- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 20, 2008

A QUARTET

By Cynthia Ozick

Houghton Mifflin, $24, 179 pages

REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN

Cynthia Ozick’s latest book will give her admirers more of what has drawn readers to her over the last few decades: page after page of beautiful, flowing prose illuminating characters and situations with wit, humor and sharp thinking. But it will also give pause to many of those who value her as a staunch defender of the cultural standards under attack from those who say that anything goes.

The quartet of stories in “Dictation” show a remarkable range: Early-20th-century literary London, the world of contemporary New York drama (albeit with a nod to that city’s Yiddish theater of the past century), Mussolini’s Italy in the 1930s, and the offbeat byways of 1940s New York City intellectual life. Some of these forays are artistically more successful than others.

Even a writer with Ms. Ozick’s protean imagination has limits to her roving; and in the title story set in Edwardian London and in the one titled “At Fumicaro,” she seems to have ventured into territory where her touch is not as secure as in the other two tales. Suffice it to say that Roman Catholic dogma and practice, lesbianism and heterosexual coupling between a mature man and a teen-age Italian peasant are none of them Ms. Ozick’s strong suit. Why then feel obliged to write about them? And particularly when unable to render them with anything close to authentic feeling? If she is testing the outer bounds of her powers of imagination, then she has failed that hurdle.

Ms. Ozick is on much firmer ground in “What Happened to the Baby?” a wickedly funny and pointed evocation of obsession and passionate intellectual conflict on the lunatic fringes of the intelligentsia. In positing a counter-Esperanto, opposed to that venerable “universal” language’s debt to Latin, Ms. Ozick not only sets the stage for wonderful, unforgettable characters and situations, but also makes a most amusing critique of the whole business of multiculturalism. Similarly, “Actors” is full of amusing folk and antics, while making some serious points about artistic ownership and interpretation.

But in the title story, which concerns a conspiracy between the two women to whom Henry James and Joseph Conrad dictated their novels, Ms. Ozick seems not only out of her depth at times but to be following a current which she might be expected to deplore as well as avoid. It’s bad enough that the imagined lesbian scenes betweenTheodora Bosanquet and Lilian Hallowes make the reader cringe with their inauthenticity, but then she brings the young Virginia Stephen (later to be Woolf) into the story seemingly only because of her Sapphic tendencies.

And moreover, in order to achieve this legerdemain that adds little to the story being developed, Ms. Ozick has Virginia’s father, Leslie Stephen, alive and kicking several years after his actual death. She is certainly overpainting this lily and then some; and, to quote the Bard, “lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”

For the heart of the story titled “Dictation” is a nasty little joke cooked up by Miss Bosanquet whereby she and Miss Hallowes conspire to insert a line of James in Conrad’s novel and vice versa. Neither writer will notice and Ms. Ozick presents this as a great lark. She is entitled to mock ridiculous aspects of James and Conrad, their laborious, convoluted prose and individual human foibles. Yet these men are true artists and serious writers: And as these things herself, surely Ms. Ozick has no business championing, nay reveling in, such vandalism.

There is simply no other word for it. Ms. Ozick has given us every reason to believe that a writer as concerned with her own prose and the form in which it appears as she is would be more than outraged if someone had the temerity to inflict such an indignity on her. But apparently what dare not be sauce for the goose is perfectly OK for the hapless gander.

Acknowledging the “historical actualities imagination dares to flout” in this story, Ms. Ozick exhibits an uncharacteristic breezy insouciance: “Never mind, says Fiction; what fun, laughs Transgression; so what? mocks Dream.” There have been few essayists more pure in their righteous (and right-minded) indignation at the debasement of cultural standards than Ms. Ozick, yet here she seems to be championing the very forces she has spent a lifetime opposing.

Most critics appear to have echoed her joy in such japes, surely a sign of the very cultural and intellectual degradation and impoverishment she has so fervently and articulately decried. Surely it cannot be that she of all people has adopted the defeatist “if you can’t beat them, join them” attitude? Yet that is the least opprobrious logical deduction from what she has given us here. And since Ms. Ozick is a skilled and scrupulous writer, she may actually be reveling in such besmirching of the literary text.As an admirer of Ms. Ozick the person and the writer, how can one then not castigate her, as she has rightly not hesitated tocondemn other transgressors? Shame on you, Cynthia Ozick.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.