Dictation: A Quartet by Cynthia Ozick
In the Image
by Cynthia Ozick
Houghton Mifflin. 179 pp. $24.00
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.
It has, in short, been Ozick who, of all Jewish American writers, has been most concerned with God and His demands. Not the “God-idea,” or ecstatic spiritual experience, but the biblical God of Sinai Who announces Himself as utterly unique and prohibits the worship of anything else or its image “in the form of the heaven above, or on the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth.”
Is art, then—the image-making and image-worshiping activity par excellence—a violation of God’s command? Is art idolatrous? This conundrum underlies Ozick’s fiction and has inspired some of her most incisive criticism, including in the pages of COMMENTARY. Her answer would appear to be a tough-minded yes, with the caveat that the conundrum is also inescapable. Art for art’s sake is, in Ozick’s judgment, the worship of images, lumps of inert clay or heaps of mere words. But writers and artists necessarily come to the beauty of the created world late, and in their rapture cannot help wishing to usurp the primal creativity, rivaling God and proclaiming their human handiwork very good. For a Jewish author, one who aims to be not just ethnically but theologically Jewish, the only recourse—and it is but partial—is to make his art moral.
Critics have sometimes treated the relationship of Ozick’s iconoclastic criticism to her own fiction as theory to practice, charging her with inconsistency. As if, Ozick once tartly noted, the essays provided “chalk marks . . . to take the measure of the stories.” A better approach is to read both Ozick’s fiction and her essays as composed out of the selfsame tension between the monotheistic ban on idolatry and the desire to usurp God by creating beauty. In Dictation, this theme is distilled, “concentrated, so to speak, in a vial,” despite the fact that its best stories are not ostensibly about Jews or Judaism at all.
At 47 small pages, the title story “Dictation,” is not really, as the publisher’s jacket copy has it, “a novella.” It has more of the static, schematic subtlety of an allegory. Set in England at the turn of the 20th century, it tells (or rather makes up) the story behind the very proper, slightly tense relationship between the novelists Henry James and Joseph Conrad. James is, for Ozick, the unexcelled genius of the art of fiction. But this compliment, as we have seen, is bound to be ambivalent. Indeed, she has told the story of her own artistic maturation as an escape from James’s influence, and described her first novel Trust (1966) as a Jamesian failure, though arguably it is neither.
In the opening scene of “Dictation,” a nervous, unproven Conrad—he has not yet published Heart of Darkness—visits James, already “the Master,” in his London flat. There, Conrad sees a startlingly impersonal new instrument, the Remington typewriter through which James writes:
On a broad surface reserved for it in a far corner . . . stood the Machine . . . headless, armless and legless—brute shoulders merely: it might as well have been the torso of a broken God.
Later, thinking about James, Conrad muses that “the Master’s cosmopolitanism, his civilized restraint, his perfection of method, his figures so finished, chiseled, and carved, were, when you came down to it, stone.”
If a pagan sees gods everywhere, Ozick sees idols. James’s “figures,” his characters, are potential idols precisely because they are too perfect: the flesh of character so finely delineated that it becomes bloodless stone. The typewriter is likewise an idol because it intervenes between the creator and the created, mystifying the creative process.
James had hired an amanuensis or typist “who recorded in shorthand James’s dictation and then transcribed it on the Machine; but it soon turned out to be more efficient to speak directly to the thing itself, with [the typist] at the keys.” A decade later, Conrad would have his own typewriter and typist, a fragile, besotted young woman named Lillian Hallowes, and the two writers, unbeknownst to each other, would both be working on doppelganger tales: Conrad on “The Secret Sharer” and James on “The Jolly Corner,” about a man who confronts the ghost of the person he might have been. Inevitably, though each of their employers intuitively disapproves, Hallowes meets her opposite number, James’s amanuensis Theodora Bosanquet, an altogether more forceful character.
In “Dictation,” Ozick has created an elegant hall of mirrors: two authors, two typists, two stories, each about a protagonist and his double, and, finally, two passages of prose, one by Conrad that is almost Jamesian and another by James that sounds almost like Conrad. Out of this delirious twinning Miss Bosanquet, who is described at one point as an “idolatrous healer,” contrives her own elegant plot for immortality, something halfway between a literary prank (another bit of secret sharing) and a diabolical usurpation.
This is, in short, a brilliant variation on Ozick’s fundamental theme of art as idolatry. But does it work as a story? Here and elsewhere, Ozick dazzles more than she engages. Neither Conrad nor James really comes alive, their own figures seeming not so much chiseled stone as characters in a PBS costume drama. The allegory can be decoded—Bosanquet the usurper is to James as James is to God, and so on—but the plot fails, finally, to satisfy.
The theme of art as usurpation, or secret sharing, is also at the center of “Actors,” the second story in the collection, featuring a mediocre television actor named Matt Sorley (“born Mose Sadacca”) who attempts to re-create the histrionic grandeur of a Yiddish actor of the old school only to be vanquished by a kind of ghost. But the real twin of “Dictation,” and the other immensely ambitious story of this collection, is “At Fumicaro.”
The story’s protagonist, Frank Knight, is a middle-aged Catholic journalist who attends a conference in Mussolini’s Italy, before America has entered the war, on “The Church and How It Is Known.” The conference is just as boring as it sounds, and yet it, or rather Knight’s failure to attend very much of it, changes his life. Upon arriving in his room, he has found the teen-aged chambermaid retching over his toilet. “In four days,” Ozick writes, “she would be his wife.”
Knight sees her at first not as a suffering human being or even as an object of desire but as a beautiful object:
The woman went on vomiting. . . . Watching serenely, he thought of some grand fountain where dolphins, or else infant cherubim, spew foamy water from their bottomless throats. He saw her shamelessly: she was a solid little nymph. She was the coarse muse of Italia. He recited to himself, “If to any man the tumult of the flesh were silenced, silenced the phantasies of earth, water, and air, silenced, too, the poles.”
The passage in quotes is, oddly, St. Augustine’s attempt to describe the abstract beauties of heaven to his dying mother, and yet within two hours Knight has seduced this teenager, who is in fact already pregnant (hence the nausea).
Knight’s first image of his future wife is as carved stone. But, to his chagrin, it is she who is “in thrall to sticks and stones”—ready to pray, it seems, almost anywhere and to almost anything: a decayed bit of Roman statuary on the roadside, which she insists on addressing as Saint Francis, kitschy icons of Jesus and the Madonna whose vividness is “molto sacro,” museum pieces, and, in the final scene, the endless “saints and martyrs and angels and gryphons and gargoyles and Romans” at the top of the Milan cathedral. It is here that Knight has an epiphany concerning the consequences of idolatry that he finds both hilarious and humiliating. “‘You could be up here,’ he said—now he understood exactly what had happened at Fumicaro; he had fixed his penance for life—‘a thousand years!’”
Ozick’s oeuvre is not exhausted by the question of idolatry. Even in this collection, the story that rounds out the quartet, “But What Happened to the Baby?” does not really fit the pattern. It is also, as it happens, the least successful of the four stories: a dark joke about Esperanto in the Catskills with an O. Henry twist that doesn’t quite carry narrative conviction.
Nonetheless, if any writer has a grand metaphor, a secret, the thing itself at the center of the maze, it is Ozick. That ineffable thing is God, or, more precisely if also more negatively, the fact that nothing in this world, no matter how beautiful, is a god.
Modern Jewish thought may be said to have begun with Moses Mendelssohn’s argument at the end of the 18th century that Judaism remained valid and still necessary in the world of the Enlightenment as the religion that rejected all idolatries. With a little license, one could say that modern Jewish literature began at the outset of the 20th century with Saul Tchernikovsky’s Hebrew poem, “Before the Statue of Apollo,” which laments that same rejection. Even when she is not entirely successful, Cynthia Ozick is, alone among the major Jewish American writers, a conscious heir to both traditions