Cynthia Ozick’s Fiction Smolders, but not with Romance

Dean Franco

Cynthia Ozick does not write love stories. Her stories take an alternate route, skirting romance and avoiding plot lines launched by separation and heartbreak. Since the characters in an Ozick story are not lovable, there are few weddings. If Isaac Bashevis Singer coined a paradoxical concept, in his eponymous novel, Enemies, a Love Story, Ozick’s fiction anticipates the contemporary neologism, “frenemies”: A bitter character contemplates marrying his old friend’s widow not for love but for her fearsome astringency; a group of Yiddish poets keep each other close for decades in order to revel in one another’s failures and to nurture their common contempt for their one successful friend; a refugee orphan meets a woman who claims to be his sister, but he rejects her and shoves her down the stairs. The exception to Ozick’s frenemies is the more recent novel, Foreign Bodies. In this rewriting of Henry James’s novel The Ambassadors, the characters are possessed and transformed from James’s post-romantic Europe to Ozick’s post-Holocaustal refugee transit zone where love grows like a weed from the fissures in her characters’ cracked psyches.

Ozick writes about nightmare families: husbands and wives, children and siblings—the loved ones who, in dreams, transmogrify into inexact and awful copies of themselves. The Pagan Rabbi’s wife discovers her pious husband is, well, a pagan. An obscure Stockholm book reviewer is duped by a cabal of forgers who appear like a marionette family out of a Bruno Schulz fiction. Ozick’s celebrated metafiction, Usurpation: Other People’s Stories, is a series of nested stories that begins when an erstwhile writer hears another author read a story the first one wished she had written. The experience engenders envy among a cast of lesser writers and hollow attempts to copy the original. The story that sets this self-imploding fiction is Bernard Malamud’s “The Silver Crown,” in which a son’s hatred for his father is revealed.

Love isn’t very interesting to Cynthia Ozick. In her 1989 essay “Metaphor and Memory,” she explains that, at the root of the ethical imagination, the theme of love is secondary to the more compelling theme of the strange. We love what we know, or at least what we can assimilate and love propels us toward ethics with a facility that strangeness and suspicion do not. For this reason, Ozick dismisses as unchallenging the commandment from Leviticus that we must love our neighbor as ourselves. The neighbor is too familiar, claims Ozick and the difficulty of comparison is merely psychological. Instead, Ozick is interested in what we do when we do not love the other, represented by the insistence on having one law for the citizen and the stranger, for “you were strangers in the land of Israel.” For Ozick, this imperative to compare makes a metaphor of the grammatical juncture of the strange and the familiar, elevated by the Hebrew Bible as the corner on which we may all stand to engage ethically with the other. The comparison of what we do not know, the foreigner, to what we do—our own experiences, cultural memory, or historical understanding of deprivation and exclusion—that is the difficult ethical work explored in so much of Ozick’s fiction.

Ironically, the equanimity Ozick seeks between the familiar and the strange only matters when the stranger is near, through circumstances of travel, exile, or displacement. When a stranger appears in our ambit, the strangeness in the encounter pertains to ourselves and the other.

We are very often strangers to ourselves, projecting our own demons onto the other. How else can we account for the everyday spites, jealousies, and petty acrimony accruing not only between ourselves and our distant enemies or even some nameless foreigner, but within our own families? Who does not have (at least) one law for themselves and a different one for the other?

Ozick is a master cartographer of the foreignness of the familiar and a canny clerk in the court of the inconstant mind. Ozick’s story “Bloodshed,” for example, explores the mixture of condescension and despair involved when the protagonist Bleilip comes to visit his once secular, now haredi, cousin Toby. Toby’s joy in her new life, including her rabbinical husband and yeshiva bocher children inspire neither pride nor envy in Bleilip, but only resentment. How dare she find love in this atavistic community! At the end the reader learns that Bleilip has been carrying a gun in his pocket and harbors an undisclosed fear and dread. He, all along, is the stranger to both his cousin and himself. Maybe this is why Ozick quickly dismisses the familiar—nothing really is familiar, and everyone is strange, even to themselves.

Romance may not be ignited in Ozick’s stories, but her flinty characters move closer to some sort of truth about themselves and each other. Their vanity is exposed and shredded, their shortcomings laid bare, their mundanity made plain. When the Stockholm book reviewer is offered a forged copy of a lost Bruno Schulz masterpiece, he has every reason to accept it for a moment of borrowed fame, but he discerns that the manuscript cannot be real and burns it. A character in “Usurpation” fearful of his own vanity, burns his story, perhaps another, unacknowledged “usurpation” of Malamud. In Malamud’s “Last of the Mohicans,” a Holocaust survivor burns a Jewish scholar’s treatise on Renaissance art. For both Malamud and Ozick, Jews have more serious things to attend to than the glorification of false religions. Perhaps her most audacious act of searing honesty, is the essay “Who Owns Anne Frank?” Ozick shocks even herself by imagining Frank’s diary going up in smoke, incinerated along with its author rather than be traduced by readers who fool themselves into thinking they can identify with Anne.

Foreign Bodies also ends with burning, but the novel offers something new: an affirmation of love’s transformative powers. In this retelling of The Ambassadors a callow American boy falls unaccountably in love with a Jewish Holocaust refugee when they meet in mid-1950s Paris. The boy’s father sends his aunt to retrieve him, but the aunt ends up protecting the fragile relationship through a series of deceptions and inventions. The father finally attempts to lure his son home with an enormous sum of money, but the aunt receives the check and secretly burns it. The conflagration yields no scalding clarity: the young lovers, now married, disappear from the novel, while the other characters are pitted against each other in spite, anger, and envy. It is a victory of love, but everyone else burns with rage.