In the spring of 1978, the literary critic Harold Bloom was invited to take part in “an amiable discussion of the rival claims of Judaism and the aesthetic” at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan. His interlocutor was to be Cynthia Ozick, the author, at the time, of three well-reviewed but not-much-read works of fiction. Bloom, who had never met Ozick but rated her novellas “Envy; or, Yiddish in America” and “Usurpation (Other People’s Stories)” as “unequaled in her generation,” agreed to participate with the understanding that neither of them was to read from a prepared text.
On the night in question, however, Bloom arrived at the venue to find Ozick, a short, compact woman of 50 with whitening hair and round spectacles, brandishing an “enormous” typescript. “This splendid lady sandbagged me,” Bloom said in a recent phone conversation, with the lofty, ungrudging admiration of an old general recalling an opposite number’s surprise attack at some long-ago battle. Flummoxed, he asked if they had not made an agreement. Ozick, Bloom recollects, said, “When you are dealing with the devil, you must be prepared to do anything!”
“I was not aware,” Bloom said, “that I was His Satanic Majesty.”
“Oh, you’re beautiful,” his diminutive opponent replied, “but I’m going to destroy you!”
Over the course of the evening, in front of a boisterous capacity crowd, Ozick proceeded to do just that. Bloom, already a figure of titanic reputation, was then in the process of rolling out his agonistic theory of poetic lineage, in books like “The Anxiety of Influence” (1973) and “Kabbalah and Criticism” (1975). By his reckoning, great poets are those who evade a feeling of belatedness — that there is, and can be, nothing new under the sun — by creatively misreading their mighty predecessors whose influence would otherwise be stifling. Because, for Bloom, the history of English poetry since the Renaissance consists of this “perverse, willful revisionism,” with each generation strenuously remaking its forebears, the “meaning of a poem can only be another one.”
Ozick was having none of this. Her text from the evening does not survive, but we can discern its outlines in an essay she published in Commentary the following year. Bloom’s conception of poetry as a self-enclosed system that referred to nothing but itself, she charged, was a form of idolatry. The very idea of belatedness, so central to Bloom’s theory, was, in Ozick’s view, anathema to the Jewish tradition, according to which there were no latecomers. This was the meaning of the words in the Passover Haggadah, “We ourselves went out from Egypt,” and the midrash that states, “All generations stood together at Sinai.” In Jewish thought, there is “no power struggle with the original, no envy of the Creator.” The idol-maker, by contrast, “hopes to compete with the Creator, and schemes to invent a substitute for the Creator.” In short, her adversary had violated the Second Commandment, and must be punished.
“She beat the crap out of him,” Gordon Lish, who as the fiction editor of Esquire had published several of Ozick’s short stories, told me. “She cleaned his plow.”
Ozick, who is now 88 (“piano keys,” as she sprightfully said when I congratulated her on her recent birthday), has not ceased from the mental fight in the intervening years. She remains a crusader, a missionary or, as she recently put it to me, “a fanatic” in the cause of literature. With one hand she has written some of the strangest, most intellectually daring and morally intelligent fiction of recent times, including “The Shawl” (1989) and “The Puttermesser Papers” (1997); with the other she has produced a prose brick of lit crit, essay after essay on subjects ranging from the Book of Job and Gershom Scholem to Helen Keller and Susan Sontag. You could furnish a room with the prizes she has won, and yet the embrace of a wide readership and extraliterary fame has proved elusive; and no wonder. Public demand for the exacting insights of practitioner-critics, never high, has been in steady decline for a good while now.
This, at any rate, is the contention of her new book, “Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays,” which comes out in July. It is Ozick’s seventh volume of criticism in three decades and is written out of a sense of cultural emergency, of alarm and anguish at “the dying of the imagination through the invisibility of the past.” Ozick came of age at the century’s midpoint, during the heyday of the New York Intellectuals, the group of largely Jewish writers and thinkers who, possessed by left-wing politics and a belief in the primacy of literature as a tool for comprehending self and society, “refused to be refused” by a WASP-dominated cultural establishment. The book bristles with recollections of this time — when “the publication of a serious literary novel was an exuberant communal event” — and portraits of its leading figures, among them Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and Lionel Trilling.
All that, Ozick believes, is now defunct. The readers are disappearing, casualties of television and the internet — or, in the case of American undergraduates, of “egotism and moralizing, politicized self-righteousness.” Trilling, once an epoch-defining mind, is now “so reduced as to have become a joke to certain young critics who favor flippancy and lightness.” Lest it be said that these are the typical accents of literary octogenarianism, we ought to remember that Ozick has always sounded like this. Ours, we are told, in “Art and Ardor” (1983) is “an era in which the notion of belles-lettres is profoundly dead.” These are not fashionable opinions; and indeed, it may testify to the soundness of Ozick’s bleak assessment that she herself, one of the last great exemplars of the values whose eclipse she laments, is now so underrecognized.
“What a falling off was there!” can sometimes seem like the only thing she has to say to the present, and yet she lives not so much in the past as out of time altogether. She stands at a kind of belletristic Sinai, alongside all the other literary generations. “There are, in fact, no ‘generations,’ ” she has written, “except in the biological sense. There are only categories and crises of temperament,” which “crisscross and defy and deny chronology.” It is this sense of timelessness that makes reading her so thrilling, especially in our compulsively up-to-the-minute era. Literature, her work announces above the contemporary din, is a zone of radical freedom — perhaps the only one we have left.
recommended by: Leon Rozenbaum
Like her characters, a sorry gaggle of pallid shut-ins and thwarted fantasists, Ozick doesn’t get out much. She has spoken of her aversion to stages and of her impatience with what Henry James, her lifelong inspirator, called “the twaddle of mere graciousness.” She writes at night, for years at the Sears, Roebuck desk she has owned since childhood, measuring her existence “in sentences pressed out, line by line, like the lustrous ooze on the underside of the snail.” When I first wrote to her to propose this article, she responded with a detailed message about her unsuitability. As far as she could tell, her life was altogether devoid of public action, public interest. “I once wrote that I’d flown cross-country, solo, from the Westchester County airport to the Rocky Mountains in a single-engine 180-horsepower Piper Cherokee,” she added promisingly. “But that was a lie.” Her last public reading, she said, took place more than six years ago, and nowadays she didn’t venture beyond the local supermarket. There was an admirable humility to all this, but also, perhaps, a certain frostiness, a desire to be left alone to get on with her sentence making. Of life, she once wrote: “I dislike it. I notice no ‘interplay of life and art.’ Life is that which — pressingly, persistently, unfailingly, imperially — interrupts.”
It was, then, with some trepidation that I recently traveled to the bedroom community of New Rochelle, in Westchester County, where Ozick and her husband, Bernard Hallote, a retired lawyer, have lived since the mid-1960s. Ozick had agreed to talk, but would she spend the interview resenting my very presence? I was, after all, an emissary from life, the interrupter. Would she pounce on some unwittingly idolatrous remark of mine and eviscerate me as she had done Bloom? Or was I in for the kind of treatment that Norman Mailer received at a notoriously fractious debate about feminism at New York City’s Town Hall in 1971, where Ozick, rising from her seat in the audience during the Q. and A. session, asked the author of “The Prisoner of Sex” (apropos of his remark that “A good novelist can do without everything but the remnant of his balls”): “Mr. Mailer, when you dip your balls in ink, what color ink is it?”
Ozick in “Town Bloody Hall,” a documentary on the debate between Norman Mailer and a group of feminists in 1971.CreditFilm still from Pennebaker Hegedus Films
My mood was considerably improved, however, by the taxi driver, a paunchy man in a white golfing visor and orange-tinted sunglasses, whom I met at the train station.
“The old lady?” he said when I gave him Ozick’s address.
“ … yes,” I said uncertainly.
It turned out that he had been ferrying Ozick and her husband around New Rochelle for years. He spoke warmly of their conversations and made them sound almost like old friends.
“She’s getting on,” he said fondly, “but she’s still got all her marbles.”
Encouraged, I asked him if he’d read any of her books.
“She writes books?”
So Ozick was unknown, unread, even in her own backyard.
“Yeah, she’s written a few,” I said. In fact, I added, she had a new one coming out soon.
“There you go,” he said, with a little cluck of satisfaction. “Still got all her marbles.”
In an unpublished letter to Saul Bellow from the late 1980s that Ozick shared with me, she quotes some of Bellow’s words back to him: “As the son of immigrant parents, I recognized at an early age that I was called upon to decide for myself to what extent my Jewish origins … were to be allowed to determine the course of my life. I did not mean to be wholly dependent on history and culture. Full dependency must mean that I was done for.” Then Ozick writes: “It’s otherwise for me. I keep wanting to become my mother and father … and as I get older, I’m shocked now and again by the discovery of the music of their brains in my brain. … I’m not a runaway.” It made me think of her essay on Kafka from the new book, in which Ozick castigates John Updike for claiming that the author of “The Metamorphosis” transcends his “Jewish parochialism.” Such a view, she writes, “diminishes and disfigures” Kafka, whose feelings of ethnic marginality were, in her estimate, the source of his genius. This is true of Ozick herself: Her Jewishness is definitional without being delimiting. Quite the opposite.
“And the language was lost, murdered,” she writes in “Envy; or, Yiddish in America,” from “The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories” (1971). “The language — a museum. Of what other language can it be said that it died a sudden and definite death, in a given decade, on a given piece of soil?” These are the thoughts of the novella’s protagonist, Edelshtein, a widowed, childless, untranslated Yiddish-language poet of Russian birth who ekes out a livelihood giving talks on his mother tongue — his mamaloshen — at synagogues and community centers in the New York metropolitan area. It is tempting to see in Edelshtein’s tragicomic day-to-day efforts on behalf of Yiddish a bitter self-parody of Ozick the practitioner-critic, Ozick the elegist of a vanished cultural past.
“Never occurred to me,” Ozick said when I asked if she had at any time considered moving further afield. “In fact, there used to be a nice old stone out in the yard that I thought would be my gravestone. Though of course it may be illegal to be buried in your own yard.”We were sitting at the dining-room table, on which she’d laid out tea and a plate of madeleines — this being proper, she suggested, for a literary conversation. Elfin, soft-spoken, plainly dressed in a black blouse and a long black skirt (with white sneakers peeping out from beneath the hem), Ozick was an affable and attentive presence. She has precise silver-gray bangs and wears thick rectangular glasses; thin, clear creases (“smile-ruts,” she calls them) run from the corners of her nose to the sides of her wide, thin-lipped mouth. Her in-person voice is high, brittle, lilting, with traces of the Bronx (“the vowels hang on,” as she has said): pretty well the opposite of the emphatic and authoritative voice on the page. When I broke off a corner of a madeleine and dipped it in my tea, Ozick shivered and clasped her elbows in her hands, as though to ward off some more violent paroxysm. “You’re doing exactly the right thing!” she said. “Just what Proust did! Oh, it’s so perfect what you’ve just done! It moves me.”
My apprehension had evaporated the moment I arrived. Ozick’s extreme congeniality took me by surprise, though perhaps it shouldn’t have: All writers live under an assumed identity. Later, in an email, Ozick questioned Bloom’s account of the evening at the Jewish Museum, even as she acknowledged his formidable powers of recall, and said she couldn’t imagine herself ever speaking to him so brashly. They have become friends (Bloom’s recent book, “The Daemon Knows,” is enthusiastically reviewed in the new collection) and occasionally chat on the phone.
For college, Ozick traveled only as far as the other end of the 6 line. She attended New York University, in Greenwich Village, the center of bohemianism, but says she spent most of her undergraduate career in the basement of the library. “Such a strange, lonely time,” she recalled. “Other students were meeting people and going to classes and having a social life, and there I was all by myself reading Milton’s Latin poems, with a dictionary.”
It was to her parents’ house that Ozick returned in the early 1950s, after completing a master’s degree at Ohio State University. She spent her 20s and a good part of her 30s immured in her childhood bedroom, writing a never-to-be-published novel called, after a line from Blake, “Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love” — or “Mippel,” as she refers to it. (“The Mippel on which I sucked for so long”). “I was ashamed of my life, and I lived only to read and write,” Ozick has said of these years. Meanwhile, her contemporaries were getting on, publishing second and third novels, building reputations.
“I was mired in envy,” Ozick told me, nervously fondling a napkin and smoothing and resmoothing the checkered burgundy tablecloth. “I think there is such a difference in the entire life span of a writer when there is early recognition. Once you’ve been through isolation and obscurity and seeing your generation flourish, I think that remains your mind-set forever.” Her first novel, “Trust,” was finally published in 1966, when Ozick was 37, and she has labored steadily in her vocation since then; “Critics, Monsters, Fanatics” is her 18th book. Were these, and the raft of plaudits and prizes they received, any consolation for her youthful struggles? “I haven’t done enough,” she said, speaking of her fiction, which, she made it clear, she derives more satisfaction from than her essays. (She is currently at work on a new batch of short stories.) “I haven’t done enough,” she said again, more slowly, as though talking to herself. “I wanted to do more.”
By any reasonable standard, Ozick has done plenty, and with resounding distinction. In 1999, David Foster Wallace said that he regarded Ozick, together with Cormac McCarthy and Don DeLillo, as “pretty much the country’s best living fiction writers.” To put it conservatively, Ozick is responsible for some of the finest sentences of the past half century; she is an authentic and unmistakable stylist, and there are never more than a handful of those in any generation.In her short stories and novellas, in particular, she seems to want to invest prose with the heft and pressure of poetry. Here is Lars, in “The Messiah of Stockholm” (1987), a lowly newspaper book critic (and perhaps another Ozick self-parody) who has been so powerfully affected by the work of Bruno Schulz, the Polish writer murdered by the Nazis, that he’s come to believe that he is Schulz’s son: “He wrote [his review] straight off, a furnace burning fat. It was as if his pen, sputtering along the line of rapid letters it ignited, flung out haloes of hot grease. The air brightened, then charred. He was very quick now, he was encyclopedic, he was in a crisis of inundation.” Or here, again, is poor Edelshtein: “In the train going back to Manhattan he slid into a miniature jogging doze — it was a little nest of sweetness there inside the flaps of his overcoat, and he dreamed he was in Kiev, with his father.”
Over tea, Ozick recalled Kafka’s words to his fiancée, Felice Bauer: “I have no literary interests; I am made of literature.” After a moment, she added, “If a writer doesn’t feel that line in his marrow, then he’s really not a writer.” There was a time in her youth when she came to question this all-consuming investment; she wondered if to live for nothing else besides literature wasn’t its own kind of idolatry.
“I thought it was wrong,” she told me, at last raising her cup of long cold tea to her lips. “At this point, I don’t think it’s wrong.”
Giles Harvey is a contributing writer for the magazine and a senior editor at Harper’s Magazine.
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