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

life is style, and that shape and mood are what matter in and out of fiction. That is the famous lie on which aesthetics feeds the centuries. Life is not style, but what we do: Deed. And so is literature. Otherwise Attic jugs would be our only mentors.

Ozick sees this emphasis on deed as being a Judaic one, and as involving an awareness of history and an engagement with the real world. In literary terms, this emphasis is identified with the 19th-century novel, which ‘at its pinnacle was a Judaised novel: George Eliot and Dickens and Tolstoy were all touched by the Jewish covenant: they wrote of conduct and the consequences of conduct: they were concerned with a society of will and commandment.’ Ozick argues that the aesthetic world view is the opposite of the Judaic one. It would be difficult to imagine this view more strongly expressed than in the following passage:

The German Final Solution was an aesthetic solution: it was a job of editing, it was the artist’s finger removing a smudge, it simply annihilated what was not harmonious. In daily life the morality of the Germans continued as before, neighbours were kindly, who can deny it? From the German point of view, getting rid of the Jews had nothing to do with conduct and everything to do with art. The religion of art isolates the Jew – only the Jew is indifferent to aesthetics, only the Jew wants to ‘passionately wallow in the human reality’.

The Jew’s indifference to aesthetics, argues Ozick, is rooted in the Second Commandment and its prohibition against the manufacture of idols. For her, an idol is ‘a-thing-that-subsists-for-its-own-sake-without-a-history’. Because they encourage sealed-off, ahistorical worship of themselves, idols are amoral. ‘Literature, one should have the courage to reflect, is an idol.’

A reader of Art and Ardour who extrapolated from these views would have absolutely no chance of guessing what The Messiah of Stockholm was actually like. (He or she would probably imagine something similar to Daniel Deronda, only more so.) Perhaps the first surprise would be how intensely and exuberantly literary the novel is, in its subject and milieu as much as in its execution. The central character, Lars Andemening, does the Monday book review on a Stockholm daily newspaper, Der Morgontorn. He is 42, with two collapsed marriages behind him, and now leads a pared-down, possessionless life, sleeping during the day in a flat ‘no bigger than a crack in the wall’. Lars’s column, which nobody reads, specialises in heavyweight Central European writing. He is regarded with derision by his colleagues and nagged by his editor (‘Soft-pedal the surreal, go easy on the existential dread, how about it?’) At the moment, literary Stockholm is abuzz over a stunt pulled by a young poet, whose acclaimed new book has just turned out to be entirely plagiarised from translations of American poets called Robert – Creeley, Mezey, Bly, Lowell, Penn Warren etc. The perpetrator had sent a copy of the book to one of the translators whose work he had stolen, eliciting the response: ‘Purely original’. Then the translator reads the book and finds his own translation of a poem by Frost. The resulting scandal is much discussed, with some willing to see it as the ‘ultimate ironic burlesque of Swedish parochialism’. Gore Vidal once remarked that literary life in London was ‘worse than Oslo’. The Messiah of Stockholm gives some idea of what that might be really like.

But although Lars works in this milieu of stifling second-rateness, he does not really belong to it. He is a refugee, smuggled out of Nazi-occupied Poland in his infancy, and his image of himself – his ‘deep fact’ – is centred on his belief that he is the son of the dead Polish writer Bruno Schulz, who is not a figure of Ozick’s imagination. It is not clear why he holds this belief, but it possesses him entirely. He has learnt Polish in order to read ‘his father’, and spends a lot of time at the bookshop which obtains his Central European texts for him. The bookshop’s cantankerous owner, Heidi Eklund, ‘a thick globular dwarf of a woman’, is also a refugee with a very obscure past. Her even more shadowy husband, Dr Eklund, seems, from hints she drops, to be either a psychoanalyst or a gastroenterologist. Mrs Eklund is the only person to know Lars’s belief about his paternity, and is also the only one to know of a vision he often has on waking up: he sees his father’s eye looking at him. ‘It seems to be my eye, but it’s his. As if he lets me have his own eye to look through.’ This is one of the novel’s oddest images, and it occurs repeatedly. It encapsulates the fact that Lars’s most secret and inward knowledge of his own identity is a belief about who his father is: he has subsumed himself in a fiction of paternity. He is a father-obsessed refugee speaking somebody else’s language – his very name chosen, we are told, out of a dictionary. His individual predicament is a dramatisation of a more general Jewish one.

The plot of The Messiah of Stockholm turns on the arrival of a woman called Adela – the name of one of Bruno Schulz’s characters – who claims to be Bruno Schulz’s daughter. On 19 November 1942, Schulz, a school art teacher in the Galician town of Drohobycz, was murdered during a pogrom. (Several hundred people died during the massacre, which became known as ‘the wild action’, but Schulz’s death was not random. He had come under the protection of a Gestapo officer who admired one of his pictures. The Gestapo officer gave him a pass out of the ghetto. Returning from an expedition in search of bread, Schulz was shot by a member of the SS as an act of spite directed at Schulz’s protector.) Schulz had published two books, Cinnamon Shops (translated into English under the title The Street of Crocodiles) in 1934 and The Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass in 1937. By the time of his death he had written a third book, The Messiah. He is known to have given the book away for safe keeping, but it has never been found: it is now just another eloquent absence.

The Messiah of Stockholm is dedicated to Philip Roth, and it seems to me that in its treatment of this theme the novel is related to Roth’s The Ghost Writer. In that book, Roth’s writer-hero Nathan Zuckerman met a girl he imagined to be Anne Frank, and extrapolated an agonising fantasy on her predicament: if she let it be known who she was she would effectively be destroying the meaning of her own book, whose resonance and exemplary weight depended on the fact of its author’s death. If Anne Frank let it be known that she was still alive, her diary would become an adventure story. Her death had a more important human application than her life. In a similar manner, The Messiah, Cynthia Ozick’s novel suggests, although a tragic loss to literature, is not a meaningless one.

Adela, however, claims that The Messiah has not been lost at all – in fact, she has it with her. Dr Eklund suddenly appears, and turns out to be a handwriting expert: he verifies the manuscript’s authenticity. But by now, after a confrontation with Adela, Lars has given up his belief in his own paternity and, with it, his interest in Schulz. He realises that he has fallen among conmen, and that Adela, far from being Schulz’s daughter, is in reality Dr Eklund’s. Lars throws a match into the brass jar in which the manuscript is kept. ‘The jar shook, it roared, it seemed to howl; it was as if an unholy beast were rocking in there, drubbing on the inside walls, howling out its dying.’ In other words, after the appearance of the manuscript, things fall apart. The story seems to stress the chaotic and unsatisfactory consequences of any real appearance of The Messiah, compared to its significance as a symbol of loss and absence. By the end of the novel, several months later, Lars has become a successful hack reviewer, giving the public what it wants, his column spreading out into other days of the week. Adela, now going under a new alias, comes to tell him that The Messiah had been genuine after all. ‘Not that he believed her. Now and then he discovered that he did; mainly he did not.’

For all the verbal liveliness of The Messiah of Stockholm, the novel gives a curious impression of constraint, by comparison with Ozick’s best work: the title story of her volume, Levitation, for instance. That story described a party given by a New York literary couple. At the party, which is not the social triumph they had hoped it would be, the husband suddenly wants ‘to talk about God. Or, if not about God, then certain historical atrocities, abominations ... ’ He is joined by a refugee, a survivor of the camps. ‘He was Feingold’s voice: the voice Feingold was waiting for.’ The room is full of Jews intently concentrating on the man’s words. Then:

The room began to lift. It ascended. It rose like an ark on the waters. Lucy said inside her mind, ‘This Chamber of Jews’. It seemed to her that the room was levitating on the little grains of the refugee’s whisper.

And that is how ‘Levitation’ ends, with the party straggling on as the other room floats away. ‘Overhead Feingold and the refugee are riding the living-room. Their words are specks. All the Jews are in the air.’

The most striking thing about ‘Levitation’ is that it is entirely convincing: the story moves in a deeply satisfying trajectory – a trajectory described according to the laws of four-dimensional geometry, perhaps. This sense of moving in accord with an unfamiliar logic is what Ozick shares with Bruno Schulz. Schulz was one of the strangest writers who ever lived, but the stories in his two books (all of which take place in a phantasmagorically altered Drohobycz) never strike the reader as unreal, even when they describe a column of fire appearing in the narrator’s bedroom, or the transformation of his dead father into a crab. (Schulz’s transformation-prone monster of a father stands comparison with Kafka’s.) Ozick has described Schulz’s fiction as moving with ‘a running flame of amazing imagery – altogether exact and meticulous – that alters everything’, and this imagery is certainly present in The Messiah of Stockholm. What is not present are the great metaphorical loops executed by Schulz, the fantastic excursions that lead him, after mentioning a magazine advertisement for a patent medicine, to then imagine the journey of the ‘enthusiastic convalescents’ to give their testimony about the medicine, and then to evoke the ‘distant mournful villages under skies white as paper’ left behind by the convalescents, and then to imagine in those villages a cobbler who ‘was a total cobbler: he smelled of hide; he had a small and haggard face, pale myopic eyes, and a colourless, sniffing moustache; he felt a cobbler through and through.’ The trajectory of The Messiah of Stockholm is altogether more predictable than that – perhaps because the most startling and unexpected elements in the story are contained in the conception of Lars Andemening and his situation, rather than in what happens subsequently. Dealing with Schulz’s work as her subject-matter seems, not surprisingly in a novel also treating the problem of influence and identity, to have had the result of suppressing Schulzian effects on Ozick’s part.

Deirdre Madden’s novella Hidden Symptoms was singled out for praise by reviewers in these pages and elsewhere when it came out in Faber’s Introduction 9.[*] Her new novel, The Birds of the Innocent Wood, is as well-managed as the earlier work, and it shares with it a Northern Irish setting: it is a dark, stoical and unyieldingly sombre story. ‘Her life was simply a life, not a fairy-tale or a romantic novel, and it was perfectly possible to live long – to live all one’s life – never knowing anything but futility and misery.’ This reflection occurs to Jane, who, in the opening chapter, survives the early death of her parents, a loveless orphanage childhood and a pointless office job before marrying and going to live with her husband on his desolate farm. The next chapter resumes the story after her death and describes the circumstances of her two daughters, Sarah and Catherine, still on the same farm: thereafter alternate chapters switch between the mother’s story and the daughters’. The controlled and purposeful nature of The Birds of the Innocent Wood is remarkable in such a young writer (26). The bird imagery suggested in the title, for instance, which could easily be the occasion for disastrous symbolic forays, is kept strictly in order: the wild duck Jane’s husband dumps on her kitchen table for her to pluck is a real bird and the revulsion it evokes in the city-bred girl is a real emotion.

But this very control is also the novel’s difficulty. There is no humour in it. There are no real surprises during the working out of the book’s action, because that action seems so entirely determined by a schematic authorial purpose. First, these things happen to the older generation: then these other, closely related, things happen to the younger one. One parent dies prematurely, one parent commits incest: one daughter is terminally ill, the other commits incest. The universe of the book has a predetermined quality to it, and its characters, because they can appear ciphers of the author’s purpose, don’t always engage the reader’s emotion. (This is partly because so many of them are killed off – The Birds of the Innocent Wood has a body-count like a Western.) In Hidden Symptoms, Deirdre Madden had already proved that she can write movingly about buried grief: this novel proves her architectonic talents.

Zdena Tomin is a Czech exile – a former spokesperson for the Charter 77 group – living in London, and The Coast of Bohemia is the second novel she has written in her adopted language of English. The story takes place during one winter in Bohemia, a cold and repressive country somewhere in Europe. The unnamed narrator, a translator and dissident, joins a ‘Citizen’s Committee’ of 12 who set themselves up, publicly, as the ‘nucleus of a pluralistic society’, a kind of alternative ethical focus to the state. Trouble ensues. At the same time, the narrator has met and fallen in love with a mentally retarded woman of her own age: these two strands of action are followed through one winter until the catastrophic double dénouement.

Bald summary, however, can give no idea of the flavour of The Coast of Bohemia, which is remarkable. The whole novel takes place inside a gigantic metaphor – paraphrasable, roughly, as ‘love in a cold climate’ – and, as its use of an invented Bohemia suggests, it takes place at a slight distance from the real world. The characters, although credible in their own right, seem slightly larger and more consistently themselves than real people ever are, like figures from Wonderland. The looseness of the novel’s texture is also attractive, and helps convey a convincing sense of what day-to-day life as a dissident must be like, not so much in its large hopes and despairs as in its quotidian comforts and harassments. The book is effectively colloquial, but Tomin’s Czechness manages at the same time to come through – there aren’t too many English writers one can imagine getting away with: ‘I was learning to be happy and unhappy at the same time. Life!’

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