- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 18, 2004


By Cynthia Ozick

Houghton Mifflin, $24, 310 pages


Cynthia Ozick, a fierce and passionate polemicist in her essays, is notable in her novels for a particular kind of sweetness. That quality, which so distinguished her finest one, “The Cannibal Galaxy,” and which can be seen even in lesser, more comedic works such as “The Puttermesser Papers,” shines through her latest novel, “Heir to the Glimmering World.”

Part of this sweetness lies in the lapidary beauty of Miss Ozick’s writing, her lovely limpid prose, but it is also a product of that fiery, pure spirit which has given us the white heat of her political and cultural jeremiads. Repelled by idolatry but propelled — heart, soul and mind — towards the aesthetic glories so dear to her, she is fortunate to have been blessed with a sure-footed moral sense which guides her in all her writings towards the light of truth.

And not only truth, but the deep truth that underlies genuine art, with the result that both her novels and her essays burn with Walter Pater’s proverbial hard gem-like flame.

Yet despite the references to Victorian novels in Miss Ozick’s text, “Heir to the Glimmering World” is not at all like a 19th-century English novel. Even if it does employ a certain measure of coincidence and other devices associated with the fiction of that era, this is very much a modern American novel.

Narrated by a young woman of 18 named Rose Meadows, Miss Ozick’s book, which is set in a bucolic corner of the north Bronx in 1935, is redolent of youth, of freshness, even of ingenuousness. I was struck by a sense that here was a novel written with the vigor and strength of a literary artist in her prime, at the height of her powers, masterly not only in her prose but also in her ingenuity and control of her work’s structure. Astonishing then to realize that this author was born in the year that Charles Lindbergh first flew the Atlantic nonstop.

The family Mitwisser with whom young Rose Meadows has to contend have also crossed the Atlantic, thrust out of their lives in Germany by the madness of Adolf Hitler and his poisonous ideology. It is hard to write about the particular cruelties, large and small, of the Nazis, especially those of the early years, which can pale in comparison to the horror of later events. But Miss Ozick has managed to do so not only once but twice.

In recounting the humiliations attendant on being blackmailed and robbed by the driver who is sheltering the family in his automobile prior to delivering them to the ship on which they will escape, she paints a complicated portrait of aid and rescue fouled by human nastiness. And in the crippled hand of a lovely young girl who cannot make a fist, this true artist has created an indelible symbol. It is made stronger still by the fact that the hand was maimed by a Nazi teacher who broke it with an iron bar in rage at a Jewish child knowing German history better than her “Aryan” classmates.

Miss Ozick’s portrait of this refugee family nicely blends the comic, satiric and pathetic. Their life is chaotic in the extreme and is pictured mercilessly at times, but more often with a profound understanding: They are never mere caricatures, always fully developed characters. She captures them precisely with their sad mixture of pride, despair, dignity and shame.

But perhaps her most compelling portrait is that of James A’Bair, the troubled benefactor whose effect on the family’s life is so great. Inspired by the real-life example of the hapless Christopher Robin Milne, who struggled unsuccessfully and miserably all his life to coexist peacefully with his fictional alter ego (to say nothing of that teddy bear, Winnie the Pooh), A’Bair is beset by demons of all varieties.

This author’s formidable imagination has taken her far away from the peculiarly British sourness and pinched quality of Mr. Milne’s resentment-filled life. In her “Bear Boy,” Miss Ozick has created a marvelous example of the all-American wastrel, burdened by every advantage given him. His picaresque odyssey through life and his fatal nihilism render him as fascinating as he is horrifying: a pebble in the water as compelling as the ripples he creates around him.

Are there flaws in “Heir to the Glimmering World”? Certainly there are, although these are all minor given the virtues of the book as a whole. Most of them involve the larger world as it impinges on the fictional locus Miss Ozick has so artfully created.

For instance, her portrait of the hateful Communist activist Ninel — who was born Miriam but adopted as her nom de guerre “Lenin” spelled backwards — is dipped in wonderfully accurate gall and rings absolutely true in terms of character and action. But Ninel would not in 1935 be noticing stormclouds gathering in Spain and planning to go off and fight in the Spanish Civil War, since that conflict blew up suddenly in mid-1936, and only later that year did volunteers rush to defend the beleaguered Spanish republic.

Nor would the government forces have fired on Ninel and her cohorts, since their true-blue Communism, unlike, say, George Orwell’s Trotskyite POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificacion de Marxista) militia, made them dear to the heart of the Loyalist Spanish government. In 1935, Ninel’s undoubted obnoxiousness would more likely have taken the form of defending the “workers’ paradise” in the Soviet Union from accurate charges that it had recently used famine, as well as more direct forms of murder, as political instruments.

Another false note is struck when James A’Bair visits Turkish-ruled Jerusalem on the eve of the outbreak of World War I. Not only does the city generally seem (except for a mention of Turkish soldiers) more like Jerusalem as it was in the years of the British Mandate, but it would not have been possible for James to learn about the assassination of the Austrian archduke on June 28, 1914, from a copy of “The Palestine Post” as Miss Ozick has him do.

That paper (renamed “The Jerusalem Post” in 1950 and still flourishing) did not commence publication until 1932, a full 18 years after the A’Bair visit. Did it not occur to her that Ottoman Jerusalem would have been unlikely to have had an English-language newspaper?

A more intrinsic flaw in the novel is Rose Meadows’ lack of gumption. Although she is in many ways an admirable young woman, feisty she never is. There were a couple of occasions on which she infuriated me with her subservience to Ninel and her semi-cousin Bertram, a fascinating character whom Miss Ozick brilliantly transforms from victim to stage manager.

His personality and way of speaking are skillfully rendered: You can actually hear his distinctive voice uttering his lines as you read the novel, something this author achieves with all her characters in this book except Rose’s father, whose voice she doesn’t quite manage to capture.

“Heir to the Glimmering World,” though, is for the most part a triumph. One is left only wanting more, particularly about the Karaites, the fundamentalist medieval Jewish sect who are the focus of Professor Mitwesser’s studies and who attract James, desperately and destructively seeking an identity.

The Karaites are a specter haunting this novel and many of its characters: If Miss Ozick could only have made this theme more explicit and more concrete, this fine novel would have been even more satisfying than it is.

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

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