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Ozick, Cynthia

In Fame & Folly: Essays (1996), her fourth collection of essays, Cynthia Ozick chronicles other writers' disappointments, their early success, and in some cases, the mistakes that have cost them their fame. She is interested in what divides a major writer from a minor one, in why one writer's work fades into oblivion and another's thrives. It is a small wonder that she titled the volume as she did. Writing about Fame & Folly in 1996, James Wood described it this way: “Her essays invent language, for one thing, and this language—busy, rhapsodic, willful—is congruous with the language of her fiction” (p. 92). Such a description of Ozick's work is not difficult to understand, for the breadth of Ozick's subjects become as universal as they are inclusive; she does not confine herself to the special, the parochial, or the limited—all characteristics, as her searching essays suggest, of minor writers. The radiance of her language and the universality of the subjects that obsess her have ushered Cynthia Ozick into the forefront of American letters, where the numerous prizes and awards she has won testify to her status as a major American writer.

Ozick's Early Years

Born in New York City on 17 April 1928, Cynthia Ozick is the youngest child of Celia and William Ozick, Russian immigrants who ran a drugstore in the Pelham Bay region of the Bronx. A Drugstore in Winter, the last essay in Ozick's first collection of essays Art & Ardor (1983), tells of life in the Park View Pharmacy and its importance to the writer's early reading, her “old school hurts,” her enduring and perdurable “craving…for nothing but an old scarred pen” to record “the poetry side of life”—the realm of the imagination.

Painful school memories haunt Ozick's work. They began in the cheder (the room or school in which Hebrew is taught), where she learned Hebrew and the principles of Judaism. Here, the rabbi told her grandmother to take the child home because “a girl doesn't have to study.” She suffered unforgettable hurt at P.S. 71 in the Bronx where she was regarded as stupid and where it was “brutally difficult to be a Jew.” About those experiences she has observed: “It was very strange to me to have two lives like this; on the school side, where I was almost always the only Jew, and in cheder where I was almost always the only girl.” When she entered Hunter College High School in Manhattan, her crowning intellect was finally acknowledged. Later she graduated from New York University, and in 1950 she received a master's degree in English literature from Ohio State University. Her thesis Parable in Henry James transformed a twenty-two-year-old woman who “lived like the elderly bald-headed Henry James” into a “worshiper of literature.” Of James's impact on her, she resolutely announced, “Influence is perdition.”

When Ozick was twenty-five, she read Leo Baeck's Romantic Religion, an essay, she told an interviewer, that “in some way broke open the conceptual egg of [her] life” (Kauvar, 1985, p. 385). Like Enoch Vand, a main character in her first published novel, Trust (1966), she devoted herself to studying Judaic texts, reinforcing her apprehension that Jews are “quite the opposite of the parochial.” But the label “Jewish writer” is something else entirely: “As a writer of fiction, I know today that I essentially don't want to be responsible for Jewish culture, responsible, that is, within the fiction itself, in the sense of being a spokesperson or assuming the task of carrier of a tradition” (Kauvar, 1985, p. 385). For Ozick the writer's loyalties lie elsewhere. However much she celebrates the particulars of her culture, Ozick insists that a writer's “method and [her] goal must be freedom, freedom, and more freedom,” that a Jew must be differentiated from a writer. In the act of writing, “a writer is a writer.”

To the prolonged period in which she labored on Trust, Ozick attributes an ardent but mistaken attempt to be a “ripened artist” rather than to accept the “faltering, imperfect, dreaming youth” she was (Kauvar, “Interview,” 1993, p. 361). She attributes the sacrifice of her youth to the thirteen years of her earlier travail, writing a novel she ultimately abandoned. But the resplendent sentences her struggle for exactitude produces capture and enthrall her readers. Rather than consign her work to narrow categories and rigid ideologies like gender and ethnicity, her readers should celebrate the capaciousness of her mind. There issues clash and reverberate; there ambiguity triumphs over certainty and resolution. Hers is a consciousness that views the universe through its own prism.

Brief Beginnings in Poetry

Having written and translated poetry and having once said she was “obsessed and possessed” by it, Cynthia Ozick no longer writes it, nor does she consider herself a poet. To a suggestion that she collect her poems in a single volume she replied, “I'm not a poet and shouldn't masquerade as one” (Lowin, 1988, p. 12). Yet the subjects of her poems—the last of which she wrote two years before the publication of Trust—have the range of her tales and are wedded to them. The titles of such poems as Greeks, The Fish in the Net, Caryatid, The Seventeen Questions of Rabbi Zusya, and When That with Tragic Rapture Moses Stood reflect her core dispute between Hebraism and Hellenism. A glance at a scene in a Harlem apartment from a passing train in “Commuter's Train through Harlem” sparks the Keatsian formula of truth and beauty. Still another poem, Urn-Burial, muses on Sir Thomas Browne. The variousness of their forms, the splendor of their language, their remarkable revelations—these attributes radiate Cynthia Ozick's “meticulous language-love.”

Focus on Prose Fiction

Described by the artist herself as “In certain ways…simply an immensely long poem,” the first novel Ozick published is a portrait of the artist as a young woman, at once ingenious and moving. Vast in scope, morally engaged, and arguably the most important book she has written, Trust constitutes the thematic matrix of Cynthia Ozick's oeuvre. A dialectic pulses through that oeuvre; its terms concern two of the three cultural forces Ozick investigates in her novel as she establishes the signal importance of memory and history to humankind.

Their disclosures are imperative for the unnamed narrator of Trust, who lacks awareness of her father's identity. On the occasion of her graduation, the threshold of her future, she is rootless and belongs nowhere. The two figures to which the narrator is drawn, her unknown father Gustave Nicholas Tilbeck and her mother's husband Enoch Vand, represent the divided pathways confronting her and embody the debate central to Ozick's work on which Enoch Vand writes an essay titled Pan Versus Moses. Neither is the victor at the end of the novel, for the narrator remains caught between two worlds. Gravitating toward Enoch Vand, drawn to Gustave Nicholas Tilbeck, she is unable to declare one superior to the other. They stand like heralds beckoning her in opposite directions. And those poles of attraction have provoked what Cynthia Ozick calls the “central quarrel of the West,” which is the provenance of her “unholy conflict,” the competition between moral seriousness and aestheticism. However instructively divergent for the narrator of Trust and however responsible for its topography, the two cultural forces are nonetheless transcended by the power of the novel, journeying as it does into the interior of human experience.

Ozick continues to explore the two cultural forces in The Pagan Rabbi, and Other Stories (1971), her first collection of stories. Its title story contains a tree on which the main character sees fit to end his life and which revivifies the Hebraism and Hellenism controversy in two ruined paradises: Arcadia and the Garden of Eden. Unlike the narrator of Trust, the protagonist of “The Pagan Rabbi,” Isaac Kornfeld, crosses the boundaries of Judaism into paganism. But the narrator of Trust and the narrator of the short story both face an uncertain future. Another story in The Pagan Rabbi, “Envy; or, Yiddish in America,” concerns the cultural conflict with which the Jewish artist must contend. It is a maze leading to sorrow, as Hershel Edelshtein discovers when he finds in himself the two irreconcilable desires that destroy Isaac Kornfeld, a belief in Jewish history together with the seductions of pagan culture. The issue of art and tradition at their crux, the stories in The Pagan Rabbi embody the dichotomy between religious belief and the religion of art. And that dichotomy encompasses inherited tradition, which in The Pagan Rabbi is subsumed in the embattled convictions of the generations.

If the characters in Ozick's first collection of fiction wrestled with their tradition, those in Bloodshed and Three Novellas (1976) have repudiated it. The betrayal of that tradition, indeed any tradition, leads to cultural rootlessness, a divided identity—worse, marginality. To fabricate an identity is to appropriate a life unlike one's own and then to await liberation. The truth is otherwise, as the characters in Bloodshed who spurn their tradition or remain on its margins make plain. In “A Mercenary,” for example, Ozick sets forth not only the reasons for impersonation but also the consequences of dissemblance. Believing they will be “made free by unbelonging,” the impersonators in this tale end instead by annihilating their selves. Marginality offers no better sustenance, as the title story shows in its character's choice of secularism over Judaism. Bearing thematic resemblances to the first two stories in the collection but without their darkness, “An Education” and “Usurpation” impart divided views and diverse perspectives and culminate in the injunction against idolatry—the defining idea of Jewish identity.

That resolution, however, generates the conflicts informing Levitation: Five Fictions (1982). Her conclusions “less logically decisive” than those of other writers, the narrator of “Usurpation” wittily foreshadows the emphasis Cynthia Ozick places on the artistic imagination—its inventiveness, its moral truths, and its perils. Indeed, the five fictions in the collection are all portraits of artists. Not devoted to the imagination but addicted to power, the Feingolds, the main characters of the story “Levitation,” delight in transforming harrowing stories into aesthetic experiences. The photographer-narrator of “Shots” ends by choosing art over life. And the attorney whose biography Ozick recounts lives alone like the photographer-narrator “among other people's decaying old parents.” Puttermesser's “personal history” highlights the discord between the law and the imagination and yields another portrait of the artist. (“Puttermesser” means “butter knife” in Yiddish.) In creating the golem Xanthippe (the name of Socrates' wife), Ruth Puttermesser hopes for the golem's help carrying out her “PLAN for the Resuscitation, Reinvigoration & Redemption of the City of New York”; instead, Puttermesser ends with the sorrowful recognition that her Utopia is a forbidden idol and her construction of it is rivalry with the Creator.

The contest between Hebraism and Hellenism abides in Ozick's second novel, written nearly twenty years after Trust. In The Cannibal Galaxy (1983), a fifty-eight-year-old schoolmaster attempts to resolve that debate by establishing a “dual curriculum” at the Edmund Fleg Primary School. Akin to Ruth Puttermesser's golem and conjured up for equally noble reasons, the dual curriculum nonetheless founders because of Joseph Brill's conviction that it can predict failure or success from “earliness.” What the second novel has in common with Puttermesser and Xanthippe is the schoolmaster's competition with the Supreme Being, the forbidden transgression of the Second Commandment. Their concern with the artist's enterprise and moral substance yoke The Cannibal Galaxy to Levitation.

If a metaphoric hell of his own invention houses Joseph Brill at the end of The Cannibal Galaxy, two authentic hells confront Rosa Lublin in The Shawl (1989), a short story and a novella that Ozick, over six years later, would make into a play. Her tragic experience in the Nazi death camps has forced Rosa into the situation in which she finds herself. After helplessly watching her child Magda in The Shawl thrown against an electrified fence in a death camp, Rosa suffers from unrelenting and agonizing memories of the Nazis' butchery. Of undeniable significance to Holocaust literature, the novella hearkens back to Trust in its concern with the father, its struggle over Hellenism, and its preoccupation with imaginative writing. The play, an affecting attack on Holocaust denial, exposes the lies certain German historians promoted to erase historical actuality—the horror of the Nazi machinery of destruction whose aftermath continues to torment Rosa Lublin.

Another link to Trust is forged in The Messiah of Stockholm (1987), Cynthia Ozick's third novel. The search for a father resides at the heart of the first novel Ozick published; it continues in another form in The Shawl, and in The Messiah of Stockholm the idea is inverted. Lars Andemening, the novel's main character, fancies himself the son of Bruno Schulz, the Polish writer gunned down in Drohobycz by the SS. Lars becomes his imagined father's double, patterning his life after his until Lars finally relinquishes the fantasized but nevertheless idolized father. The significance of the father inheres in the three fathers that the novel includes, one of whom is Lars Andemening himself. Although she explores the father's relationship to tradition as well as art's relationship to reality and illusion, Cynthia Ozick, as is her practice, holds out not a simple solution but a multiple choice, deepening rather than resolving the perplexities of Hebraism and Hellenism in her third novel.

In 1997 Ruth Puttermesser reappeared, this time with her life story completed in the novel The Puttermesser Papers. One of Cynthia Ozick's most memorable characters, Puttermesser, in addition to the two tales published in Levitation, is accorded three more chapters before the reader learns her final fate. We see Puttermesser at “the unsatisfying age of fifty-plus” still single but now willing to listen to “her mother's refrain”—that she must marry. Together she and Rupert Rabeeno read George Eliot and copy her life with similar and painful results. After her experience with her Muscovite cousin in the novel's fourth chapter, Ruth Puttermesser at last resides in the Paradise she first longed for in “Puttermesser: Her Work History, Her Ancestry, Her Afterlife.” Of that idyllic place she concludes, “The secret meaning of Paradise is that it too is hell.”

A cultural patrimony—Cynthia Ozick once called it the “hinge of generation”—accounts for the presence of fathers throughout her fiction. Continuity, the idea of transmission, the capacity to inherit a culture, the nurturings of a heritage—these are critical to her work and irradiate her tales, which are never monolithic. Ozick's work is nothing if not dialectical: warring motives reside in all the characters she creates; each fiction ends by upholding a value that the next fiction tears down. Absolutes and certainties are alien to her vision, which is to say “the central quarrel of the West” remains alive and the question of art's relation to illusion and reality abides. But one thing is sure: in her next novel, a part of which appeared in the Princeton Library Journal in 2002, positions will compete and perspectives shift.

Other Prose

Here is the way Ozick begins her preface to Metaphor & Memory: Essays (1989), her second collection of essays: “While stories and novels under the eye of a good reader are permitted to bask in the light of the free imagination, essays are held to a sterner standard. No good reader of fiction will suppose that a character's ideas and emotions are consistently, necessarily, inevitably, the writer's ideas and emotions; but most good readers of essays unfailingly trust the veracity of non-narrative prose.” For Cynthia Ozick, an essay, as well as a story, can “be a bewitched contraption in the way of a story.” There is a reason why she is at pains to make that distinction. Readers have always expected her to be single-minded and decisive in her essays—everything her fiction is not.

Instead, the essays often impart contrary convictions, complicating rather than clarifying the contrivance furnished by the tale. If the dual curriculum collapses at the end of The Cannibal Galaxy, for instance, Ozick continues to reflect on it in “Bialik's Hint,” an essay she published in 1983 after the novel appeared. Rather than render the conclusion she reaches at the end of The Cannibal Galaxy resolute, “Bialik's Hint” posits the means to fuse the free imagination and “the Sinaitic challenge of distinctive restraint and responsibility.” But no idea of Cynthia Ozick's is univocal. Consider the title of her essay: its equivocal conclusion lies in its title—a hint, not a surety.

Metaphor & Memory contains Cynthia Ozick's musings on various writers—writers as diverse as Cyril Connolly, William Gaddis, Italo Calvino, J. M. Coetzee, Primo Levi, Saul Bellow, Henry James, and Theodore Dreiser—in addition to meditations on her own writing, a memory of her first day at New York University, translation, the postmodern condition, the relation between metaphor and memory, and much more. Art & Ardor, her first collection of essays, demonstrates an equally broad range of subjects. In that volume are essays on other writers as dissimilar as Edith Wharton and I. B. Singer. The literature of the Holocaust, literary convictions, feminist issues, cultural beliefs—to name just a few of the volume's subjects—suffuse Art & Ardor with intellectual splendor.

That splendor crowds Ozick's other collections of essays, including Fame & Folly and Quarrel & Quandary: Essays (2000). The first volume centers on writers and their work; the cleavage between art and life. “T. S. Eliot at 101: ‘The Man Who Suffers and the Mind Which Creates’ ” exemplifies her approach. To argue that biography is not a fallacious method with which to elucidate a writer's poems is to refuse to divide the author from the text. From the perspective of some forty years, she offers a divided judgment of T. S. Eliot. Granting him the author of that invaluable thought that “history underlies poetry” and the equally momentous belief that “poetry can be redemptive,” Ozick ends with a somber moral truth: “It is now our unsparing obligation to disclaim the reactionary Eliot.” Her acute psychological insights illuminate the workings of Henry James's psyche in What Henry James Knew (also the title of a collection of her essays published in 1993 in England), and insights of various kinds clarify the reasons for the exclusion of Anthony Trollope's works, oppose Salman Rushdie's, and recover the once-revered Alfred Chester.

An astute critic of contemporary culture, the sleuth who detects other writers' motivations, Ozick also reflects on translation, history, the imagination, and formative experiences, as well as the Holocaust in Quarrel & Quandary. The essays in that collection proclaim her altercations with other writers, set forth her disputes with postmodern issues, and register her deep engagement with imaginative writing, her own and others'. “Who Owns Anne Frank?” quarrels with the way contemporary culture regards Anne Frank and the metamorphosis of her diary for the stage: it is “an unholy speculation; it tampers with history, with reality, with deadly truth.” Contrary to many others who have mulled over Anne Frank, Ozick allows herself to imagine Anne's diary burned. Why imagine such a thing? To save it from a world that has woefully mistaken it and utterly misjudged the diarist.

Cynthia Ozick recalls her own vanished youth in “A Drug Store Eden,” a companion to “A Drugstore in Winter.” We meet the people who come to the Park View Pharmacy and we observe the events as they unfolded there in both essays, but “A Drug Store Eden” yields up the hidden garden “nested in a wilderness of empty lots all around,” secluded and invisible. Long destroyed but still alive as the “secret Eden behind [her] eyes,” the garden serves as a powerful metonymy for the ravages of time, and the loss of youth.

Never as faltering or imperfect as she once imagined, she has found her way “in the bliss of American prose,” and found her way supremely, too, into its pantheon. Out of her work whirl up multiple revelations not only about the uses of imaginative writing, the nature of literary culture, and the discoveries of history, but about deeds and their consequences—the nature of human life itself. To purloin E. M. Forster's phrase, her writing educates the heart.

Selected Works

Trust (1966)Find this resource:

    The Pagan Rabbi, and Other Stories (1971)Find this resource:

      Bloodshed and Three Novellas (1976)Find this resource:

        Levitation: Five Fictions (1982)Find this resource:

          Art & Ardor: Essays (1983)Find this resource:

            The Cannibal Galaxy (1983)Find this resource:

              Rosa (1983)Find this resource:

                Seymour: An American Muse (1985)Find this resource:

                  The Messiah of Stockholm (1987)Find this resource:

                    Metaphor & Memory: Essays (1989)Find this resource:

                      The Shawl (1989)Find this resource:

                        What Henry James Knew: And Other Essays on Writers (1993)Find this resource:

                          Fame & Folly: Essays (1996)Find this resource:

                            Selections (1996)Find this resource:

                              The Puttermesser Papers (1997)Find this resource:

                                Quarrel & Quandary: Essays (2000)Find this resource:

                                  Further Reading

                                  Bloom, Harold, ed. Cynthia Ozick. New York, 1986. This collection includes a valuable introduction by Harold Bloom and many helpful essays on Cynthia Ozick's work.Find this resource:

                                    Cohen, Sarah Blacher. Cynthia Ozick's Comic Art: From Levity to Liturgy. Bloomington, Ind., 1994. Blacher Cohen attempts to show the relationship between the comic and the sacred in Ozick's work, in contrast to other critics who foreground the writer's intellect and seriousness.Find this resource:

                                      Kauvar, Elaine M. Cynthia Ozick's Fiction: Tradition and Invention. Bloomington, Ind., 1993. This book is arranged chronologically and provides readings of Ozick's fiction from Trust through The Messiah of Stockholm. Contrary to Joseph Lowin and other critics, Kauvar not only places Ozick's work in the context of American literature but shows her use of her tradition in her fiction as well.Find this resource:

                                        Kauvar, Elaine M. An Interview with Cynthia Ozick. Contemporary Literature 26 (Winter 1985).Find this resource:

                                          Kauvar, Elaine M. An Interview with Cynthia Ozick. Contemporary Literature 34 (Fall 1993).Find this resource:

                                            Lowin, Joseph. Cynthia Ozick. Boston, 1988. The first critic to discuss all of the genres in which Ozick has written, Lowin sees Ozick primarily in the Jewish and Yiddish traditions. His book contains generous portions of his correspondence with the artist.Find this resource:

                                              Pinsker, Sanford. The Uncompromising Fictions of Cynthia Ozick. Columbia, Mo., 1987. An early book on Ozick's work written in an off-handed manner and containing a number of errors that have been subsequently corrected by other critics.Find this resource:

                                                Rainwater, Catherine, and William J. Scheick, eds. Contemporary American Women Writers: Narrative Strategies. Lexington, Ky., 1985. The volume contains a chapter “Invention and Orthodoxy” by Ellen Pifer on Ozick and a valuable, but not updated, bibliography of her work.Find this resource:

                                                  Strandberg, Victor. Greek Mind/Jewish Soul: The Conflicted Art of Cynthia Ozick. Madison, Wis., 1994. Examines the influences of the Western literary tradition and the artist's social circumstance. Both the American and the Jewish characteristics of her work are considered with illuminating results.Find this resource:

                                                    Wood, James. Cynthia Ozick's Fame and Folly. The New Yorker (13 May 1996): 88–93.Find this resource: