Who Reads Cynthia Ozick?

by Toby Lloyd on 18 July 2022
Who Reads Cynthia Ozick?
Review: Antiquities and Other Stories

Among writers, Cynthia Ozick’s reputation could make titans jealous. Beloved by anthologists and prize-givers alike, her trophy cabinet includes two National Jewish Book Awards, a National Book Critics Award, and the PEN/Nabokov and PEN/Malamud Awards. David Foster Wallace grouped her alongside Cormac McCarthy and Don DeLillo as one of America’s three greatest living writers; Harold Bloom went even further, rating Ozick “unequalled in her generation”. Born in 1928, Ozick’s generation included Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, John Updike, Alice Munro, and Thomas Pynchon – none of them, says Bloom, her equal.

And yet, until recently, it was possible to walk into a bookshop more or less anywhere in the UK and not find any of her works. Most of our libraries are similarly impoverished. Even now, after Weidenfeld and Nicholson had the good sense to reissue four titles from her backlist in 2021 to coincide with the publication of Antiquities, her latest novella, the offerings from booksellers tend towards the slim. Try it, ask your friends. Who reads Cynthia Ozick?

It is not immediately apparent why an English language author should receive such acclaim on one side of the Atlantic yet be virtually invisible on the other. No doubt the vicissitudes of the publishing industry play their part. David Baddiel’s useful slogan (and book), Jews Don’t Count, also offers a partial explanation: in a culture ever hungrier for fiction hued from the lived experience of minority groups, the likes of Bellow and Roth are too often regarded as the straight-forward enjoyers of white privilege. That both grew up in an America where Harvard and Yale imposed quotas on the number of Jews per cohort is overlooked by their critics. And yet Baddiel’s formula is not the full story. Contemporary authors Jonathan Safran Foer and Howard Jacobson certainly can’t be losing any sleep over their UK sales. However, I don’t want to suggest anyone should be reading Cynthia Ozick because she’s a Jew who writes about Jews. We should read her because she is a great writer by any measure: wise, funny and totally uncompromising. She is a genuine master of English prose.

So why, in Britain, aren’t we? It might be no more than a guess, but I’d like to posit that Ozick’s obscurity in this country is a direct consequence of her bold originality. Ben Zion Elefantin, the cryptic boy at the heart of Antiquities, speaks with a “curiously wavering uncharted bookish voice of his own making”. His is “an orphaned voice of no known origin.” Switch the pronoun to “her,” and you have a pretty good description of Ozick’s style. Here is a writer unlike any other at work today, who makes no effort to situate her writing in contemporary life. Her interests are baroque and her learning esoteric. In Ozick’s novels you are more likely to encounter a reference to Maimonides, Sephardic philosopher of the 12th century, than Annie Ernaux. All this makes her especially unpalatable here in Britain, where knowledge of Judaica is scant, where short stories (her major form) are perennially undervalued and where post-modernist experimentation is generally viewed with suspicion.

A glance at the reception of Antiquities in the UK press illustrates this claim. Most British publications solved the problem of how to review a difficult book the easy way: they ignored it. The best known British-based author to give her thoughts was Lionel Shriver (reviewing in an American newspaper) who dismissed the novella without having understood it. “I’m still hazy on what exactly this novella wishes to convey about Jewishness or anti-Semitism,” Shriver writes – its true subject is neither – and later, “I don’t understand why Ozick chose to write this.”

If you’ve never read Cynthia Ozick but have got this far, you might think I’m discussing the heir to those impenetrable geniuses of high modernism: James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner. I am not. Ozick’s work does not belligerently disregard readerly understanding and much less readerly enjoyment. Oh, she can be very funny. Antiquities is set in the preposterous Temple Academy for Boys, an American institution modelled on British public schools, where a headteacher can lose his job for having a Liverpudlian accent. When a widower is appointed as replacement head of school, the narrator registers the collective discomfort: his “predecessors were piously, or let us say outwardly, celibate.” (A lesser writer would have italicised outwardly and overegged the joke.) No, Ozick’s problem is not that she writes the kind of prose that repels the faint-hearted at paragraph one. It is merely that she is subtle. In the vein of Penelope Fitzgerald or WG Sebald, she is a novelist who approaches her subjects obliquely, who hints rather than shouts, who embodies a worldview rather than describes it. These qualities, like the worlds that are illuminated in Ozick’s fictions, are vanishingly rare.

Take Antiquities. A simple enough story with an inordinately convoluted frame. The central narrative concerns the relationship between Lloyd Wilkinson Petrie, a ten-year-old scholar at the Temple Academy, and Ben Zion Elefantin, a mysterious boy two years his senior, with a novelistic, even prophetic imagination. “He had come to us shortly after that influx of Jews, but he hardly seemed one of them”, Petrie tells us. Everything about this newcomer is outlandish, particularly his name, “which was all it was possible to know of him.” The arc of the friendship is told in just three scenes of a few pages each. It is a thwarted love story, a quest for religious significance and a recollection of personal guilt in a time of great communal evil. On the face of it, it’s not a million miles from Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. And yet it wasn’t only Shriver who failed to make sense of it. The initial slew of professional criticism in the US was so wrongheaded that Ozick herself despairingly announced in an interview broadcast by the 92nd Street Y, that: “Nobody, nobody, nobody has understood this book.”

What was their problem? I suspect it’s that Ozick’s tale, compared with Ishiguro’s masterpiece, is expunged of sentimentality. It is shot through with Jewish mysticism, a genre most readers have never encountered. If critics don’t know to read her, it’s because she’s not quite like anything else. The narrative of the two boy’s friendship takes place either in 1880 or circa. 1912 (depending on how reliable you find Ozick’s long-winded narrator) – I mentioned that the frame was complicated. Petrie is recording his memories of these distant episodes – whenever they took place – in 1949. Meanwhile he is besieged by his neighbours, ageing memoirists and fellow trustees of the academy they all once attended. Alongside the recollections of boyhood and the present day skirmishes, there is also a strange and truncated narrative concerning an episode in the life of Petrie’s father, who claims kinship, perhaps dubiously, with the great archaeologist, Sir Flinders Petrie.

How to connect these disparate strands? Nothing is revealed directly. In fact, we are often directed towards mystery: “Following my birth, and until the last hours of my mother’s life, my father’s unaccountable absence in the summer of 1880 was never again to be spoken of.” In his Egypt journals, Petrie’s father lists various items in his possession. “Why [he] kept this inventory I cannot tell.” Later, trying to articulate a moment of spiritual awakening, Petrie confesses, “For a reason I could not say then, and still cannot say now, an uncommon image came to me: I thought of a chalice.”

In each case, the reasons underlying these mysteries are buried among the fine sentences that make up the novel. To realise them the reader needs to be alert, pick up on clues and make intelligent guesses. To comprehend the novel is to see the strange correspondences between the different time zones, to pick up on the use of allusion and elision, to see what is uncovered by its absence, much of which the narrator himself misses. This is not some frivolous game of detectives nor a treasure hunt. It’s an imaginative collaboration between reader and writer, a bodying forth of consciousness.

There is always the temptation not to persist with difficult writers, those who don’t fight page by page for our attention. And indeed, Ozick can stray into obscurantism; her least controlled fables do not tap on life’s window; instead they remain beyond the fence of next door’s garden. But if you can overcome the initial haziness that comes from reading something genuinely unfamiliar, it’s worth it. A novel that has to be completed in the reader’s mind is one that lives in the imagination. Anything else is the play of stick figures. In Ozick’s economy, imagination is far more than simply inventing things that never happened. It is the summoning of a golem; it’s a production in the reader’s mind that will not be dispelled when the final page is turned and the book laid to rest. Something of this is hinted at in ‘Levitation’, an early story. She describes the aesthetics of a pair of married novelists, whose work she does not admire.

They were both devoted to omniscience, but they were not acute enough to see what they meant by it. They thought of themselves as children with a puppet theatre: they could make anything at all happen, speak all the lines, with gloved hands bring all the characters to shudders or leaps. They fancied themselves in love with what they called ‘imagination.’ It was not true. What they were addicted to was counterfeit pity, and this was because they were absorbed by power, and were powerless.

For Cynthia Ozick, omniscience is not just another literary convention. It is the supreme quality of divinity. It should not, therefore, be claimed as the automatic right of the novelist, but must be wrested from the hands of jealous gods, established through paragraph after paragraph of illumined prose.