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Portrait Essay Warm Body Cynthia Ozick

First Chapter: 'Quarrel & Quandary'

By Cynthia Ozick.
247 pp. New York:
Alfred A. Knopf. $25.

ynthia Ozick is, for my money, the most accomplished and graceful literary stylist of our time. The compliment, alas, rings hollow. Nowadays ''belletrist'' is almost a term of insult. For most of my university colleagues, ''writer of fine prose'' rates with being a virtuoso of the kazoo or playing a great game of tiddlywinks. Who now cultivates or reveres the sharp-edged art of the epigram, the well-placed flourish, the daring trope, the Shandyan excursus, the smart simile, Ciceronian copiousness, Senecan taciturnity, cunning variation of pace, tone, tempo and rhetorical force -- that whole repertory of effects subsumed under the word ''prose''?

We have become indifferent to the instrument of prose as anything other than instrumental. One doesn't play it, one uses it. In the study of literature, the texts currently most honored are typically translated -- from Foucault, Bakhtin, Derrida, Irigaray. What, to paraphrase Robert Frost, is lost in the translation? Prose. Does it matter? Not to the armies of Foucauldians, Bakhtinians and Derrideans who populate the modern academy. Writing well -- along with public speaking and its humble cousins, enunciation and penmanship -- is a degraded skill. Today's high schools have more urgent things to do than teach their pupils eloquence, oratory or the finer points of literary style.

The degradation is symptomatic of larger losses. Now in her early 70's, Cynthia Ozick is a product of American education in one of its golden eras. As several of the autobiographical essays in her latest collection, ''Quarrel & Quandary,'' recall, she had her schooling in the 1930's and 40's. A precocious child, Ozick read widely at home. She was lucky enough to attend New York's P.S. 71 at a time when the city's high schools were educational powerhouses for the upwardly mobile. She went on to New York University and earned a master's degree at Ohio State University.

It was 1950 and the heyday of the New Criticism -- that rigorous, quasireligious devotion to ''close reading'' of the literary text. On her first summer job, she recalls putting Wellek and Warren's bible of New Criticism, ''A Theory of Literature,'' alongside her typewriter, ''to remind me of the nature of my soul.'' Ozick's early adulthood also coincided with that lofty moment in American higher education epitomized in Lionel Trilling's tract ''The Liberal Imagination.'' This ultrahumane doctrine put literary studies at the center of the academic enterprise (where business and law now complacently rule the roost). And at the center of this center were the great books of Europe and America.

Trilling's arguments rested on the confident assumption that the human condition, in all its complexity, could be understood only with the aid of great literature. They who read best, live best and know the most. In tacit witness to her educational pedigree, Ozick offers as the lead essay in this collection a striking reading of Theodore Kaczynski as ''Dostoyevsky's Unabomber.'' ''In the Unabomber,'' she suggests, ''America has at last brought forth its own Raskolnikov.'' Can a mid-19th-century Russian novel explain 1990's terrorism better than the criminologist or the sociologist? Ozick maintains that it can. This is the gift of great literature.


Julius Ozick/Alfred A. Knopf
Cynthia Ozick

''I resist the political,'' Ozick protests in her ''Forethoughts'' to this volume. But that does not mean she has no opinion, no parti-pris. She is, particularly on matters Jewish, a ferocious polemicist. But the basis of her belief is invariably moral -- a morality refined by constant exposure to literature.

As she records here, Ozick did her graduate work on the later novels of Henry James -- a master's thesis on the master. After her oral examination, she plucked up her courage and told the chairman of her department that (brilliant student though she evidently was) she did not intend to go on for a Ph.D. He replied, with the patriarchal well-meaningness of the time, ''Well, right, you should go home and get married.'' What she meant, of course, was that she did not want to study James further. She wanted to emulate him. She has.

Regarding Ozick -- particularly if, like me, you are an insider-outsider in this country -- one wonders what madness has induced America to dismantle so comprehensively the educational system that made her. Would a gifted young woman today passing through the New York public school system come out with the inspiration and training to become a great practitioner of American prose? Is American education still a place where good writing, fine sensibility and liberal values are cultivated? If you want answers, look around you.

All the essays collected here began life elsewhere as reviews and higher journalism. This kind of gathering of literary leftovers is usually not worth reprinting. Ozick's work is an exception. Her pieces have genuine durability. They are great essays. But is that not a contradiction in terms? She herself is not entirely sure. Does the essay matter? What can it do that fiction, poetry, drama or reportage cannot do better?

One of the more introspective pieces in this collection is an extended fantasia, ''She: Portrait of the Essay as a Warm Body,'' in which Ozick fancifully pictures her chosen literary form as a coquette, the most teasing and inscrutable of muses. Like Dr. Johnson, she sees the essay as a ''loose sally of the mind'' or -- true to its Montaignean root in the French verb essayer -- something tried but not necessarily accomplished. ''True essayists,'' Ozick observes (with a rueful allusion to her own literary career), ''rarely write novels.''

The pieces collected here strike many different notes. Some are somber, some light. One (''How I Got Fired From My Summer Job'') is delightfully comic. Different readers, with their different appetites, will relish some more than others. Personally, I am least attracted by Ozick's caprices -- the essays she writes in her Elia mood. There is, for example, a whimsical flight on ''The Ladle,'' which I can admire but cannot like.

My own preference is for two other varieties of her essayistic art, both prominently on display here. Anger and memory call out her full range and force as a writer. The angriest essay is entitled, angrily, ''Who Owns Anne Frank?'' Here Ozick repudiates the cozy image of Anne projected by her (invariably misquoted) ''I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.'' This was written, Ozick reminds us, before the ultimate horror of Frank's murder -- something from which posterity prefers to avert its eyes. Frank's literary achievement has, Ozick protests, ''been infantilized, Americanized, homogenized, sentimentalized; falsified, kitschified and, in fact, blatantly and arrogantly denied.'' In the process, Anne Frank has been commodified, into ''an all-American girl.''

This blazingly eloquent diatribe is accompanied by a coldly bitter essay (''The Rights of History and the Rights of Imagination'') in which -- with scathing irony -- Ozick expresses gratitude for the unliterary ''German lens'' that captured for the newsreels and newspapers of the 1930's images like that of ''the terror-stricken little boy with his cap askew and his hands in the air (impossible not to absorb those desperate eyes, those small elbows, that civilized cap, without belief in the true existence of absolute evil).'' The anger in these essays points to one of the volume's central quandaries. Can prose, even prose as masterly as Ozick's, encompass something as vastly significant as the Holocaust? The question hovers over the volume, beautifully poised but unresolved.

At the end of the collection (Ozick is, incidentally, expert in the ordering and arranging of her work) is a set of quieter autobiographical essays. Pride of place goes to a long recollection of her 1930's girlhood, ''A Drug Store Eden,'' in which Ozick recreates the shop created by her pharmacist father, with its cavernous spaces, its chocolate-colored mahogany fittings, its soda fountain, its ominously locked poison cabinet. It was the site of her Edenic, forever lost girlhood: ''Have I ever been so safe, so happy, since?'' she asks. No answer is required. ''In those years,'' Ozick recalls, ''a drugstore seemed one of the world's permanent institutions. Who could have imagined that it would one day vanish into an aisle in the supermarket, or re-emerge as a kind of supermarket itself?''

I'm grateful for the reviewer's privilege of an early copy of ''Quarrel & Quandary.'' I urge all lovers of American prose to read it.

John Sutherland is a professor of English at University College, London. His most recent book is ''Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet?''

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One of the pleasantest things in the world is going a journey; but I like to go by myself. I can enjoy society in a room; but out of doors, nature is company enough for me. I am then never less alone than when alone.

--William Hazlitt, "On Going a Journey"

To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars.

--Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Nature"

. . . I have often been asked, how I first came to be a regular opium-eater; and have suffered, very unjustly, in the opinion of my acquaintance, from being reputed to have brought upon myself all the sufferings which I shall have to record, by a long course of indulgence in this practice purely for the sake of creating an artificial state of pleasurable excitement. This, however, is a misrepresentation of my case.

--Thomas De Quincey, "Confessions of an English Opium-Eater"

The human species, according to the best theory I can form of it, is composed of two distinct races, the men who borrow, and the men who lend.

--Charles Lamb, "The Two Races of Men"

I saw two hareems in the East; and it would be wrong to pass them over in an account of my travels; though the subject is as little agreeable as any I can have to treat. I cannot now think of the two mornings thus employed without a heaviness of heart greater than I have ever brought away from Deaf and Dumb Schools, Lunatic Asylums, or even Prisons.

--Harriet Martineau, "The Hareem"

The future of poetry is immense, because in poetry, where it is worthy of its high destinies, our race, as time goes on, will find an ever surer and surer stay. There is not a creed which is not shaken, not an accredited dogma which is not shown to be questionable, not a received tradition which does not threaten to dissolve.... But for poetry the idea is everything; the rest is a world of illusion, of divine illusion.

-- Matthew Arnold, "The Study of Poetry"

The changes wrought by death are in themselves so sharp and final, and so terrible and melancholy in their consequences, that the thing stands alone in man's experience, and has no parallel upon earth. It outdoes all other accidents because it is the last of them. Sometimes it leaps suddenly upon its victims, like a Thug; sometimes it lays a regular siege and creeps upon their citadel during a score of years. And when the business is done, there is sore havoc made in other people's lives, and a pin knocked out by which many subsidiary friendships hung together.

--Robert Louis Stevenson, "Aes Triplex"

It is recorded of some people, as of Alexander the Great, that their sweat, in consequence of some rare and extraordinary constitution, emitted a sweet odour, the cause of which Plutarch and others investigated. But the nature of most bodies is the opposite, and at their best they are free from smell. Even the purest breath has nothing more excellent than to be without offensive odour, like that of very healthy children.

-- Michel de Montaigne, "Of Smells"

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