Critiquing the critics
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 26 July 2016)

Cynthia Ozick lived through some of the best years of the New York intellectuals, and now regrets the waning of their influence. Writing for no money in tiny magazines like the Partisan Review, they commanded attention around the world. Ozick was a member of that community, or at least close enough to feel its power.

Now, at age 88, she continues to embody its virtues. Her voice is her own, a voice of authority, honed through decades of reading and writing and talking. She writes sharp, effective prose, she never fails to know precisely where she stands and she treats literature as if it mattered. Her latest book, Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) shimmers with the excitement of her permanent belief in the significance of ambitious writing. Ozick is a refreshingly pugnacious critic. She shows no mercy to professors, rich in honours, who can't bother to write a sentence in clear English. Judith Butler, a postmodern English theorist at the University of California, is sadly typical. As Ozick noted recently in an interview, Butler won first prize in the Bad Writing Contest for a sentence clotted with incomprehensible barbarisms. Is it possible, Ozick asked, that academics who pretend to understand Butler "are lying sycophants?"

Unlike many critics, Ozick reveals her pugnacious side even while going out of her way to praise a great writer. In her new book she praises Saul Bellow with such vehement passion that she stops just short of challenging to a duel anyone who feels otherwise.

She wants us to remember when "the publication of a serious literary novel was an exuberant communal event." Other forms have pushed novels aside, and students now show little interest in writing fiction. They would much prefer to write and direct the movie version of a novel, or the enthralling TV series based on it.

In both her novels and her essays, Ozick finds vivid and absorbing subjects among displaced persons, newcomers forced to reconstruct their identity after immigration, people who are not necessarily pleased with the transformations in their lives. In 1969, as American Jews were consolidating their position within American literature, Ozick let loose among them a bomb in the form of a 20,000-word novella called Envy; or, Yiddish in America. This work of art first attracted me to her, and ever since I've cherished it, and her.

The story is centred on a European Jew, a poet named Edelshtein, who views with disdain just about all the newly celebrated American Jewish writers, finding them as a class "puerile, vicious, pitiable, ignorant." Edelshtein writes in Yiddish. He mourns the murder of his language, believing it died when most Yiddish speakers died in the death camps. "Yiddish, a littleness, a tiny light-oh little holy light! -- dead, vanished. Perished. Sent into darkness."

And, to make it worse, the most famous Yiddish writer surviving in America is, in Edelshtein's view, an incompetent. Edelshtein and his best friend, Baumzweig, spend much time together deriding this fraud. Their friendship is based entirely on their agreed hatred for this man, whom they routinely call der chazer, or the pig.

He's Yankel Ostrover, a writer of stories written in Yiddish and translated for publication in English. Many readers of Ozick's novella realize at this point that they are talking about someone very like Isaac Bashevis Singer, who eventually won the Nobel Prize. They hate him for the amazing thing that has happened to him, his fame, but they never mention that. They say his Yiddish is impure, his sentences lacking grace. They think his subjects are insanely sexual, even pornographic. Of all the Yiddish writers who came to America, hoping to make a new start, Singer/Ostrover is the only one who has succeeded.

Ozick's novella is funny, biting, ironic, a rare satire that rings with the sound of truth. In a society enthralled by celebrity, she depicts the bitterness of those left behind, sentenced to live and die unknown, with only their envy to nourish their isolated, ill-tempered souls.

Ozick is an appreciative critic of critics. She thinks that a few 20th-century critics were excellent writers and sees Edmund Wilson as the most accomplished. She believes that he wrote a credible history of his time while studying the literature. Better than anyone else, Wilson saw in literature a revealing version of society. Another major critic, Lionel Trilling, in his carefully phrased essays, developed an acutely intelligent view of liberalism and its distant cousin, Marxism. He was a critic of literature and political thought who became a critic of society. When his student, Norman Podhoretz, tried to enlist him in the ranks of neo-conservatives, Trilling demurred. Perhaps he hadn't read enough books, or written enough books, to have a firm sense of what he thought.

As an author of both fiction and essays, Cynthia Ozick sympathizes with Trilling's regret that he never became the novelist he had always hoped to be. He wrote two much-admired stories and one marvellous novel, The Middle of the Journey, based on the life of an ex-communist and midcentury celebrity, Whittaker Chambers. Ozick has written a dozen books of fiction among her 18 volumes but believes she should have written more.

Before they become historians, Ozick says, critics provide the context in which literature can flourish. They build the infrastructure in which writers recognize themselves and are recognized by readers and students. Wilson did that, and Trilling too, but there's no equivalent today. There are good critics (she mentions, among others, James Wood, Adam Kirsch and Harold Bloom) but they are not numerous enough or influential enough to provide the setting for a literary community.

Ozick's admirers have always felt that she's not been given the attention she deserves. But a few weeks ago the New York Times Magazine carried an adoring profile and her publishers appear to be working hard with her new book. Perhaps she'll now get the large audience her work justifies.

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