December 2008

Paul Morton

features

An Interview with Cynthia Ozick

For most undergraduates, Cynthia Ozick is the author of “The Shawl,” an eight-page story published in 1980 that opens with a disorienting vision of human misery: “Stella, cold, cold, the coldness of hell.” The story of Rosa, a woman who loses her child in the Holocaust, forbids the reader the luxury of tears. We are instead caught, through Ozick’s prose, initially cool but then increasing in tempo until an enraging final page, in Rosa’s own silent wail.

“The Shawl,” which was later combined with the story “Rosa” to form a novella, is Ozick’s “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” or “A Rose for Emily.” This is odd, for it is a humorless piece and Ozick is a great, though often vicious, comedian. “Envy, or Yiddish in America” (1969) tells the story of Edelshtein, an ignored, forgotten and un-translated Yiddish poet furious at the success of a popular writer modeled on Isaac Bashevis Singer. An anti-Semite tells him, “Our God is the God of Love, your God is the God of Wrath. Look how he abandoned you in Auschwitz.” Edelshtein answers, “It wasn’t only God who didn’t notice.” The Messiah of Stockholm (1987) is about a dark-haired man orphaned by the Holocaust who lives in a Sweden that cares little for great literature. He believes himself to be the son of Bruno Schulz, the Polish Jewish fabulist murdered by the Nazis. In The Puttermesser Papers (1997), her most joyous creation, a Golem turns the bookish Ruth Puttermesser into the mayor of New York. She published her most recent novel Heir to the Glimmering World in 2004. She published her fifth collection of essays The Din in the Head in 2006. Her most recent story collection Dictation: A Quartet appeared in the spring. The title piece imagines a fateful meeting between Henry James and Joseph Conrad’s amanuenses.

Ozick turned 80 this year, during which she has received two major awards from the PEN American Center. In May, she received the PEN/Nabokov for her body of work. This month, she is being honored with the PEN/Malamud for her short stories.

I called her at her home in New Rochelle, New York on November 25. She did not wish to submit herself to the mercies of my digital recorder and was given complete approval over the transcript of the interview. What follows is a contentious 90-minute conversation transferred from the awkward spoken to the precise, fine-tuned written word.

In your introductory piece in your last essay collection, The Din in the Head, you write that Susan Sontag wrote as much about trivia as she did about high art.

Not trivia. Popular art, which she took as seriously as high art.

She took Patti Smith as seriously as Henry James, which you do not. Do you fear that in cutting yourself off from contemporary culture you handicap yourself in any way?

I would say, rather, that contemporary culture has cut itself off from the wellspring of culture in general, and in particular from literature, and in particular from history. It’s contemporary culture that has, by and large, done this. I say “by and large” because you can’t make generalizations of this kind; I can recite names of deeply literary young writers who are not cut off. I was boggled by one review of The Din in the Head, for instance, which faulted me for failing to write about hip-hop and various other types of popular music. But if you’re writing about literary figures you’re clearly not writing about music, whether it’s Mozart or any other kind of music. I find it a flabbergasting charge. The charge should be on the other foot: why aren’t writers on hip-hop writing about Lionel Trilling? (laughs)

I’m not asking you to write a hip-hop song. But I have not seen anything in your work that attempts to engage directly with the culture of your time.

I can hardly agree with that. If I go to the supermarket I’m engaging with the culture of my time. If I have a conversation, including this very one with you as interlocutor, I’m engaging with my time. When I spend hours at the computer absorbing news and opinion I’m engaging with the culture of my time. I think what you are saying is that I have a kind of history-consciousness. True, and it seems to me that you’re not engaging directly with the culture of your time if you are deaf and blind or even merely indifferent to that culture’s deep heritage. Not long ago I published in the New Republic a review of an abandoned novel by Lionel Trilling, newly unearthed in the Columbia University archives. And I discovered that nowadays people don’t even know Trilling’s name, not to mention this culture-shaping critic’s work. The same with Edmund Wilson, Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe. O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost…

They were giants in their time.

And not only in their time. Lionel Trilling’s powerful criticism, written in the middle of the twentieth century, was uncannily predictive of what was to come. He saw, he intuited, the portents. He was already feeling the early vibrations of today’s indifferences. We swim in popular culture, and to keep clear of it is to be a pedant and a prig; but to swim in it to the exclusion of heritage is deprivation.

I may not have been as precise in what I’m criticizing. There’s a scene in Philip Roth’s Exit Ghost that takes place on the 2004 election night. I haven’t seen any writer or journalist depict that night better than Roth does in those 10 pages or so.

I remember it very well. And I remember my reaction to it very well. Notwithstanding my hot admiration for Roth, both in part and as an astonishing whole, this scene struck me as the weakest point in the novel, because -- agree with Roth’s views or not -- it leaped out of the disbelief-suspending frame of the novel to become topical political rage and topical political advocacy. Nothing will kill a novel more than when it falls away from serious irony and veers into frenzied tract or self-indulgent hobbyhorse. Twenty years from now, maybe ten, maybe even five, that scene is going to be as stale and dead and ludicrous on the page as Herbert Hoover’s chicken-in-every-pot oration. It won’t survive even as comedy, though it might as self-indicting cartoon. Still, it goes without saying that Roth’s power and repute will outlast the occasional sermonic glitch.

But think of a book like Fathers and Sons which is filled with conversations that were contemporary to 1861 Russia.

But in Turgenev’s novel, one of my favorites, both sides of the political argument are lived out and imagined from the inside. Turgenev doesn’t sneer, he empathizes, he dramatizes. It’s not mere polemical advocacy thrown down out of animus. You can feel the force of history, and of torn human passions, and the troubled bewilderment of parents, and the draw of family love. For me, the greatest political novel of the twentieth century is A Passage to India, a wonderful case in point of how a novel can transcend its topical politics when the issues themselves have become obsolete. India has been an independent sovereign state for many decades. Its unhappy period as the possession of a foreign power is long over and done with, and today it has a bristling, fruitful international economy. Yet that novel lives beyond the British imperial circumstances of its moment, and why? Because of Aziz, because of Professor Godbole and Mrs. Moore, because of Adela, because of the Marabar Caves, because of a dominating uncanny mystical echo. A beautiful and amazing novel despite its dead political element and yes, the political impulse that may have partly motivated it.

I wanted to ask about a passage in The Messiah of Stockholm where Lars Andemening reflects on being an orphan and calls his condition a “[h]orrible, horrible freedom.” He’s been robbed of any heritage. You set this book in Europe and I could not imagine that book being set in America. In America we love the idea of reinvention, of casting off one’s past and starting anew. In Europe it seems more difficult to take the same kind of joy in doing something of that sort.

I think you’re right about that. I did a book tour in London and Paris for my last novel, Heir to the Glimmering World. American reviewers all mistook its closing chapters for a happy ending, which in some ways it is: a marriage and a baby and a fortune, all the trappings of traditional comedy. And all intended ironically. In France, in particular, where I had many interviews with critics, they got it. They saw that the book ended in 1937 and that it could not possibly foretell happiness in the years leading up to the slaughters of World War II. In Europe, where history has left its deepest wrinkles, they could see the irony and they could catch Bertram’s manipulative cynicism. They saw and they understood. Here it was mostly taken for a standard happy ending.

Our famous American historical amnesia works for the good and sometimes it works for the other way too. When Reagan was president, in order to commemorate the end of the Second World War and Germany’s reentry among the democracies, it was his official plan to go to Bitburg cemetery in Germany. But SS men are buried there, and Elie Wiesel confronted Reagan at the White House. “That place, Mr. President, is not your place,” he said. Books suddenly began to proliferate marking Bitburg as the end of American conscience, as a permanent taint, as a watershed, as a sign that after Bitburg America would never be the same. And of course Bitburg has been almost entirely forgotten and American optimism returned. Even 9-11 hasn’t shaken the essential optimism of America. There are reasons for this: the theme of the always open frontier, the capacity, as you say, for reinvention. For Christians, the Resurrection. For Jews, the escape from slavery and the Promised Land. Always the light ahead, Gatsby’s green light at the end of the dock.

But that fear of losing one’s heritage is all over your work. You see that in my favorite work of yours, “Envy, or Yiddish in America.”

I don’t know if it is so much fear of loss so much as it is lamentation over loss, but more than that, it’s rage and fury over the 20th century’s atrocities. I confess that this is very central for me. I have an unending, unforgiving, implacable self-devastating rage against Europe, which is being rekindled even today. Do you know what happened at the UN yesterday?

What happened at the UN yesterday?

It was a day dedicated to what was called “Mourning for Palestine.” The president of the General Assembly, in a savagely virulent speech reminiscent of Hitler in Munich, assaulted the state of Israel and called for boycotts and sanctions to destroy it. The entire mechanism of the United Nations was devoted to killing off a member state. An exhibit on this theme was placed in the UN’s central lobby, where schoolchildren are brought every day to learn of harmony among nations. As far as I can tell, there has not been a single editorial in opposition to this calumny, nor has there been heard a single political voice in protest. President-elect Obama appeared not to take notice of this degradation of the United Nations in the service of defamation. So put it that my rage against the 20th century has spilled over into the 21st.

It shapes so much of your work. It’s in The Messiah of Stockholm, “Envy, or Yiddish in America,” and Heir to the Glimmering World.

It’s everywhere.

Does your rage at Europe come from the fact that you were alive in America when the Holocaust was occurring in Europe? You were 17 when it was over.

The war coincided with my high school years, when “bliss was it to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.” I was reading the Romantic poets and Virgil, and was consciously happier than I’ve been at nearly any other period of my life. The dawning of what happened to the Jews of Europe came slowly. A number of years afterward, I had a remarkable letter from Saul Bellow explaining how in the forties he was so preoccupied with the pursuit of his career that he could pay no attention to anything beyond it. The realization, he said, came late. We can actually witness this in the progression of certain of the novels. The Adventures of Augie March, a book of American exuberance, was published in the fifties, Mr. Sammler’s Planet, about a Holocaust survivor, appeared in the seventies, and Ravelstein, a very direct confrontation with Jewish fate, was the last of all the novels. …Since I am roughly the same age as Anne Frank, the implication of this fact came to me as a great stirring up of shock: the recognition that when I was blissful in high school she was dying of typhus in Auschwitz.

And that if you had been born there you would have been dead.

Precisely. If not for my grandparents in steerage… And that’s why it has become central to everything I think about and write about.

You seem to have an agon with Henry James. He’s the only figure who is a subject of an essay in each of your collections.

Actually, just this morning I found myself rereading parts of The Ambassadors. My current novel, which is on my desk now, is a kind of Ambassadors plot in reverse.

Do you think the attempts to make non-metaphorical what is metaphorical in Henry James in books like Colm Tóibín’s The Master, which has him sharing a bed with Oliver Wendell Holmes, are misplaced?

I think it’s nonsensical. That same spring when the biographer Sheldon Novick, for instance, has the future novelist sleeping with the future Justice of the Supreme Court, James published his first short story. So when, still in his twenties, he speaks in his journal of “l’initiation première (the divine, the unique),” and cries out “Ah, the epoch-making weeks of the spring of 1865!” why can’t this “divine initiation” be literary? Why must it imply gay sex? Really, I don’t buy it. For this sublimely literary soul, wouldn’t first publication suffice for “epoch-making”? As for The Master, fiction has and deserves its imaginative rights.

Is it problematic for you to imagine James as a sexually…

Absolutely not. He was, in today’s lingo, positively queer, no question about it. As to whether he knew it himself, I think not. My freshman English teacher, with whom I kept up a correspondence until his death, always made me think of James in this respect. Like James, he was drawn to young men all his life. He had them to his apartment for tea and they were always younger and very often not well educated, and he would give them books of poetry and teach them and take them to the theater. And at the same time, on several occasions, he would comment to me that he simply could not understand homosexuality and was perplexed by it. Yet it was so clear that he was unaware of the nature of his own longings. And that’s how I visualize James. His sexual orientation seems obvious to us, but was, I believe, hidden from overt self-recognition. He expressed it in great gusts of affection.

You quote Flannery O’Connor in one of your essays as saying that she would have cared nothing for the Bible if it weren’t true.

She said if Jesus didn’t actually die and rise again then she wasn’t interested and the hell with it.

I’m not myself religious. I came to the Bible for the first time in college and it astounded me and it fascinated me, but only as a work of literature. It didn’t excite me in any spiritual sense.

When I hear the word “spiritual” I reach for my luger. It suggests narcissism and little else.

How do you differentiate between looking for wisdom in the Bible to looking for wisdom in Dostoevsky or Henry James?

It’s all the same, the same human condition and human failing and human aspiration. You can find thievery and evil and rot and deception -- God knows deception! -- in Bible stories. The Bible is not treacle. The Bible is not made of sugar. It’s a rough, tough realistic book, and it reflects many hands and many ages. It’s a document of human life. Novels do the same, though they have one disadvantage when compared to the Bible: the Bible is a record of millennia and purports to be from Creation onward, whereas a novel seeks out just a teeny sliver of time. The Bible covers more territory. If you dipped a teaspoon in the ocean and brought up a tiny spoonful of sea, that spoonful would contain every ingredient that the whole vast ocean offers. The novel is the teaspoon. But the Bible is the ocean.

I think Ruth Puttermesser is your most joyous creation. Would you agree?

Yes. Even though she comes to a sad end even in Paradise.

The Puttermesser Papers feels like your most New York book. You write about New York in that book with a degree of affection I haven’t sensed when you wrote about the settings in your other books.

Well, it’s the place I know best.

I wouldn’t want to live in the Stockholm of The Messiah of Stockholm. I wouldn’t want to live in the Miami of The Shawl.

I should point out, Paul, that I regard myself and am often written about as a comic writer, in spite of all the foregoing.

Well, yes, of course and you see humor in Messiah and in the Miami-part of The Shawl. That humor seems very Philip Roth-like.

If only! No, his comic sense is beyond anything. He’s the jester of the age.

But do you have a sense of drinking from the same comic well as Roth?

Just the other day I happened to come upon an essay by a serious literary critic who compared The Messiah of Stockholm to The Prague Orgy and made exactly this point. But it never would have occurred to me to think that I could reach the sole of Roth’s comic shoe.

Where did the title Heir to the Glimmering World come from? I was baffled when I was reading the book.

It was the publisher’s choice, and when I first heard it recited on the telephone I heard “heir” as “air” and was altogether puzzled. Perhaps the publisher hoped to market it as a romance novel. The jacket, after all, describes “a grand romantic novel of desire.” My original title was Lights and Watchtowers, two solid nouns derived from the title of a medieval sectarian tractate which plays a metaphorical role in the novel. But a friend pointed out that the phrase “lights and watchtowers” is reminiscent of a concentration camp or a prison, so I gave it up. I’d also suggested The Bear Boy, but that sounded like a children’s book, so that too had to be relinquished. I’ve often been asked to parse the meaning of the published title and I’ve had to invent something applicable. It took me a long time to think of it. Very briefly, “glimmering world” stands for the past. Each of us eventually acquires a past, happy or sad, and whether we like it or not, the past is always trailing after us. But it isn’t constant; it flickers in and out of consciousness. Still, we can’t escape it and we are, willy-nilly, heir to its glimmerings.

I would imagine you would have fun with it when you made up its meaning.

There was a lot of laughter on the book tour when I had to confess that I didn’t really know what the title meant.

“Dictation” struck me as a joke on two things. There is the concept of the death of the author.  There is also a joke on the feminist criticism of the Western canon as a repository for dead white males. Here we have two women who have a small effect on Henry James and Joseph Conrad’s work.

One reviewer did call it a feminist story. This aspect never occurred to me as a possible theme, though of course I can see it now. But what do you mean -- it sounds very lit crit -- when you speak of “the death of the author?” Are you talking about the post-modern, are you steeped in that stuff?

No, I’m not. It’s the idea we have been so steeped in of one writer and one book that we can’t imagine The Odyssey as being written by any more than one figure. We can’t imagine Henry James and Joseph Conrad being affected by outside figures.

They both had the same agent!

I wanted to ask you about your voice. I read a lot of Newark, albeit filtered through Henry James and Thomas Mann, in Philip Roth. I read a lot of Chicago, filtered through Thomas Mann, in Saul Bellow. I can’t hear an accent in your books. I thought of someone who speaks English beautifully but as a second language.

That is pretty astonishing. Oh boy. That is really neutering, isn’t it?

It feels non-geographical. Doesn’t that make any sense?

Well, it certainly takes me by surprise and I’ll have to think about it. Here I am, a garden-variety New Yorker, and as I say, it’s a neutering observation, something I’ve never heard before. Are you telling me I write translatese?

“Envy” is very much the voice of someone who speaks Yiddish as a first language and English as a second. There’s a similar effect in The Shawl. But that makes sense considering the subject matter of those books. Your other books sound like a very brilliant French or German person who has gone to Oxford and mastered the English language perfectly.

Let’s examine your premise. Maybe you aren’t hearing Newark and Chicago. Maybe you’re hearing Roth and Bellow. Maybe you’re hearing an idiosyncratic voice and not a geographical voice. Maybe you’re mistaking the place for the voice. Because, as you know, voice is the soul of fiction and fiction is nothing if it is not voice. And Bellow’s voice is wildly distinct, and it’s Bellow. Roth’s voice is wildly distinct and it’s Roth. I can’t characterize my own voice but I do know it’s my own. A writer of translatese can’t be worth wasting interview time on. A writer who writes translatese would do better not to have been born.

Here’s another possibility. Except in dialogue that calls for it, I do not write “breezy.” Is that what you’re noticing? Cyril Connolly speaks of “mandarin” writers. Maybe that’s what you’re hearing: the mandarin tone as opposed to the easy-going vernacular. The stylist as opposed to the writer of yard-goods prose who rolls it out and snips it off as needed.

Let’s talk about “At Fumicaro,” in which you inhabit the body of an American Catholic in Italy. Did you take some pleasure in inhabiting the body of a man whom you would consider your exact opposite?

But when you write, when you’re in the trance of making people up, no one is your “exact opposite.” You can become anyone and anything -- the leg of a mosquito or the leg of a chair, as I once wrote. The human mind is always recognizably there for filling in, so for “Fumicaro” I got hold of a lot of Catholic religious writing to get a feel for it. I don’t commonly prepare for writing fiction by researching any element, but I saturated myself in this material for a time. Also, I was there. I was in Bellagio on Lake Como and felt how one could be happy there.

When I last spoke to you for an interview eight years ago you said you hated leaving your house.

I still do. I like talking to you at the dining room table where I am now.

But so many of your characters can’t get out of the house enough.

I have gone out quite a bit too, more than I’d like to. But nowadays there’s Skype. I’ve just been to Rochester through Skype. I’ve been to Waukee, Iowa and Normandy in France through Skype. Look how I engage directly with the culture of my time!

Is there a particular reason you don’t like leaving the home?

Yes. Home is where I write.

When you read a writer who reminds you too much of your own work, are you turned on or are you turned off?

While I was working on Heir to the Glimmering World I had on my desk all through, as a talisman, A Passage to India. It couldn’t be more different from what I was writing, but I liked having it there. A talisman is what it was. I can read old writers, but I cannot read contemporary writers of fiction when I’m writing fiction. I don’t welcome other hums into my hum. And I want to keep clear of distracting hums. Think of the distinction between writing as a novelistic skill, a story-writing skill, and writing with genuine literary intent. I’ve just read The Widows of Eastwick, and Updike is the acme of style. He once said that every time he writes a sentence, no matter how hard he tries otherwise it always comes out an Updike sentence. That is a kind of credo of style, actually. And Philip Roth has another useful (and astute) writer’s credo. He defines writing as “solving problems.” Taken together, those two statements, Updike’s and Roth’s, summarizes the art of fiction. In those two statements you have it all.

You wrote your stories about old age when you were young. Rosa moves among a retirement community like a sleepwalker in The Shawl. In “Envy, or Yiddish in America,” Edelshtein realizes that his work and the culture he comes from will be forgotten. The older you’ve gotten the younger your heroes and heroines have become.

You’re 27. When you sleep and dream how old are you in your dreams for the most part?

27.

I have a theory, I made it up, that the age we are psychologically is the age we are for the most part in our dreams. And in my dreams I am nearly always 22.

You’re always 22. Does that mean you’re always an apprentice?

Yes. Always striving. Always looking up politely. Deferential, never in command. Waiting my turn.