the kidnapped diamond

Cynthia Ozick – Dictation: A Quartet

In her Paris Review interview Cynthia Ozick – amusingly chippy towards her interrogator – talks of her gradual reversion to the short form:
It's not my 'ambition' that dictates the size of the enterprise. I am not interested in ego, if that's what this question is about. 'The Pagan Rabbi', for instance, a short story written so long ago, touches on a large theme: the aesthetic versus the moral commitment. Profound subject matter can be encompassed in small space – for proof, look at any sonnet by Shakespeare! Multum in parvo. I am not avoiding length these days – not consciously. But perhaps there's some truth in the speculation that I may be living my life backwards! Doing the short forms now, having begun with a 'Great Work', a long ambitious 'modernist' novel of the old swollen kind.

(The interview was conducted in a rather unusual way: Ozick responded to spoken questions by clacking out her answers on an electric typewriter - "Ozick is a rapid typist and the exchange flowed quickly.")

The temptation for the contemporary novelist, certainly, must be quite overwhelming: tourbillions of facts swirl around him, the world has become an all-too-accessible wiki database; the urgencies of the hour make their crowing demands. Fiction bloats as it strives to be equal to it all. In gloomier moments, a reader might reflect that only the hyperlexia of a David Foster Wallace could be adequate to the job of mapping modern reality. We're beset, not so much by Mandelstam's 'noise of time', as by the noise of now. Clamorous, importunate, it breaks over our heads in a toho bohu of factoid and op-ed: the War on Terror! Islamic fundamentalism! Third World poverty! Climate change! (The world is too much with us – poor unsuspecting Wordsworth...) Big themes, inundating the private, the modest, the unassuming. Suddenly we're all of us outside the whale, clinging to its flukes for dear life...

Refreshing, then, to find in Cynthia Ozick a literary practice altogether formally scaled back; and an unwillingness to be seduced by the grating presentness of things. A brilliant essayist, Ozick time and again avers her total commitment to the art of fiction. Her astringency and passion adhere to her every word. (A lesson for the drearily self-regarding Creative Writing wannabes who stuff our universities.) Her collection The Din in the Head is coloured by a sadness and defiance both. A valediction for a lost culture. Yet a full-throated rallying cry, too:

...the notion of desire, ambition's womb; desire applied to the kind of willed (or dreamed) achievement that outlasts personality; that is the opposite of taste, which is all personality. Or call it by the plain and ultimately discordant name that Henry James, remembering the expulsion from bright-leafed Eden, gave to his own desire: doubt. “We do what we can – we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest,” he said, “is the madness of art.” What reader, coming upon these reverberating words, whether for the first or the tenth or the hundredth time, will not take them to heart?

James stands for Ozick as a pre-eminence. Her career has been shadowed – fruitfully shadowed – by his work and example. His absolutism – choosing perfection of the work over the life – and his monkish indifference to the world, the flesh and the devil, epitomise the hieratic aspect of literary art: James as Simeon Stylites, what Ozick terms 'the superannuated consciousness of anointment'. She kindled to “..the worldliness of his characters, the visual brilliance of his long scenes, the seductiveness of his betrayals, the veiled innocence of his young women, the subtlety of his moral conundrums, and not least his debt to human possibility, and also to human taint. His muse was tragic; and so was mine.” James 'seizes your life'... Or imperils your career. The current fashion for all things Jamesian is well-noted by David Lodge in The Year of Henry James, his painfully candid account of a publishing pile-up, the bookbiz as a Brian Rix farce; where he reflects that interest in the biographical novel “..could be taken as a symptom of a declining faith or loss of confidence in the power of purely fictional narrative, in a culture where we are bombarded from every direction with factual narrative in the form of 'news'...” (24-hour rolling news has colonised our sensibilities: we're quidnuncs now with a global reach.) And readers do tire of hearing about the latest enfant terrible, the latest Next Big Thing touted by the literary press. Perhaps the figure of Henry James, 'master of nuance and scruple' as Auden called him, portends a kind of cultural reculer pour mieux sauter...

“Literary grandeur is out of style,” Ozick laments – perhaps a trifle shortsightedly... (I guess that she means grandeur of theme and psychological presentment, rather than mere wordage.) But Ozick is on a run: Heir to the Glimmering World has been (comparatively speaking) a bestseller; and she has only just received both the PEN/Malamud Prize and the PEN/Nabokov Prize. Nor does her latest, Dictation: A Quartet, seem at all like a piece of idle book-making, a sop to her publisher, honouring a contract. The same ardour, the same shrewd felicity as we find in all her work, crackles through these stories – a novella and three tales. Multum in parvo, indeed.

The centrepiece 'Dictation' seems, at first blush, a jeu d'esprit: mischievously conceived, it makes mild mock of the pretensions to High Art of Henry James and Joseph Conrad. This 'blest nouvelle' draws into the limelight two women, the secretaries of the novelists; both so thoroughly forgotten that they go unrecorded even in Leon Edel's biography of James... With splendid economy Ozick draughts the relationship between the literary lions – their rivalry concealed by a frigid politesse – but it's they who are sidelined on this occasion. Theodora Bosanquet - “She was far from mad; she was consummately clever..” - and Lilian Hallowes, indispensable helpmates to our two novelists – not least because of their mastery of 'the Machine', an early model Remington typewriter. Theodora has a plan – she wants to take advantage of their privileged intimacy with the masters to put her stamp on literary history... Her “notion of everlastingness was more cunning than any such homage given to the longevity of a proper noun..”; it must be done by stealth, undetectably. Scholars would one day pore over the novels and tales of James and Conrad – and be none the wiser.

Lilian – a timid, bleached spinster who looks after her ailing mother; 'fearful dry celibate Lilian' – is at once smitten and repelled by Theodora, whose boldness and erotic zest come as an unwanted provocation. Yet Theodora's argument wins the day. She plays on Lilian's chaste infatuation with her employer and her jealousy of Conrad's wife, the woman's presumption: “'Because she sleeps in his bed. In his bed, in the oblivion of night! - when it is you who in the light of day drink in the minutest vibrations of his spirit. What will Mrs Conrad ever know of the kidnapped diamond. As long as you live, you will own this secret...'” Theodora is much given to musings on the matter of immortality. Her plot has almost the air of an imperceptible 'happening' – a subtly subversive démarche on literary greatness:

Plot? Should art be dismissed as conniving? The will to change nature's given is the font of all creation. Even God, faced with the tohu vavohu, welter and waste, formlessness and void, thought it suitable to introduce light and dark, day and night: the seamlessness of disparity. Or regard the mosaic maker, painstakingly choosing one tessera to set beside another, in a glorious pattern of heretofore unimagined juxtapositions – yet because the stones as they were found have been disarranged, shall he be despised as a violator?

Ozick has produced, in 'Dictation', a work so magisterial that it almost defies criticism – one, dare I say it, almost perfect... A meditation on literary fame and its precise opposite, the darkness visible of obscurity – the two women “..leaving behind an immutable mark – an everlasting sign that they lived, they felt, they acted!” - it has all the mysterious slantedness of James's short stories themselves. Ozick has earned the right to tease James and Conrad as she does: the great formalists, who lacerated themselves over the placement of every subclause and syllable, failing to notice the silent emendation made by their amanuenses..! Faultlessly judged, executed to a nicety. Ozick's well-tempered prose hovers close to James's own style without being so maladroit as to lapse into pastiche. It buzzes with observational acuity, it charms with its sly ironies; distinguishing itself by its absence of cruelty at anyone's expense.

The novella is supplemented and enhanced by three short stories, each a model of the art. 'Actors' handsomely repays its debt to Isaac Bashevis Singer, for example. And from 'At Fumicaro' - a tumid tale of mediterranean Catholicism, very Jamesian in its suggestion of Old European spiritual stagnancy - such nodes of fine writing as this:

...Frank Castle circled all around the medieval man of wood. Red paint, dry for centuries, spilled from the nail holes. Even the back of the figure had its precision: the draw of the muscles elongated in fatigue. The carver had not stinted anywhere. Yet the face was without a grain of devout inspiration. It was as if the carver had cared only for the carving itself, and not for its symbol. The man on the crossbar was having his live body imitated, and that was all. He was a copy of the carver's neighbour perhaps, or else a cousin. When the carving was finished, the neighbour or cousin stepped down, and together he and the carver hammered in the nails.

The nails. Were they for pity? They made him feel cruel. He reflected in their cruelty - piety with a human corpse at its center, what could that mean? The carver and his model, beating and beating the nails.

Ozick, after a half-century of travails and humiliations (about which she has preserved a battle-scarred good humour), deserves the acclaim she currently enjoys.

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