Ozick Returns, Still Aflush With Ideas

By Benjamin Balint

Published September 10, 2004, issue of September 10, 2004.
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Heir to the Glimmering World

By Cynthia Ozick

Houghton Mifflin, 310 pages, $25.

* * *

Cynthia Ozick, the fiercely and fearsomely intelligent critic and novelist, has based her latest work of fiction on Winnie-the-Pooh. More precisely, the new book is inspired by the story of Christopher Robin Milne (1920-1996), whose father, A.A. Milne, wrote him and his teddy bear into the popular children’s books in which little Christopher Robin is seen helping Pooh get honey, rescuing Tigger and Roo from high trees, and nailing Eeyore’s tail back on after it falls off.

In his memoirs — “The Enchanted Places” (E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1974) and “The Path Through the Trees” (E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1979) — the grown-up Christopher described some of the dark consequences of the cheerful series: the “toe-clenching, lip-biting, fist-curling embarrassment” he suffered as a result of the inescapable association with his rosy-cheeked fictional counterpart, and the bitterness he harbored toward his father’s exploitations.

“Heir to the Glimmering World,” set amid the claustrophobic grimness of the Depression-era Bronx, N.Y., and upstate New York, depicts the unlikely convergence of characters who share little except a refusal to accept inheritances and patrimonies. James A’Bair is the restless and deeply resentful heir to unending royalty monies from the internationally beloved Bear Boy books written and illustrated by his father and modeled on him. As a child, Ozick writes, “he felt (and he was right) that he would never be Jimmy again, he would have to be the Bear Boy in buckled shoes and long bangs and flounced collars all the rest of his life.”

After a chance meeting, the adult James becomes the almost messianically anticipated visitor to the Mitwissers, a family of suspicious and isolated Jewish refugees, thrust in 1933 from academic prominence in Germany into undignified obscurity in New York. The clan includes five children; their mother, Elsa, in the old country a brilliant physicist and in the new an unloving and unstable invalid; and their father, Professor Rudi — formidable scholar of the Karaites, the centuries-old sect that repudiated the Oral Law’s accretions on the written Torah.

As elsewhere in her fiction, Ozick is fascinated here with the dispassionate study of religious passion. “Professor Mitwisser’s brain,” she says, “rocked and shuddered with the metaphysics of long-ago believers,” even though he was “in his own life bare of any sign or vestige of belief.”

These ancient and esoteric apostates and subverters of received wisdom are “as dear to [Rudi] as his children”: men like Anan ben David, Salmon ben Jeroham and especially Jacob al-Kirkisani, who declared that God Himself is a heretic since He disbelieves in man.

For deep psychological reasons, the Karaites become James’s fascination, too. This James, after all — “his father’s discourse, his father’s exegesis of a boy” — is he so “different from the Karaites, who rejected graftings on the pristinely God-given? He, too, rejected graftings.”

All this is narrated by one more character, Rosie Meadows, a melancholic teenage orphan who boards with the Mitwissers and becomes amanuensis to Rudi, companion to his wife and nanny to his children. Her own patrimony consists of a valuable Bear Boy first edition, and an order-seeking primness she developed in order to escape her father’s uncontrolled fabrications, exaggerations and imaginings.

‘Heir to the Glimmering World,” Ozick’s first novel since “The Puttermesser Papers” appeared seven years ago, lacks the fantastical turns of plot she has occasionally employed — golems and levitating rooms and sewing harems — but it does display the gorgeous phrasing and superbly well-cadenced sentences wherein Ozick’s highest artistry continues to reside.

Ozick’s style derives first of all from her almost fanatical veneration of literature — she has spoken of it as a kind of idolatry — which admits of no excess in fueling what she has called “the reading hunger, the language hunger, all the high literary fevers and seizures. That kind of ‘excess’ is what defines a writer.” More to the point, though, Ozick’s manner emanates from a certain conflation of idea and emotion. In explaining her art to The Paris Review, she reported: “I’m aware that there are writers who deny idea completely, who begin from what happens, from pure experience. But for me, ideas are emotions.”

In “Puttermesser and Xanthippe,” for example, Puttermesser, a lawyer described as “a mind superfetate with Idea,” is told by her lover, “‘You have no feelings,’ … [and] he meant that she had the habit of flushing with ideas as if they were passions.”

And yet, as in Ozick’s previous books, sometimes the style here doth succeed too much; it can feel overwritten and over-rich. A discussion among a group of scholars visiting the Mitwisser home produces “a gathering tornado of virulence” and a stream of “brutally pelting philosophies.” Elsa spills forth “a lava of talk.” The professor does not merely speak; he traffics in “eruptions of meaning.” In one description of his face, Rudi’s “hot blue eyes leaped like panting tigers” (recalling the infant’s eyes in Ozick’s masterful short story “The Shawl,” which are said to be “like blue tigers”). James and Rudi sit “convulsed by intimacy” in the study, “the furnace of a laboratory where revolutionary affinities raged into conflagrations.” A snowfall is “a cold, white vomit”; the Talmud a “roar of impassioned colloquy.”

But if a novel’s language is all whirling, churning, roiling intensity; all rapture and ravishment; fever and ferment; ecstasy and exaltation and enthrallment — Ozick seldom plays her notes pianissimo — then it runs the risk of outpacing, and finally replacing, that which it describes. Ozick’s marvelous prose, after all, is not the kind to modestly and transparently pull the reader’s gaze through itself to characters that (illusion of illusions) seem to exist independently of it. It calls attention to itself. Ozick’s words somehow become the repository of her considerable emotional intensity.

As it turns out, it is Ozick herself, possessed of a voracious but unsentimental intellect, who flushes with ideas as if they were passions. And it is this very quality that imparts to her ideas their edifying, bracing power, and lends “Heir to the Glimmering World” its magniloquent sonorities.

Benjamin Balint, a writer living in Jerusalem, is associate editor of Azure, a quarterly journal published by the Shalem Center.

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