on November 13, 2004
Sorry. Heir doesn't cut it. Yes, the writing is brilliant -- the sentences are to swoon for, and some of her theories and casual throw away throughts are really stupendous. The plot had me going too. But for me, her people aren't real. I'm always kept at a distance from her characters in such a subtle way I'm hardly aware of it. Her cast is so extravagant and outrageous and larger than life, I get fooled into sensation, but never into pure feeling, which is the main reason I like to read. I never ache for them or care about them, though at first I thought I would, particularly Rosie and Bertram. But that duo fizzles out pretty soon, and when Bertram reappears toward the end, Rosie never even refers to her old crush. Annelise comes on board as a strong, full-bodied character, then dissipates into school girl crush blankness. Ninel (Lenin backwards, oy, how precious), Mr. and Mrs. Mitwesser - they all are written loudly and exuberantly, but there's no humanity there. It feels sacrilegious saying this about such an awesome and assured writer as Ms. Ozick, but that's how it is. It seems that ideas mean more than her characters, but what are the ideas in the end? I am spun around here and there --lots of flashy shows of genius and cleverness and scholarship, but what is she getting at? I am awed and humbled at the dazzling display of literary skill, and I am dazzled too, but never into feeling, and in the end, not into apprehending a glimmering world either.
Rose Meadows, an orphan needing a place to live and work, answers a vaguely worded newspaper advertisement in 1935 and is hired for unspecified household work by the Mitwissers, for whom "disorder was...a rule of life." Jews who escaped Germany in 1933, they now live in Albany, New York, a place they find vastly different from the intellectual milieu of Europe. Rudolf Mitwisser, the patriarch, spends his days closeted in his study, researching an obscure group of ninth century Jewish scholars, the Karaites, who reject Talmudic interpretations of traditional Judaism in favor of direct and literal interpretation of the Old Testament.
Elsa Mitwisser, formerly a physicist and colleague of Erwin Schrodinger, is distraught that her family is now dependent upon others and regarded as "parasites." Unbalanced and confined to her room, she, like her husband, ignores the responsibilities of the family and their five children. The Mitwissers have been "adopted" by James A'Bair, a young man with an independent income. As the inspiration and model for the Bear Books, a children's series written by his father, James collects substantial royalties. Believing himself to be a Karaite, James supports Mitwisser's research, provides funds for the family, and occasionally participates in their domestic life.
Moving elliptically through past and present, the narrative explores the backgrounds of all the main characters, traveling forward and backward simultaneously. Focusing on character and theme, rather than plot, Ozick creates an intense world in which each person seeks the fulfillment of personal dreams, which glimmer on the horizon like fireflies, fragile hopes that may die before they come to fruition. Mitwisser, regarded as a great scholar in Europe, finds his research of little interest to Jewish scholars here. Elsa Mitwisser, envious because her colleague, Schrodinger, ended up winning the Nobel Prize, believes history has wronged her. Rose tries to give "symmetry, routine, propriety" to her life, but her past keeps intruding. James does not know who he is, apart from his identity as the "Bear Boy." It is sixteen-year-old Anneliese who seems to have the best chance of capturing the "glimmers."
Ozick's smooth narrative and rich imagery bring the story to life and show the characters developing. Anneliese is "an infant bird tapping with her little beak against the shell." Rose's father "robbed dailiness of predictability, so that [her] childhood's every breath hung on a contingency." Such strange characters, presented without sentimentality, may not fully capture the reader's heart or inspire a great deal of empathy, but Ozick's quiet humor and her sense of irony make their stories important to the reader. Mary Whipple
Ozick's many-layered novel, set in 1935, is built on contradictions, beginning with her choice of narrator. A formidable intellectual and brilliant writer whose essays and novels have received numerous international awards, Ozick tells her story in the voice of Rose, a naïve, lonely 18-year-old of haphazard education in upstate New York. The novel has the dramatic structure of Dickens and the Brontes, the Victorian writers Rose loves, but its thematic milieu is wholly modern, exploring the clash of European intellectualism and American materialism, and the incomprehensible evil and upheaval of Nazism.
"Frau Mitwisser led me into a tiny parlor so dark that it took some time before her face, small and timid as a vole's, glimmered into focus."
Rose, from a future, matured vantage point, opens her narrative with this day. On her own at 18, she has answered an ad in the Albany paper for some amorphous position with this German-Jewish refugee family. Her parents are dead, her mother long ago, her father recently, and her cousin Bertram (her first, and unrequited, love) is about to abandon her for a radical communist, Ninel.
Taking refuge among the family of refugees, Rose remains isolated. Professor Mitwisser is a scholar and a larger-than-life figure, at least at first: "I was conscious of a force, of a man accustomed to dictating his conditions." Mrs. Mitwisser, too, was once a woman of standing; a scientist who worked with Schrödinger, though she got no credit for his Nobel Prize, despite her contribution. Now, unhinged by events, she keeps to her bed, neglecting her children. The three boys are interchangeable hellions, the baby, Waltraut, is largely ignored, and the eldest daughter, Anneliese, is bossy and aloof.
The Mitwissers were rescued by Quakers who found the professor a position teaching about an obscure Christian sect, the Charismites. But the professor's field is not the Charismites but the Karaites, an obscure, heretic Jewish sect that held to a literal interpretation of the Bible. It is some time before Rose understands that in Europe "they had esteemed him because no one knew what he knew. And here - now - he was scorned for the same reason: no one knew what he knew."
In an irony that will be missed by many readers since Ozick does not allude to it even though her narrator is recalling these events years later, the Karaites were spared by Hitler who decided that their heresy made them non-Jews. Some even participated in the Holocaust.
Rose, of course, has never heard of the Karaites (or the Charismites). Her first task is to box up the professor's library because a mysterious benefactor has rescued them from Albany and arranged for a move to New York so the professor can continue his scholarship at the city's library.
The books are in German and Hebrew, so Rose, ignorant of both languages, boxes them in the most efficient way - by size. The professor, outraged (" `This is how an intelligent creature organizes scholarship? By how tall and how short?'"), assigns (or, rather, orders Anneliese to assign) a simpler task - caring for the baby.
By the time the family has moved to New York - only it's not New York; it's the Bronx and the weedy outskirts at that - Rose is also caring for Mrs. Mitwisser and typing for the professor in the evening. She suspects Mrs. Mitwisser might not be "truly mad," but instead answering "disorder with disorder, fracture with fracture," and prides herself on finding a palliative - Jane Austen's "Sense and Sensibility." "Mrs. Mitwisser understood all of this very well; it glimmered with unfamiliar familiarity; none of it was beyond her comprehension." And when the Dashwoods' fortunes fell, "she warmed to the affinities she instantly felt: the loss of money, the necessity of money, the hope of money; standing expectation, repute."
But in the next chapter Mrs. Mitwisser has ripped the book to shreds. The mysterious benefactor, James, has arrived, showering the family with presents, filling the house with laughter. Only Mrs. Mitwisser hates him and fears his corrupting influence. Even little, bewildered Waltraut blossoms in his presence, basking in unaccustomed attention.
But Rose, too, has doubts. James tipples whiskey in his teacup and usurps her place in the study. The gleaming new typewriter he bought sits in a closet. Yes, he has paid her salary, but she has little use for money.
She misses those steamy summer nights in the professor's study, where "little by little his cause was revealed to me. Boiling rebellion was Mitwisser's subject. He was drawn to schismatics, fiery heretics, apostates - the lunatics of history." But after James' arrival, Rose begins to see something of George Eliot's Casaubon in the professor. Is he striving mightily and achieving little? Only pretending to strive? Does his life's work amount to anything?
James A'Bair is himself a puzzle. He is the Bear Boy, subject of picture books his father so famously and lucratively created. He hates the books that usurped his childhood, hates the money he so lavishly bestows on others. But why has he chosen the Mitwissers? Does he admire the Professor's scholarship or the family's cohesion? Does he sympathize with their plight or desire to corrupt them, as Mrs. Mitwisser believes?
These questions, and many more, are raised and some even answered in the course of this eventful novel. I haven't even touched on Rose's inheritance of the first Bear Boy book or the return of Bertram into Rose's life, or done justice to Anneliese whose self-possession conceals so much. But the narrative takes a couple jogs sideways to provide some needed explication of James. Several third person sections, told from his viewpoint, jar a bit. Isn't this Rose's story, written in reflection? Then are the James digressions her own invention; her explanation for events? If not, how did they come to be?
Quibbles aside, this is a rich, deep, lovely book, full of story and thought, layers of meaning and ache and cruelty and love. Selfishness and manipulation prove sometimes beneficial, but self-deception is always a mistake. It's a book that can be read on many levels, all rewarding.
on March 1, 2005
Despite the presence of a vast array of excellent, varied characters you can climb into and try to understand and an intelligent, erudite text with which to work, you do feel like you are "working" when you read this book. There is a sort of distance in the way it is written, perhaps intentional, that makes it difficult to care about or relate to the characters in this story, which makes for an underwhelming and unsatisfying effect. The main character in the story drifts, first from her professional liar father to a cousin, Bertram (who is barely related, if at all), and she is eventually pushed out even by this cousin and finds herself living with a strange family of refugees. Although there is a definite richness to these characters and a mystery to their story, it does not pull one in with enough force. One must admire the heroine, the orphaned Rose, while she drifts from one misfortunate situation to another, trying to be everything to everyone, in a sense, during her tenure with this family of foreigners (the Mitwissers). Distracting, though, is the presence of "James", a man of considerable wealth, who supports the Mitwisser family but treats them as playthings. James's story is told in chapters that intertwine with the rest of the book and don't really do much to add to the overall cohesive nature of the book. Eventually, Rose's position in the Mitwisser household is usurped by her wishy washy cousin, Bertram, who finds himself falling on hard times... and again he forces Rose out of her comfort zone. Maybe for Rose there is no comfort zone. In any case, I read this book and found it interesting throughout but never quite got the sense of what the point was. Heir to the Glimmering World is exceptionally well-written with deeply engaging characters but somehow too strange and impenetrable to make a real impact.
on May 8, 2005
Heir to the Glimmering World is a book about the Father. Don't get me wrong. It's also a page turner about a jewish refugee family, full of plot twists and fully fleshed out characters. But when all the plot lines have been tied together and you've satisfied yourself that the story has in fact ended, you might still be wondering what this novel was about. Like I said, it's about the Father, or in this case the book's fathers: truthful, unforgiving, abusing, brilliant, uncompromising, undetered by desire, driven to make the world a better place, obsessed with maintaining their own place within that world. For Ozick, there is another world; one not ruled by the Order of the Father, but one in which sympathy and compassion, superficiality and hypocricy have taken its place. There is no winning in the combination of these Orders; it's either endless compromise or self-destruction. Against this proposition, Ozick imagines an heir to something more essential, something FIRST. That's where things get tricky. Is it the twelfth century heretical jewish mystic, Jacob al-Kirkisani, who comes to believe that it is only through refusal that we find God: refusal of religion, of social order, of happiness, of gender role? Is it Rose, a young American woman, who joins only to reject and move on to another place in life? Hardscrabble, clear, and a demon on a typewriter, Rose leaves the happiness and despair for adventure, reinvention, and her own true self. Or is it the Bear Boy, abused and on his own deathly quest? Or is it the daughter of Bear Boy and the girl he seduces, born into a world without a father? Ozick's refusal to come clean is what truly glimmers about this novel, an ultimate narrative rejection that embraces something beyond resolution. The world it opens onto isn't so much ordered as it is full of possibility, a place in which uncertainty and hope are indistinguishable from each other.
on March 9, 2005
Unlike a few of the readers, I did not find the characters that far out. The basic psychologies of each character reminds me of someone or parts of someones I have known. Of course, I did not realize this until I had read the last word and the story was at its end. Glimmerings unllike many novels was easy to read as it absorbs and carries one's mind to what seems like a very distant place and different time. When it was over, it was like waking up from a dream, but the dream was your own life and now reality was entering. The placement of the story in another time and place and the interweaving of another language into the text was seamless. I also felt the details, each one whether about how the house looked, where is it was located, the Jewish history of the lost sect,
all of each piece was important to the story's whole.
The Professor is llke many dedicated intellectuals who strive and actually sometimes achieve some kind of esctasy in their pursuit of
knowledge and for a way of knowing and then at some point realize they achieved the xenith of their work and the real quest for one reason or another is over or must be abandoned. Rosie, as he calls the main character and narrator, his Amanuensis, seems very real to me. Her youth and lack of emotional nurturance all her life minimizes her reactions to the insensitive behaviors of the family members around her
and makes it possible for her to affect their behavior usually in a positive direction and elucidate the meaning beneath their strange affects. I kept wondering if the Bear Boy ever really existed which I am sure he did not. Even that character seemed a very honest depiction of how in this case undesired or undeserved fame can destroy what is natural and good. Rosie's relationship with Bertram, her not real cousin, is some kind of substitute for a father-daughter (with romantic overtones) or in part mother-daughter relationship she has been missing but it is far from perfect and like all of us she has to move on.
It was hard for me to put the book down and yet I wanted to savor the flavor and experience the story completely. I was well satisfied with the ending which is so seldom true in most novels I have read. I had the feeling that the author loved all the characters despite their flaws and miseries. It made me love them too.
Sharon Raphael, Ph.D.
Long Beach, California
on November 5, 2005
This book is about lost lives. The narrator, for some reason described in a blurb as 'plucky,' is a lost child who lost her mother very young, and whose father is a negligent wastrel. The Mitwissers, with whom she lodges and works, are a family of German Jews who have lost their home, their status in life, their livelihood, and everything familiar and meaningful to them, during the early days of Naziism. The narrator's cousin, Bertram, initially a delightful and happy character, loses the life he's known to an angry, selfish lover, who robs him of his peace of mind, his reputation, and his finanical well-being before departing for the Spanish Civil War, where she loses her life. James,a stand-in for the adult son of AA Milne, has lost his childhood, his soul, and, finally, his life to his father's more-than-somewhat sexual obsession with the boy, whom he has exploited for fame and financial gain with a book about a boy with long bangs, rouged knees and a stuffed bear. When James dies, a suicide, the Mitwissers, Bertram, and the narrator are liberated by James' money, which comes to them through inheritance.
These characters, and the dreary surroundings in which they live, are so vivdly drawn that the reader can reach out and touch their sleeves.
The question is, why would you want to? The dreariness and despair of the first 250 pages end ultimately in happiness and prosperity for all of the characters, just as fast as the last act of a comic opera neatly resolves all issues; but the reader is left still immersed in the ugly, dim, and hopeless lives of the earlier pages. Wonderfully written, but what a hangover.
on September 6, 2008
The glimmering world is one haunted by glimmering ghosts, and the characters who populate Ozick's novel--and they certainly are characters--find themselves burdened more than most folks by their dead-weight pasts. It's 1935, and Rudolf Mitwisser and his wife Elsa have fled the Nazis, leaving behind brilliant careers as, respectively, a scholar of Jewish heresy and a physicist who helped Erwin Shrodinger formulate his famous equation. Trapped in New York, bereft and bankrupt, with five children to feed, they meet an unlikely benefactor: James A'Bair, a cartoonish dandy living off the abundant royalties generated by his father's illustrated books featuring his childhood self, the Bear Boy, a legacy James detests for having robbed him of his own identity.
For the Mitwissers, the life worth living is in the past; for James, the past is something to escape. Into this bizarre blend of shattered dreams and lost childhood steps Rose Meadows, orphaned and for all practical purposes homeless, hired as an assistant to Rudolf, a nursemaid to Elsa, and a governess to the children. She has no past to speak of, just a doe-eyed crush for her handsome older cousin, whose affections are stolen by a Communist femme fatale boasting the adopted name of Ninel ("Just try spelling it backwards").
The novel is packed, both intrusively and subtly, with literary references: to Austen's Dashwood family (whose dashed fortunes "glimmered with unfamiliar familiarity" to an addled Elisa); to Jane Eyre and to Rochester's mad wife in the attic; to George Eliot's "discarded amanuensis of another century," Dorothea; to Milnes's Christopher Robbins; to Cahan's David Levinsky. Like their literary precedents, the novel's evocative scenes alternate between whimsy and melancholy: the hellionish antics of the family's three look-alike boys; Rose's often comic attempts to intuit what's expected of her; the specter of Rudolf Mitwisser sitting uselessly in the reading room of the New York Public Library, pretending to conduct research on a topic nobody in America is interested in.
Ozick excels at characters and caricatures, at scenes and episodes; what's lacking from "Heir" is cohesiveness: Christopher Robbins's gang has been sucked down Alice's rabbit hole, only to emerge scarred but "put right." The novel straddles between Victorian melodrama and Depression-era realism, between Edwardian dilettantism and a nearly Talmudic obsession with arcana and allusion, but for all its dizzying time travel and fairy-tale plotting, it leaves its readers stuck firmly in the past.
Cynthia Ozick's 2004 novel "Heir to the Glimmering World" is known as "The Bear Boy" in the United Kingdom. It is fitting that this complex difficult novel will take two, or perhaps more, appropriate titles. "The Bear Boy" refers to one of the many principal characters in the book, James A'Bair. As a child, James had been the subject of a successful series of children's book written by his father. James inherits a fortune when his father dies. We wanders aimmlessly over the world before ultimately becoming the benefactor of the Mitwisser family at the heart of the novel. The title "Heir to the Glimmering World" is both more poetic and more difficult to explain. The heir is the young woman narrator, Rose Meadows, 19, of the story. The "glimmering world" could be one of several lost worlds described in the story: the world of the Karaites, discussed below, or the world of Germany and scholarship before WW II.
The story is set primarily in depression-era New York in 1933 -- 1935. The book is told with great allusiveness in form and content to British novels, including "Sense and Sensibility", "Middlemarch", "Jane Eyre" and "Hard Times." The early stages of Ozick's novel take place in Albany and upstate New York while the larger portion of the book is set in a relatively remote section of the Bronx. The novel tells loosely interreleated stories of refuges, outcasts, and rebels.
The narrator, Rose, is a quiet, bookish girl whose mother died when she was 3 and whose father, a teacher and a gambler, dies when Rose is 18 after he has put the girl in the care of a distant relation, Bertram, 36. Bertram is divorced, a pharmacist, and involved with radical politics. He is in love with an even more radical woman, named Ninel, who is not committed to him. Ninel essentially forces Rose out of her home with Bertram, and at age 18 Rose drops out of a teacher's college which bores her to answer a strange ad placed by a Professor Mitwisser. Mitwisser is a student of religious history who has been forced to flee Germany. His wife, Elsa was a research physicist and the colleague of Erwin Schrodinger. The couple have five children. Elsa is despondent and appears mad. Their eldest daughter, Anneliese, runs much of the household. In Albany, Mitwisser has been teaching at a small college by the kndness of the Quakers. He is a renowned scholar of the heretical Jewish sect known as the Karaites. The governor's of the school mistake him as a student of Christian Charismatics. There is little interest in Mitwisser's passion for the Karaites in the United States. The family moves to New York City to allow Mitwiser to study and write. They are supported by the mysterious James, "The Bear Boy."
The Mitwissers have difficulty, to say the least, with their new home in America. In Germany the family was wealthy and respected for intellect and knowledge while in the United States they are spurned. There is a sense of high culture -- or "bildung" in German which the family, especially Elsa finds lacking in the United States. Professor Mitwisser wants his children and family to adopt and adjust, to learn and use English, and to drop German and German culture. The narrator Rose, too, is a refuge and an outcast of a different sort as is the wealthy, dissolute, wandering James who has somehow adopted the Mitwisser family and is their apparent benefactor.
Rose has an ambiguous role in the family as a companion to Elsa, a nanny to the children, and a scribe or "amanuensis" for Mitwisser. Although the Mitwisser family is not religious, Mitwisser is the greatest scholar of the Karaites. The Karaites are a Jewish sect originating in the early Middle Ages. The Karaites broke away from mainline traditional Judaism because they refused to accept the authority of the Jewish Oral Law --, the Mishnah and the Gemmorah which comprise the Talmud. Instead, the Karaites accepted the authority only of the 24 books of the Old Testament. Traditional Judaism rejected the Karaites as heretics and the sect became marginalized and obscure. Many of the leaders of the sect wrote voluminously and provocatively. Mitwisser, in this novel, is their scholar. As Rose comes to describe the Karaites as she learns about them from Mitwisser:
"They are dissidents; therefore they are haters. But they are also lovers, and what they love is purity, and what they hate is impurity. And what they consider to be impurity is the intellect's explorations; and yet they are themselves known for intellect." (p.73)
Professor Mitwisser loves the Karaites for their independence, their heresy, their obscurity, and their religious passion and feeling. His love, alas, is at the expense of much else in life, including his wife and children. Professor Mitwisser is pursuing threads regarding an earlier leader of the sect who, Mitwisser believes, travelled to India where he studied and became enamored of the Bhagavad-Gita. Ultimately Mitsisser's research program is dashed. Rose and Ozick in particular take a much more distanced position from the Karaites than does Mitwisser.
Elsa has a madness that derives from the wife in Jane Eyre. But she also sees certain things clearly. A physicist, she was also the lover of Schroedinger. She undergoes significant changes during the course of the book.
The book has the feel of a difficult coming of age story as Rose, who narrates the story from a distance, ulltimately uses what she has learned from living with the Mitwissers to begin her own independent life.
Ozick has written a cerebral, thoughtful story of refugees, outcasts, and the life of the mind and its limitations. There is a skeptical tone towards political messianism and radicalism, in the person of Ninel and in Bertram's early life, and towards religious freethought and heresy, as exemplified by the Karaites. The author also turns a skeptical eye towards what she sees as the thoughtless, materialist character of American life. Some of the threads of the story do not come together well, and there is a sense of coolness and detachment towards the characters. This a challenging but rewarding novel.
on September 1, 2004
This is a stunning example of the magic that can happen when author, style, plot and theme combine. Ozick has written a smart, thoroughly compelling and wonderfully charactered neo-Victorian (people and themes and social symbolism blend) novel of displaced persons set in 1930s New York. It's part social commentary, part the melodrama, part mystery. It's simply amazing how Ozick takes a cubist approach to the philosophy being discussed...some live it, some study it, some defy it ---- but all are some form of it! Thematically it's a novel of history and identity and the hazards and benefits of attachment as well as rejection. This is the sort of work that can give the reader (it gave this one!!!) an almost transcendant buzz and reaffirm your faith in literature. Simply incredible!