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Dictation: A Quartet by Cynthia Ozick

- Abstract

In a review almost a quarter-century ago of Saul Bellow’s Him With His Foot in His Mouth, a book of five short stories, Cynthia Ozick asked:

Does there come a time when, out of the blue, an author offers to decode himself? Not simply to divert or paraphrase, or lead around a corner, or leave clues, or set out decoys (familiar apparatus, art-as-usual), but . . . spill wine all over the figure in the carpet . . . and disclose the thing itself? To let loose, in fact, the secret? . . . The cumulative art, concentrated, so to speak, in a vial.

Now, at a similarly late stage in her career, Ozick has collected four stories of her own, “a quartet,” as the subtitle of her new book has it, and one is tempted to ask the same question. Has Ozick offered to decode herself?

Perhaps—though it should be noted that it was never clear that Bellow’s one true subject, his “secret,” was, as Ozick claimed, “the Eye of God.” Ozick is, like Bellow, known as a Jewish writer, but unlike Bellow (who once criticized Isaac Bashevis Singer as “too Jewy”), she has not resisted the label or dismissed it as social happenstance. To the contrary, the question of what it means to write as a Jew has always been at the center of Ozick’s work.

Her first published short story, “The Pagan Rabbi” (1966), depicts a rabbinic scholar who tells his children fantastic tales, comes to worship nature, and, in a fit of despair and ecstasy, ends up hanging himself from a tree with his tallit (prayer shawl). The central character of her most successful novel, The Cannibal Galaxy (1983), is a Jewish educator whose great ambition is to lead a school that marries the best of the Jewish and classical traditions; he fails. Ozick’s most recent novel, Heir to the Glimmering World (2004), manages to be at once about a figure very much like Christopher Milne, the unhappy model for his father’s “Winnie the Pooh” stories, and about the medieval Jewish heresy of Karaism, which rejected rabbinic commentary in favor of biblical literalism.

About the Author

Abraham Socher, who teachers at Oberlin College, reviewed James Kugel’s How to Read the Bible in our December 2007 issue.