October 14, 2008

Cynthia Ozick: The Puttermesser Papers

Posted in Ozick Cynthia at 8:00 am by John Self

I so admired Cynthia Ozick’s The Shawl earlier this year that I picked up several of her other books: Collected Stories, her last novel The Bear Boy (Heir to the Glimmering World in the US), and this book. Recent discussion of Philip Roth on my blog, and an attempt to identify great American female writers on another, inspired me finally to start working my way through them.

I should explain why Roth makes me think of Ozick (and vice versa). They are perhaps superficial reasons: the two are rough contemporaries (in fact Ozick, born in 1928, is five years Roth’s senior); they are American Jewish writers who frequently address what it means to be Jewish and American; but there is something else too. There is a vigour and pulse in their prose which seems to me alike: not least, their ability to use exclamation marks in serious, funny writing a way that doesn’t appal. As well as that, Ozick is an admirer of Roth’s. She singles out a passage in American Pastoral for praise:

The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we are alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that – well, lucky you.

And Roth is an admirer of Ozick’s. OK: I’ve never read that he is. But I’m safely assuming. If he’s not, he must be nuts.

Further commonality with Roth lies in the clear intelligence and vim in Ozick’s writing which seems like wit even when it’s not being funny. She can turn it up apparently without effort, whether writing about mother-daughter relations, office politics, golems, anti-semitism or the decline of traditional Jewish life:

The shul was not torn down, neither was it abandoned. It disintegrated. Crumb by crumb it vanished. Stones took some of the windows. There were no pews, only wooden folding chairs. Little by little these turned into sticks. The prayer books began to flake: the bindings flaked, the glue came unstuck in small brown flakes, the leaves grew brittle and flaked into confetti. The congregation too began to flake off – the women first, wife after wife after wife, each one a pearl and a consolation, until there they stand, the widowers, frail, gazing, palsy-struck. Alone and in terror. Golden Agers, Senior Citizens! And finally they too flake away, the shammes among them. The shul becomes a wisp, a straw, a feather, a hair.

But The Puttermesser Papers is primarily a comic novel, if it’s a novel at all. The five long stories here were published independently, but give us slices of the life of Ruth Puttermesser (the name means ‘butter-knife’, hence the hideous UK paperback cover which I have not shown here out of plain decency), in her 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s (“All things fallen, elasticity gone. Age had turned Puttermesser on its terrible hinge”) and, finally, “one moment before her death.”

Puttermesser is cerebral, unclubbable, idealistic. She gets people wrong and cannot just “go along for the ride.” (“Her teachers told her mother she was “highly motivated,” “achievement oriented.” Also she had “scholastic drive.” Her mother wrote all these things down in a notebook, kept it always, and took it with her to Florida in case she should die there.”) She struggles in the world of work (“Brilliant students make good aides”) and at parties (with “babble battering at the ceiling”) and she has not been favoured with physical beauty. Her “hair came in bouncing scallops, layered waves from scalp to tip, like imbricated roofing tile.” Then again, she doesn’t do herself any favours even when she does find love – or something like it. She loses her lover Rappoport for her love of Plato:

“If you know I have a plane to catch, how come you want to read in bed?”

“It’s more comfortable than the kitchen table.”

“Ruth, I came to make love to you!”

“All I wanted was to finish the Theaetetus first.”

She loses her job too. Working for lawyers, “she loved the law and its language. She caressed its meticulousness,” but she doesn’t fit in, with her dislike of the inequities of capitalism (“Page after page of cars, delicately imprinted chocolates, necklaces, golden whiskey. Affluence while the poor lurked and mugged … in covert pools of blackness released the springs of their bright-flanked switchblades”) and her dreams of

an ideal Civil Service: devotion to polity, the citizen’s sweet love of the citizenry, the light rule of reason and common sense, the City as a miniature country crowded with patriots – not fools and jingoists, but patriots true and serene; humorous affection for the idiosyncracies of one’s distinctive little homeland, each borough itself another homeland, joy in the Bronx, elation in Queens, O happy Richmond!

My greatest recommendation for this book is that, as you can see, all I want to do is pull quotes from it: and we’re only up to page 30. There is plenty of event in the subsequent 200 pages, when Puttermesser creates a golem which helps her become Mayor of New York, though a brief investigation of the traditional golem story will alert the reader – but not the bookish Puttermesser – to the dangers. She falls in love again, and dreams (we are never sure what is really happening, and what is in Puttermesser’s head) her own experience as a parallel to George Eliot’s romance with George Lewes, their “clarified lives, without tumble or blur.” Not bad for a woman who, a few pages earlier, was rejecting personal ads in the New York Review of Books (“Must be brilliant, unpretentious, passionate, creative. Prefer Ph.D. in Milton, Shakespeare, or Beowulf”).

The Puttermesser Papers is a joy and a wonder, a multi-faceted toy and an intelligent entertainment, but not without its serious intent. The last chapter brings a gruesome end for Puttermesser, which will turn some stomachs but which also beautifully puts the tin hat on her uneasy relationship with reality and fantasy, and severs the story from its chronological underpinning. It works finally to reassure us, just about, that even for a misfit like Ruth Puttermesser, all the trouble and pain, confusion and disappointment is validated by the great gift and luck of life itself, of what Larkin called “the million-petalled flower / Of being here.”

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17 Comments »

  1. You have inspired me to check out Ozick, if not to see if she is on the same tier as the greatest American writers (which you’re convincing me she probably is), then just to enjoy her books!

  2. Tony S. said,

    I completely agree with your review. Cynthia Ozick’s books, including “The Puttermesser Papers”, are “a joy and a wonder”. .

  3. ted said,

    I stood in the library sampling the first chapter of this book several months ago and thought it was high time that I read some Ozick (I’ve only read a story in the New Yorker). Great post, you have reminded me I must do that.

  4. John Self said,

    Thanks, the three Ts! Trevor and Ted, I hope you enjoy her and I’ll keep an eye on your blogs to see if she gets a mention.

    (And Trevor – I think you should look out some Brian Moore as well! ;-) )

  5. I’ve got about $100 in credit on Amazon right now, and I’m trying to decide how to use it. I must get several more Roth books, but that still leaves quite a bit. Ozick has just made the cut. Unfortunately, Brian Moore isn’t much published here anymore! I’ve definitely been interested ever since you pointed out that his thriller was shortlisted for the Booker several years ago because I’m in the mood for a good literary thriller.

    Who knows when this stuff will pop up on my blog, though, as the list grows and grows!

  6. Isabel said,

    As mayor, does she improve or change the city? Just curious, and hope the answer to this question deosn’t give away the plot.

  7. KevinfromCanada said,

    An excellent review, John. I have circled around Ozick for some time but never read her — she will be on my list for this winter. I am also taking the liberty of consulting some Jewish friends in the U.S. about where they think I should start.

  8. John Self said,

    Unfortunately, Brian Moore isn’t much published here anymore!

    So I see, Trevor: based on Amazon, looks as though other than Catholics, Black Robe is the only one in print – one of his strangest books, set in 17th century Canada as Jesuit priests battle for the souls of the natives. Of course, there’s always the Book Depository! If you are interested in his thrillers, I think Lies of Silence is his best.

    Isabel, she certainly does improve New York as Mayor. She seeks to have the city “washed, reformed, restored”, and succeeds, at least to begin with:

    The subways have been struck by beauty. Lustrous tunnels unfold, mile after mile. Gangs of youths have invaded the subway yards at night and have washed the cars clean. The wheels and windows have been scrubbed by combinations of chemicals; the long seats have been fitted with velour cushions of tan and blue. Each car shines like a bullet.

    Of course, nothing lasts forever!

    Kevin, I’d be interested to know your friends’ thoughts too: I’m just feeling my way around Ozick. Other titles I’ve heard spoken highly of are The Messiah of Stockholm and Cannibal Galaxy. She is also prominent in the world of essays and non-fiction.

  9. KevinfromCanada said,

    My friend is in the same boat I am — Ozick is an author we have always meant to read but haven’t. She is going to start with The Shawl and I am going to start with this on and Heir to the Glimmering World. Will let you know what we think.

  10. nico from Chile said,

    John, this is great! I hadn’t checked your blog for a while and I found this. Your quotes are fantastic and it’s really wonderful to have people looking for Ozick’s books. Her latest is ‘Dictation’, it was launched in NY in April and my friend got me an autographed copy; she knows I’m an Ozick’s fan. Highly recommendable are her essay collections, all with interesting titles (“Art and Ardor”, “Metaphor and Memory”, “Fame and Folly”, “Quarrel and Quandary”). Those essays are really like short stories. But going back to Puttermesser, what an extravagant and beatufil idea, that female Golem. Thanks for your post!

  11. John Self said,

    Serve you right nico, for not checking my blog more often!

    I saw an imported edition of Dictation when I was in London recently – a handsome volume it is too – but then realised that all four stories there, as well as her other previously published collections, are available in the UK edition of her Ozick’s Collected Stories, at half the price. So I have a lot more Ozick to look forward to – and thank you for first mentioning her to me, here, last year.

  12. [...] Cynthia Ozick, The Shawl : “pitched perfectly from start to finish … [proves] that a great writer can mine new things from the most heavily-subscribed of topics.” (See also The Puttermesser Papers) [...]

  13. Linda Grant said,

    One f the reasons why Cynthia Ozick is not so well known in Britain is that politically, she’s pretty right-wing, definitely not fitting into liberal consensus of British politics. A kind of Melanie Phillips of literature.

  14. John Self said,

    I didn’t know that Linda. If I had, I would have pretended not to like her books as much as I do.

  15. [...] Zindel, “a former shammes in a shul that had been torn down.”  (On John Self’s review of this book he quotes a great passage about the disintegration of the shul.)  But . . . Stop.  Stop, stop!  [...]

  16. I recently read – and liked very much – Foreign Bodies. Just saying…

  17. […] Cynthia Ozick, The Shawl : “pitched perfectly from start to finish … [proves] that a great writer can mine new things from the most heavily-subscribed of topics.” (See also The Puttermesser Papers) […]


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