Noted essayist Cynthia Ozick begins her new, alliterative collection with a nearly heretical thought in this kinetic cyber-age: "Journalism is a necessity, but it is not a permanence. When I hear someone (seventy-plus or twenty-something) utter 'my generation,' I know I am in the vicinity of a light mind." Rest assured that should you choose to pick up Quarrel & Quandary, you will not be in the vicinity of a light mind. Rather, Ozick embarks, as all essayists must, on a journey of attempted understanding. She fiddles with Crime and Punishment in the context of the Unabomber. She wonders if the world wouldn't be better without Anne Frank's diary. She questions the rights of historical novelists and wrestles, as always, with the Holocaust. Her essays are sometimes obscure, often politically incorrect, sometimes personal and even humorous. But they are always intelligent and written in sparkling, near perfect prose.
I admit it; I am not a reader of essays. Normally I shun them as much as I would recoil from an invite to go see a big screen remake of "Charlie's Angels." The thought of either would make me shudder. As to the former, perhaps I had my fill of Kant in college, or maybe reading "Gorgias" finally put me over some particular intellectual edge that I've yet to recover from twenty years later. Whatever the cause, I've spent very little time with pedantic or polemical prose since. So what it was that made me pick up "Quarrel and Quandary" is still beyond my ken, especially because I have never read any of Ozick's fiction. That said, it's satisfying to report that there is some life left in the old essay form yet, at least as practiced by Ms. Ozick. The Three Screens, as she calls them--TV, cinema, and computer--have not completely made moot the challenge of good writing or intricate analysis, and these Ozick patently demonstrates. You may not turn these pages at accelerated rates, hanging on every word, but you may just as easily marvel at her gifted turn of phrase, not to mention nuance of thought, as you would any plot by the latest faddish producer of pot-boilers. One thing you'll have to admit when you read this collection is that Ms. Ozick has an active mind on her shoulders, and she has the specific skill of being able to plausibly place on the page the arguments she has constructed in her head. You'll also notice that she has the uncanny ability to link diverse subjects. In a universe that is haystack filled with competing straws of information, she has a certain facility for finding one straw and sensing its relationship with another where the intimacy is by no means self-evident. It should come as no shock that her work herein just received the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism. So, kudos to Ms. Ozick, who entertained me in unexpected ways--and who should do the same for you.
Ozick is an earnest and profound writer. She shares that quality her mentor Henry James so valued,the quality of ' high seriousness'. Her essays not only reveal a discerning literary intelligence but a wise moral voice. In her essays here she like the metaphysical poets yanks together subjects from seemingly diverse worlds and makes meaning of the connection between them. The crimes of modern radical terrorists are connected to Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov's going outside and beyond the moral law- the commercial exploitation of the memory of Anne Frank connected with the general failing to properly comprehend the true meaning of the Holocaust-
Ozick is a writer who loves writers and writes about them especially well.
This is one of those books which the reader will afterwards feel a wiser person for having read.
It's a testament to Ozick's intellectual and persuasive power that her epic takedown of Crime and Punishment in this collection of essays had a dear friend and I on the phone for HOURS, arguing about whether or not she had a point. I love the attitude that Ozick brings to all of her essays, and the amount she works herself (and her readers) up. This is a book to be treasured. Read it with a friend.