"True essayists," declares Cynthia Ozick, "rarely write novels." This pronouncement would seem to overlook a horde of ambidextrous types, from John Updike
to Gore Vidal
to Charles Baxter
to Joyce Carol Oates
--and, of course, Ozick herself. The author of three novels, she is also among our finest essayists, combining a Jamesian nose for moral nuance with some of the most playful and pugnacious prose in contemporary letters. And her fourth collection, Quarrel & Quandary
, contains some of her very best work. There are ardent considerations of particular authors, including W.G. Sebald, Franz Kafka, and Swedish modern Goran Tunstrom. But this time around, the author is even more intent on exploring the rhetorical minefield where art and politics overlap. Her introduction, in fact, is one long riff on the importance of being earnestly engagé
, at the end of which Ozick manages to have her cake and eat it too: "Two cheers, then--when there is no choice--for being engagé
; but three cheers and more for that other bravery, the literary essay, and for memory's mooning and maundering, and for losing one's way in the bliss of American prose...."
In three provocative pieces ("The Rights of History and the Rights of the Imagination," "The Posthumous Sublime," and "Who Owns Anne Frank?"), Ozick suggests that the Holocaust is almost--but not quite--impervious to literature. She's particularly angered by the morphing of Frank's diary into a mother lode of Broadway-style uplift, a transformation that "tampers with history, with reality, with deadly truth." Elsewhere, though, Ozick is less polemical, more willing to be dazzled by Roethke's radiance or Henry James's epistemological high beams. And it's not only specific artists but entire genres that win her awed and eloquent approval:
When we say that poetry is strange, we mean not that it is less than intelligible, but exactly the opposite: poetry is intelligibility heightened, strengthened, distilled to the point of astounding us; and also made manifold. Metaphor is intelligibility's great imperative, its engine of radical amazement.
At its best, Ozick's prose is equally, radically amazing. She may not always compel our agreement--the scolding she administers to W.G. Sebald, whom she clearly admires, is something of a puzzler--but her voice never ceases to register distinction and detail, emitting what she calls "the hum of perpetual noticing." Five cheers, then, for Quarrel & Quandary
. And by the way, might Mooning & Maundering
be a candidate for the author's next alliterative title? --James Marcus
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H Novelist and literary critic Ozick (The Puttermesser Papers; Metaphor and Memory; etc.) again proves herself to be a daunting intellectual who writes with both grace and conviction. This collection of 19 previously published essays (in venues like the New Republic and Commentary) highlights the reasons for her status as one of America's leading literary figures. In "Dostoyevsky's Unabomber" she demonstrates her ability to uncover similarities across wide contextual gulfs by likening Theodore Kaczynski, "a calculating social reasoner and messianic utopian," to Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. In "The Impious Impatience of Job" she calls upon her substantial knowledge of the Bible to rethink an oft-discussed tale. "How I Got Fired from My Summer Job" is a personal memoir about misplacement as a typist in an accounting firm upon completion of graduate school in literature. All in all, Ozick covers an almost unbelievable range of subjectsDfrom lovesickness to cinematic adaptations of Henry James's novels to the merits and beauty of a simple kitchen ladle. She also returns, fiercely, to the HolocaustDboth explicitly in"Who Owns Anne Frank?" and implicitly in"She: Portrait of the Essay as a Warm Body"Dand other themes that she's explored previously. Ozick writes that Frank "was born to be a writer," that her "presence" is "thick rather than thin"; the same could be said of Ozick herselfDshe brings a novelist's fresh, frank eye to matters others might overlook and demonstrates a heightened consciousness of her own methods as a writer and public figure. And though she confesses a resistance to the political, she in fact succeeds in redefining the notion of the political through these fine essays, making it something subtle and deeply transformative. (Sept.)
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