Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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.


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

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,...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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.