Cynthia Ozick, Heir to the Glimmering World

Heir to the Glimmering WorldHeir to the Glimmering World by Cynthia Ozick

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

{Spoilers abound below. This is a novel as profound as those of its sources—Austen, Dickens, Eliot, James—it cannot be spoiled by a mere recitation of its events. It must be read.}

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.

Those seeking only a review can stop reading now. But in a subsequent blog post, which you can read here, I elucidate two of the novel’s subtexts—politics and religion—and discuss Ozick’s quarrel with two prominent literary critics: Edward Said and Harold Bloom.

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