During a 1971 debate on feminism at Town Hall in Manhattan, immortalized in Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary Town Bloody Hall (1979), a small, ladylike person stands up to ask the moderator, Norman Mailer, a question. It is in regard to something she says he wrote in The Prisoner of Sex, to wit: “A good novelist can do without everything but the remnant of his balls.” Gently, to howls of laughter, she says, “For years and years I’ve been wondering, Mr. Mailer, when you dip your balls in ink, what color ink is it?” The tone is a perfect, respectful deadpan, the rhythm lilting, the facial expression the picture of faux innocence. This is Cynthia Ozick.
Ozick is known as a deeply intelligent writer of essays, short stories, and novels, but that Town Hall moment captures something else essential about her work. Her subjects—Judaism, the Holocaust, the Diaspora, Israel, and the near sanctity of literature—were not the most fashionable pursuits in the Seventies and Eighties, when pop culture and poststructuralism came dancing through the gates of literature. I was somehow convinced over the years that I had read Ozick and found her work, while admirable, heavy and dense—too conservative politically and religiously. But it turned out I had never read Cynthia Ozick. Ever.
I discovered this just a few years ago when, following up a footnote in a book about Jewish humor, I came across an early essay, “Toward a New Yiddish,” in which Ozick, with her characteristic moral seriousness and sparkling, almost playfully provocative excess, declares her “revulsion…against what is called, strangely, Western Civilization.” I have been trying to catch up with her ever since.
How could I have missed “The Hole/Birth Catalogue,” her devastating, hilarious 1972 essay in Ms. magazine?
Thirty years ago [a sixty-year-old widow] spent six hours expelling an infant out of her hole via powerful involuntary muscular contractions. She did it in a special room in a big building. It was a rod-bearing infant, which afterward grew to be somewhat under six feet in height, dressed itself in two cloth tubes cut off at the ankles, and by now has spurted semen up a number of human holes; having settled down in a house in California, it has inseminated one hole three times. The [widow]…thinks of herself as the grandmother of Linda, Michael, and Karen. Which is to say: she thinks of herself as a hole; the Ur-hole, so to speak; and that is very interesting.
Yes, that is very interesting. As is The Puttermesser Papers (1997). How had I never read these tales of Ruth Puttermesser, a lawyer sunk in the bureaucracy of the New York City Department of Receipts and Disbursements, who becomes mayor and creates a sexually insatiable girl golem? It is arguably, among its many other charms, the best book about the city since Robert Caro’s The Power Broker.
Or the exquisite essay “The Seam of the Snail,” a celebration of her lavishly imperfect Russian-Jewish mother, that slides into the writer’s reckoning with her own talent? “Out of this thinnest thread,” she writes,
this ink-wet line of words, must rise a visionary fog, a mist, a smoke, forging cities, histories, sorrows, quagmires, entanglements, lives of sinners, even the life of my furnace-hearted mother: so much wilderness, waywardness, plenitude on the head of the precise and impeccable snail, between the horns. (Ah, if this could be!)
Ozick’s nonfiction is sharp, layered, earnest, and extremely funny. Her essays on Sontag or Updike or Roth or Gass or Trilling ought not to resonate as they once did, but following Ozick’s arguments about decades-old literary controversies is an urgent, exhilarating experience. Perhaps it is her understanding of how language holds in its arms both our souls and our wits, the imagination and the intellect, that infuses her nonfiction with this pulse of necessity. In an essay called “Metaphor and Memory,” Ozick recalls a reading she nervously gave before a group of doctors: “Here among the doctors, the redemptive ardor of literature begins to take on a vanity. How frivolous it seems, how trivial—vanity of vanities!” She reads them a story that is “part parable, part satire, outfitted in drollery and ribaldry…drenched, above all, in metaphor.” But the doctors object to the story and to metaphor itself:
Frivolity. Triviality. Lightness of mind. Irrational immateriality. Baubles. To talk in metaphor to serious men and women…is to disengage oneself from the capacity to put humanity before pleasure…. It is to cut oneself off from the heat of human pity—and all for the sake of a figure of speech.
The redemptive ardor of literature, one of Ozick’s recurring themes, does not give up easily, however. Nor does the figure of speech. In Ozick’s eyes they are bound together, they harmonize, they are the chant, the symphony, the beat that gives life meaning. This is one source of her literary power, and it animates both her fiction and nonfiction.
In the introduction to Art & Ardor, a collection of essays that came out in 1984, Ozick talks of the “struggle and scramble,” the “unashamed print-lust” involved in the composition and publication of these pieces. She calls the actual writing of essays “predictable,… a journey of obligation within borders, not an adventure,” but she doesn’t mean it:
Essays know too much.
Except sometimes. Knowledge is not made out of knowledge. Knowledge swims up from invention and imagination—from ardor—and sometimes even an essay can invent, burn, guess, try out, dig up, hurtle forward, succumb to that flood of sign and nuance that adds up to intuition, disclosure, discovery.
Fiction, on the other hand, “is all discovery,” and hers is raucous, unexpected, passionate, and wildly original. Everything I have read (and I am still reading) hurtles forward with the force of anticipation and intellectual surprise. The suspense of her work would be inexplicable sometimes if considering only the subject. A man who thinks he is the son of Bruno Schulz? A scholar of an eighth-century heretical Jewish sect? Yet The Messiah of Stockholm (1987) and Heir to the Glimmering World (2004) are as tense as airport paperback thrillers. No matter what the topic, Ozick’s prose urges the breathless reader along, her love of language rolling excitedly through her sentences like an ocean wave.
Ozick’s new novel, Antiquities, moves softly, with a tenderness and quiet intimacy that settle on a most unlikely Ozick character: Lloyd Wilkinson Petrie, an elderly WASP lawyer. The novel is in the form of a memoir, written in 1949, about his childhood boarding school during the late nineteenth century and his friendship with an intriguing Jewish boy named Ben-Zion Elefantin. You might expect Elefantin to overtake the writer’s imagination: Ozick was raised in the northern Bronx by Russian Jewish parents; she was a brilliant student at Hunter College High School when it was an all-girls school, a recipient of four years’ training there to lose her Bronx accent, and the only girl in Lionel Trilling’s graduate seminar at Columbia (one other quickly quit); she has long been a vehement defender of the State of Israel; she is, in short, a fiery and implacable New York Jewish intellectual of the golden age of New York Jewish intellectuals. Yet this is Lloyd Petrie’s book, not Ben-Zion’s, and though the novel centers on someone as far from Ozick as imaginable, it feels intensely personal. Short and swift and elegant, it is also as rich and as complicated as any of Ozick’s creations.
The Westchester boarding school, which Ozick endows with an almost mythical presence, is called the Temple Academy for Boys. The word “temple” holds two histories, both of them dear to Ozick. Petrie’s dry explanation of the contrasting meanings is an example of her sly, glancing humor: “It has always been a matter of pride for us,” the stuffy old Petrie reports, “that the Academy’s physical plant was constructed on what had been the property (a goodly acreage) of the Temple family, cousins to Henry James; it was from these reputable Temples that the Academy gleaned its name.” Alas, he feels compelled to note, the name has led to some confusion. The building has sometimes been mistaken for a “Mormon edifice.” Petrie finds this “risible,” but “most unfortunate was the too common suspicion that ‘Temple’ signified something unpleasantly synagogical.”
A portrait of James hangs in the chapel of the school, and its classrooms are named after letters of the Greek alphabet, but books and scholarship are secondary to sports at the spartan and snobbish Temple Academy. It is the domain, primarily, of well-to-do boys from New York families who don’t want them around. The conditions are primitive—communal cold showers, rooms called “cells”—and the emphasis is on breeding and class: “We all remember the sacking of the headmaster from Liverpool due to his inadequate accent.”
The Temple School, which “saw its last pupil thirty-four years ago,” has been converted into apartments for alumni who became trustees. Petrie lives there with the seven other surviving trustees, each of whom has agreed to “produce an album of remembrance, a collection of small memoirs meant to stand out from the welter of the past—seven chapters of, if I may borrow an old catchphrase, emotion recollected in tranquility.” Yet for Petrie, such recollections are anything but tranquil. Petrie’s temperament, his loneliness—a widower, he is estranged from his son—all of his narrow triumphs and disappointments seep through his formal, fustian locutions, beads of shining, damp condensation that have gathered on a long, dry life.
Petrie is an antiquity among antiquities. Even his tripartite name suggests an earlier era, and it is deeply important to him. It is the banner of his bloodline, which leads, never mind how circuitously, to William Matthew Flinders Petrie, “knighted by the Queen, and more broadly known as the illustrious archaeologist Sir Flinders Petrie.” In 1880, after only three months of marriage, Lloyd’s father leaves his bride, with no warning or explanation, in order to find Sir Flinders at an archaeological excavation in Egypt. When he returns a few months later, he “admirably” resumes “his place in the firm and at her side.’”
Lloyd, who learns of this “scandal” much later from his mother, refers to Sir Flinders as Cousin William, as his father had, though “it is difficult,” Lloyd admits in his fastidiously understated and revealing way, “to judge when a cousin of a certain distance becomes rather more of a stranger than a relation, but in my father’s view there were reasons for his feelings of closeness.” “Feelings of closeness” and their absence is one of the stories this novel tells. The husband who abandons his bride with no explanation is deeply moved to have Sir William, who existed in real life and whose photograph adorns the novel’s frontispiece, sign his little notebook “From Petrie to Petrie” to prove their connection.*
Lloyd has almost no relationship with either of his parents. When he goes home from school for his father’s funeral, “which chanced also to coincide with my tenth birthday,” his mother coldly hands him a bag of Egyptian artifacts her husband brought back from his “perfunctory escapade,” telling her son, “Here are your father’s toys.” And he is sent back the same day with his bag of shards and statuettes. The “toys” are clay antiquities, the “assemblage of ancient oddities” over which his father used to brood in the evenings. Lloyd keeps them hidden, secret. They are a cache of meaning, a link to both his father and his lineage. They are, really, the solitary boy’s only connection to anything.
Until, that is, a new student arrives, a boy with the preposterous name of Ben-Zion Elefantin. Ben-Zion’s “complexion was what I believe is called olive, of the kind known to characterize the Mediterranean and Levantine peoples.” The boy’s hair is the red of Mediterranean clay and his accent seems to hold bits of every language in it. That and his name guarantee he will be ostracized by the boys at Temple Academy. But during the time set aside for sports, which neither of them likes, he and Petrie begin playing chess together. Intimacy, Petrie recalls,
was slow in coming, and was never wholly achieved. He was unnatural in too many ways. The abundance of his uncut hair, for instance; not only its earth-red yet unearthly color, but what I suspected might be a pair of long curls sprouting from the temples, each one hidden behind an ear and lost in the overall mass.
Petrie sometimes hears Ben-Zion through his bedroom door, his “unnatural voice,…somehow mysteriously archaic, or (I hardly know my own meaning as I tell this) uncannily ancestral.”
In Petrie’s father’s time, no Jews were admitted to Temple Academy. But by the time Lloyd attends, the new humanistic headmaster has admitted half a dozen Jewish boys. Petrie keeps his distance in order not to be “shunned” by the other boys. “There is always, I believe, a kernel of truth in these commonplace disparagements,” Petrie writes of the “satirical or otherwise jesting comments on the Hebrew character.” “For instance, in my own Academy years I saw for myself how inbred is that notorious Israelite clannishness.” Petrie, though clearly unused to self-reflection, does always try to be fair, a result one suspects of his legal training, and he adds:
It has…since occurred to me that this unseemly huddling may have been the result, not the cause, of our open contempt. To speak to a Jew would be to lose one’s place in our boyish hierarchy.
But the lonely ten-year-old Petrie is fascinated by Ben-Zion, drawn to him with a force he does not understand; even now, as an old man looking back, he senses danger in their friendship. Though there are faint suggestions of homoeroticism throughout the novel, Lloyd’s fear seems more spiritual than physical. Something in this friendship unsettled the emotionally cut-off boy, and just the memory of Ben-Zion resurrects unrestrained emotion that threatens the cut-off man.
Petrie is also battered by the distractions of daily life, both big and small. The domestic staff is drifting away to better-paying jobs; the academy’s money has run out and the trustees must find new places to live; the summer is unbearably hot; someone maliciously spills ink on Petrie’s typewriter keys, and his hands are afflicted by tremors. And then, Petrie relates with some disapproval, one of the other trustees takes a fall. He “lurched downward, his legs snarled in the legs of the walker, and fell in a twisted heap of elderly limbs.” When he dies, another trustee whom we realize—even through the oblique innocence of Petrie’s narration—is the deceased man’s longtime lover hangs himself from one of the lavish chandeliers. The antiquities are crumbling.
And so the memoir starts and stops, “hiatus upon hiatus,” and the memoirist apologizes:
The reader will, I trust, understand why I must eke out my memoir in these unsatisfying patches. In part it is simple fatigue. The tremor in my left hand has somehow begun to assert itself in my right hand as well, hence my typing becomes blighted by too many errors.
The understanding reader is, of course, held in suspense: “Once again I have been reviewing these reflections, only to increase my despondency. All is maundering, all is higgledy-piggledy, nowhere do I find consecutive logic.” Petrie’s writerly despair, the possibility that he will not finish the memoir, propels the novel forward:
The attentive reader (if by now such reader there be) is my witness; only see how I have too long put off the telling of it, and how can I tell it even now…? Can I reach out my fingers to capture a cloud, a vapor, an odor?… I must try. But no, it cannot be done; not by me, and who else is there?
Perhaps only Ozick could make the completion of an old man’s ten-page school memoir a dramatic necessity. Perhaps only she would think to do so. In a discussion of Thomas Hardy in Art & Ardor, Ozick wrote, “Suspense occurs when the reader is about to learn something, not simply about the relationship of fictional characters, but about the writer’s relationship to a set of ideas, or to the universe.” Ozick’s own relationship to the universe is a fiercely historical and literary one. In an essay called “Pear Tree and Polar Bear: A Word on Life and Art,” she writes:
Inventing a secret, then revealing it in the drama of entanglement—this is what ignites the will to write stories…. The secrets that engage me—that sweep me away—are generally secrets of inheritance: how the pear seed becomes a pear tree, for instance, rather than a polar bear. Ideas are emotions that penetrate the future of coherence—in particular the idea of genesis. You cannot have Philip Roth without Franz Kafka; you cannot have Kafka without Joseph the dreamer. You cannot have William Gass without Walter Pater; you cannot have Pater without Pindar.
As for life, I don’t like it. I notice no “interplay of life and art.” Life is that which—pressingly, persistently, unfailingly, imperially—interrupts.
Life interrupts creativity, interrupts writing. In the first two essays of Art & Ardor—“Justice (Again) to Edith Wharton,” which originally appeared in Commentary in 1976, and “Mrs. Virginia Woolf: A Madwoman and Her Nurse,” which ran in Commentary in 1973—her concerns are less for a woman’s place in the world than for a writer’s place in literature if that writer is a woman and being interpreted as a woman. Ozick jealously and ferociously guards a writer’s prerogative to be judged, despite their sex, as a writer.
I mention the dates of both these essays for two reasons. First, even when Ozick observes a specific cultural moment fifty years in the past—second-wave feminism; Harold Bloom and the not so New Criticism; the relationship between Black and Jewish writers like Ralph Ellison and Irving Howe—her work is blazingly alive. Open any of her collections or stories or novels and the time and place seem to be not just the 1970s or Stockholm or the Bronx, but that wondrous, expansive time and place, Cynthia Ozick’s brain. The dates also draw our attention to her feminism, an imperative undercurrent in all her work, which challenges so much of second-wave feminism in all its 1970s glory and absurdity.
In her magnificently meandering essay on Wharton—a review of R.W.B. Lewis’s 1975 biography that also takes on the very art of biography—Ozick rejects the idea that a “life” can reveal an artist for similar reasons. Just as the label “woman” shouldn’t define or confine a woman writer, so the life of a woman writer cannot define her. The furs and muffs and carriages, the pitiful mad husband, the Pekingese, the posed photographs, the gardens, the mansions, her monetary patronage of Henry James, even a newly revealed adulterous affair—they tell us nothing but the outer details of a society woman’s passage through her moneyed world.
“The real secret in Lewis’s biography is devoid of sex, lived or imagined,” Ozick argues, “though its centerpiece is a bed; and it concerns not the woman but the writer.” On a visit to Berlin, Wharton flew into a rage because the bed in her hotel room was not positioned properly. It was not until the bed had been moved to face the window that she was satisfied. She “worked in bed every morning and therefore needed a bed which faced the light,” the biographer explains, then moves on. Ozick writes, “Either the biographer can stand up to this moment—the woman revealed as writer—or the book falls into the drifting ash of ‘a life.’” Both Wharton’s self-mythologizing and Lewis’s careful biography, Ozick says, leave out what is the real story, the real life of Edith Wharton: “the window-lit bed.” That is where the life of Edith Wharton the writer took place, and that, Ozick says, was her true life.
In the essay on Woolf, Ozick writes, “Classical feminism as represented by Virginia Woolf meant one thing only: access to the great world of thinking, being, and doing.” She again refuses to reduce the writer to the prescriptions of her life, wrenching Woolf away from her family’s intense but limited perspective and away from the feminists who would make her an “avatar” in “the style of Sylvia Plath.” The occasion is Quentin Bell’s biography of Woolf, the personal, family provenance of which, Ozick says, has reduced Woolf to the madwoman of the family. Which, of course, she was. But as in Lewis’s biography of Wharton, the life of the genius has obscured the genius: “She was an artist; she schemed, and not through random contractions or inflations of madness, but through the usual methods of art: inspired intellection, the breaking down of expectation into luminous segments of shock.”
Lloyd Petrie is no Virginia Woolf, but he is driven by a need to write the story of his one true friend. In a tender scene hazy with homoerotic potential, Ben-Zion and Lloyd lie on the floor, their skinny legs entwined, caught up in a silent timelessness. Later in the novel, Petrie mentions with contempt his son’s interest in the philosopher Martin Buber, but as a boy he experienced with Ben-Zion a decidedly Buberesque moment of transcendent connection:
And now, the two of us prone on the floor among the nubbles of dust, breathing their spores, I seemed to be breathing his breath. Our bare legs in the twist of my fall had somehow become entangled, and it was as if my skin, or his own, might at any moment catch fire.
Ben-Zion now, at last, begins to tell his secret, his story, the origins of his name, his own ancestry—a story that began in ancient times on an island on the Nile, when a small group of Jews became separated from Moses and built their own temple, isolated and eventually shunned by the authorities in Jerusalem:
He spoke with a rhythmic rapidity, almost as if he were reciting, half by rote, some time-encrusted liturgical saga. It had no beginning, it promised no end, it was all fantastical middle, a hallucinatory mixture of languages and implausible histories.
Ozick’s work often touches on the dilemma for Jews attempting, or forgetting, to preserve their history while navigating the Diaspora: the orphan Lars searching for his lost legacy in The Messiah of Stockholm, for example, or exiled Professor Mittwisser obsessively researching the Karaites in Heir to the Glimmering World, or the hilariously materialistic Soviet cousin in The Puttermesser Papers. In Antiquities Ozick gives us one more wandering Jew and his obscure history: Ben-Zion’s tale sounds far too fanciful to be true, but it is in fact the story of a real fifth-century Jewish community, lost and then exiled on Elephantine Island in the Nile.
Lloyd has heard of the island. His father wrote about it in his notebook, the one with Cousin William’s autograph, describing it as “littered with the vestigial ruins of Forgotten worship.” Ben-Zion is a vestige of those vestigial ruins. His origins, he says,
for reasons of rivalry and obfuscation have been omitted from the Books of the Jews…. We Elefantins remain outcasts from the history of our people…. We have been as a people scattered and few, and worse: forgotten, as if we never were.
To be erased by history, to be forgotten—these are obvious Jewish concerns. We see that for Petrie, seventy years later, they are also the concerns of old age. His own memory is failing, too, but he has not forgotten Ben-Zion’s words: “On the contrary: they remain for me akin to a burning bush, unquenchable.”
Lloyd Petrie, proud of his stony demeanor, a privileged Episcopalian from a long line of privileged Episcopalians, is not an obvious Ozick hero. Yet Petrie, so unlike her fantastical, feverish creations from The Messiah of Stockholm, The Pagan Rabbi, or The Puttermesser Papers, is oddly, or at least unexpectedly, one of the richest and most personal of Ozick’s characters. The intimacy we feel is stirred partly by our inclusion in Petrie’s struggle to write his memoir. The act of memory is an act of creation, and his responsibility as a writer to say what must be said weighs heavily on him. He is tortured by the consciousness that what he writes, what he knows, what he comes to understand, will crumble like the books of Greek and Latin and German poetry left to the school by the headmaster, who is himself long dead.
Overly conscientious to the point of unconscious honesty, Petrie is burning with pain and curiosity. He mentions his wife and son only in passing. His one love seems to have been his secretary, and his cherished reminder of her is her old typewriter, another antiquity in this novel of people and things that have survived as symbols of another time. Yes, he is a crotchety fossil. Yes, he is a shallow snob and a cold fish. Yes, he married his wife because she got pregnant. He has no understanding of, and no respect for, his son and his frivolous, unremunerative Hollywood pursuits in “film entertainment.” He is anti-Semitic in word and thought if not in deed. But the delicacy with which Ozick reveals his unhappiness and his emotional need allows her to transcend simple satire. He is an imperfect man, fully embraced by the author, and his predicament is to have grown old. Having done so, he stands at the far edge of his life; to see anything at all, he must turn and look back. “I think incessantly of death,” he writes, “of oblivion, how nothing lasts, not even memory when the one who remembers is gone. And how can I go on with my memoir, to what end, for what purpose?”
Ozick knows to what end. She knows there is a relationship that begins within the writer and flows to the words she writes and on to her readers. “Relation is reciprocity,” Buber wrote in I and Thou. Ozick is a writer of relation and reciprocity. She is a writer of wild and spacious and daunting imagination, of unyielding sensitivity to the absurdities of life and to its pain, so much pain.
In her 2006 collection of essays, The Din in the Head, she wrote:
When a thesis or a framework—any kind of prescriptiveness or tendentiousness—is imposed on the writing of fiction, imagination flies out the door, and with it the freedom and volatility and irresponsibility that imagination both confers and commands.
Freedom and volatility and irresponsibility conferred and commanded by imagination—this is a wonderful description of Ozick’s own writing, to which should be added playful intelligence, comic wisdom, eloquent abundance, the knife edge of economy, the lightness of irony, the weight of history, and finally an overarching passion—no, let’s call it love—for words in all their delicacy and power.
The historical Sir Flinders Petrie, an accomplished archaeologist, had his own ideas about preserving antiquities. He was buried in Jerusalem, but he had made provision to have his head removed and taken to the Royal College of Surgeons, where it resides in a large glass jar. ↩