What Is Cynthia Ozick About?
The first to have ventured, Cynthia Ozick remains in a class by herself.
It was in 1966 that she published, in the relatively obscure Hudson Review, her story “The Pagan Rabbi”; in 1969 that “Envy; or, Yiddish in America” caused a stir when it appeared in COMMENTARY. (To give a lesser but then more popular novelist his due, between those two years Chaim Potok's The Chosen, a novel about an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva boy in New York City, became a national best-seller.) These stories demonstrated what now seems so obvious that it is hard to fathom what took so long, or why more writers did not take up the challenge immediately—namely, that it was possible to write important American Jewish fiction from within.
Today, with the work of Allen Hoffman, Allegra Goodman, Rebecca Goldstein, Nessa Rappaport, Jonathan Rosen, Dara Horn, Nathan Englander, Aryeh Lev Stollman, and still others who write well and un-self-consciously about lives engaged with Jewishness, one has to remind oneself that, oddly enough, such lives were once considered infra dig for post-World War II “American Jewish” literature. As late as the 1980's, this literature's proper perspective was thought to be on the outside, looking back or in. Jewishness as remembered childhood; as outgrown parochialism; as lost patrimony; as ethnic burlesque; as black comedy; as other-or self-inflicted victim-hood; as the natural habitat of the neurotic and the schlemiel; as existential burden or tragic fate; as refined moral sensibility, ironic critical detachment, exile, alienation, marginality, the symbolic state of Everyman—as anything but a knowledgeable involvement in a living Jewish tradition and community—was what American Jewish fiction was about.
“The Pagan Rabbi” broke with all this. Although not exactly an affirmation of Judaism (its rabbi, an admired young talmudic scholar, shocks its narrator by becoming a worshiper of sprites and nature spirits and then killing himself), it was written from a place that no mere escapee from or voyeur of Judaism could have occupied. And it was for this reason also a Jewish puzzle, since it never made clear either its author's judgment of her narrator, a deserter from Judaism married to a Gentile, or its narrator's judgment of the rabbi, a childhood friend who inspires in him the pity and terror that, so Aristotle said, is the natural reaction to true tragedy.
Four decades have gone by since the publication of “The Pagan Rabbi,” and Ozick, as evinced by her latest novel, Heir to the Glimmering World,1 continues to puzzle while having become, besides one of the most distinguished fiction writers of her age, a formidably intelligent essayist and literary critic, and a fearless defender of the Jews and the state of Israel against their detractors. It is as fiction writer and essayist together, indeed, that she puzzles the most, since the same essays that illuminate her fiction throw their shadow over it. If Heir to the Glimmering World is a novel that Ozick the essayist helps us to understand better, it is also a novel that makes us ask what the relationship between Ozick the essayist and Ozick the novelist is.
Although nothing, as the narrator of Ozick's story “Usurpation” observes, is more tedious than plot summary, a synopsis of Heir to the Glimmering World conveys why it has seemed a strange book to some reviewers.
In 1935, a young upstate New Yorker, an eighteen-year-old named Rosie Meadows, goes to work for a family of refugees from Hitler who are, like her, not noticeably Jewish Jews. Rosie is an orphan, having lost her mother when she was young and more recently her father, a ne'er-do-well school-teacher, and when an older cousin she has been staying with in Albany moves in with his Communist girlfriend, she lands a sleep-in job with the Mitwissers.
Newly arrived in America, the Mitwissers consist of Professor Rudolf Mitwisser, an internationally recognized scholar of the Karaites, a medieval Jewish sect that rejected the interpretative traditions of the rabbis in favor of a biblical literalism; his wife Elsa, a nuclear physicist and former colleague of the great Erwin Schrödinger, now sunk in a having-to-start-all-over-again depression; and their children, a psychologically stunted little girl, three rambunctious boys, and—mature beyond her years—the teenage Annaliese. Although Rosie thinks she has been hired to look after the children and Mrs. Mitwisser, it is Annaliese who runs the household. Rosie's real job, she finds out while learning to negotiate the family's various intrigues and alliances, is to be a typist for the professor, a monomaniacal scholar with a temporary post at a local college and a passion for his subject that few people share.
Before long the Mitwissers, who have a mysterious if irregular source of income, move to the Bronx. Rosie accompanies them and a new character appears, the mysterious source of income himself. He is James A'Bair, Jr., the son of the late author-illustrator James Philip A'Bair, creator of “the Bear Boy,” the much-beloved, Christopher Robin-like hero of a series of popular children's books. James, the Bear Boy's original model, is no longer the darling child in bangs and short pants made rich and famous by his father but a hard-drinking drifter who has spent his adult life fleeing the cuddlesome image bestowed on him. Something about the Mitwissers, first met in a rooming house in Albany, attracts him; something links him to the professor and his Karaites. (Something also links him to Rosie, who happens to possess, by a freak accident, the immensely valuable copy of the first Bear Boy off the press, won by her father from James in an improvised game of craps.)
Heir to the Glimmering World advances slowly, its progress delayed by the mysteries that block its way and must be dismantled. Rosie corresponds with her cousin Bertram, on whom she has a crush; his Communist girlfriend goes off to fight in Spain and is killed. Mrs. Mitwisser is revealed to have had a secret affair with Schrödinger, the father of one of her three sons. James and Annaliese fall in love and elope. Professor Mitwisser works feverishly on his grand opus; excitedly discovers that a leading Karaite, “descend [ing] into the labyrinth of renunciation,” had concluded that man, God's would-be interpreter, is despised by his Creator; yet then, his findings un-publishable because a key document is missing, falls into a melancholia of his own, loses interest in his work, and grows old and enfeebled. James commits suicide, leaving Annaliese pregnant. Bertram moves in with the Mitwissers, assumes Annaliese's nurturing role, and courts and marries her. James's lawyers award the A'Bair fortune to Annaliese's baby. Rosie packs and leaves. We last see her on the novel's last page, stepping into a cab with her bags.
Karaites? A Bear Boy? What's it about?
One could say—there are literary critics who say it—that literature is not about anything. It simply is, like life itself, and no more owes us meanings than do otters or oak trees. Rosie, the Mitwissers, and the Bear Boy exist because Cynthia Ozick the novelist has breathed life into them; substitute our words for hers, and they die.
This is, however, a point of view that Ozick the essayist will have none of. Repeatedly in her writings she has attacked the dogma, associated with the “New Criticism” that came to be a 20th-century orthodoxy, that literature need only “be,” not “mean.” From a Jewish perspective, she has written, this is “idolatrous,” because “When art is put in competition, like a god, with the Creator, it too is turned into an idol. . . . [T]he chief characteristic of any idol is that it is a system sufficient to itself.” Literature resists “idolatry” by inviting interpretation, exegesis. “The writers who claim that fiction is self-referential, that what a story is about is the language it is made out of,” Ozick has declared,
willingly sit in the dark, like the strict-constructionist Karaites who, wanting to observe the Sabbath exactly, sat in the lampless black and the fireless cold on the very day that is most meant to resemble Paradise. The misuse of the significance of language by writers who most intend to celebrate the comeliness of language is like the misuse of the Sabbath by the fundamentalist Karaites: both annihilate the thing they hope to glorify.
The Karaites! If Heir to the Glimmering World is to be interpreted, its author has left us the key. She has in fact left it in three places, having written, early in her career, three different essays that refer to those medieval sectarians—“papa's people,” as Annaliese calls them—who thought a perfect Torah needed no commentary.
In the earliest of these essays, “Toward a New Yiddish,” delivered as an address in Jerusalem in 1970, Ozick declared in an attack on the New Criticism: “[The] New Critics . . . were largely Christian Karaites who would allow no tradition to be attached to a text. The history, psychology, even the opinions of a writer were declared irrelevant to the work and its word.” Let us then bring to bear the history, psychology, and opinions of the writer to interpret Heir to the Glimmering World.
“Karaism” for Ozick is less a chapter in Jewish history than a metaphor for the rejection of history—for the contention that the highest human experience is the pristine encounter with an uninterpreted reality, with the “original self” and the “here and now.” This, she holds, is a belief inimical to Judaism, a religion based on memory, historical accretion, and the recognition that the present is but the past's furthest thrust into time. To be blinded by the flash of eternity, “abjuring all that is not essence” like Professor Mitwisser's Karaites, is a dazzling experience, but, prolonged beyond the mystical moment, it is an impoverishing illusion, there being no original self to return to. The here and now caps the vector of the there and then.
Both Rudolf Mitwisser and James A'Bair, the Bear Boy, are metaphorical Karaites, James by virtue of his revolt against a father who has imposed on him an identity he did not choose. (“He was not a normal boy,” we are told, “he was his father's drawing, his father's discourse, his father's exegesis of a boy. . . . [H]is father had interpreted him for the world.”) Having taken to the whisky-and-hash-sodden road in search of his “real” self, the Bear Boy is drawn to Rudolf Mitwisser instinctively. (“It's not old that counts for Rudi, it's throwing things over,” James says to Rosie. “He's got appetite; he's out to upset the apple cart.”) Yet he also grasps, in his fashion, the professor's project. (“It was impossible,” Annaliese reflects, “to think that James would care about papa's people, they were so old and long-ago; but one day he took off his glasses . . . and said that sometimes he nearly felt like one of them.”) The two men are bound by a common cause.
Undone by it, too. Mitwisser is left with a worthless discovery, unprovable and impossible to live by. (“It is all in vain, in vain,” he tells Rosie. What is the point of being a creature God hates?) James, after thinking he has ditched the Bear Boy at last by gambling away “the wonderful book” and becoming “nakedly himself, without a lace collar,” despairingly realizes that the book has pursued him and there is no escape from the son his father made him. (“He had buried the Bear Boy, and among the Mitwissers the ghost had risen.”) Both are foiled in getting back to “pure essence.”
Is James to be read as the symbol of the anti-Jew—the idolater, the Karaite, the Christian, the New Critic, the New Age enthusiast, the Jew who wishes he were not born one? All of these, as Ozick put it in another of her “Karaite” essays, “Literature as Idol: Harold Bloom” (originally published as “Judaism and Harold Bloom” in COMMENTARY, January 1979), are engaged in “the usurpation of an inheritance by the inheritor himself.” And if, as it would appear, James stands for all of them, then, odd as it may seem, his father James Philip A'Bair—a father who endows a child with a priceless legacy that is perceived by the child as constraint, confinement, denied essence, a lace collar to be worn while the other boys wear comfortable play clothes—must be read as a symbol of Judaism.
And what of Rosie, of whom an intelligent reviewer, frustrated because she is “singularly difficult to pin down as a narrator,” has complained that her tone is “almost affectless”? Surely, that is an unfair description of prose—its rhythms and choice of words as flawless as Ozick's nearly always are—like this:
The Karaites. I begin to see them, dimly, dimly, passing shadows, remote echoes, grayly trudging on the farthest rim of history, the other side of history, the underside. They are inked letters seeping through the backs of the pages of old chronicles: faint glyphs glimmering, just visible, an inside-out alphabet.
Rosie departs, stepping into a taxi, the “wonderful book” in her hand. She too is an heir to the glimmering world, though she may not yet be aware of it.
Clearly, however, there is something wrong with reading a novel in such a paraphrastic, reductionist way. If a work of fiction can be boiled down to its ideas and symbols, who needs fiction? (The narrator of Ozick's “Usurpation,” presented as an author herself, does not even want unboiled ideas. “I hate stories with ideas hidden in them,” she says.) Let us have essays and be done with it.
Fiction is like life insofar as talking about it and experiencing it are two different things, and the literary criticism of fiction, which is the talking about this experience, must begin with the experience itself. And we do not experience James A'Bair as an idea. We experience him as a force, elemental and chaotic. Here is Rosie's first glimpse of him, unexpectedly appearing at the Mitwissers' in a heavy rainstorm:
He was not young; neither was he old. He was a ragged sort of fellow. If I had met him in the street I would have taken him for a vagrant and given him a wide berth; I would have dreaded the accidental touch of his sleeve. When his cap was off a heap of black hair went tumbling over the streaming lenses of his glasses; impossible to see his eyes behind all that water. A vagrant; a vagabond; a man with a knapsack and no socks. . . .
The boys were all over him, an onslaught of boys, climbing and slapping and screeching and punching and squeezing; they were squeezing him dry, his feet spurted puddles, a geyser of laughter splashed up. Laughter! . . .
“Who, I'm being throttled there. Hank, get off my neck, dammit! Bill! Hey! Unhand those primates, Rudi, can't you?” He was thrashing like a wild man, roaring; he had called Mitwisser Rudi, which was unimaginable. In this house of rules, he had no rules.
James is unruly with life. We react to him not like the critical Rosie but like the de-inhibited Mitwissers—as a relief, a breath of fresh air, a knocking down of the walls that separate them from each other and from us. Often in Ozick's fiction, indeed, the characters that intellectually seem most designed to be repudiated are the ones to whom, experientially, we are most drawn. They capture our sympathies in ways, we suspect, that Ozick the essayist might not approve of.
Take the “pagan rabbi,” Isaac Kornfeld, for example. Condemned by his wise and embittered widow Sheindel, who cannot forgive either his suicide or his bizarre sexual infatuation with an imagined nymph in a city park, he is an “abomination” for her. Yet though paganism is never a positive thing in Ozick's essays, her story gives Kornfeld a deranged sublimity whose wild, mad beauty makes Sheindel's commonsense scorn palely inadequate.
Or the cynically anarchic Nicholas Tilbeck in the early novel, Trust (1966)—a long and tortoise-paced work of fiction in which, in an epigonic imitation of the young Ozick's literary hero Henry James, the narrative creeps by insinuation, indirection, and enigma along slow and exquisitely calibrated rails until, toward its end, Tilbeck and a henchwoman, a waterspout of words named Mrs. Purse, hijack and make off with it. These final pages (there are readers, unfortunately, who will give up before reaching them) contain some of the most astonishing bravura writing in contemporary American prose; their explosion of energy has a sulfurous smell.
Tilbeck is, like James A'Bair, a drifter, a charmer, a seducer, a merciless egotist who, in his unconcern for the consequences of his actions even to himself, can seem as egoless as a speeding car. He, too, is a suicide at the novel's end and is involved in a quest for true origins, although in his case he himself is its object. This is the quest for her father by Tilbeck's illegitimate daughter, Trust's narrator, a young woman raised by a bohemian Wasp mother and a Jewish stepfather, a morally earnest and intellectually gnomic diplomat who is up for an ambassadorial appointment.
Despite the havoc they wreak, James and Tilbeck, like Falstaff in Henry IV, steal the show with their vitality. They remind one of William Blake's astute comment on Milton that the poet who made the Devil the most active and interesting character in Paradise Lost was “of the Devil's party” without knowing it.
Whoever's party the author of Heir to the Glimmering World is of, the play of real and imagined identities found there and in Trust is her fiction's most dominant theme. We find it in The Messiah of Stockholm (1988), whose protagonist, a Swedish book reviewer, convinces himself that he is the illegitimate son of the Polish Jewish author Bruno Schulz and encounters a rival claiming to be Schulz's daughter. It is generationally reversed in The Shawl (1980), in which an elderly Holocaust survivor fantasizes that her daughter, killed as a child by the Nazis, is alive in America. In The Puttermesser Papers (1998), a woman literally creates a daughter by modeling her from earth and breathing life into her. The competing authors of “Usurpation” dizzyingly steal each other's stories like boys playing salujee in a schoolyard. “Some filch their fiction from life, others filch their lives from fiction,” the story's narrator says with a wink, if not of approbation, at least of authorial connivance.
Ozick the novelist is preoccupied by how we tell stories not just to make things up, but to make ourselves up. Like the Bear Boy, we want to be characters in our own, not someone else's, narrative. But there are only so many narratives available. Therefore, to quote a parody of the critic Harold Bloom in “Usurpation,” “all stories are rip-offs. Shakespeare stole his plots. Dostoyevsky dug them out of the newspaper. Everybody steals.”
Everybody? Not so, retorts Ozick the essayist. Almost everybody. The Jew alone, by handing down the only story never stolen because told by the only truly original Book, avoids plagiarism. All literature vies with the Bible. “The idol-maker envies the Creator, hopes to compete with the Creator, and schemes to invent a substitute for the Creator; and thereby becomes satanic and ingrown.” But the Jew is different. He does not traffic in identities; he takes his preassigned place in a religious and moral tradition. In Judaism, “there is no competition with the text, no power struggle with the original, no envy of the Creator. The aim, instead, is to reproduce a purely transmitted inheritance, free of substitution.” Although this inheritance is interpretative, treating the Book as inexhaustibly meaningful, “its interpretation never came to stand for disjunction, displacement, ebbing-out, isolation, swerving, deviation, substitution, revisionism. Transmittal signifies the carrying-over of the original strength, the primal monotheistic insight.”
Ozick the essayist goes further. She asks whether the very idea of a Jewish writer of fiction may not be “what rhetoricians call an ‘oxymoron’—a pointed contradiction, in which one arm of the phrase clashes so profoundly with the other as to annihilate it.” The novelist creates by the power of the imagination, an inherently amoral force. This force, she writes in her third “Karaite” essay, “Innovation and Redemption: What Literature Means” (1982),
is more than make-believe, more than the power to invent. It is also the power to penetrate evil, to take on evil, to become evil, and in that guise it is the most frightening human faculty. Whoever writes a story that includes villainy enters into and becomes the villain. . . . The imagination seeks out the unsayable and the undoable, and says and does them. And still more dangerous: the imagination always has the lust to tear down meaning, to smash interpretation, to wear out the rational, to mock the surprise of redemption . . . to transfix and stun rather than to urge; to spill out, with so much quicksilver wonder, idol after idol.
It is the imagination, unleashed and no longer answerable to moral judgment, that gives us a Falstaff, a Satan, a Tilbeck, a Kornfeld, a Bear Boy. Their stories seduce us without our knowing it. It is not only pulp fiction and TV that corrupts our minds and desires; they can also be corrupted by Shakespeare and Milton—indeed, the finest minds and the noblest desires can be corrupted by Shakespeare and Milton most of all. And also by Cynthia Ozick the novelist.
In all three of her “Karaite” essays, Ozick asks whether a Jew can in good conscience even be a novelist. (She does not bother to say “a religious Jew,” for she believes that “the secular Jew is a figment; when a Jew becomes a secular person he is no longer a Jew.”) “If there can be such a chimera as a ‘Jewish writer’ ” of fiction, she writes in “Literature As Idol,” it must be a “kind of sphinx or gryphon (part one thing, part another), . . . sometimes purifying like Abraham, more often conjuring like [Abraham's legendarily idol-making father] Terah, and always knowing that the two are icily, elegiacally, at war.”
These strike us at first glance as outrageous hyperboles. A secular Jew is not a Jew? But scarcely a Jewish character in Ozick's own fiction is religiously observant. A Jew who writes novels is at war with himself? But what Jewish novelist of our times besides Ozick has reported from this battleground? So outrageous, that we are inclined to take them as rhetorical provocations, meant more to shock than to be taken at face value.
There is indeed only one other case in modern literature of a major novelist expressing such principled misgivings about his craft, and he was not a Jew but the born-again Christian author of War and Peace—the difference being that Tolstoy wrote his What Is Art? late in life while Ozick's “Karaite” essays were written with her best work still ahead of her. Perhaps, then, just as What Is Art? has been dismissed as the crankiness of an old writer whose powers were failing, these essays by Ozick should be understood as the nervousness of a younger one setting out. Always better to fail, if one must, in the name of principle! Ever since her reputation as a novelist has been established, at any rate, we have heard no more from Ozick the essayist about the conflict inherent in being a Jewish writer.
Yet the conflict, even if subsequently overcome, was real to her. Like Tolstoy's, its context was a conversion. As she declared in “Toward a New Yiddish”:
Until very recently my whole life was given over to the religion of Art, which is the religion of the Gentile nations—I had no other aspiration, no other commitment, was zealous for no other creed. . . . When at last I wrote a huge novel I meant it to be a Work of Art—but as the years ground through that labor, it turned, amazingly and horribly, into a curse. I discovered at the end that I had cursed the world I lived in, grain by grain. And I did not know why. Furthermore, that immense and silent and obscure labor had little response—my work did not speak to the Gentiles, for whom it had been begun, nor to the Jews, for whom it had been finished.
The “huge novel” was Trust, about which Ozick's closing comment is curious, since the characters who run away with its ending are Gentile to the core. If Trust was begun “for the Gentiles” as a Jamesian icon of “the religion of Art,” how was it finished “for the Jews”? By Nicholas Tilbeck's suicide? Or perhaps by the surprising disclosure on its last page that the narrator's stepfather, his State Department career in unexpected ruins, has exchanged it for a penitential life of talmudic study?
In any case, an apostate from the “religion of Art” is what Cynthia Ozick decided to be—not an American Jewish writer of fiction, but an American writer of Jewish fiction. Yet, perhaps because she was the first, she did not, like those who came after her, find the idea of Jewish fiction self-evident.
Nor, from the perspective of Judaism, should it be. Historically, after all, the rabbis never approved of, let alone saw the need for, an independent Jewish imaginative literature. The Jews possessed the Story of Stories; they did not require additional stories other than continuations or expositions of the first one. Midrash, tales of the great rabbis, hasidic legends—these were accepted, even revered; anything beyond them was grudgingly tolerated or rejected. Although pre-modern Hebrew literature had its own secular “novel,” the medieval rhymed-prose maqama or mahberet, which began as an imitation of an Arabic genre and carried over into Europe, the manuscripts of it that once circulated widely wound up eventually in synagogue attics and Christian libraries. Tradition had no use for them.
To the modern Jewish mind, this seems a cause for regret: how much the Jews lost by not having their own Chrétien de Troyes, their own Chaucer! How much they gained in modern times by having a Kafka, a Babel, a Schulz, a Joseph Roth, a Henry Roth, a Philip Roth!
But this regret, the author of the “Karaite” essays might have pointed out, comes from an enthrallment to the religion of Art. To the mind of the apostate from that tradition, literature—Jewish literature—must express “the moral life.” It must have a “corona of moral purpose: not outright in the grain of the fiction itself, but in the form of a faintly incandescent envelope around it.” Granted, Ozick the essayist conceded, there is a danger in such an insistence; the “vulgar advocacy of an ‘affirmative’ literature in order to fulfill a moral mandate” is opposed to “the freedom inherent in storytelling”; a story must go its free, uncensored way. Yet what springs uncensored from the imagination demands a morally interpretable “nimbus of meaning.” The morally uninterpretable story is Karaitic.
Which brings us back to Heir to the Glimmering World.
The narrator of “Usurpation” professes to hate ideas. But works of fiction, “Usurpation” included, often start with them. Whenever it was that Cynthia Ozick first thought of using it as a metaphor in her fiction, Karaism was in her mind since at least 1970—not nearly as long as Winnie the Pooh, a book presumably read to her as a child as it was to millions of children. Perhaps some of these children wondered what it was like to grow up as the real Christopher Robin; none, it can be safely assumed, connected him with a medieval Jewish heresy. The moment these two things fused as an idea in Ozick's mind, Heir to the Glimmering World was conceived.
What does an author normally do with such an idea? She seeks to hide it—in characters, in situations, in a plot—while leaving enough of it unconcealed for the reader to follow its trail. She invents Rudolf Mitwisser, single-minded and domineering, yet so fragile that he breaks by the end of the book; she invents the childish but shrewd Mrs. Mitwisser (no need to invent Schrödinger); she invents the Mitwisser children; she invents Rosie (not out of whole cloth: subtract two or three years from the shyly intelligent, prodigiously observant young woman who—shrinking into corners, resenting being in them, and prone to unrequited crushes—narrates Trust, and Rosie is already half there); she invents a grown-up Christopher Robin; she throws them together and lets the imagination go to work.
The imagination works. At first James is kept out of sight. It takes 87 pages to introduce him in person. Perhaps Ozick the novelist and Ozick the essayist are arguing about him behind the scenes. The latter cannot want him to be too appealing. But at last he does appear and he is appealing, magnetically so; everyone loves him except Rosie, who remains cautiously neutral, and Mrs. Mitwisser, who fears him. He animates the Mitwisser household, brings gifts to its children, roughhouses with the boys, teaches them to stop being stiff little Germans, rouses the little girl from her apathy. Five years old when the first Bear Boy book was published, he has knocked about the world, been to Cairo and Jerusalem, lived with cheap women and cheap drugs, led a hobo's life. He is a big-hearted, irresponsible fellow and, apart from being a bit too frantically alive, he does not seem suicidal until he attaches a rubber hose to an exhaust pipe and threads it through the window of his car.
In fact, it is not immediately clear why he has to die at all.
Of course, if literature has only to “be,” not to “mean,” this is a foolish thing to say. James dies because he dies. Real people kill themselves, too. But a novelist is the God of her novel; she alone decides who lives and who dies. And a suicide is not an ordinary death. It is a judgment, handed down in real life by whoever commits it, and in fiction by an author.
James's suicide in Heir to the Glimmering World is what renders the novel interpretable. Take it away—imagine an ending, say, in which Mitwisser, awarded a prestigious chair at Columbia, triumphantly attends James and Annaliese's wedding, at which Mrs. Mitwisser gets up to dance—and the “corona of moral purpose,” as Ozick the essayist put it in 1982, is extinguished. She wrote then:
Literature, to come into being at all, must call on the imagination; imagination is in fact the flesh and blood of literature; but at the same time imagination is the very force that struggles to snuff the redemptive corona. So a redemptive literature . . . must wrestle with its own body, with its own flesh and blood, with its own life. Cell battles cell. The corona flickers, brightens, flares, clouds, grows faint. The yetzer ha-ra, the Evil Impulse, fills its cheeks with a black wind, hoping to blow out the redemptive corona; but at the last moment steeples of light spurt up. . . .
Strange. If James lives, the candle goes out. If he dies, it revives. Yet it is not Cynthia Ozick the novelist who kills him. Her imagination—the “Evil Impulse,” the “black wind”—has given him life. Who kills him is Cynthia Ozick the essayist.
Cell battles cell.
Ozick the novelist is of James A'Bair's party, just as she is of Isaac Kornfeld's and Nicholas Tilbeck's. All three rebel against the established order. All demand to speak with their own voice. What imaginative writer is not instinctively their ally? What imaginative writer is not, metaphorically, a Karaite?
But rebellion is not a Jewish virtue. It is the refusal to take one's place in the chain of tradition. The great rebels in this tradition are sinful. Cain, Korah, Absalom: all originals, all cursed.
From the point of view of pure Art, this makes Ozick a flawed writer. The religion of Art commands the writer to obey, not betray, the imagination. Yet it also makes her, not only the most masterful, but also the most rigorous Jewish writer of her American times. Many novelists settle for false endings because they lack the courage to stick by their insights or characters to the last. Ozick does something different. She imposes her insights on her characters like a stern judge.
The final paradox is that she has become the most rigorously Jewish of American writers while keeping away, more often than not, from the kind of Jewish subject matter that originally won her the public's attention. “The Pagan Rabbi” and “Envy” are not typical in this respect. Although she has set other works of fiction in intimately Jewish milieus—her marvelous novel The Cannibal Galaxy (1983) is the best of them—she has more often preferred to work on the fringes of Jewish life, where marginal or semi-marginal Jews encounter Gentiles. Heir to the Glimmering World takes place in such a world. Even Rudolf Mitwisser, who knows an enormous amount about Jews, since one cannot be a scholar of Karaism without being a scholar of Judaism, never talks about them. He has brought from Germany thousands of Hebrew books, but not, so far as we know, a single kiddush cup, pair of phylacteries, or prayer shawl.
In her 1970 essay “Toward a New Yiddish,” Ozick makes what at first seems the puzzling statement that “the novel at its 19th-century pinnacle was a Judaized novel.” At once, though, she explains herself: “George Eliot and Dickens and Tolstoy were all touched by the Jewish covenant; they wrote of conduct and of the consequences of conduct; they were concerned with a society of will and commandment.” These are the kinds of novels she, too, has tried to write. Ultimately, their Jews are less important than what she perceives to be their Jewishness.
In this sense, it is possible to write about Jews from within even while they themselves are outside. But are the results successful? Generally speaking, a skilled novelist uses ideas as a builder uses a scaffold; brick by brick the building goes up, and then the scaffold is removed; although we can reconstruct it in our minds from the building's form, it is no longer visible. In Heir to the Glimmering World, the scaffold remains. It is even what holds the building up.
Still, few living writers are as skillful as Ozick at building sentences, paragraphs, prose structures; if she has made a scaffold for Heir to the Glimmering World that cannot come down, this is to force us to view the novel through it. She too is a purist, at least when it comes to Jewish writing, and one who has written a powerfully impure book. Her war with herself invites our participation.
1 Houghton Mifflin, 320 pp., $24.00.