Ozick's `Din' is a captivating sound

Review Essays


The Din in the Head

Cynthia Ozick, ill. by David Levine

Houghton Mifflin / 256 pages / $24

Some books are so good that one begins to read more slowly as the pages dwindle; one simply can't bear the thought that soon it will be finished. The Din in the Head is that kind of book. At nearly 80, Cynthia Ozick's age hasn't dimmed a filament of her kinetic genius: Her multifaceted intellect continues to bedazzle.

I first heard Ozick at a lecture in Philadelphia more than 25 years ago. She was a surprisingly unimposing figure - small and wiry, with heavy glasses that she wore over her iron gray hair. She was dressed in the sort of suit Agatha Christie's Miss Marple wore: dark, no-nonsense tweed, accessorized only with sensible shoes. Her voice, when she spoke, was soft, with a girlish mellifluousness that belied her stern appearance.

Her talk was delivered with a crisp spiritedness and robust intensity that seemed to be a telepathic relay from the intelligences of another literary era, long gone. I could have been listening to Henry James or Virginia Woolf: It was just that sharp, that fluid, that dynamic a discourse by which the audience was held in hushed thrall.

Ozick is nothing if not discursive and enthralling: One of the great joys in reading her essays is that she knows how to spin out a tangent without losing the thread and without miring the reader in unnecessary detail. Everything in an Ozick essay means something.

The Din in the Head is a collection of literary portraits and literary queries. (It is nicely illustrated by David Levine, whose work readers of the New York Review of Books will recognize.) The portraits are enchanting, enticing and so smart they just knock your intellectual socks off. They cover literary voices from our time - Sontag, Updike, Bellow, Plath - and of previous eras - James (a perennial favorite of Ozick's; don't miss the final send-up "interview," which is flawless), Kipling, Tolstoy, Isaac Babel and more. These are not merely portraits, however: Ozick skips the veneration or excoriation and goes directly to revelation.

The fabulous title essay, in which Ozick ambles into the mind's quirks and resonances, and those essays of literary ruminations are even more stunning.

Every superb essay in this collection stands alone, and each reader will have his or her favorites among them; let me tell you about mine. "What Helen Keller Saw" works on many levels. Ozick re-situates the former "most admired woman in America" in both historical and literary context. Once championed by the likes of Mark Twain, Keller has taken quite a rap and tumble from grace, despite these days of disability rights in which one would imagine her to have been revived as a heroine of sorts.

Ozick neither lionizes nor demonizes Keller; rather, she explains her in the context of her literary acumen, not her disabilities. Keller was long accused of plagiarizing what she couldn't see or hear. Ozick is succinct: If Keller's poetic sensibility is a lie, then so too is that of Keats and every other Romantic writer.

Ozick also takes on Sylvia Plath. So much more has been written about Plath than was ever written by her. Ozick takes on her journals (and blessedly manages to leave Ted Hughes out of it, which is a pleasure) and puts Plath in the context she was striving for: Plath was, notes Ozick, "both Emily Dickinson and Betty Crocker." "Viciousness in the kitchen," indeed!

Delmore Schwartz was a stateside parallel of Plath; although he lived earlier and longer, he was similarly tortured. Describing a poet "whose life inescapably rivals the work," Ozick details how "the catastrophe of his life" informed his work and his literary legend. A poignant essay that reads as both eulogy and literary exegesis (she takes on the poetry as well), "Delmore Schwartz: The Willed Abortion of the Self" is most definitively an explanation of the twin realms of madness and genius and their ineluctable intersection.

Many literary aesthetes have tried to explain Leo Tolstoy and what he doesn't say. In her essay on the young Tolstoy, Ozick deconstructs his novel The Cossacks and parallels the history he knew - the hideous pogroms the Cossacks perpetrated on Jews in Galicia - with both her personal history (her mother emigrated in 1906 at age 9 from Russia, and a great-uncle was tortured and murdered by Cossacks) and the characters in Tolstoy's novel. Authenticity derives from "the solid integrity of story," Ozick asserts. Thus it is not what Tolstoy knows but what his character does that defines the novel's historicity.

Each of Ozick's marvelous essays deserves its own epigrammatic revisiting, but the brevity of overview must suffice. Ozick is intellectually fearless, unafraid to assert the necessity for seriousness in a nation where more people vote for American Idol than for the president. Ozick's declarative: It's not only OK to be smart and sharp-witted and full to the brim with ideas, it's what we should all strive for. Written in clean, clear, accessible prose devoid of academic ponderousness, these are rich, meaty essays to be read again and again.

Victoria A. Brownworth is a syndicated columnist and the author and editor of more than 20 books. She teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her most recent book is "Day of the Dead and Other Stories."

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