A Pen & a Pattern

In 1989, in the preface to her second collection of essays, Metaphor & Memory, Cynthia Ozick stated that "a fiction writer who also writes essays is looking for trouble." What she meant is that the essays will likely be scoured by critics for certain "clues" that will then be used as evidence for or against the fiction.

I understand this kind of trouble, but I'm going to introduce a different sort and then write a sentence that Ozick will probably despise me for. I want to begin by emending her original remark, and say that a novelist who writes short stories and essays may be looking for double-trouble. And that's because, I, as a typically meddlesome critic with a point of view, think Ozick is a far better short story writer than she is a novelist.

Of all the fiction she's written in her long career, nothing is quite as good as her first book of stories, The Pagan Rabbi (though I did enjoy portions of her next two books Bloodshed and Levitation). Her novels, even the most recent — the widely praised Heir to the Glimmering World — have always seemed to me stiff, slow in their pacing, not necessarily lifeless, but rather over-imagined. I don't always believe in her people, either what they say or do, except as some extension of ideas put in motion by their creator.

This is not so with her stories, especially the title story of that first collection. These shorter pieces are rich and moving creations.

But I'm going to take my argument a step further — and this is what will make Ozick's blood boil — since I think what she does best of all is write essays. The impetus for setting this observation down is the appearance of her fifth volume of essays, called The Din in the Head.

I make this statement because Ozick has been something of a hero of mine because of two essays she's written. The first, "All the World Wants the Jews Dead," first appeared in Esquire magazine in 1974. It was a response to a resurgence — yet again — of nearly worldwide anti-Semitism, and Ozick laid all the cards on the table. The title alone should have won her some sort of award.

The other essay is called "Toward a New Yiddish," which appeared originally in Judaism magazine in 1970, and was reprinted in her first volume of essays called Art & Ardor. Her argument was complex, but in essence it said that English was now the new Yiddish and, by means of it, American Jews — then 50 percent of all Jews in the world — could create a new liturgical literature.

"There is nothing artistically confining about a liturgical literature," she wrote. "[O]n the contrary, to include history is to include everything. It is the nonliturgical literatures that leave things out, that narrow themselves to minute sensuous perceptions, and commit huge indifferences. A liturgical literature has the configuration of the ram's horn: you give your strength to the inch-hole and the splendor spreads wide. A Jewish liturgical literature gives its strength to its peoplehood and the whole human note is heard everywhere, enlarged. … The human reality will ring through its novels and poems, though for a long time it will not be ripe enough for poetry; its first achievements will be mainly novels."

The fact that English was going to be the New Yiddish, and was giving birth to a literature of its own seemed obvious to her by the appearance of Saul Bellow's novel Mr. Sammler's Planet. We've obviously come a long way since those days. But the importance of this lengthy essay was in its final pages. There, Ozick made the point that many Jewish-born writers throughout history had given themselves over completely to the gentile culture, seeking fame beyond their Jewish cohorts, and by so doing, their work was lost to the world in the end, amusing or entertaining a non-Jewish audience during the writer's life, but forgotten once he or she was gone. And because these writers had never attempted to speak to the Jews, history passed them by.

But if American Jewish writers would utilize the New Yiddish, which has the additional virtue (unlike the old one) of being understandable to the gentile culture, and deal with Jewish themes and Jewish concerns, then something glorious might be created.

"If we blow into the narrow end of the shofar," she wrote, "we will be heard far. But if we choose to be Mankind rather than Jewish and blow into the wider part, we will not be heard at all; for us America will have been in vain."

In reality, this essay is far more courageous than "All the World Wants the Jews Dead." A defense of the Jewish people against anti-Semitism is to be expected. But to call for a literature that would be Jewish down to its toenails took real guts.

For many years — and even in the novels I considered less successful than her stories — I thought Ozick was holding true to her word. (She also was exceedingly brave in taking political stands that went against the predominant liberal thrust of the rest of the Jewish world, which takes a whole other kind of courage.) But lately — within the last two or three years especially — she has turned away from her original goal and seems to want to be considered part of the tapestry of world literature, an artist foremost and a Jew somewhat secondarily, a writer and not just a Jewish writer.

The Din in the Head seems to offer evidence to support my thesis. Take the title itself. It breaks the pattern that Ozick set with its predecessors. They all had three-word titles that made use of an ampersand: Along with Art & Ardor and Metaphor & Memory, there were also Fame & Folly and Quarrel & Quandary.

Maybe I'm reading too much into this minor variation. Maybe Ozick was just looking for a change, and nothing worked in her earlier appositive titular pattern. (The title of her foreword, though, is "On Discord and Desire," which seems to suit the essays gathered here and may have been a possible title that she discarded.) Ozick still considers lots of Jewish subjects and writers in this book as she has in the past: Bellow, Delmore Schwartz, Lionel Trilling, Isaac Babel, Gershom Scholem. But there are also lots of non-Jewish writers: Helen Keller, Tolstoy, John Updike, Henry James, Sylvia Plath, Kipling.

But there are other clues that support my argument. Take an essay titled "Tradition and (or versus) the Jewish Writer," where she seems to turn her earlier piece on its head. Tradition "is useful to the writer only insofar as the writer is unconscious of its use; only insofar as it is invisible and inaudible; only insofar as the writer breathes it in with the air; only insofar as principled awareness and teacherliness are absent; only insofar as the writer is deaf to the pressure of the collectivity. What could be more treacherous to the genuine nature of the literary impulse than to mistake the writer for a communal leader … ?

"Writers are responsible only to the comely shape of a sentence, and to the unfettered imagination, which sometimes leads to wild places via wild routes."

The title essay, a paean to the inner life, the literary novel and the personal essay in an age of "electronic revolution," seems to restate the thesis. "The din in our head, that relentless inward hum of fragility and hope and transcendence and dread — where, in an age of machines addressing crowds, and crowds mad for machines, can it be found? In the art of the novel; in the novel's infinity of plasticity and elasticity; in a flap of imaginary wallpaper. And nowhere else."

I understand that every writer gets lonely in her study, banging out prose each day, and wants to hear fans proclaiming her greatness. And novels are a quicker way to fame than short stories.

All this is understandable, but I much prefer the old, unsmiling Ozick (to go by her author photos of old), clearly ready to take on the world and all its misguided assumptions, to the sweet smiling Ozick on the book jacket of this new collection. There are wonderful pieces in The Din in the Head — especially the essay about the education and trials of Helen Keller, which reads like a small, intense novel, filled with drama and narrative verve. And no one could say, faced with the intellectually adventuresome topics that Ozick tackles here, that she's pandering to her audience. But I'll take the fierce, uncompromising trailblazer of old over this milder incarnation any time.



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