- The Bear Boy by Cynthia Ozick
Weidenfeld, 310 pp, £12.99, March 2005, ISBN 0 297 84808 9
Cynthia Ozick has been described as one of America’s best writers, one of its leading women of letters, the Athena of its literary pantheon. She has won prestigious awards by the armful: she was recently nominated for the first International Man Booker Prize for career achievement, alongside Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Gabriel García Márquez, Margaret Atwood et al. Consequently, it is sometimes seen as surprising that she is so little read in Britain. Her formidable essays have been published and admired here; but, of her nine works of fiction, only The Bear Boy – published in America as Heir to the Glimmering World – is currently in print. There is, emphatically, no great mystery about this: I would bet good money that she has not been much read in America either, outside the band of academics often described as ‘the Ozick industry’. Ozick has a high Modernist disdain for anything that is easy or easily consumed; she is the implacable enemy of what she sees as ‘the cry of the common culture’, ‘in every instance a pusher of Now, a shaker-off of whatever requires study or patience, or what used to be called, without prejudice, ambition’. There is a lot to be said for her uncompromising and eccentric fiction. But – with the exception of The Bear Boy, something of a departure – it certainly requires study, patience and ambition.
Ozick made her name with the series of stories and novellas collected as The Pagan Rabbi (1971), Bloodshed and Three Novellas (1976) and Levitation (1982). These are hard to categorise, being prone to disorienting and sometimes thrilling changes in style and direction: the guests at a drinks party will suddenly levitate towards the ceiling; an apparently inoffensive narrator will turn out, for reasons unexplained, to have carried a loaded gun into a Hasidic synagogue. The prevailing mode is of a tortuous and ironic intellectual comedy: dense, highly worked and highly allusive, punctuated by learned digressions which make the stories, from time to time, pretty unreadable. Take, for example, this passage from ‘The Pagan Rabbi’, in which, I should explain, a rogue, nature-loving rabbi, who takes the shockingly heretical view that idolatry is impossible because divine vitality exists in all matter, is courting a lascivious tree-dryad named Iripomonoeia:
‘Come, come,’ I called aloud to Nature. A wind blew out a braid of excremental malodour into the heated air. ‘Come,’ I called, ‘couple with me, as thou didst with Cadmus, Rhoecus, Tithonus, Endymion, and that king Numa Pompilius to whom thou didst give secrets. As Lilith comes without a sign, so come thou. As the sons of God come to copulate with women, so now let a daughter of Shekhina the Emanation reveal herself to me. Nymph, come now, come now.’
Like a lot of her work, this doesn’t seem to want reading: it wants exegesis, or perhaps even translation. It has been said that ‘the bewilderment of the goy’ has hampered her reception, since her stories are steeped in Jewish lore and thinking. But this is only part of it. Anyone who hasn’t followed the path of her own wide and idiosyncratic learning is likely to be bewildered.