Ozick’s No

John Lanchester

  • The Messiah of Stockholm by Cynthia Ozick
    Deutsch, 144 pp, £9.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 233 98142 X
  • The Birds of the Innocent Wood by Deirdre Madden
    Faber, 147 pp, £9.95, January 1988, ISBN 0 571 14880 8
  • The Coast of Bohemia by Zdena Tomin
    Century, 201 pp, £11.95, October 1987, ISBN 0 09 168490 0

Cynthia Ozick’s critical writing everywhere expresses a ferocious distaste for the purely aesthetic. The central idea in Art and Ardour, her collection of critical essays, concerns the conflict between the aesthetic and the moral views of literature and of life. She tells the story of a friend’s child coming across a statue of an Egyptian cat deity in a museum. ‘ “I understand,” said the child, “how they wanted to bow down to this cat. I feel the same.” And then she said a Hebrew word: asur – forbidden – the great hallowed No that tumbles down the centuries from Sinai ... ’ Asur: many of her speculations and evaluations seem to say that. A characteristic judgment is that made on Truman Capote, whose work is full of the idea that

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[*] Hidden Symptoms is now republished on its own (Faber, 142 pp., £3.50, 25 January 1988, 0 571 15074 8).