By Cynthia Ozick
Knopf, 192 pages, $21.00
Thornton Wilder’s classic play “Our Town” proposes a remarkable idea: That after death, we get to re-experience a single day from our lives — just one perfectly ordinary day. It’s a painful, startling scenario, a striking conclusion to a complicated existence. “I can’t look at everything hard enough,” says the character who experiences it.
Cynthia Ozick’s new novel, “Antiquities,” has roots in a similar idea. As the narrator, Lloyd Wilkinson Petrie, physically and mentally declines, he finds himself reliving not a day of his life, but rather a relationship from it: a friendship, or perhaps something more, he briefly had when he was 10.
Petrie is the scion of a family of distinguished northeastern stock. Ben-Zion Elefantin, then 12, claimed to be the son of itinerant traders from a family of murky Jewish origin, vaguely traced to Egypt. As turn-of-the-century students at a frigid Westchester boarding school, now converted into a number of decaying luxury apartments, their ill-defined bond broke at least one, if not several, of the school’s rigid social tenets.
Petrie, living in one of the apartments in the long-shuttered school in the years after World War II, dances around his memories of Elefantin while attempting to write a memoir. As he does, he builds toward something like a complete portrait of his life, which has been defined by longings so taboo that he can barely bring himself to speak of them.
Ozick, 93, has chosen a subject that at first seems unusual. With a public image defined by her feminism and her commitment to Jewish life, the choice of a WASPy, casually antisemitic, largely un-self aware male protagonist, whose female attachments fade into the background as semi-maternal helpmeets, feels like a stretch. But the life that emerges from the novel’s pages is, in fact, a reflection of the concerns that shaped Ozick. That mouldering mansion stands, in a way, for the world she came to exist in rebellion against.
What is it about Ben-Zion Elefantin that so draws Petrie’s fascination, decades and decades after their acquaintance ended?
Many things, but above all, his otherness.
Elefantin looks different, speaks different, worships in different ways. He tells stories of his origins that captivate Petrie, including one that becomes so fundamental to Petrie’s understanding of himself that he cannot bear, upon writing it down, to expose it to the light, instead consigning it to a closed box.
There is wistfulness in Petrie’s fixation, a sense that he is reaching for a life he could, at his most open, imagine having lived.
But more often, there is a sense of irreconcilable distance.
Elefantin claims to come from a past world, a siloed society on Egypt’s Elephantine Island whose existence has been exiled from collective memory. Petrie thinks, against odds, that he has his own connections to that world. His father, in one great aberration from an otherwise upstanding existence, disappeared one summer to join an archaeological dig in Egypt under Sir William Flinders Petrie — a real-life figure — and returned with a jumble of supposedly ancient artifacts. Petrie suspects one of those relics might be connected to Elefantin’s story.
But when he tries to pursue that connection, Elefantin pulls back. Their brief friendship flares out. Yet the fascination, at least on Petrie’s part, remains.
To the reader, the unfinished quality of the relationship comes to explain, in a sense, why this relationship is the one most preoccupying Petrie at the end of his life.
There’s a sense that resolving the question of Elefantin would mean, to Petrie, resolving life. Death haunts the book. Petrie’s father, mysteriously dead at an early age; those who live alongside Petrie in the former school, dead of accidental falls, consuming grief, suicide; Elefantin’s ancestors, including, possibly, his parents, whom he claims are alive although others have traced him to an orphanage; Petrie’s beloved former secretary; Elefantin himself, who, if alive, has left no trace that Petrie can identify.
Petrie claims to be maddened by his apparent inability to focus on Elefantin and tell the story of their friendship in full. But by the end, it’s clear that the thing he finds too painful to examine isn’t Elefantin, but rather the sense of separation from the world that Elefantin represents. To a young man, that separation is an attraction. To an old one, it’s something darker.
So Petrie, instead, sits among the detritus of his life and tries to assign meaning. An antique vase; a long-abandoned typewriter; a tie; the inanimate reminds him of what awaits him, and so he imbues it with life, a tender protest against the inevitable.
In writing of Petrie’s antiquities, Ozick is, in a way, writing of her own. His world has ossified: It is a fossil to turn and examine in the light. The world that came after — Ozick’s world, and ours — will go the same direction. We do not know when we’ll be frozen in time: when the future excavates, what part of our society it will happen upon, and which conclusions it will draw. At some point, the most we can do is anticipate the change, fiddling with our memories, and hoping for revelation.
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