John Pistelli

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Cynthia Ozick, The Puttermesser Papers

The Puttermesser PapersThe Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

[Spoilers below, not that a book of this tough intellectual fiber can be spoiled by the mere discussion of narrative events.]

I decided to start reading Ozick in earnest—and see my review of her last essay collection here—because of her piece on the new Bloom, which reminded me of her older essay on Bloom, wherein she accuses him (rightly enough from within her own paradigm) of “idolatry,” which reminded me in turn that I’ve never really read an Ozick book from cover to cover and that I have been too intimidated, for almost a decade, by her sternly intelligent essays to read her fiction. (Not to mention her politics in the Bush years; but the terms of debate have shifted sufficiently and my own political ardor has cooled enough that I can regard all that philosophically now.) What impelled me to start on her fiction with The Puttermesser Papers? Probably Victoria Nelson’s intriguing discussion thereof in The Secret Life of Puppets. Why am I telling you all this? Well, I sometimes come on a bit Olympian (deliberately enough—there are no non-poses, so why not an authoritative pose?), but it’s good to remember the actual chance and vagary involved in real-life reading.

Also, Ozick is something of a writer’s writer, and this is a very bookish book. Ruth Puttermesser, New Yorker and civil servant, is a reader above all. This book, not exactly a novel, collects Ozick’s novellas and stories about the heroine, following her from her mid-thirties to her startling murder by a home intruder in old age (more of that later). I think the best way to proceed is to discuss the book’s contents in order:

“Puttermesser: Her Work History, Her Ancestry, Her Afterlife.” This is a superb character sketch, more or less realistic, explaining Puttermesser’s movement through the legal profession (sexist and anti-Semitic) and then into the bureaucracy of New York, a snake pit of patronage and privilege that batters her touching civic idealism. We also learn about her Uncle Zindel, who teaches her Hebrew and instructs her in the old ways. Above all, we learn about her vision of the paradisal afterlife, the social and gustatory problems with which the conclusion of the collection (and the conclusion of my review) will answer for:

Here Puttermesser sits. Day after celestial day, perfection of desire upon perfection of contemplation, into the exultations of an uninterrupted forever, she eats fudge in human shape (once known—no use covering this up—as nigger babies), or fudge in square shapes (and in Eden there is no tooth decay); and she reads. Puttermesser reads and reads. Her eyes in Paradise are unfatigued. And if she still does not know what it is she wants to solve, she has only to read on. The Crotona Park Branch is as paradisal here as it was on earth. She reads anthropology, zoology, physical chemistry, philosophy (in the green air of heaven, Kant and Nietzsche together fall into crystal splinters). The New Books section is peerless: she will learn about the linkages of genes, about quarks, about primate sign language, theories of the origins of the races, religions of ancient civilizations, what Stonehenger meanest. Puttermesser will read Non-Fiction into eternity; and there is still time for Fiction! Eden is equipped above all with timelessness, so Puttermesser will read at last all of Balzac, all of Dickens, all of Turgenev and Dostoevsky (her mortal self has already read all of Tolstoy and George Eliot); at last Puttermesser will read Kristin Lavransdatter and the stupendous trilogy of Dmitri Merezhkovsky, she will read the whole Faerie Queene and every line of The Ring and the Book, she will read a biography of Beatrix Potter and one of Walter Scott in many entrancing volumes and one of Lytton Strachey, at last, at last! In Eden insatiable Puttermesser will be nourished, if not glutted. She will study Roman Law, the more arcane varieties of higher mathematics, the nuclear composition of the stars, what happened to the Monophysites, Chinese history, Russian, and Icelandic.

I said “more or less realistic,” but not quite. For the narrator of Puttermesser’s life is self-conscious and a bit zany, something like the “biographer” of Woolf’s Orlando, or perhaps like a heckler berating that biographer; this narrator lets us believe in Uncle Zindel for five pages (“Uncle Zindel blinked lids like insect wings, translucent”) before telling us that he had actually died before Puttermesser’s birth and is an artifact of her longing and deracinated imagination (“She demands connection—surely a Jew must own a past”). Even this little overture is enough to show why Ozick is, as I said, a writer’s writer: prose this light but dense, a narrative so balanced between realism and the fantastical, a tone as poised as this on the line between comedy and elegy—if you think that’s easy to write, you should try it!

“Puttermesser and Xanthippe.” This is probably the section this book is best known for. Puttermesser, childless, unlucky in love, unappreciated at work, is disgusted by the corruption of the NYC bureaucracy and creates the world’s first female golem to defeat the city’s enemies. (Strange that Ozick and James Wood have a little mutual appreciation society, because I would call this “hysterical realism,” though without the excessive length of that mode’s practitioners.) Puttermesser’s golem takes the name Xanthippe from Socrates’s wife, long scorned as a nag, thus suggesting the need for social and intellectual redress from the excluded female perspective. Accordingly, Xanthippe gets Puttermesser elected mayor, and, in a bravura set piece that must have been inspired by the New Bloomusalem sequence from “Circe” in Ulysses, Joyce’s loving parody of Enlightened (implicitly Jewish) civic republican utopianism, Puttermesser does indeed reform the polity—for a time, until the golem’s story takes its traditional course. This novella is a spirited literary fantasy; again, Ozick’s gift for light and comic treatment of the most serious themes is to be envied. The moral of the story can perhaps be located somewhere between Xanthippe’s assertion that “[t]he politics of Paradise is no longer politics,” and Puttermesser’s rejoinder that “[t]he politics of Paradise is no longer Paradise.” In other words: the conflict between the ideal and the real, the imagination and the world.

“Puttermesser Paired.” This novella is an erotic exploration of the last-named theme. In it, Puttermesser, quietly grieving the difficulties of an intellectual, middle-aged woman’s finding a male partner both interested in her and adequate to her mind, has a love affair with a younger man—a painter who paints only recreations of classic paintings. The affair is overtly modeled on the relation between George Eliot and George Henry Lewes, the ideal intellectual marriage of true minds, though no true marriage due to Lewes’s inability to secure a divorce from his first wife. Anyway, this novella has some well-observed moments, especially around the erotic frustrations of middle age, but it is too literary a conceit too mechanically played out.

“Puttermesser and the Muscovite Cousin.” This is my favorite piece in the collection: Puttermesser’s cousin Lidia arrives from the Soviet Union and proves to be what neither Puttermesser nor her friends on the bien pensant liberal left expect. In Ozick’s portrayal, communism has created a society of total cynicism and materialist selfishness—in fact, a kind of parody of what Marxists accuse capitalism of producing. And indeed, Ozick depicts a kind of complicity between the two systems, which both disparage the metaphysical and leave only appetite in its place. At the same time, Ozick effectively mocks the phony metaphysics of the left-liberals who want to make a mascot of Lidia, their New Age selfishness (their journal is called Shekhina—I suppose Tikkun is the real-world butt of the joke) and total disconnection from the oppressed they claim to champion. Compared to their fundamental dishonesty, Lidia’s resourceful ability to look out for number one is refreshingly honest and spirited. This is a masterpiece of political comedy and irresolvable irony to put next to Turgenev and Dostoevsky—and so economical, all in 40 pages! Let me say it a third time: writer’s writer!

“Puttermesser in Paradise.” I confess I do not understand why Puttermesser has to have her throat cut by a robber who then necrophiliacally rapes her. While such things do happen, and probably happened more back in New York City’s high-crime period when this story was written, I still think an author has to design events according to the emotional consistency of the work. So far, the book has been genially mocking of Puttermesser, validating her literary idealism on its own terms even as it demonstrates that idealism’s inability to sustain itself amid the corruptions of the world. Puttermesser is a kind of Quixote, an ineffectual idealist whom we love more for her very ineffectualness. But to subject her to such an ugly end—to pit her mere butterknife (the literal meaning of “puttermesser”) against a murderous blade—seems punitive, even self-punitive, as if Ozick were mortifying her own imagination. Further evidence for this thesis comes when we learn that Puttermesser has merely fantasized some of what we have learned about her in prior stories. And finally, this concluding story’s depiction of the real paradise leaves nothing of the bookish paradise Puttermesser had desired in the first story. It is a solipsist’s heaven in which the past can be endlessly recreated, endlessly remade—and yet “it too is hell.” Why hell? Because every glory in paradise is both timeless and transient, which means that all its sorrows are equally unending. The imagination, therefore, offers no redemption, only the endless repetition of what already exists. Paradise represents “[t]he perfection of desire,” as the narrator had earlier defined the heroine’s paradisal fantasy, and despite its bookworm attractiveness, it is an eternity of candy, and candy with a racial slur for a name to boot. The hellish paradise with which the book concludes merely reveals that earlier paradise to also have been hell: greedy and puerile and devoid of higher purpose. Paradise as a kind of fiction: infinite and inadequate—idolatrous. What do the sports of imagination avail us? Can they assuage suffering? This beautifully Nabokovian reflection of Puttermesser’s, just before her death, is lovely, but what can it do against the reality of suffering?—

Exegetical onomastic Puttermesser!—what was she musing on in the nanosecond of life still allotted to her? She was thinking of Paradise, yes, but (because the earthly and the heavenly are so interlocked one into the other) she was also thinking about how names have their destiny, how they drive whoever holds or beholds them. For instance: the poet Wordsworth giving exact value for each syllable. Or Mann himself—Man, Mankind, seeking the origins of human character in Israelitish prehistory. Or how one Eliot reins in the other Eliot: “the jew squats on the windowsill”—that’s Tom—rebuked by Deronda’s visionary Zion—that’s George. And James the aristocratic Jacobite, pretender to the throne. Joyce’s Molly rejoicing. Bellow fanning fires; Updike fingering apertures; Oates wildly sowing; Roth wroth. And so on. Puttermesser: no more cutting than a butterknife.

Because what, after all, can the imagination without limits really accomplish for reality? All fictions and fictionists are just butterknives in a world of cutting edges.

A sour note to end on, comedy of a bitter and Swiftian kind, though perhaps only so that we may recognize the necessity of belief as opposed to imagination. (Is it not common to say that Ozick is akin to Flannery O’Connor?) Ozick is one of the few contemporary writers to understand what is really at stake in fiction, in modernity, in the whole adventure of an ungrounded life, an untethered morality, a self without bounds. She is like Puttermesser’s beloved George Eliot in this: she leaves one unsatisfied with fiction less rigorously intelligent than hers. She is colder than Eliot, to be sure; but then modernity is so much further along, the consolations fewer and fewer.

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2 comments on “Cynthia Ozick, The Puttermesser Papers

  1. juliocanadas
    30 October 2015
  2. Pingback: Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay | John Pistelli

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