showcases for Ozick’s affection for a Jewish subject. The first of these stories is, as its title indicates, a fractured biography of Puttermesser, a thirty-four-year-old lawyer from the Bronx. As a young woman, she did not want to become a legend, but merely “a lawyer among lawyers.” Her teachers described her as “highly motivated” and “achievement oriented,” but her “scholastic drive” has not paid off as she hoped: she is and will always remain a Jewish girl from the Bronx. As a bright young attorney, Puttermesser is accepted into a posh law firm, but she is not advanced. She sees and understands the falsity of social gestures and the necessity of blue eyes and an aquiline nose. She does not shake her fist at the world or clutch in great anger at cultural injustice. She contentedly studies Hebrew with her great Uncle Zindel and accepts a new job in the Department of Receipts and Disbursements. An example of the muddy sub-speech on which bureaucracy relies, her new title—“Assistant Corporation Counsel”—is meaningless. Loyal to certain environments, Puttermesser will always be a victim to the acuteness of her own perceptions.

Puttermesser’s biography does not proceed romantically. The rich young Commissioner of the Department of Receipts and Disbursements does not fall in love with her, and she does not end her work history in a suburban bower of bliss. Indeed this is not “an optimistic portrait,” as the narrator explicitly tells the reader. Ozick brilliantly breaks the flow of time and moves the reader with the direct phrase: “Puttermesser . . . had a luxuriant dream, a dream of gan eydn.” In this reconstituted Garden of Eden, Puttermesser spends her celestial days sitting in the greenness of July, reading, reading, reading: “Her eyes in Paradise are unfatigued.” The daily uncertainty of the present world dissolves, and Puttermesser lovingly studies Hebrew.

In the “dream” section, Puttermesser has been transplanted “upward,” and her mind and life take unexpected turns. Finally, the author can no longer accept the tale and implores the narrator to stop: “Though it is true that biographies are invented, here you invent too much.” Puttermesser is not to be examined as an artifact but as an essence; her symbolic complexity is linked with a spiritual state. Here Ozick is working in a rich Hebrew tradition: trapped in the banal ordinariness of life, man yearns for the fulfillment of the eternal.

“Puttermesser and Xanthippe,” a sequel to the previous story, is a much longer and more complex work. Divided into twelve sections, this novella extends the biographical portrait of its protagonist, now forty-six, as she tries to control and extend her power over a world which has lost the excitement of invention and discovery. For Puttermesser, life has settled into the humdrum of bureaucracy and the endlessly familiar. Her lover, Morris Rappoport, has left her because she read in bed too much. She has developed periodontal disease, and her old apartment complex on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx has been burned to cinders by arsonists: Puttermesser’s childhood vanished in the flames. Finally, in the swirling change of administrations, Puttermesser is “relieved” of her duties after years of faithful service.

In her lonely apartment, distracted from the many cares of the municipal world, Puttermesser finds a white clay body in her bed. The creature is Puttermesser’s imagined lost daughter, created by her mother from the earth of potted plants. Deprived of speech, the girl has written on a tablet: “This is a holy place. I did not enter. I was formed. Here you spoke the Name of the Giver of Life. You blew in my nostril and encouraged my soul. You circled my clay seven times. . . . You pronounced the Name and brought me to myself. Therefore I call you mother.” The creature wishes to be known as Xanthippe. At some unknown hour in the night, Puttermesser has created a golem.

Puttermesser pores over the historical literature on golem-making; as a rationalist, she is satisfied that her creation of Xanthippe is true to tradition and legend. The golem becomes a useful companion in Puttermesser’s life; she takes over the duties of cooking, cleaning, and shopping. Xanthippe expands her usefulness as secretary and planner of a great new scheme for reorganizing the entire city of New York. As is the nature of a golem, Xanthippe grows until she is bloated and immobile, but through her great plan, Puttermesser has become mayor of the city. She is ready to implement the great plan, to make the city a wondrous Eden, but excesses follow excesses, and the ripeness turns to rot: “Too much Paradise is greed. Eden disintegrates from too much Eden. Eden sinks from a surfeit of itself.” Ultimately, the golem returns to earth, and her remains are interred under the red geraniums of City Hall Park.

“Puttermesser and Xanthippe” can never be reduced to its narrative line; the story resonates with the subtlety of its own myth and the power of style. For Ozick, fiction is the playground of mysticism and magical notions. The story is filled with comic charm and irony in the contrast between the intellectual/bureaucratic mind and world of Puttermesser in the real city and the redemption-seeking golem.

Two very minor stories in this collection remain to be discussed: “Shots” and “From a Refugee’s Notebook.” The former is an ingenious study of the concept of time as it is applied both to the distant past and to the limitless present. The unnamed protagonist is a professional photographer who has come to her trade not by way of special talent but because she is obsessed with taking pictures. Her fascination began with the discovery of a discarded old photograph of a girl whom she calls “the Brown girl”: “a grave girl; a sepia girl; a girl as brown as the ground. She must have had her sorrows.” The picture itself is evidence of life at a particular moment never to be effaced. Caught in a special instant on paper, the Brown Girl is time. “And not time on the move, either, the illusions of stories and movies. What I had seen,” the protagonist tells the reader, “was time as stasis, time at the standstill, time at the fix; the time of Keats’s Grecian urn. Time itself is death the changer; death the bleacher, blancher.”

From the description of the Brown Girl, the narrator moves the center of events to recount her own involvement with Sam, a tenured professor of South American history. They spend their days walking in the rain under Sam’s big blue umbrella. Sam’s wife is both a shrew and a paragon, a woman whose range of talents and virtues extend beyond belief. Clearly, there is no hope for the protagonist to remove Sam from his loving home, in spite of his endless complaints of misunderstanding. “They are a virtuous and wholesome family. . . . They are sweeter than the whole world outside. When Sam is absent, the mother and her daughter climb like kittens into a knitted muff.” In capturing this picture of the infinite contentment of Sam’s family, the protagonist realizes that she has become like the Brown Girl, a figure trapped in a moment of time, reeking of history. Of herself, she says: “I am grave; I have no smile. My face is mysteriously shut. I’m suffering. Lovesick and dreamsick, I’m dreaming of my desire.” Her face is the face of the Brown Girl, a static portrait before the changes of time.

“From a Refugee’s Notebook” combines two separate and previously published short stories. “Freud’s Room,” offered only as a fragment, is a meditation on the primitive and subterranean dreams of man. These newly discovered notes reflect upon Freud’s desire to become a god. “Is the doctor of the Unconscious not likely to be devoured by his own creation, like the rabbi of Prague who constructed a golem?”

The second piece, “The Sewing Harems,” is pure fantasy. The tale opens with the following sentence: “It was for a time the fashion on the planet Acirema for the more sophisticated females to form themselves into Sewing Harems.” An elliptical parable on the state of women, the story is too oblique and unclear in its intentions to be satisfying.

From the beginning of her career, Cynthia Ozick has had the reputation of being a writer’s writer—a writer with extremely limited commercial appeal on the one hand, and, on the other, an intelligence too quirky to win the widespread critical attention accorded to a select number of “serious” contemporary writers. There are signs, however, that Ozick may be gaining the wider recognition she deserves. Levitation has been followed in short order by a brilliant collection of essays, Art and Ardor (1983), and a novel, The Cannibal Galaxy, is also forthcoming in 1983. Recently, Ozick and the short-story writer Raymond Carver were recipients of the first, generous Strauss Living Awards from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. As the stories in Levitation confirm, Ozick is a writer whose strangeness is not mere artistic caprice: it is worth the trouble to see the world through her eyes.

Bibliography

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Bloom, Harold, ed. Cynthia Ozick. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. This collection covers Ozick’s works up to 1983. Although many of the pieces are merely brief book reviews, Victor Strasberg’s contribution includes a brief but illuminating discussion of Ozick’s novellas. Bloom’s introduction is interesting for its treatment of Ozick’s essays.

Currier, Susan, and Daniel J. Cahill. “A Bibliography of Writings by Cynthia Ozick.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 25, no. 2 (Summer, 1983): 313-321. This complete listing of Ozick’s works up to 1983 is dated, but it is helpful in that it cites works that are not usually cited in other listings.

Friedman, Lawrence S. Understanding Cynthia Ozick. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991. An entry in the Understanding Contemporary Literature series, this book is designed for those who are unfamiliar with works that use nontraditional literary forms and techniques. Particularly helpful introduction for first-time readers of Ozick’s fiction.

Kauvar, Elaine M. Cynthia Ozick’s Fiction: Tradition and Invention. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993. A close reading of Ozick’s fiction that avoids theoretical approaches. In the chapter that deals with the stories in Levitation, Kauvar emphasizes the links between the stories and their symbolism. Ozick’s sources and references are exhaustively explored.

Library Journal. CVI, January 1, 1981, p. 75.

Lowin, Joseph. Cynthia Ozick. Boston: Twayne, 1988. A very readable interpretation of Ozick’s fiction, this book is also useful for its chronology, selected bibliography, and first chapter, which provides a brief biography of Ozick.

Ms. X, April, 1982, p. 94.

The New York Review of Books. XXIX, May 13, 1982, p. 22.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, February 14, 1982, p. 11.

Newsweek. XCIX, February 15, 1982, p. 85.

Pinsker, Sanford. The Uncompromising Fictions of Cynthia Ozick. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987. A brief analysis that includes a short chapter on Levitation entitled “Dreams of Jewish Magic/The Magic of Jewish Dreams.”

Saturday Review. IX, February, 1982, p. 58.

Time. CXIX, February 15, 1982, p. 74.

Times Literary Supplement. April 23, 1982, p. 456.

Zatlin, Linda. “Cynthia Ozick’s Levitations: Five Fictions.” Studies in American Jewish Literature 4 (1985): 121-123. An investigation of the tensions between creativity and Judaism in Levitation.

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