October 14, 2008
Cynthia Ozick: The Puttermesser Papers
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.”