Flushed with Ideas

Levitation: Five Fictions

by Cynthia Ozick
Knopf, 158 pp., $11.50

Waking

by Eva Figes
Pantheon, 88 pp., $7.95

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.

She has, in fact, published poems, but the handful I have read seem a good deal less persuasive and subtly timed than her prose. Listen, for example, to the narrator of “Shots,” the best story in her new collection. She is a professional photographer, hovering on the edge of infatuation with gloomy Sam, who is an expert on South American affairs, heavily but uneasily married to a paragon. She and Sam have been brought suddenly together when a simultaneous translator at a symposium Sam is addressing and she is photographing is murdered by a terrorist who can’t shoot straight:

The little trick was this: whatever he said that was vast and public and South American, I would simultaneously translate (I hoped I wouldn’t be gunned down for it) into everything private and personal and secret. This required me to listen shrewdly to the moan behind the words—I had to blot out the words for the sake of the tune. Sometimes the tune would be civil or sweet or almost jolly—especially if he happened to get a look at me before he ascended to his lectern—but mainly it would be narrow and drab and resigned. I knew he had a wife, but I was already thirty six, and who didn’t have a wife by then? I wasn’t likely to run into them if they didn’t. Bachelors wouldn’t be where I had to go, particularly not in public halls gaping at the per capita income of the interior villages of the Andes, or the future of Venezuelan oil, or the fortunes of the last Paraguayan bean crop, or the differences between the centrist parties in Bolivia and Colombia, or whatever it was that kept Sam ladling away at his tedious stew. I drilled through all these sober-shelled facts into their echoing gloomy melodies: and the sorrowful sounds I unlocked from their casings—it was like breaking open a stone and finding the music of the earth’s wild core boiling inside—came down to the wife, the wife, the wife. That was the tune Sam …

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