National Humanities Medal
“One test of the durability of fiction is whether it tells even a partial truth ten years after publication,” wrote Cynthia Ozick in 1983. Her novella The Shawl stands that test of time. Written in 1989 about a woman in a prison camp who tries to hide an infant in her shawl, the story continues to be taught in schools across the country alongside works by Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi.
Born in the Bronx in 1928 to a Russian Jewish couple, Ozick read widely early on. Her lyrical essay “A Drugstore in Winter” evokes those delicious hours when the traveling library would park near her parents’ pharmacy every two weeks. Among her favorite titles were the sumptuously illustrated children’s classics The Yellow Fairy Book and The Violet Fairy Book by Andrew Lang. Her love for books continued through school, and she recalls with affection the bookstores that lined Fourth Avenue: “There was this musty smell, and the owners ignored you completely and would become annoyed if you wanted to buy a book, because they were too busy reading.”
Ozick went on to the famously selective Hunter College High School in Manhattan, where, she says, “I got in by the skin of my teeth.” She thrived there. “But I have a sort of double vision of those, for me, happy times,” she says. “It coincided with our entry into the war and with its ending. I see it all now as through a veil of guilt.” The events of the Holocaust taking place at the same time would influence much of Ozick’s writing.
After earning a master’s degree from Ohio State, she returned to New York and threw herself into the writing life. Trust, published in 1966, announced a new voice in American fiction, one that conjured characters buoyed by narrative currents that, although probable, were never predictable. There followed The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories, 1971, plumbing Jewish identity; Bloodshed and Three Novellas, 1976, examining being Jewish in an essentially pagan, Hellenistic world; Levitation: Five Fictions, 1982, introducing readers to Ruth Puttermesser, a major recurring character in Ozick’s works; The Messiah of Stockholm, 1987, telling the tale of a minor literary figure who believes he is the son of Bruno Schulz, the famed Jewish writer who was a victim of the Holocaust; The Shawl, 1989; and Heir to the Glimmering World, 2004, spinning a narration by Rose Meadows, who is fleeing failed love only to take up with a family fleeing their own upheavals. Ozick is considered a modern master of the short story, and her work has received the O. Henry Award four times.
Many critics regard The Puttermesser Papers as Ozick’s magnum opus. Novelist Carol Shields said, “This book, with its waves of rapturous invention, presents a saddened vision of the world that leaves the reader in a trance of happiness.” The book exposes the inner life of its protagonist, a New York intellectual who would rather read Plato than go out on a date, and who goes on to implement her utopian vision to make New York into a new Prague, where philosophy and art dominate the culture. How does a novelist create someone like Ruth Puttermesser? “I think my characters are there, and I have to wait for them to come,” says Ozick. “I think I dream them first. I don’t mean in sleep. It’s all so mysterious. I don’t think writers can be completely honest about where they get all their ideas.”
Ozick explains that her novella The Shawl wasn’t so much written as transcribed, as if taken down by dictation. “It was like an out-of-body feeling that I never had before and haven’t had since.” After its publication, a reader who was a psychiatrist contacted her because he believed Ozick was writing about her own experiences and wanted to help. “He thought I was writing autobiographically. He said he had had many patients who were survivors but who denied it. He insisted I was a survivor. The thing is I wasn’t there: If we all had five thousand years in our lifetimes, it wouldn’t be enough to absorb those events.”
Ozick is also an important critic. She won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism for Quarrel & Quandary in 2000. Her essays examine the origin of ideas: “Knowledge is not made out of knowledge,” she has written. “Knowledge swims up from invention—from ardor—and even an essay can invent, burn, guess, try out, dig up, hurtle forward, succumb to that flood of sign and nuance that adds up to intuition, disclosure, discovery.”
At age eighty, Ozick is not ready to stop writing. “You’re driven. It’s an urge,” she says. “I’ll probably continue writing til the day I die. I can’t give it up.”
“Not,” as one of her own characters would have it, “for all the china in Teaneck.”
By Steve Moyer