Cynthia Ozick, Smasher of Idols

Aspiring younger novelists usually really feel they’re in a race towards the clock to get themselves between exhausting covers and safely into print. It isn’t merely that the canon teems with early birds: Thomas Mann, who revealed “Buddenbrooks” at twenty-six; F. Scott Fitzgerald, who revealed “This Side of Paradise” at twenty-three. There can also be the aggressive incitement of one’s contemporaries. To look on as others your individual age, or youthful, launch sensible careers when you stay unpublished and at massive can do lasting harm to the nascent literary ego. The longer it goes on, the better it will get for the apprentice to view his obscurity as an indication, in Mark Twain’s phrases, “that sawing wood is what he was intended for.”

Few writers have borne witness to the slow-healing bruises of early neglect extra memorably than Cynthia Ozick, whose personal first novel, “Trust” (1966), didn’t seem till she’d reached the virtually geriatric age of thirty-seven. “There one sits, reading and writing, month after month, year after year,” Ozick has mentioned of her lengthy pre-print limbo. “There one sits, envying other young writers who have achieved a grain more than oneself. Without the rush and brush and crush of the world, one becomes hollowed out. The cavity fills with envy.” As it occurred, “Trust,” a six-hundred-and-fifty-page homage to Henry James, Ozick’s as soon as and future inspirator, did little to reinforce her title recognition. (“Nobody has ever read it,” she mentioned a number of a long time later, solely mildly overstating the case.) In the top, it was envy itself that grew to become the means of her literary ascent.

In the years after “Trust,” Ozick took a hiatus from the novel type, producing a sequence of ferocious tales and novellas by which her most memorable characters—sometimes Jewish-American writers, like their creator—are infected by “the anguish of exclusion” from mainstream literary tradition. Ozick has been a fervent critic of id politics because the nineteen-seventies (see, for instance, her diatribe towards second-wave feminism, “Literature and the Politics of Sex: A Dissent”), and but few have written so nicely concerning the inconstant vanity of the socially marginalized. In “Envy; or, Yiddish in America,” from “The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories” (1971), an untranslated Yiddish-language poet named Herschel Edelshtein desires what his up to date the short-story author Yankel Ostrover has: particularly, a big American viewers. Ostrover, too, writes in Yiddish (a “lost, murdered” language), however with the assistance of a translator he has escaped from the “prison” of his native tongue. “Out, out—he had burst out, he was in the world of reality,” as Edelshtein, who positively vibrates with resentment, sees it. Edelshtein’s psychology, like that of all Ozick’s outsiders, is dense with humiliating paradox. On the one hand, Yiddish and the obliterated tradition of European Jewry it evokes are what give which means to his life; on the opposite, they’re a ghetto from which he yearns to interrupt free right into a wider American actuality. He despises Ostrover for being a sellout whilst he yearns to turn out to be him.

Ozick’s tales from this era—there have been additionally these collected in “Bloodshed and Three Novellas” (1976) and “Levitation: Five Fictions” (1982)—didn’t win her an Ostrover-sized readership, however they marked an inventive coming of age. The affect of James was nonetheless obvious in her luxurious phrase-making and labyrinthine syntax, however now it was tempered by extra vernacular rhythms. (“I would like to make a good strong b.m. on your friend Ostrover” shouldn’t be the sort of comment you’d discover in a narrative by the Master.) Thematically, too, Ozick was staking out her personal distinctive terrain. She’d come to acknowledge her youthful worship of James as a type of idolatry, a sin beneath Jewish legislation. For Ozick, this wasn’t a matter of theological nitpicking however one of urgent ethical concern. “When we see a little girl who is dressed up too carefully in starched flounces and ribbons and is admonished not to run in the dirt, we often say, ‘She looks like a little doll,’ ” Ozick wrote in an essay from the late seventies, explaining her funding within the topic. “And that is what she has been made into: the inert doll has become the model for the human child, dead matter rules the quick. That dead matter will rule the quick is the single law of idolatry.” From Edelshtein, whose devotion to Yiddish induces a paralyzing contempt for the uninitiated, to Rosa Lublin in “The Shawl” (1989), a semi-lucid Holocaust survivor who persists in writing letters to her daughter, lengthy since murdered by the Nazis, Ozick’s characters make idols of their passions, and within the course of remodel themselves into dwelling dolls.

Ozick has prevented this destiny. Five and a half a long time after her belated début, she has established herself as one of our period’s central writers, with an ample provide of beautiful fiction and belles-lettres; and he or she continues to be going. To publish a novel in your early twenties is spectacular; to publish one on the age of ninety-three is one thing else altogether. That is the age that Ozick activates April 17th, a couple of days after the publication date of her newest e book, which bears the self-ironic title “Antiquities” (Knopf). A brisk work of some thirty thousand phrases, it explores her favourite topics—envy and ambition, the ethical peril of idolatry—in her favourite type. As you would possibly anticipate, it additionally has a lot to say about final issues, and the lengthy views open to the human thoughts because it approaches its terminus.

“The limitless void that awaits us” is way on the thoughts of Ozick’s narrator, as nicely it could be. Lloyd Wilkinson Petrie, a retired lawyer, is getting on in years. It is 1949, and Petrie has come to stay at Temple Academy, the esteemed Westchester boarding faculty he attended in his youth. The faculty, lengthy defunct, has these days been transformed right into a retirement residence for its trustees, all former pupils. Each has agreed to put in writing a brief memoir of his faculty days as half of a form of institutional historical past. What feels like a innocent train in group nostalgia quickly takes on an air of the macabre as Petrie’s recollections convey into the sunshine issues higher left in darkness.

An individual “of lineage,” Petrie likes to dwell on his mild ancestry, although not all of it makes for pleased contemplation. In 1880, earlier than Petrie’s delivery, his father, a person “enamored” of the traditional world, deserted his younger spouse and his place on the household legislation agency to go in search of a distant relative, Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie, a famend archeologist, who on the time was excavating the Great Pyramid of Giza. Although he got here residence after a number of months and lived out his days as a standard household man, his “mad episode”—which was “rarely alluded to and never defined”—dealt a psychic blow to his spouse and son. Decades later, Petrie nonetheless remembers how his father would gaze on the glass cupboard that housed the artifacts he’d introduced again with him from Egypt: “I was always a little afraid of him during these motionless scenes, when he seemed as wooden and lifeless as one of my toy soldiers.” Upon his father’s early dying, Petrie inherited these historical idols.

As a member of the tight-lipped, politely anti-Semitic Wasp institution, Petrie is hardly your commonplace Ozick protagonist. What he provides her, it appears, is a means of tackling Judeophobia from the opposite aspect. Temple Academy, Petrie explains, was constructed on a plot of land that had beforehand belonged to the illustrious Temple household, cousins of Henry James, and was, in Petrie’s smugly euphemistic phrases, “premised on English religious and scholarly principles.” But attempt telling that to the native riffraff, who suspected “that ‘Temple’ signified something unpleasantly synagogical, so that on many a Sunday morning the chapel’s windows (those precious panels of stained glass depicting the Jerusalem of Jesus’ time) were discovered to have been smashed overnight.”

Petrie’s narrative activates his relationship with a quiet, elusive classmate, Ben-Zion Elefantin, one of a handful of Jewish college students who have been admitted within the eighteen-nineties beneath the auspices of a liberal headmaster. Petrie, in spite of his well-bred bigotry, is drawn to Elefantin, whose olive pores and skin tone and weird accent make him an object of suspicion and mock. A cautious friendship blossoms, although which means Petrie himself turns into a pariah by affiliation. Mostly the 2 boys simply direct silences at one another from throughout a chessboard, till one afternoon, following an argument concerning the artifacts Petrie inherited from his father (“You know nothing of Egypt,” his buddy exclaims in a sudden match of pique), Elefantin reveals an astonishing secret: he’s, he says, descended from a little-known colony of Jews who lived on Elephantine Island, within the Nile, someday within the fifth century B.C.E.

“The store was out of eggs, so we’re dyeing my roots instead.”
Cartoon by Ali Solomon

It’s right here, across the midway level, that Ozick begins to maneuver by means of the gears of her formidable creativeness, introducing a tincture of magic to what has up to now been a chunk of pretty commonplace realism. In a bravura monologue, which Petrie cautions is an imperfect reconstruction, Elefantin recounts the story of his individuals—a narrative that, he claims, official Jewish sources have distorted and obscured. Far from being the wayward band of polytheist mercenaries that students have described, the Elephantine Jews, alone among the many tribes of Israel, “were unyieldingly faithful” to the teachings of Moses. Elefantin’s mother and father, who cross themselves off as merchants in antiquities, are actually “pilgrims in search of a certain relic of our heritage.” Their peripatetic life type is the rationale Elefantin has been enrolled at Temple Academy, which is simply the newest in a collection of makeshift properties he’s needed to put up with throughout his younger life.

Divided by ethnicity, Petrie and Elefantin are thus actually secret sharers, the uncared for kids of mother and father who, in several methods, have made an idol of the previous. Petrie wonders whether or not the relic his buddy’s mother and father have been looking for could be amongst his father’s heirlooms, however Elefantin refuses to look at them. At size, the 2 classmates drift aside. Looking again on this time from the opposite finish of his life, Petrie wonders what grew to become of Elefantin. “Today he is no more than an illusion, and perhaps he was an illusion then.”

Is Elefantin’s story true? Although the Elephantine Jews, like Sir Flinders Petrie, belong to the historic document, his claims about their willful misrepresentation by “falsifying scholars” belong solely to Ozick’s novella. Those claims, set forth in mesmeric element, actually have a hoop of credibility; on the similar time, the e book provides sufficient inside proof to counsel they could be little greater than a lonely little one’s precocious daydream. Elefantin wouldn’t be the primary of Ozick’s characters to channel a want for belonging and id into private mythmaking. In “The Messiah of Stockholm” (1987), one other quick work that deftly fuses fable and psychology, Lars Andemening, an remoted, middle-aged e book reviewer within the Swedish capital, believes himself to be the son of the Polish-Jewish author Bruno Schulz, who perished within the Holocaust. This makes Andemening a straightforward mark for quacks and grifters, and but the e book additionally accords his fantasy a sure tender respect.

In “Antiquities,” there appears to be as a lot at stake for Petrie within the legend of the Elephantines as there may be for Elefantin himself. A friendless widower with an estranged grownup son who tells himself tales about his previous accomplishments in a determined effort to evade self-knowledge, Petrie is the descendant of a protracted line of unreliable narrators which incorporates Ford Madox Ford’s John Dowell and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Mr. Stevens. “I am not a jealous man,” Petrie insists at one level. “As the heir and partner of a highly reputable law firm, I have never had a reason to envy. Rather, throughout my career, others have envied me.” Or so he likes to suppose. Petrie boasts of the “considerable esteem” he has earned “in the civic arena,” however by 1949 this civic area is beginning to look very completely different from the best way it had in his youth. F.D.R., that traitor to his class, whom Petrie says he voted towards 4 instances, and the transformative influence of the Second World War, have begun to chip away at Wasp hegemony; American Jews are rising by means of the skilled ranks. Another of Petrie’s Jewish schoolmates, Ned Greenhill, is now a district-court decide in New York. Greenhill’s son is a rich property developer who finally ends up shopping for Temple Academy when it runs into monetary hassle, forcing Petrie to seek out one other residence. Normally, in Ozick’s work, it’s the Jewish characters who envy their extra assimilated brethren, and even Gentiles themselves; for Petrie, this dynamic has been stingingly inverted.

More obliquely, Petrie additionally envies Elefantin, whose origin story appears to attach him to one thing everlasting and transcendent, an escape hatch from historical past’s humiliating reversals. Confronted by his failings as a human being and the upcoming expiration of the patrician values by which he’s lived, Petrie can at the least say that he was “Elefantin’s Boswell,” a person who, if not himself exceptional, encountered somebody who was and is leaving a document of it for future generations. Of course, if it transpired that Elefantin’s story was false, then Petrie can be disadvantaged of even that comfort. This seems to be the rationale he has waited so lengthy to document his reminiscences of his schoolmate and topic them to scrutiny, and why lastly doing so causes him such grief. “I am, if I may express it so, in a state of suffering of the soul as I write,” he says, considerably histrionically, whilst he deplores what he sees because the Jewish tendency towards “overflowing sentimentalism” and a “motion picture style of exaggerated feeling.”

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