Friday, July 08, 2016

`The Easy Vernacular is Deprivation'

The tastes and judgments of other people, even those we admire and generally trust, are often baffling and, in the end, not particularly important. Those who go through life perpetually wielding a rubber stamp that says “WRONG” are doomed to a fretful life and a lonely death.

Few living writers have given me so much pleasure as Cynthia Ozick. From memory I recall things she has written about Trollope, Henry James, Gershom Scholem, the Karaites and her father’s drugstore. Her thinking and prose are comparably memorable, and I have a preference for her essays over her fiction. I met her once, in 1987, at a conference on writing and the Holocaust in Albany, N.Y., not long after the death of Primo Levi. She shared a stage with Aharon Appelfeld and Raul Hilberg, and signed my copy of her most recent book, The Messiah of Stockholm. And yet, in a Q&A published Thursday in the Times, Ozick has the temerity to say good things about Frank Kermode, Percy Bysshe Shelley and E. M. Forster. But who cares? She also lauds Adam Kirsch, Dana Gioia,William Dean Howells (see Indian Summer, please), Chekhov and Tolstoy, Robert Starer’s Continuo: A Life in Music, and Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition by David Nirenberg.

Ozick reviews the books stacked on her nightstand, “a roughly cubical archaeological mound,” and by coincidence, on mine is Nirenberg’s most recent book, Aesthetic Theology and Its Enemies: Judaism in Christian Painting, Poetry, and Politics (Brandeis University Press, 2015). Nirenberg usefully reminds us of the venomous anti-Semitism of Pound, CĂ©line and Wyndham Lewis. The latter, he writes, “dedicated reams of paper to the proposition that James Joyce was a Jewish writer.” Nirenberg's Anti-Judaism is mandatory reading.

Ozick is always smart and unapologetically bookish. She is a writer who seems to have read everything, which ought to be true of all writers but is not, sadly.  Her best exchange with the interviewer? This:

What moves you most in a work of literature?

Language as the well of image and feeling. Nabokov rather than Hemingway. If less is more, it is nevertheless also loss. And the easy vernacular is deprivation.”

“Easy vernacular is deprivation.” That sums up much of the last half-century, especially in poetry. Note Ozick’s list of favorite short stories, two of which (Lampedusa, Grade) I haven’t read. I obviously endorse her inclusion of Chekhov and Tolstoy, but would substitute “My Life” and “Master and Man,” respectively. And would add Isaac Bashevis Singer, Babel, Kipling, Gogol . . .

Yes, Ozick’s Q&A is a sophisticated parlor game, about as weighty as gossip, one that encourages thoughtful agreement and dispute. It’s the sort of talk we have with our well-read friends, a bonding over shared enthusiasms and revulsions. At that level, right and wrong are less important than the obligation to be interesting. Asked which of her books is her “favorite or the most personally meaningful” (mine would be her What Henry James Knew and Other Essays on Writers, an English edition), Ozick chooses her first, the novel Trust (1966): “It has been judged unreadable, which is more than likely; but I continue to believe that I have never since written with such ardent confidence in the power and worth of the Word.” Her attachment is sentimental and touching. It is unreadable, and I read it.

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