… trailing strands in all directions

29 July 2017

9:00 AM

29 July 2017

9:00 AM

Letters of Intent — letters of the intense. Keen readers of Cynthia Ozick (are there any other kind?) will of course already have copies of the books from which these often fiery essays have been selected. There’s a broad range of work represented here, from personal essays through to Ozick’s often rather profound philosophical enquiries into the meaning of art and religion — though the inclusion of no fewer than five essays on Henry James, two on Kafka, two on Virginia Woolf and two on Saul Bellow might make one wish for a little more breathing room, a little more room to roam.

But this is a quibble. This is Cynthia Ozick, for goodness sake. And, for goodness sake, if you haven’t read Cynthia Ozick — described by the late David Miller in his affectionate and indeed rather star-struck introduction to this volume as ‘the Athena of America’s literary pantheon, the Emily Dickinson of the Bronx, and one of the most accomplished and graceful literary stylists of her time’ — then really you should. Ozick occupies the fourth plinth among the other great statuesque figures of American Jewish writing — Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud.

Wading through — luxuriating in, rather — this great omnium gatherum, Ozick’s unique strengths and weaknesses soon become apparent. There are at least half a dozen writers — Americans all — for whom she has the most profound and instinctive understanding and whose aims, intentions and failings she is often able to sum up in just a few words. Lionel Trilling: ‘Here was bitterness, here was regret.’ T.S. Eliot: ‘He had always been reticent; he had always hidden himself.’ And Saul Bellow: a ‘self-propelled’ thinker.

All of this extraordinary pith, however, is often buried deep in the murk of a prose style that forever seeks to emulate the later Henry James. As she writes of James, ‘the sensation of mysteriousness does not attenuate; it thickens’ — and the thickening can eventually become a bit of a stodge. Then again, you don’t often hear or read the Jamesian tone in an essay these days, except perhaps occasionally in the New Yorker, in the imperial sways of James Wood (a critic for whom Ozick has the utmost regard).

Ozick admires above all writers who claim self-sovereignty and who enter into what she calls ‘the vortex of spirals’. Reviewers and writers of non-‘literary’ fiction, seeking merely to explicate or entertain, are almost beneath contempt. ‘Reviewers are not merely critics of lesser degree, on the farther end of the spectrum. Critics belong to a wholly distinct phylum.’ Ah, well.

Tom McCarthy, another serious thinker-cum-novelist-cum-essayist-cum-goodness only knows what else — he is the co-founder of the ‘semi-fictitious’ International Necronautical Society, which you’ll have to look up; I can’t even begin to explain it — shares much of Ozick’s intellectual authority and indeed many of her stylistic quirks and excesses. Explaining his choice of essays in Typewriters Bombs Jellyfish, for example, he really runs with the whole jellyfish thing:

You launch them, and they float around for a while, catching and refracting various types of light; then this same translucence camouflages them against the general background, and they fade from view. But they’re still there, trailing strands in all directions, looking […] for points of contact, larger cluster-meshes to lace into, feed off, and recalibrate, or just to sting.

Like Ozick writing from New York, McCarthy is privileged with a hawk’s eye view of London. The first essay, ‘Meteo-media, or Why London’s Weather is in the Middle of Everything’ begins, ‘I live in a 12th-floor Central London flat. The flat has long, tall windows facing west and north. Talking to people on the phone, I stare across the city and the sky.’

McCarthy’s, it has to be said, is perhaps a rather more strained, academic style than Ozick’s. Indeed, many of the essays were first delivered as lectures at universities around the world, and read like it:

If the modern is contingent, if modernity itself is understood as no more than a confluence of historical and political and technological and aesthetic contingencies, how could one talk about its ‘absolute’ or non-conditional manifestation?

How indeed? And like Ozick he occasionally wastes his energies on rather easy targets — ‘the naive or uncritical realism dominating our contemporary middlebrow fiction, and the doctrine of authenticity peddled in creative writing classes the world over’. Nonetheless, these are essays — ranging from Kafka to Kathy Acker and from Gerhard Richter to David Lynch — which not only celebrate what Ozick calls the ‘art of abundance’ but themselves demonstrate that abundance.

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