The Irresolutions of Cynthia Ozick
The Irresolutions of Cynthia Ozick
Fiction is all discovery ....
Essays know too much.
Foreword to “Art & Ardor”
CHILDREN KNOW WHAT most adults have forgotten: that reality is whatever seems real to us. That though the external world cannot be denied (as Dr. Johnson demonstrated by kicking a stone) it can be relighted and rearranged to mean anything we choose. The rules for the creation of our individual realities are magic rules: they depend on belief and must be obeyed with utter rigour and seriousness. Writers have in common with children and lunatics these quotidian acts of creation which, at their best, come to stand for our accepted view of the world. Dickens is the author of Victorian London, and Mark Twain created the Mississippi.
In 1985, I was preparing a CBC radio series (never completed) on the pretentious theme of the Writer and God. My list of writers included Bernard Malamud, Borges (who told me that of God's literary tastes we can know nothing), Elie us on about, and happily put an end to the interview) and Cynthia Ozick.
Ozick arrived at the studio looking slightly incongruous: short, shy, a Richard III haircut framing a pair of dark-rimmed glasses. "I'm divided in two," she said, and then, as if apologizing, "Most people are." She explained, "Half of me is a citizen who lives in the world, and half of me is a writer. The citizen has one relationship with God, and the writer has an entirely different one. As a citizen I am awed by Deuteronomy 29:29, which says, 'The secret things belong unto the Lord our God; but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children for ever.' As a citizen, I am not allowed to reflect upon those secret, mystical things. I am a Jew; I must therefore be agnostic. But as a writer, I can't. As a writer I am gnostic, and the unknown is my wonderful meat and drink." Later she extended the definition: "I am a pagan. The writer in me flies from God and goes to the gods."
In Judaism, only God is the Creator. Creation by a hand other than God's would seriously infringe on His essential unity. God is a jealous Author who admits no competition. The Divine Craftsman, the Demiurge of the Platonists, must be One. But among the pagan gods there is always room for one more: the divine craftsmen are many.
The theme of creation (who creates? what is created? how does creation take place?) runs through Ozick's work like a scarlet thread. It makes her wonder, in her superb books of essays, such as “Art & Ardor” and “Metaphor & Memory”, how writers and readers create their fictional worlds. It leads her in exquisite long and short stories (collected, for instance, in “The Pagan Rabbi” and “The Puttermesser Papers”) to the visionary activities of her characters. It takes her, in her novel “The education”. It forces her, in The Messiah of Stockholm, to build all infinite progression of creations, of literary chickens and eggs.
Ozick's essays often stem from a review, usually for the book pages of the “New York Times” and the “New Republic”. Most reviewers, in my experience, make the reader wonder: what in the world is the use of these self-appointed Virgils who pretend to guide us through this hell of a novel or that purgatory of a memoir? Who needs someone reading over our shoulder, giggling, sobbing or going into raptures of glee or disgust? Nothing can replace our own reading, and yet the preamble or postface to a text that a reviewer provides can, and in some cases does, turn a book on its head in a refreshing and illuminating way. For me, this has always been the case when reading one of Ozick's reviews.
Take, for example, Ozick's review of Primo Levi's “The Drowned and the Saved”, included in “Metaphor & Memory.” First she gives the bare facts: who Primo Levi was ("an Italian Jewish chemist from Turin"), the peculiarities of his life ("he was liberated from Auschwitz by a Soviet military unit in January of 1945, when he was 25"), and what his written work consisted of ("from that moment of reprieve ... until shortly before his death in April of 1987, he went on recalling, examining, reasoning, recording-telling the ghastly tale-in book after book"). So far, so good. But immediately after this Ozick makes her first leap. She quotes the Coleridge epigraph Levi chose for his last book:
Since then, at an uncertain hour
That agony returns,
And till my ghastly tale is told
This heart within me burns.
And, after commenting that these words "have never before rung out with such an antimetaphorical contemporary demand, or seemed so cruel," Ozick concludes that Levi's death, hurling himself down a spiral staircase four stories deep, must I lave been suicide. "The composition of that last Lager manuscript was complete, the heart burned out; there was no more to tell."
Now, readers owe no justifications to anyone except themselves, and then only upon demand. But a reviewer is a reader once removed, guiding the reader, not through the book, but through the reviewer's reading of that book. So Ozick needs to explain her explanation.
The way she does this is by counterpointing by shadow reading. She quotes Levi on the suicide of another Jewish writer, Jean Améry, also a victim of the Nazis. Levi assumed that Amery took his life as a belated consequence of "trading punches" with a Polish criminal in the concentration camp. "Those who 'trade blows' with the entire world," wrote Levi, "achieve dignity but pay a very high price for it because they are sure to be defeated." This, Ozick says pointedly, must be borne in mind when approaching Levi's suicide. Because, as storytellers know, every story has another side which the storyteller does not always see. And, through an association of quotations from and reflections on Levi's “The Drowned and the Saved”, Ozick places in front of us Levi's shadow text. Levi, she concludes, who felt he was "a man somehow set apart from retaliatory passion," must have suddenly awakened to the fact that his rage was dormant. "I grieve," she says, "that he equated rage-the rage that speaks for mercifulness-with self-destruction." Ozick has offered the reader another light by which to read Levi's story.
This is what I mean by Ozick's intelligence, an intelligence that shone so clearly on our first meeting. She does not try to replace the reader's relationship with a book, or colour the reader's emotions. Her task (and in this she succeeds admirably) is to put to new uses the text's own metaphors, to enlarge meanings, to shine light from other angles, to test for reverberations and echoes. After Ozick's review, Levi's book is not only a testimony on Auschwitz, but an interrogation on the quest for truth, on the value of aggression, on the sense of revenge, on solutions that reveal more about the quest itself than on the trivial matter of success or failure.
This is something to which we, in our time, have grown accustomed but upon which we don't seem to have reflected sufficiently. In our stories, the hero seldom reaches his goal. The test itself is the hero's epic, independent of the often unhappy conclusion. Failure, these days, seems truer to life than success.
The chronicle of one such life is the ostensible theme of Ozick's novel “The Cannibal Galaxy”. The hero is Joseph Brill, a schoolmaster. We meet him at the age of fifty-eight, the principal of the Edmond Fleg Primary School, which he has founded somewhere in the United States. We are led back through his life to his childhood in Paris, where his fishmonger father seemed more sympathetic than his somewhat distracted mother to young Brill's love of literature, being able
to delight "in the iridescent scales of an ordinary “morue”." We
are made witnesses to the boy's escapades into culture-the Musée Carnavalet, a trip to London and a meeting with an old E. M. Forster-like writer. Finally, the war: Brill escapes the Nazi roundups and is hidden by nuns in a cellar while, unheard by him (but we, the readers, know more), his youngest sister screams throughout the infernal day in the Vel'd'Hiv. After the war, he comes to America and founds a school. Then the novel begins.
Ozick's biographical intent is made clear in two epigraphs -one by Yehuda Amichai, asking where his place might be between the two well-matched halves of this world, those who love and those who hate, and another by Emily Dickinson: "The Rest of Life to See!/Past Midnight! Past the Morning Star!" Yet Brill's biography is only the apparent subject. Throughout, like the scarlet undercoat the Dutch painters applied to their canvases, a fiercer story shines through: a story
of devoured galaxies, engulfed traditions, changing generations and lost souls. Brill's life becomes a vantage point from which Ozick shows us an epic fresco, ageless and endless. And because the author is Cynthia Ozick, the epic is, of course, the history of the Jews.
Brill is one of the many faces of the surviving Jew, a man who tries to compromise and fails, not because his task is doomed by fate (fatalism would be "contrary to our teaching," says Brill) but because his task is impossible. Compromise, the middle way, leads nowhere. And Brill is essentially a creature of compromise.
Brill chooses for his school a dual curriculum that combines the Jewish and French traditions; he sets it up in Middle America, in the centre of a lake, "as though he had a horror of coasts and margins, of edges and extremes of any sort." On this island, Brill never succeeds in holding his students' interest, nor does he recognize genius when it comes his way.
When the famous "imagistic linguistic logician" Hester Lift enrols her daughter Beulah, Brill, Lear-like, dismisses the subdued child. Instead, he places all his hopes on his son, who ends up studying business administration in Miami.
And yet, even along his chosen middle road, Brill is pushed onward by a vital thrust: the urge to survive. Not simply being, but growing, increasing, while threatened as a Jew by the cannibal galaxy of Christian culture. Survival, in Brill's case, is achieved by assimilation-a reverse assimilation, taking the outside world and making it his own, cannibalizing the cannibal.
The astonishing discovery that Ozick helps us make is that survival can be, at its best, a secret event: not even the survivor needs to be aware of it. Brill's son finds his own commercial way; Hester Lift triumphs in her own terms; Beulah fulfils her promise; even the failed Brill succeeds, however unwittingly, because his school brings about Beulah's success. Even though we choose to forget it, or deny it, or pretend to ignore it (Ozick argues) God is generous. Perhaps her books are largely about
the generosity of God.
In his introduction to Herbert Read's masterpiece, “The Green Child”, Graham Greene says that art is always the resolution of a combat. But is this always the case? Surely sometimes it is the combat itself that, unresolved, becomes a work of art, offering no outcome, waiting, hoping against hope, for the Messiah of its resolution. The description of this combat, during which the writer doesn't answer but asks questions, un-
folding possibilities and resolving nothing, is in many cases, I believe, more satisfying than the literature of outcome, which often smacks of moral fable.
All of Ozick's fiction shares this unfolding quality. In “The Messiah of Stockholm”, for instance, Ozick invents the story of a man who invents his story-his name, his birth, his ancestry- reshaping his daily life to make it unreal to others but real to himself. For Lars Andemening, the outside world is a person from Porlock. Lars, like Coleridge, is a dreamer.
He is also a book reviewer for a small Swedish newspaper. He never knew his parents-he is an orphan smuggled into Sweden during the Nazi terror-but he has convinced himself that his father was the great Polish writer Bruno Schulz, murdered by the SS in 1942. Lars has no proof of this parentage except his own conviction, which has made him a half-hearted misanthrope. His only confidante is a German bookseller named Heidi, a woman protected from both affection and pain by a cocoon of scorn. Heidi provides Lars first with a teacher of Polish, then with Polish books to learn the language of his chosen father.
Schulz's entire oeuvre consists of two volumes, “Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass” and “The Street of Crocodiles”, plus a few letters and drawings. Missing is a novel scholars suppose to have been Schulz's masterpiece, “The Messiah”.
One day, Heidi tells Lars that a woman calling herself Adela (the name of a character in Schulz's books) has appeared out of the blue with the lost manuscript in a plastic bag; she says she is Schulz's daughter. According to Heidi and her husband, Dr. Eklund, “The Messiah” has returned. Lars's reality, and therefore his sanity, is threatened. "There's no room in the story for another child," he says to Heidi. "It's not feasible. It can't be." For Lars's story to make dramatic sense, there must
be only one child, Lars himself. Adela must therefore be a fraud, and “The Messiah”, the long-awaited, much thirsted-for “Messiah”, must be a false one.
The choice of Schulz as Lars's father is not fortuitous: Schulz's work is inhabited, even possessed, by the figure of the Father, a man who does not believe that Creation is exclusively the prerogative of God. In a quotation Ozick places at the beginning of her book, Schulz's Father says: "There is no dead matter... lifelessness is only a disguise behind which hide unknown forms of life ... even if the classical methods of creation should prove inaccessible for evermore, there still remain some
illegal methods, an infinity of heretical and criminal methods." Ozick the citizen, the Jew, must have watched in awe as Ozick the writer, the pagan, rolled out her heretical chain of linked creations in Lars's story.
It is as if Lars stood between two mirrors. First, there is Ozick, who creates Lars, attributing him to "an indifferent maker" whose hand "had smeared his mouth and chin and Adam's apple." Then comes Lars himself, a reviewer, a creator, though admittedly a second-hand one. Reviewers (such as myself) are envious readers who believe in surrogate parenthood, creating texts from someone else's seed; Lars, after devouring a book he must review, falls asleep feeling "oddly fat," as if pregnant with the words the writer has created. After his sleep, he can produce his piece almost in one draft. Lars is also the creator of his own name (in secret he calls himself Lazarus Baruch), of his own time (living much by night and sleeping in the afternoon, wringing two days out of one by dividing the day in two with a nap), of his own ancestry. In third place are Heidi and Dr. Eklund, who create around Lars's world a meaner, tawdrier reality. Finally, somewhere along this line of creator-creations is God.
God provides the contrast. In the seventeenth century, Judah Loew ben Bezabel, rabbi of Prague, made an artificial man, a golem who could, it was said, do a few menial tasks around the synagogue, like sweeping the floor and ringing the bells. But something was lacking in the golem. In the eyes of those who marvelled at it, the creature was more like a thingthan a person. In the end, out of pity or terror, its creator destroyed it.
Lars's reality is like the golem: to Lars it may seem more real than real life, but it lacks the iron-clad immanence of a reality made by God. Lars knows this and refuses to see the last surviving person who had been part of Schulz's life: Jozefina, Schulz's fiancée, now living in London. Lars will not see her because his reality is far too fragile to bear confrontation. Schulz himself declared (as both Lars and Heidi quote) that "reality is as thin as paper and betrays with all its cracks its imitative character." Lars, like God, will admit no other reality than his own. "He's a priest of the original," Heidi says of him. "What he wants is the original of things."
Lars accuses the Eklunds of wanting to be "in competition with God," not realizing (or realizing only vaguely) that he is guilty of that very sin. Lars also sins by imagining that God requires our belief in order to exist. Discussing the need to inform the world of the appearance of “The Messiah”, Heidi insists, "People have to be “told” it exists." And then, "If it's not believed in, it might as well not exist." "That sounds like God," is Lars's blasphemous answer.
There are books designed to have no end: they are fathomless, they have the richness of unresolved mysteries. Every time we read through them and believe we have answered all their questions, new questions arise, and then more questions. “The Messiah of Stockholm” is one such book. In part, this endless reading can be attributed to Ozick's Talmudic tradition of leaving no word idle, of pursuing each meaning to the marrow, as if the author (and the reader) were convinced that the entire Creation, including novels, was infinitely pregnant with revelation. But there is more. When, at the end of the book, Lars comes' face to face with his grief, as his phantom father vanishes "inside the narrow hallway of his skull" clutching the never-to-be-seen-again Messiah, we know that Lars's dream world has been shattered, and we mourn for his loss-but we are also left with a curious sense of wonder. Because in spite of murdered writers and orphaned men, Ozick realistically shows us, some
where between bewilderment and belief, the possible beauty of the universe.
Alberto Manguel: “Into the Looking-Glass Wood”