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Thursday, October 14th, 2004


 

Heir to the Glimmering World

by Cynthia Ozick

All That Glimmers

A review by Ruth Franklin

In an episode of The Puttermesser Papers, Cynthia Ozick's smorgasbord of vignettes about a highly unusual civil servant, the heroine, strolling through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, comes upon Rupert Rabeeno, a painter who produces what he terms "reënactments of the masters." Anyone else would call it copying paintings, but Rupert claims that his art is original. "I don't copy. I reënact," he insists. "Whatever I do is happening for the first time. Anything I make was never made before." Puttermesser (as she is always called), who herself yearns to repeat what she considers one of the great love affairs of history, that of George Eliot and George Lewes, is captivated. Soon the pair are happily reading aloud to each other from Middlemarch. But before long Rupert becomes fixated on the figure of Johnny Cross, who married Eliot after Lewes's death and seems to have modeled his own life after Lewes's. The layers of duplication are being peeled perilously thin, and soon something must tear. Cross met with disaster on his honeymoon; Rupert and Puttermesser do not make it that far.

Does art imitate life, or is it the other way around? The task of determining origins can be tricky even for a writer as richly read and genuinely reflective as Ozick. For literature itself is tainted by the inherent untrustworthiness of mimesis. Beginning with Plato's cave, it has never entirely escaped the suspicion that it is just an imitation of an imitation. If fiction is a mirror carried along the road, in Stendhal's famous analogy, that mirror is already scratched and cracked. And imitation is just a step removed from forgery. As Puttermesser discovers with regard to Rupert Rabeeno's "reënactments," there is fraudulence not only on the part of the creator who passes off a copy as the real thing, but also on the part of the receiver who accepts it as such. At the same time, those who would seek to escape the problem of appearance and reality via the simplicity of literalism should also be cautioned: they will run into their own sticky mass of paradox.

This vortex churns in the background of Heir to the Glimmering World, Ozick's inspired new novel. Its premise reads like a nineteenth-century novel: Rose Meadows, an orphaned young woman, answers an ad for household employment with a mysterious family by the name of Mitwisser, complete with a gaggle of unruly children, a forbidding patriarch, and a madwoman in the attic. But this is no sneaky appropriation of Dickens or Brontë; it boldfacedly announces itself as a copy, delighting in the camp of its fictional game. We learn at the start that when Rose was growing up, her father told everyone, including her, that her mother had died in childbirth, perhaps because the story "had a nineteenth-century intimation of Tragic Loss." But this is the 1920s, not the 1820s; and Rose's father turns out to have been a perverse and cruel figure who may have invented the story merely for his own self-indulgence, too solipsistic to realize that he ruins his daughter's birthday each year with his moans of "On this day, Jenny left me."

Rose's childhood takes place among the "failed farms" of upstate New York, where the landscape is larded with rundown towns by the copycat names of Troy and Carthage and Thrace. One year her father, a math teacher at the local high school, makes a deal with their housekeeper: if he gives her son an advance copy of a test, she will bake Rose a birthday cake. When the promised cake arrives, it is misshapen and decorated with "urine-yellow frosting": this is payback, because the test her father provided was last year's version. This lesson in the dangers of taking statements literally is set aside for later. For now, Rose sets her mind to making order in the chaos. "I had at the time been reading Jane Eyre, and admired the gravity and independence of a sad orphanhood," she reports. "My own try at gravity and independence was a way of escaping the wilderness of my father's imagination. My goal was utter straightforwardness: it made me prim and smug."

Eventually Rose escapes to Albany to attend teachers' college, moving in with her distant cousin Bertram, with whom she promptly falls in love. But after her father's death in a car accident, she is thrown out by Bertram's girlfriend, a communist revolutionary in work shoes and men's trousers who has cast off her birth name and calls herself Ninel (Lenin spelled backwards). When Rose joins the Mitwissers, her only possession of value is a battered children's book found among her father's things that contains her mother's death certificate. It confirms what she has always suspected: her mother died of cancer when Rose was young, not in childbirth. At last, revelation comes from the pages of a book, if indirectly.

These glimpses of Rose's previous life provide a somewhat shaky frame for the story of her life with the Mitwissers, which constitutes the body of the novel. Conventionally speaking, they might be expected to give her character some depth, to allow the reader a sense of her history. Yet Rose is singularly difficult to pin down as a narrator -- perhaps intentionally so. Her tone is almost affectless, her descriptions of the Mitwissers limited to bare facts and observations. Much of the family's doings are mysterious -- particularly how they are supporting themselves, as they have no visible source of income -- but she declines to speculate. Her only judgment is that the household is "foreign," a term that comes up again and again.

Rose's duties at first consist primarily of protecting three-year-old Waltraut, the youngest child, from her rambunctious brothers, who are sometimes called by the "funny new American names" of Hank, Jerry, and Bill, and sometimes by the "bird-chirps" of Heinz, Gert, and Willi. Anneliese, sixteen, is "hardly like a child at all; her hair was wound in braids on either side of her head, revealing tidy pink ears. In each lobe a bright dot glittered ... she looked authoritative and amazingly foreign." Elsa, the mother, is even more remote. In Rose's first encounter with her, she is talkative, her English charmingly sprinkled with German phrases; but after the family moves to New York (Professor Mitwisser plans to conduct research at the Public Library), she becomes more and more withdrawn, finally refusing to leave her upstairs bedroom, her speech unraveled into ravings. Inevitably, Rose comes to think of her as the "family madwoman"; Jane Eyre has moved to the Bronx.

The Mitwissers are people of a different book. The professor is an authority on the Karaites, a medieval Jewish sect -- "a speck, a dot, a desiccated rumor, on the underside of history." He keeps Rose busy night after night in his study, typing from his dictation: her job, it eventually becomes clear, is to serve as his amanuensis, the transcriber of his thoughts. A copyist, that is; and for that she must be a cipher. It is a rare confluence of subject and method. For in contrast to the main current of Jewish tradition, which revels in intellectual give-and-take, the layering of commentary upon commentary, the Karaites, as the novel presents them, are a rebellious branch of literalists:

Intellect engenders meaning: interpretation; commentary; parable; illumination; insight; dialogue; argument; corroboration; demurral; debate; irony; anecdote; analysis; analogy; classification; clarification. All these the Karaites repudiate as embroidery and fraudulence in the hands of their enemies (though not in their own hands).... In the ninth century they become the rabbis' foes. Scripture! they cry, Scripture alone! They will not tolerate rabbinic interpretation. They will not allow rabbinic commentary. They scorn metaphor and the poetry of inference. Only the utterance of Scripture itself is the heritage divine!

Does interpretation, particularly the imaginative interpretation exercised in the analysis of religion or (especially) the creation of fiction, inevitably do damage to that which it interprets? This disturbing question, which is the focus of the book's internal debate, comes to life in a figure who becomes strangely and inseparably intertwined with the Mitwissers, and whose story, told in a fairy-tale-like language distinct from the plain cadences of Rose's speech, is interwoven throughout theirs. James A'Bair is a rich playboy who has become the family's mercurial benefactor, swooping down without warning to shower them with gifts and cash before just as suddenly vanishing again, leaving them with no income until his next appearance. Another orphan, he is the heir to a fortune that derives from a series of children's books his father drew and illustrated featuring the "Bear Boy," a character based on himself as a child.

The relationship between James and his father dramatizes the parasitism that can develop between artist and muse, a parasitism made all the more malevolent by the fact that the two figures are parent and child. At first James did not mind being the center of his father's creative attention. "He stood behind his father's drawing board and saw how the watercolors, pale and magical, flooded the sinews of the drawings. He watched himself slowly bloom into being: it was himself, a furry-haired boy, posed as his father had him pose, sitting on a branch, say, or poking a stick into a puddle, or painting a face on an onion, all those curious ideas his father had about what he liked to do." But he grows to dislike the artifice of having to wear a funny costume, and to grow his bangs until they fall into his eyes, and to allow his mother to put rouge on his knees to make them ruddy for the sketches. His entire being is devoted to his father's work: when it turns out that he needs glasses, he is "denied the relief of wearing them too often: the pale oval of the Bear Boy's small face, as innocent as an empty plate, was not to be cluttered." By the time his parents both die, while he is still a teenager, he has grown to hate the entire enterprise:

Whatever he had been in the purity-time of his birth, whatever he was meant to become, his father had overlaid with embellishment: with lie and impurity. He did not speak in verses. The games his father devised were not his games.... Even his clothing, the blouses, the socks as high as his knees, the double-buckled shoes, the rouge -- all a romantic imagining. Even his hair! ... He knew himself to be an appurtenance: the offspring of the impostor who animated his father's books. He was not a normal boy, he was his father's drawing, his father's discourse, his father's exegesis of a boy. His father had created a parallel boy; his father had interpreted him for the world. The Bear Boy was never himself. He was his father's commentary on his body and his brain.

Mitwisser's Karaites believe that the commentary of the rabbis annihilates the text that it interprets by equating a "clamor of contradictions" with the true word of God; the Bear Boy feels his own being annihilated in the process of its transmutation into art. Both long for purity, for first principles, for a clarity that exists pre-interpretation. If such an Eden is at least conceivable in religion, where faith allows leaps that reason will not, it can never exist for literature, which, as a mimetic art, will always be at least one step removed from its fundaments. A vision of what a more literal literature might look like is offered by Ninel, and it is not an encouraging one. In stereotypical communist fashion, she rails against Jane Austen as exemplary of the entire British Empire. "Do you realize," she asks, "how the servants in those big houses lived? The hours they had to put in, the paltry wages they got? Chicken-feed! And where the money to keep up those mansions came from? From plantations in the Caribbean run on the broken backs of Negro slaves!" She concludes that "novels, like movies, were pretend-shadows; they failed to diagnose the world as it was in reality." But Ninel, whose very name can only be understood literally, will never slip into such complacency. Joining a gang of revolutionaries who go off to protest the Berlin Olympics, she is shot and killed: a martyr to the unity of word and action.

Later, Rose says, she will "come to agree with Ninel about the useless delusions of literature." Her own experience of Europe derives from "beyond reality," filtered through "Pinocchio and Becky Sharp and Sidney Carton." Her beloved Collodi and Thackeray and Dickens offer little insight into the culture of the Mitwissers, that group of intellectuals in Germany between the wars who sought refuge in America. "All those others, the great foreign influx, the scholars, the refugees -- they were only dwarves in this new place. Mann, Einstein, Arendt, yes, the grand explainers (I would one day pursue them myself), idols of the popular journals; but the rest were dwarves, rebuffed, humiliated, obscured, trampled on, zwergenhaft. Better to be a heretic! Better to be a Karaite!" What use are explanations, interpretations, embellishments, in a world where Anneliese's hand is broken when she, as a Jew, dares to speak out in class? Becky Sharp has nothing to say about the persecution of the Jews in Berlin in the 1930s, which forms a shadowy backdrop to the saga of the Mitwissers in the Bronx.

Anovel that presents arguments against its own reason for existence must always keep one foot out of the quicksand. We are offered an early hint that fiction may still have the potential to redeem itself. To quiet Elsa's mind and meanwhile to help her improve her English, Rose is instructed to read to her: "what was wanted for Mrs. Mitwisser ... was simply Story: a story about men and women free of history, except their own." She chooses Sense and Sensibility, suspecting that the cash-strapped Elsa, unlike Ninel, will be sympathetic to Austen's pragmatic views on the importance of money. At first Elsa seems to take no interest, but gradually she becomes more and more engrossed, until one day, when Rose is called away during a reading session, she returns to find the woman "half-sitting, sunk into her pillow.... The lamp was pulled nearer; she was very still. The light whitened the visible bones of her wrist and her narrow fingers. But her eyes were unsealed, sleepless, rapt. The small white fingers were gripping the book that smelled of cellar. Mrs. Mitwisser was reading, in a seizure of concentrated intelligence, an English novel."

Heir to the Glimmering World offers itself as an antidote to literature as parasitism, and its arguments are, for the most part, convincing. All the book's strands tug in some way at the knot of sources and interpretations, primariness and secondariness, that constitutes both its substance and its form. The play of fact and fiction extends to the acknowledgments page, where Ozick assures us that she has got her facts straight, referring the reader to two scholarly works on the Karaites as the novel's own sources. Thus we are invited to play along with the literary game, puzzling out where research ends and fiction begins. If the Karaites are a real sect, then is the focus of Mitwisser's investigations, a medieval scholar named Jacob al-Kirkisani, author of such works as The Book of Gardens and Parks and The Book of Lights and Watchtowers, also a historical figure? He was. Did he really write a tractate on the Bhagavad-Gita, linking the Karaites with Hinduism -- Mitwisser's epiphanic discovery that ultimately dooms his own research? I have no idea; but if one believes in "rational proofs built upon the knowledge based on sense perception," as al-Kirkisani wrote and Mitwisser notes and Rose transcribes and Ozick reports, then perhaps it is the critical reader's obligation to find out.

Still, to preserve the allure of fiction, one must resist the temptation to delve too deeply. Suspending disbelief, after all, involves momentarily silencing the interpretive instrument and allowing literalism to take over. The novel's interplay between fact and fiction finds its most exhilarating instance in Elsa Mitwisser, who is slowly revealed to be the book's most interesting character. As Rose discovers, she was once an intellectual in her own right, a scientist with a fellowship at a prestigious Berlin institute, where she studied with Erwin Schrödinger. During the Christmas holiday in 1925, she and Schrödinger traveled to Switzerland together, where, one night, she bit into a boiled egg, and its shape sparked a revelation: "there it was, the explosion of seeing, the possibility that had until that instant eluded them, the idea that the object of their passion, like a wave of the sea, was after all not guaranteed to linger in one place, it was a force not a thing, their wild-hearted wandering fickle electron!" Yet ultimate origins are finally as difficult to pin down as the moving particle: the revelation became known as Schrödinger's equation, though "it was she who had bitten the egg"; and after the trip Elsa discovers that she is pregnant with a son who turns out not to resemble her husband.

The bitten egg can be seen as representing the crucible in which fact becomes fiction. We know that Schrödinger really existed, and that he was credited with an equation that describes the wavelike motions of particles; but the rest is itself as elusive as the fickle electron. Did he really have an assistant, who became his lover, who in a passionate night of discussion bit into a hard-boiled egg and was rewarded with a revelation? Or did the novelist, perhaps fixing herself a snack at a moment of respite from her own labors, see in "the crescent left by [the egg's] absent crown" not only the curve of the electron's wave, but also the completed whole that lingers in the mind's eye after a part has been taken away, like the imaginative vision that builds the bare bones of fact into a unified work of art? The origin of the story is finally unknowable. Here research ends and imagination begins.

The delight of Ozick's intellectual puzzles cannot entirely compensate for the book's faults. She has always been a novelist of ideas, not of intimacy; with notable exceptions such as "The Shawl," her tiny and excruciating masterpiece, psychological realism is not the strong point of her work. In this novel it is almost entirely absent. A number of the characters are essentially caricatures, as bald-faced as their deliberately goofy names: Rose Meadows, an unsuitably poetic name for a character who is all prose; the overly apt Mitwisser, based on the German wissen, to know; and, most unfortunately, an Indian visitor ridiculously called Dr. Tandoori, who speaks in a parody of Indian-accented English. ("The condition of the roads, very bad, ice here, ice there! I confess I lost my way during several attempts to find it.") These incongruous monikers may be intended as a Dickensian echo, but the effect is lost when they are applied inconsistently. At the same time, the relationships even among those characters who seem intended to be three-dimensional are at times difficult to believe. Over what feels like a very short period, Mitwisser goes from a feared and unapproachable figure to a broken man sobbing in Rose's arms as she strokes his head and calls him by his first name. Rose herself does not progress as a character; by the end of the book, after her extraordinary experiences with the Mitwissers, she comes across as essentially unchanged, every bit as "prim and smug" as she was at the start.

It may be quibbling to insist on such matters in a novel as profoundly intelligent as this one, but they suggest a certain failing of imaginative vision, a preference for research over the fantasy that in the end must be the novel's driving force. In one scene, Rose follows Professor Mitwisser to the New York Public Library, where she looks up a travel guide to find a picture of a fancy Berlin hotel Mrs. Mitwisser has mentioned, hoping for a window onto the family's past. As she pulls it out from the shelf, wedged in between crumbling maps and phone books, the reader has a sudden, suspicious vision of the author herself in just such a library, searching for the right detail to lend an aura of authenticity to her project, perhaps taking down from a packed shelf a fragile old guidebook such as this one. Such hints, like the mini-syllabus that Ozick unnecessarily provides at the end of her novel, can have the effect of embarrassing the reader, who fears she might have caught the novelist naked. There is something uncanny about it, like a glimpse of the inner mechanism of an automaton.

In this novel, the mechanism has never been hidden; whatever veil once covered it has long since been torn away. This offers the reader a rigorous and enjoyable intellectual workout, but it leaves a lingering worry. Much of Ozick's previous work has found its inspiration in literary life, from "Envy; or, Yiddish in America," her now-classic short story about the politics of fame and translation, to The Messiah of Stockholm, in which she imagined a lost manuscript by Bruno Schulz come to life in a Swedish bookstore. Books about books, in the hands of a writer such as A.S. Byatt, have a tendency to be arid; one longs to tell the author to get out of the library and meet the real world. No one could ever call Cynthia Ozick arid. Her language alone, which propels itself with ease from the comic extravaganza of The Puttermesser Papers to the funereal nightmare of The Shawl, long ago earned her a position among the very first rank of American fiction writers. But it would be a genuine loss if her love of her own reading were to result in a stultification of her imagination, pinning it down just as a library contains and encloses its contents. "He had become his own archive," Rose says at one point of Professor Mitwisser, "a repository of centuries; a courier of alphabets and histories." But a novelist, if she is to be faithful to the glimmering world, must be more than an archive, and much more than a courier.


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