The Many Faces of Cynthia Ozick
May 15, 1997
"She had only to think, and the thought would appear incarnate before her. Ah, delightful! Splendid! It was, in truth, Paradise." And so Puttermesser, the heroine of Cynthia Ozick's story "Puttermesser in Paradise" (May, 1997, Atlantic) is smitten upon her first brush with the ever-after. If making ideas incarnate is Paradise, then as a writer Cynthia Ozick may well already have arrived.
Ozick's publications, beginning with the novel Trust in 1966, waltz between collected poems, short stories, essays, novels, and plays, and include The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories (1971), Art & Ardor: Essays (1983), The Cannibal Galaxy (1983), The Messiah of Stockholm (1987), Metaphor & Memory: Essays (1989), The Shawl (1989), Epodes: First Poems (1992), Portrait of the Artist as a Bad Character and Other Essays on Writing (1994), and Fame & Folly (1996). The Puttermesser Papers, from which her current Atlantic story is drawn, is due out in June, 1997. Ozick has received numerous literary awards, among them a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Mildred and Harold Straus Living Award from the American Academy and National Institute of Arts and Letters.
Ozick recently spoke with Atlantic Unbound's Katie Bolick.
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Some have called you a Jewish writer, a woman writer, a Jewish woman
writer, a fiction writer, a poet, and an essayist. What do you call
The answer, then, is -- I'm a writer. But I do believe in this now-quite-archaic idea of belle lettres -- that a writer ought to be competent in all genres. That's one reason I went into theater. And there's a difference between a writer and an artist. Writers who are artists either write poetry or have written poetry, but I don't think poets can be fiction writers. The novels written by poets are often not true novels; they are long, long poems. My very long first novel, Trust, turned out to be unreadable, though I still secretly think I've never written so well since.
You stopped publishing poetry in the 1960s. Why?
I think I was thirty-six when I wrote my last poem. I submitted and re-submitted to the Yale Series of Younger Poets . . . and then I was forty, and I wasn't eligible anymore, and that was that. Maybe in my real old age I'll return to poetry, but I don't think my capacities are in that area. Two nights ago, with a great deal of chutzpah, I delivered a keynote talk at The Academy of American Poets. The title of my talk was "What Is Poetry About?" I felt very much like someone at the margins, an outsider looking in, and I think that is what fiction writers are in relation to poets. I would put poets at the top of the hierarchy. Theirs is the greatest art, and I'm not there.
In your "Forewarning" to your book of essays Metaphor & Memory you write, "All good stories are honest and most good essays are not." You go on to explain that a story flaunts its fictitiousness while an essay "pretends not to be made up." With this in mind, which of the two forms are you most comfortable writing?
Fiction, absolutely. There is a freedom in the delectable sense of making things up. In an essay you have the outcome in your pocket before you set out on your journey, and very rarely do you make an intellectual or psychological discovery. But when you write fiction you don't know where you are going -- sometimes down to the last paragraph -- and that is the pleasure of it.
I don't think I ever undertake to write non-fiction without some external prodding. For an essay you have to acquire some knowledge, have a point of view, and make an authoritative claim. And non-fiction can sometimes be dangerous -- I have been haunted for decades by things I wrote years and years ago, positions that I now repudiate.
The promotional blurb on the jacket of Elaine Kauvar's anthology of your writing reads, "Cynthia Ozick is on anybody's list of the ten most important writers in North America today. But she has yet to have her 'break out' book or to achieve anything that remotely approaches a readership commensurate with her talent." Do you want a "break out" book? Do you have any thoughts about this characterization?
The whole concept of a "break out" book comes from a market mentality. It's an idea that has never occurred to me, and is nowhere in my frame of reference. I may be naive or old-fashioned, or a strong combination of both, but it seems to me that the promotional aspect of writing, though it may certainly affect the writer, doesn't belong to the writer. Someone has given me a gift subscription to Publishers Weekly; it reads like a Martian publication. All I care about is writing sentences.
You have written many essays about nineteenth-century fiction writers -- Henry James and Edith Wharton, for example -- but your work is not very similar to theirs. Who do you feel has most influenced your writing, and how?
My first novel, Trust, has been condemned as being altogether under the influence of Henry James, even adverbially -- "she imperfectly hesitated" -- which is humiliating enough. Well, I've never written "he hung fire," or "as it were," or "so to speak"! Nevertheless, I think that first book was heavily influenced by compulsive reading and rereading of The Ambassadors. Afterward I was much influenced by E. M. Forster and Chekhov, but the truth is that this was long, long ago. Nowadays I don't feel anyone's influence. In some way I wish I could take on the influence of Saul Bellow, but I'm not lucky enough. I do turn to nineteenth-century voices; they're so different from our own. I don't like to read contemporary fiction while writing -- I need a sense of isolation, a kind of silence, and I don't want a jumble of other people's voices or visions getting in my way. Nineteenth-century voices don't create static in that silence. Before you begin writing a story or an essay you have to go to some interior space and wait for a voice to emerge.
In the essay "Metaphor & Memory" you write, "Metaphor is the reciprocal agent, the universalizing force: it makes possible the power to envision the stranger's heart." Could you talk about your faith in the potential of metaphor?
Metaphor is poetry's and fiction's great imperative, the engine of radical imagination. Every story is a kind of parable, or metaphor; metaphor is imagination -- they are utterly fused. Just as you can't grasp anything without an opposable thumb, you can't write anything without the aid of metaphor. Metaphor is the mind's opposable thumb. In the essay "Metaphor & Memory" I was employing the idea of metaphor in a somewhat different way -- metaphor as a kind of ethical or moral instrument. But, ethically speaking, I left out an invaluable element, which is reciprocity. If A and B are strangers, it really is no good for A to envision B's heart if B will make no attempt to envision A's heart. For metaphor to work as an ethical instrument it must be reciprocal or it won't work.
Just as you wrote about Paris before you had been there, your story "The Shawl," a Holocaust story, is as convincing as if you were a Holocaust survivor yourself. What do you think of the relationship between what one can write about and what one has experienced? Has the Jewish tradition of memory and remembering informed your outlook?
I don't agree with the sentiment "write what you know." That recommends circumscription. I think one should write what one doesn't know. The world is bigger and wider and more complex than our small subjective selves. One should prod, goad the imagination. That's what it's there for.
All the same, I'm against writing Holocaust fiction: that is, imagining those atrocities. Here we are, fifty years after the Holocaust, and the number of documents and survivor reminiscences -- organized by very sensitive programs such as The Fortunoff oral history efforts at Yale and Steven Spielberg's oral-history program -- keep coming in torrents. Each year throws up more and more studies. It seems to me that if each one of us, each human being alive on the planet right now, were to spend the next five thousand years absorbing and assimilating the documents, it still wouldn't be enough. I'm definitely on the side of sticking with the documents and am morally and emotionally opposed to the mythopoeticization of those events in any form or genre. And yet, for some reason, I keep writing Holocaust fiction. It is something that has happened to me; I can't help it. If I had been there and not here I would be dead, which is something I can never forget. I think back on the four years I was in high school -- I was extraordinarily happy, just coming into the exaltations of literature -- and then I think about what was going on across the water, with very confused feelings.
When "The Shawl" was first published in The New Yorker (May 26, 1980), I received two letters, both quite penetrating in shocking ways. The first was from a psychiatrist who said he dealt with many Holocaust survivors. He said he was certain that I was such a survivor because only a survivor could write such a story. I was shocked by the utter confidence of his assumption; he knew nothing about imagination. The second was a very angry letter from a Holocaust survivor. She found my use of imagination utterly out of place and considered it both emotionally and morally disruptive. I sided with the survivor and thought the psychiatrist foolish. I finally assauged the survivor by convincing her that I was not an enemy of her unreplicatable experience.
As for the Jewish tradition of memory informing my outlook -- absolutely, yes. History is the ground of our being, and together with imagination, that is what makes writing. Writing without history has been epidemic for some time now. It's a very strange American amnesiac development to put all experience in the present tense, without memory, or history, or a past. What is "the past"? One damn thing after another. What is history? Judgment and interpretation.
In your essay "The Function of the Small Press" you argue that the counter-culture has drowned itself in a sea of print -- where once there was a handful of strong voices now there is an incomprehensible din. What kind of effect do you predict the Internet will have on the counter-culture? Will bohemianism, which has lost the marginality that once lent it a certain glamour, crop up elsewhere?
In one of his last books Lionel Trilling speaks of the alternative culture's having become mainstream culture. I think this is entirely true now. Bohemianism as we once knew it is everywhere. I can ride a bus in the city in warm weather and see a young woman with a safety pin in her navel, something that once would have been at the most bizarre end of bohemianism. The whole culture is counter-culture now, and it is a pity in a way -- bohemianism was so seductive in its marginality, its differentness. But now everybody wants to be disreputable! Even college professors sneer at the mainstream as if they weren't themselves participating in it. Flaubert's comment, "Live like a bourgeois so that you may think like a demigod," held better when there was still a distinction between bohemianism and the bourgeois, but it still has a certain validity. It's really a question of originality. Are you thrifty with your originality, saving it for art, or do you dispose of it in daily life?
As for the Internet, I can't really answer. My computer came with a modem, but it's under the dresser. I wrote a diary for Slate but had to trot over to the copy store early every morning to send it by fax because I don't have e-mail. I am very much an outsider to this technology, indifferent to it.
Now that you have laid Puttermesser to rest, what are you working on?
With much interruption, including a six-month house renovation -- the pipes burst, ceilings fell down, the entire house had to be repiped -- I have been trying to write a story on actors, developed from my theatrical adventure. When I finish that I hope to begin a novel.
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.