Michael Dirda
At nearly 80, Cynthia Ozick can still write stories that spring off the page.

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, April 13, 2008


A Quartet

By Cynthia Ozick

Houghton Mifflin. 179 pp. $24

There are many reasons to admire Cynthia Ozick's fiction -- stylistic verve, sly humor, kindliness, engagement with serious themes (the Holocaust, in particular), an affection for New York's ethnic life, the comforting sense she conveys that a reader is in good hands. Moreover, while Ozick the essayist tends to write long and, for all her brilliance, sometimes overly virtuosic pieces (see, for instance, the collections Art & Ardor, Metaphor & Memory, Fame & Folly, Quarrel & Quandary and, breaking the pattern, the recent The Din in the Head), her fiction tends toward the tightly packed short story or what her beloved Henry James called "the beautiful and blessed nouvelle."

Ozick began to publish relatively late in life, with her long 1966 novel Trust. But this was something of an apprentice work, in part an homage to James, who had obsessed her youth. Only with The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories (1971) was her career truly launched, by which time she was in her mid-40s. Since then her stories -- several exemplifying a kind of Jewish magic realism -- have won multiple prizes, four of them taking the O. Henry Award. Recently, her masterpiece about the Holocaust, The Shawl (1989), was chosen to be part of the National Endowment for the Arts' Big Read program, joining such long-established American classics as The Age of Innocence, The Great Gatsby and My Ántonia.

I mention all this because Cynthia Ozick, born in 1928, will soon be 80. Writers of a certain age, like most of us, probably don't care to be reminded of the passing years. Still, such milestones do provide a proper occasion to thank them for what they have contributed to literature and intellectual life in our time. Of course, we do this best by reading their work.

Certainly, Dictation shows that Ozick continues to command her usual mastery of voices and tones. And while these four long stories are all seemingly dissimilar, one can trace subtle links among them -- in particular, the notion of authenticity, in a person or an artist.

"Dictation" describes the secret friendship between the two typists who took dictation from Henry James and Joseph Conrad. "Actors" focuses on an aging bit player, trained in the laconic Method school, who is engaged to perform in a Lear-like tragedy staged in the histrionic style of the Old Yiddish theater. In "At Fumicaro," set in the 1930s, a Catholic-American journalist travels to Italy where he finds himself attracted to the ignorant, pregnant young woman who cleans his cabin. Finally, in "What Happened to the Baby?" Ozick relates a domestic tragedy set against the exuberant New York of her youth.

In this last story, the narrator's Uncle Simon has invented his own language, called GNU, which for a while attracts "the Trotskyites, the Henry George people, the Tolstoyans, the classical music lovers who went to the free concerts at Lewisohn Stadium, the Norman Thomas loyalists, the Yiddish Bundists, the wilder Hebraists, the evolving Thomas Merton mystics, the budding young Taoists and Zen Buddhists, the aging humanists and atheists, the Ayn Rand enthusiasts . . . and, most dangerously, the angry Esperantists." The followers of Esperanto, perhaps the best known of all artificial languages, regularly break up Simon's fundraisers.

All four stories loosely follow the same arc: They begin as comedies but gradually darken, grow increasingly unsettling and end on a note of pathos. Ozick is a whiz at voices; she can pastiche the style of middle James or the over-the-top spiel of a Teddy Silkowitz presenting his vision of a new, bolder theater. And what does the hotshot young producer want?

" 'Reversal,' Silkowitz said. 'Time to change gears. The changing of the guard. Change, that's what! Where's the overtness, the overture, the passion, the emotion? For fifty, sixty years all we've had is mutters, muteness, tight lips, and, goddamn it, you can't hear their voices, all that Actors Studio blather, the old religion, so-called inwardness, a bunch of Quakers waiting for Inner Light -- obsolete! Dying, dead, finished! Listen, Matt, I'm talking heat, muscle, human anguish. Where's the theatrical noise? The big speeches and declamations? All these anemic monosyllabic washed-out two-handers with their impotent little climaxes. Matt, let me tell you my idea. . . . My idea is to restore the old lost art of melodrama. People call it melodrama to put it down, but what it is is open feeling, you see what I mean? . . . It's the largeness -- big feelings, big cries. Outcries! The old Yiddish theater kept it up while it was dying out everywhere else. Killed by understatement. Killed by abbreviation, downplaying. Killed by sophistication, modernism, psychologizing, Stanislavsky, all those highbrow murderers of the Greek chorus, you see what I mean? The Yiddish Medea. The Yiddish Macbeth! Matt, it was big!"

At the same time, and in radical contrast, Ozick can capture all the hesitation and the painful grasping for the correct nuance that characterize Henry James. In "Dictation," Miss Theodora Bosanquet, amanuensis to the Master, describes the intimacy of their relationship, for she regards herself as singularly "blessed to listen to the breathings, and the silences, and the sighs, and the pacings . . . sometimes, when Mr. James and I have been at work for hours, he will quietly place a piece of chocolate near my hand, and will even unwrap the silver foil for me -- ."

Miss Lilian Hallowes performs the same sort of secretarial and typing work for Joseph Conrad. Each believes her boss to be the greatest novelist of the age, and that in itself makes for some wonderful exchanges between the two. But Miss Bosanquet also has an ambition, which Ozick describes with Jamesian nebulosity:

"What Theodora was after was distinctly radical: she wished to send into the future a nameless immutability, visible though invisible, smooth while bent, unchangeable yet altered, integrated even as it sought to be wholly alien. And it was to be secret. Nor could she accomplish it alone. It demanded a sharer, a double, a partner."

And that partner can only be Miss Hallowes.

To say more would ruin the story, a wonderful adjunct to those recent, novel-length Jamesian homages, Edwin M. Yoder's Lions at Lamb House, David Lodge's Author, Author and Colm Tóibín's The Master. Besides, how can you not love a story where Virginia Woolf -- still Virginia Stephen -- is referred to by a smitten girlfriend as Ginny?

To my mind, "At Fumicaro" works least well of the four stories, if only because it is so Roman Catholic and Graham-Greeneish. Still, the 1930s is the right period for this mix of sex and sin, of an acte gratuit of charity and a leap toward personal salvation. Ozick's writing is just as sharp as ever: "He saw that he had committed the sin of heroism, which always presumes that everyone else is unreal, especially the object of rescue."

Winter is finally past and with it the season of heavy tomes. As it happens, Cynthia Ozick's slender volume slips nicely into a briefcase or pocketbook. So even if you're not a stenographer, you can take Dictation wherever you go. You'll want to, since it'll be hard to stop reading once you start. ·

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com.

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