Ozick's 'Glimmering World' better as essay than fiction

September 05, 2004|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,Special to the Sun

Heir to the Glimmering World, by Cynthia Ozick. Houghton Mifflin. 320 pages. $24.

A story must not merely be, but mean," Cynthia Ozick once wrote, reversing the Jamesian aphorism. Her fiction is unabashedly didactic. Character and plot recede before the author's intellectual persuasions. The Puttermesser Papers (1997), her sprightly last novel, a National Book Award finalist, abandons the picaresque biography of that lonely, melancholic lawyer Ruth Puttermesser to explore golems, otherworldly spirits descending on Earth and the views of the Great Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague.

In the richest section of that novel, Putter-messer's private golem, Xanthippe, catapults her into becoming a utopian mayor of New York City. Yet, inevitably, the fictional takes second place to Ozick's polemical views. Jewish culture and tradition, the entitlements of Israel and the scourge of communism sooner or later overcome the Ozick narrative. Her prose is ardent -- and opinionated.

Ozick's new novel, Heir to the Glimmering World, arrives as the seeming story of a Jane Eyre in Depression America. Orphaned Ro-sie finds herself an indentured servant to an unruly, ill-mannered family of Jewish refugees who have escaped from Berlin. Professor Mit-wisser is a scholar of the Karaites, an ancient, still-existing Hebrew sect. His wife, Elsa, in mental disarray, is a physicist, once the partner of Erwin Schrodinger, who awarded her no credit for her part in creating his famous equation. With a brood of charmless children, the Mitwissers have settled in an outpost of civilization, the far reaches of the Bronx, where nothing good can happen.

There is a sharp, wise edge to Ozick's best writing. Eschewing sentimentality, she depicts her refugees as depressed, selfish and bitter, qualities befitting people who, torn from their home and their culture, have lost everything. Squalor accompanies them: unwashed socks and unmade beds, dirty dishes and grimy children.

Yet too soon the narrative falters. Probability, consistency of character and verisimilitude count for little in an Ozick novel. This worked for the enterprising golem of Puttermesser, who was fulfilling her nature. It works less well here.

Whatever the deprivations of her childhood, Rosie is a less-than-believable character. So passive is she that even with a fortune of $500 secreted away, she cannot free herself from this rapacious family who offer her no gratitude.

An improbable plutocrat named James supports the Mitwissers, keeping them just ahead of starvation. James is the recipient of a fortune amassed by his father, who wrote a series of children's books featuring "The Bear Boy," modeled on his son. James promptly learned to hate his father and himself. None of the "Bear Boy" business rings true.

Ozick's depiction of Rosie's distant relative, Bertram, and his unpleasant communist girlfriend Ninel (Lenin spelled backward) is wooden. Ninel commits the unspeakable violation of throwing red paint on the lions guarding the New York Public Library. In retaliation, Ozick ships her off to civil war-ravaged Spain where, conveniently, she dies.

Paradoxically, Ozick's best writing comes when she abandons the novel to explore the contending views interpreting the Talmud and the Scriptures. The Karaites, Ozick suggests, have argued themselves into oblivion with aimless dissent.

In graceful prose, Ozick explores those "exegetical voices calling to one another across the centuries ... the fuguelike music of the rabbis conferring over the sense of a syllable out of Genesis." Here lies her heart. The Talmud-rejecting Karaites may please the obsessed Professor, but less so the author, who disapproves of their "hot drive to dissent, to subvert, to fly from what all men accept." Ozick rages against the communists and the Karaites for supposing that "whatever is orthodox is heretical."

The professor never writes a single coherent sentence about the Karaites, even as poor Rosie types into the night. His rudeness to Rosie when she praises him -- "A hireling like yourself, oh yes, think how I am complimented" -- reiterates the feminism expressed in Ozick's indignation that Elsa was deprived of her deserved scientific achievement.

Because Rosie is so static a figure, one so bereft of introspection, Ozick shifts point of view to follow James; in flashback to Elsa in Switzerland; to the teenage daughter Anneliese. Melodrama brings the action to an abrupt close. James runs away with Anneliese and impregnates her. James commits suicide. Bertram reappears, ingratiates himself and marries Anneliese, whose child is the heir to James' fortune. If things "have been put right," credit must be awarded to a deus ex machina.

At the end, Rosie improbably sheds the passivity that has plagued her throughout the novel. No longer timid, she sets forth, bound for freedom among "the genuine New York of the skyscrapers." The departing words from one of the nasty Mitwisser boys-- "Mrs. Tandoori! Mrs. Tandoori!" -- refer to the proposal of another obsessed scholar, this one from Brooklyn. There is no doubt that Rosie will find no more fulfillment than Ruth Puttermesser did.

Beware the golem that disguises this book as a novel of character. A nonfiction work about the Karaites lurks at its core, struggling to escape, and too often succeeding. Turn instead to Ozick's provocative essay collections, such as Quarrel & Quandary (2001), for this brilliant author at her best, in the realm of ideas.

Joan Mellen is a professor in the graduate program in creative writing at Temple University in Philadelphia. She is the author of 16 books.

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