Dictation

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By Cynthia Ozick
Houghton Mifflin, 2008, $24
Four Jiggers of James, A Whiff of Woolf.

I confess to having a thing for the fiction of four of my older Bronx contemporaries. For class acts, E. L. Doctorow, Don DeLillo, Grace Paley and Cynthia Ozick are a match for any literary backfield Boston, San Francisco, or other cultural capitals might field. In individualised manners, the first three are all realists whose imaginative work is significantly coloured by social or political concerns. Ozick, on the other hand, a keen observer of wounded conscience and blindsided consciousness, is more cerebral than the others as well as less absorbed in the ebb and flow of history.

This is not to say Ozick stands aloof from the passing scene, but her concerns tend to be more instrumental than thematic. A chronicler of human fallibility, her characteristic tone is ironic or derisive. Of the four stories in Dictation, her current collection, two culminate in lacerating laughter and another with the revelation that lying or self-deception is the universal language of mankind. Consequently, although she never tires of acknowledging Henry James as her Master, her work is equally redolent of the mature visions of Twain and Melville.

Of my Bronx quartet, Ozick, craftiest at her craft, is by far the most difficult for many readers to grasp. To that end Heir to the Glimmering World (2004), her most recent novel, may be confidentally exploited as a kind of concordance to this new compilation of not-so-very short stories. In one of them, for example, the surviving Jewish sect of Karaites of Heir to the Glimmering World are reincarnated as sectarian exponents of a utopian, universal language aimed at ameliorating the global discord etiologically symbolised by Babel and its Tower.  Another Heir to the Glimmering World recurring, apposite motif in these new stories are mistreated babies who, symptomatic of an adult world that has lost its bearings, serve not as symbols of hope or redemption but as heirs to victimhood, mayhem, and murder.

‘Dictation’ and ‘Actors’, the first two stories, are both accomplished performances that cover perennial Jamesian themes. In ‘What Happened to the Baby?’ and ‘At Fumicaro’, the latter two tales, Ozick shifts her attention from her Master’s signature quarrel between art and life to one less hackneyed: good versus meretricious art, the real thing versus its simulacrum. They deal less with the authenticity of art than with characters, surrogate artists, who, inauthentic themselves, are pretenders.

The title story delightfully evokes literary England in 1901. Structurally complex, it appears to be about the fading rapport between Henry James and Joseph Conrad during the interlude when each was tantalised by the mystery of literary doubling. The story line shifts abruptly between their shadow selves: personal stenographers who operate as secret sharers. (The motif is borrowed from Heir to the Glimmering World where, as some may recall, the protagonist hired to perform ill-defined duties is surprised to hear herself introduced by her employer as his ‘amanuensis.’)

James’s Theodora, ardently lesbian, is calculating; Conrad’s Lilian is virginal, mousy, self-effacing.  Each is dehumanised by her celebrated employer into a ‘typewriter’,  while raging with covert emotion for her dictator. While Lilian is secretly in love with Conrad, Theodora’s resentment of James — the engine of the story within the story — is chilling. But then professional envy is a longstanding Ozick theme.

The ironic subtext of this Jamesian donné is that, insensible of their own insensitivity, these masters of oblique motivation are themselves oblivious to the psychological and emotional agency of their hirelings. Hence the women’s audacious design.  Theodora’s scheme aims not only at implementing a furtive reprisal for slights but of helping herself to a slice of the novelists’ ‘immortality’. In the midst of this, the young, already fearsome Virginia Stephen turns up in the James salon ‘to pay homage to the Master’. Predictably, she exploits the occasion to make an assignation with James’s similarly inclined typewriter. Since the appetite of vast numbers of readers for even a whiff of Woolf is insatiable, this otherwise distracting jeu d’esprit surely enhances the wider appeal of this literary romp.

Despite its sprightliness, on first reading Dictation has the static feel of a literary set piece, a clever, ‘well made’ story designed to flesh out the ironic nugget of an idea. But the sub-plot of Theodora’s literary immortality is decidedly more complex than it appears, writing itself out of all seriousness and into the absurd in sub-purple prose of the cheapest timbre:‘the hot fluids of The Jolly Corner run, uninhibited, into a sutured crevice in The Secret Sharer.’ The rub is that congratulating himself upon ‘solving’ this overcooked mystery only takes the reader so far. For all its buoyancy, Dictation nearly succumbs to its own ingenuity.

‘Actors’ returns us to more familiar Ozick terrain — Jews and Manhattan — but it is thematically akin to the first story. ‘Matt Sorley, born Mose Sadacca,’ we are informed, ‘was an actor … and (when they let him) a comedian. His stage name had a vaguely Irish sound, but his origins were Sephardic.’ Not alone Sorley’s identity but also his compromised private life is an act: mainly unsuccessful at his chosen profession, he acts the part of the dedicated husband and actor. On a typical day, we discover Matt unconvincingly lying to the shoe repairman, amateurishly lying to his wife, and uselessly lying to himself.

At Fumicaro’ that provided the most pleasure because, I believe, it is the most impenetrable. The time is the 1930s. Frank Castle, 35, an American journalist who writes about art, literature, politics, everything, arrives in Italy to attend ‘The Church and How It Is Known’, a four-day conference of Catholic intellectuals. The complacent Castle, a bachelor, is a man of little experience and one who displays a disquieting lack of reaction to the rising fascism around him (he sails from New York on the Benito Mussolini).The story climaxes atop Milan Cathedral in a frenzy of psycho-religious vertigo, as Castle and his pregnant child-bride swim amid a sea of statues and paintings of the Holy Family. The blurring between the Church and the Third Reich is particularly uncomfortable and the expected revelation is frustratingly mysterious.

The final story in this quartet — ‘What Happened to the Baby?’ has an intricate plot peopled by enough characters to stock a full-length novel. Moreover, each of these (including Phyllis, the narrator who knows everything and nothing) is equipped by his or her double. Without exception, all are liars, con-artists, or adulterers.

Beginning with Phyllis’s childhood memories of Uncle Simon’s League for a Unified Humanity (not really her uncle, not really a league, but you get the slippery idea), the narrative skips through four distinct time frames. Defying Poe’s strictures for the short story (ratified in our day by the likes of Nadine Gordimer), and paying a heavy price for it, Ozick shifts the scene from the Lower East Side to the Catskills to Greenwich Village to the Bronx. She stocks her narrative with a cast of disagreeing, disagreeable Jews of her parents’ generation, for whom she generates little sympathy.

As in ‘At Fumicaro’, the point of view is restrictive and the reader held at a tantalising distance from the narrative centre. The breakdown of language in a world of no redemption provides the disheartening, unifying theme for this collection of stories by one of our most accomplished writers. Dictation richly deserves its inclusion in the New York Times list of outstanding books for 2008.

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