Heir to the Glimmering World by Cynthia Ozick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This 2004 novel has not received its due. It seems to have baffled most critics and reviewers, as its contents are at odds with its packaging. Because it takes the plot of the classic nineteenth-century English novel as its own—combining an Austenian satirical romance with a Brontean female bildungsroman—it was sold as a work of popular literary fiction, the kind of art-novel you could take to the beach. But it deploys this classic emplotment ironically and self-consciously, as a comment on all that it would have to exclude of intellectual and political life to make its readers happy. And it does so in a prose too complex and vivid to do anything so simple as deliver a merely exciting story.
Its story is this: in the mid-1930s, the novel’s narrator, Rose Meadows, the daughter of a ne’er-do-well schoolteacher and a dead mother, goes to seek her fortune upon reaching adulthood by answering an ad to serve the Mitwisser family in some unspecified capacity. The Mitwissers are Jewish refugees from Germany—the father, Rudolf, is an obsessive religious scholar, specialist in the Karaites, a now-obscure sect of Jewish fundamentalists who rejected the Talmud and proposed only a literal reading of scripture; the mother, Elsa, is a scientist who was once the colleague, the lover, and the uncredited inspirer of Erwin Schrödinger. They have three sons (one of them possibly Schrödinger’s—Ozick, unlike the tedious Tom McCarthy, has the good taste not to mention the physicist’s over-familiar feline, but the is-he-or-isn’t-he joke about Schrödinger’s paternity will please the reader seeking subtlety) and two daughters, one still a small child, and the other, Anneliese, the eldest of the family and its head. She must maintain the family the father is too obsessed with his studies for household cares and the mother too traumatized by what the family endured in being chased out of Germany by the Nazis to function in everyday life.
The family’s patron is one James A’Bair, who was the model for his father’s world-famous series of children’s books focused on “the Bear Boy.” James, inheritor of his father’s fortune, is a restless wanderer—Ozick’s pages on his wanderings around Egypt and the U.S. are beautiful—and seems drawn to the Mitwissers not only because he wishes to seduce Anneliese (though he does), but because he identifies with the heretical Karaites in rejecting all traditions and forms of order. He exemplifies Ozick’s career-long polemic against idolatry, having been converted from a person to an idol by his father and then by the reading public. This has left him empty and soulless, an ambulatory fetish, and Ozick’s evocation of his sorrow, even in the midst of the trouble he sows, is a superb act of novelistic sympathy.
The novel’s other central characters are Rose’s cousin Bertram, a well-off pharmacist, and his lover, Ninel (i.e., Lenin spelled backwards), an ardent communist. Bertram, who seems like a side character in the beginning, comes to dominate the novel’s conclusion; this character who initially appeared merely feckless eventually seems monstrous. For James eventually does seduce and abscond with Anneliese; he unwittingly gets her pregnant, but shortly after commits suicide. His vast fortune, then, goes not to Mitwisser—to whom he had designated it in his will—but to his unborn child. Bertram, who has arrived on the scene following Ninel’s death in the Spanish Civil War and his own expulsion from his profession due to his communist sympathies, marries Anneliese and becomes the legal guardian of James’s child and thus James’s de facto heir. Their sudden wealth revivifies Mrs. Mitwisser and defeats her husband, as his scholarship cannot thrive in the atmosphere of crass wealth Bertram has destined for the family. Rose, for her part, exits the family and ends the novel by moving to New York City to work as a secretary—and, it is implied, as a writer.
A happy ending? Why not?—the family is saved, the eldest daughter is married, the narrator “begins the world.” But, on reflection, there is little happy about it: the novel ends on the eve of war, with European Jewry about to be exterminated; American Jewry, meanwhile, is about to be dissolved in American capitalism, assimilated to the amnesiac and idolatrous cult of money, cut off from its tradition, even from the tradition of its own internal dissidents and anarchists. The novel comes to seem a demonic parody of Jane Austen: in America, the winners of a Jane Austen novel would be its unscrupulous seducers and naive absconding daughters, rather than the wise heroine and her good man. The book’s unwieldy title, editorially imposed, is an ironic, even sarcastic one: the world the novel describes is various and occasionally beautiful, but it rarely glimmers.
The late John Leonard, with his characteristic enthusiasm, hymns the novel thusly, and catalogues even more of its profligate marvels than I have found the energy to mention, even as he censures a few of Ozick’s less nuanced judgments:
Never mind the Communist girlfriend, so negligently travestied that she might as well be the airhead mother in “Trust.” Lefties in Ozick’s fiction are as rudely caricatured as Palestinians in her essays, or Primo Levi before he killed himself, or Miami in “The Shawl.”
Otherwise, “Heir to the Glimmering World” is both a chambered nautilus and a haunted house — a fairy tale with locked rooms, mad songs, secret books and stolen babies. And a children’s story, an Oedipal grief, about killing fathers and moving on. And a sendup of Victorian novels that solve their problems with fortuitous marriage, sudden death, miraculous inheritance, emigration to Australia or all of the above. But also a grim parable about “purifications” — by fundamentalist ascetics like the Karaites, repudiators of the rabbis and Talmudic commentary; by Hindu skeptics like the Nastiks, who mocked the priests in the Upanishads by comparing them to white dogs in a procession, each holding in its mouth the tail of the next in line; by the sages of high German humanism, who conferred on credulous communicants like Rudi and Elsa a counterfeit comfort, a fraudulent dignity, and the illusion of a bildung whose possession meant you were “more than merely cultivated,” you were “ideally purified by humanism, an aristocrat of sensibility and wisdom”; and, of course, by National Socialism, with its death-camp refinements.
Let me conclude with a sample of this novel’s exquisitely precise but paradoxically also pungently vital sentences. In this passage, Rose is describing Mrs. Mitwisser’s nearly supernatural sense of what is happening in her family, even as she keeps to her bedroom, prostrated by trauma:
She had reverted to nightmare; she had usurped my father’s nightmare. I saw, in the conflagration of her seeing, the critical logic of what hardly deserves the name of madness. Nothing was obscured, reality burned and burned. She knew and she knew. In the shadowed seclusions of our little house on a forgotten street in a nondescript cranny that turned its back on everything urban, hidden in cattails along the lip of a bay where the tide, going out, left behind the odors of seaweed and bird-lust—here in her nightgown, alert to the subterranean calamities of the world, sat the sibyl.
In this passage, which summons nature and gives credence to female vision, can be found one half of the novel’s worldview. But, alas, madness is no protection against the world’s dangers; and Ozick’s lament over sibylline magic’s opposites, religion and scholarship, forms the other half of the novel’s dialectic, even if this dryer subject matter is never evoked so beautifully.
Appendix: Ozick on Edward Said and Harold Bloom
1. Ozick Against Revolution
There is a paradox here in reading Jane Austen which I have been impressed by but can in no way resolve. All the evidence says that even the most routine aspects of holding slaves on a West Indian sugar plantation were cruel stuff. And everything we know about Austen and her values is at odds with the cruelty of slavery. Fanny Price reminds her cousin that after asking Sir Thomas about the slave trade, “There was such a dead silence” as to suggest that one world could not be connected with the other since there simply is no common language for both. That is true. But what stimulates the extraordinary discrepancy into life is the rise, decline, and fall of the British empire itself and, in its aftermath, the emergence of a post-colonial consciousness. In order more accurately to read works like Mansfield Park, we have to see them in the main as resisting or avoiding that other setting, which their formal inclusiveness, historical honesty, and prophetic suggestiveness cannot completely hide.
—Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism
“A novel concerned with English country-house romances is not the same as a tract on slavery in Antigua,” Ozick declares in her 2006 essay collection, The Din in the Head. In that sentence, she attacks Edward Said’s famous reading of Austen’s Mansfield Park as a novel that ultimately implies the virtue and necessity of imperialism, since its good heroine becomes mistress not only of the titular estate, but also of its overseas holdings, including a slave plantation in Antigua. As we can see from my quotation above, Said had a more dialectical sense of the novel than Ozick’s reductive summary allows. But in Heir to the Glimmering World, Ozick puts Said’s criticism into the mouth of Ninel, the fiery communist:
“Jane Austen, wouldn’t you know. Now that’s what I call a provocation. Do you realize,” she demanded, “how the servants in those big houses lived? The hours they had to put in, the paltry wages they got? Chicken-feed! And where the money to keep up those mansions came from? From plantations in the Caribbean run on the broken backs of Negro slaves!”
This is well and good, but does not Ozick’s novel explicitly call for a reading like the one Said gives to Mansfield Park? That is, the novel does not mention the Holocaust, though it very well might, as it is retrospectively narrated by Rose. It very quietly and subtly evokes the 1930s Germany of Nazism and of the sadism it empowered in teachers, police, and others. But none of this seems to be the novel’s main point, and yet the novel’s whole plot is enabled and structured by this history of oppression. Ozick as much as Said is commenting on the inability of domestic realism to express the horrors of history, to imagine the co-existence of a marriage-and-money plot set on civilized ground with the barbarism of slavery or the Shoah.
So why does Ozick so palpably scorn Said, aside from the obvious explanation that she is a Zionist, while he was an advocate for the one-state solution that would, pragmatically, bring the Zionist project to an end? Well, the clue is perhaps in that obvious fact: Said desires a radical and universal solution to the problem he names. He wants a reading and a writing practice that will end the separation of civilization and barbarism, with the ultimate intention of eliminating the latter. But he can only do so by eliminating human difference: by thrusting postcolonial Marxism onto Austen as if both could be the same thing and speak with the same voice. In this resonant collapsing of the domains, Ozick perhaps hears an echo of the Christian universalism that would eliminate the Jews as obstacles to the reign of love. Ozick’s fictional form obstinately maintains the difference Said would sweep aside; she forces the reader to produce a Said-like interpretation even as she refuses a Said-desired fusion of disparate elements, a total novel that would hold history and beauty in one form. She defends Austen by repeating her, even repeating the structure of her silences. Again, this is not even really plausible in Ozick’s novel—Rose, as narrator, could tell us as much about history as she wished to, and she could be eloquent on the subject of what it means to be an ill-paid domestic servant and a woman excluded from male learning. But Ozick declines: literature is literature, politics is politics.
It is worth recalling that one of the earliest long citations in Culture and Imperialism is from Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” a quotation directed against believers in the autonomy of art. Repudiating the neoconservative charge that he was an anti-Semite, Said identified with the tradition of Jewish radicalism in America, mischievously calling himself “the last Jewish intellectual.” But Ozick does not identify with this tradition of radical intellection. In her early essay on Updike’s Jewish novelist Bech, she scorns such Jews—and their Gentile eggers-on, such as Updike and, one imagines, Joyce—as so enervatingly and fatally deracinated from their religious traditions that even a writer as sacral as Updike can only depict them as “rootless cosmopolitans.” Of course, Ozick is perilously close to validating the stereotype herself—and Heir to the Glimmering World’s rather overt judgment against Mrs. Mitwisser for her acquiescence to American prosperity after the travails of German anti-Semitism shows Ozick at her most severe and unpleasant.
In any case, to say that “literature is literature” does not end the matter, for literature, like the radical Jewish intellectual according to Ozick, is also cut off from the springs of tradition. It is an artifact of the autonomous imagination and, as such, is the domain not of religion but of idolatry. It is the land of Bloom—Leopold, yes, but also Harold, perhaps our age’s greatest idolator of literature, which brings me to my next point.
2. Ozick Against Idolatry
Ozick and Auden alike repeat T. S. Eliot’s prime error, which was and is a failing to see that there are only political or societal distinctions between supposedly secular and supposedly sacred literatures. Secularization is never an imaginative process, whereas canonization is. Fictions remain stubbornly archaic and idolatrous, to the scandal of Eliot and Auden as pious Christians, and of Ozick as a pious Jew, but very much to the delight of Eliot and Auden as poets and dramatists, and of Ozick as story-writer and novelist.
—Harold Bloom, Introduction, Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: Cynthia Ozick
Though the minor novelist Ozick once described me in print as an anti-Jewish critic, I long ago forgave that odd slur to a now-aged exegete whose mother-tongue is Yiddish. Most Jewish literature even when fantastic is incurably interpretive. Kafka, the Jewish writer, cultivated a Jewish negative. He made himself uninterpretable while knowing that there is nothing except interpretation.
—Harold Bloom, “The Point of View for My Work as a Critic: A Dithyramb”
Ozick knows that no one is really an atheist or a materialist; the relentlessly pattern-making and code-breaking human mind cannot experience the world without also seeking its ultimate significance. The true conflict, then, is not between theists and atheists, but between religion and magic, where the former means human submission to the inscrutable will of God and the latter connotes humanity’s ambition to become God by reshaping matter and spirit to our own ends. Because it seeks to alter the world by recreating it according to the desires of the imagination, poetry is a type of magic. So too are progressive political ideologies, such as liberalism and Marxism, with their humanist eschatology. Insofar as Ozick rejects both poetry and Marxism, she does so on behalf of the priest and the rabbi, who conserve the tradition of commentary on God and his Creation without seeking to usurp God’s place as Creator.
That is all very neatly summed up, but Ozick cannot avoid two paradoxes, one logical and one experiential: 1. logically, she cannot fight idolatry with poetry, magic with magic, which is to say that she cannot really write a religious novel, having already dismissed novels as irreligious idols; 2. experientially, we Americans of the American century, Gentile or Jew, mostly fell in love with literature at school, through our teachers and their religion-modeled canons, which is to say that we found anarchy through tradition, and many of us cannot help but associate our love of literature (magic) with our love of tradition (religion). And Ozick does not avoid this paradox: rather, she encodes it in her novel, in the problem that the anarchic Karaites, textual literalists opposed to commentary, will only be remembered by traditional commentators, such as Mitwisser. This is religion’s revenge on poetry, yes, but it also implies that religion would not exist without the primal act of poetry it serves and comments on. Granted, there are conservatives who would simply dissolve literature in tradition and have us reading devotional verse and apologetic prose till the Millennium, and there are radicals who would torch the school and the museum without a second’s hesitation in the name of universal emancipation; but those people, while they may frighten me, do not interest me. Ozick—who sees the problem so clearly for the problem that it is, who evokes it with such devastating complexity—interests me, even obsesses me.
Consider Ozick’s feminism, for example. In her classic essay of 1965, “Previsions of the Demise of the Dancing Dog,” she laments women’s exclusion from the universality of learning, making a classical liberal case of the kind with which readers of Mary Wollstonecraft, Margaret Fuller, Frederick Douglass, and the early W. E. B. Du Bois will be familiar; but when feminism became illiberal, became anarchic, and rejected the idea of the universal as a mere patriarchal conspiracy, Ozick turned her back on it, judging it irrationalist, reductive, and empty. One imagines the contempt with which she might greet Claire Vaye Watkins’s much-celebrated recent call to “burn this motherfucking system to the ground and build something better”—a battle cry that, but for its rote obscenity, Ozick would see as having more in common with the forces that expelled the Mitwissers than with Ozick’s own—or Rose’s or Elsa’s—balked longing for the life of the mind.
Ozick against anarchy? Back to John Leonard’s review, where we find the following fact that Ozick leaves readers to find for themselves, a bit of terrible information that puts the final nail in the coffin where our religious novelist hopes to bury the antinomian imagination and its defenselessness against the ultimate evil:
Finally, I must tell you some things about the Karaites that Ozick doesn’t because she can’t; precognition is against the rules. Nobody knew it in 1935, but the Nazis would end up giving the Karaites a pass. As they had earlier petitioned the czars of Russia, arguing that they weren’t even Israelites and so couldn’t possibly have been Christ-killers, so the Karaites persuaded Heinrich Himmler himself to treat them like Turks and Tatars. They actually served in the Waffen SS.
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