A solemn promise to tell lies

PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A BAD CHARACTER and Other Essays on Writing by Cynthia Ozick, Pimlico pounds 12.50
Last month, the New Yorker magazine featured a group photograph of 40 of America's "Literary Lions", honoured at a centennial dinner at the New York Public Library. An awesome line-up of writers in full evening dress included Toni Morrison, Edward Albee, Jules Feiffer, Henry Kissinger, Joseph Heller, Betty Friedan, Ved Mehta, William F Buckley and a grizzled Norman Mailer. On the edge of the group, a little apart, looking at once determinedly sensible and rabbinically intellectual stands Cynthia Ozick, doyenne of the American literary essay.

The reader of Cynthia Ozick's Portrait of the Artist as a Bad Character needs to know that here is a writer embraced (a bit belatedly) by the American literary establishment; a peculiarly American writer. As she says herself: "These are American essays, and could never pass for anything else." And the American essay, a form cherished by writers as diverse as Henry James, Gore Vidal and Camille Paglia, has very particular characteristics.

In Ozick's title essay the author is cultural expert, ranging comfortably from Thomas Mann to Edmund Wilson, via Saul Bellow and E M Forster. She addresses her reader with colloquial familiarity, confident that they will share both her easy reference to the entire range of European and American fiction and her passionate interest in what makes the literary temperament:

"Novelists, when on the job, rely on a treacherous braid of observation and invention; or call it memory and insinuation. Invention despoils observation, insinuation invalidates memory. A stewpot of bad habits, all of it - so that imaginative writers wind up, by and large, a shifty crew, sunk in distortion, misrepresentation, illusion, imposture, fakery."

Fiction writers, Ozick argues, trade in lies. "In the compact between novelist and reader, the novelist promises to lie, and the reader promises to allow it." What she expects us to recognise, of course, is that this is Plato's argument about poets, rendered into vivid Manhattan American, with colourful detail from the cosmopolitan bustle of New York city life. The occasion - here a "new" suggestion that Leonardo's "Mona Lisa" is not a portrait of any real sitter - is an excuse for a virtuoso cadenza on a stock theme, with the entire panoply of Europe's "great books" as material for the composition.

Ozick's essays are built around cultural touchstones and steeped in habits of thought which draw upon her eastern European, Jewish immigrant upbringing. Her writing has a muscular energy which she traces directly to the way in which her own family was washed up on American shores. Like other immigrant families they learned a shared idiom by reading Dickens, Thackeray, Kipling and Emerson. It is reading the "great books", she insists, which has made a rich and homogeneous fabric out of the "melting pot" of Amer-ican culture. In a brilliant essay on "The question of our speech" she juxtaposes Henry James's anxious 1905 opinion that the pressure of immigrant speech was corrupting "good" American with her mother's experience of arriving in New York as a child without a word of the language:

"A year or so after my mother stepped off the horsecar into Madison Street, she was given Sir Walter Scott's The Lady Of The Lake to read as a school assignment. She never forgot it ... What was accomplished was not merely that my mother 'learned' this sort of poetry. She learned what it represented in the widest sense ... What The Lady Of The Lake stood for, in the robes and tapestries of its particular English, was the received tradition."

The Jewishness of Ozick's own writing is in the very texture of her richly allusive literary language, and in her insistence on the importance of Yiddish as part of the sonorousness of American English. She handles written language like a precious gift, which she savours and turns over in her mouth with audible delight.

Given her sensitivity to the way American writing was formed, Ozick is disturbingly deaf to the new struggles with which our century is ending. Despite the exuberant inventiveness of her own language, modern aural culture is anathema to her:

"A book is a riverbank for the river of language. Language without the riverbank is only television talk - a free fall, a loose splash, a spill. And that is what an aural society finally admits to: spill and more spill."

It was immigrants intruding on the established tradition - figures like Ozick herself - who gave contemporary American writing its characteristic strengths. She ought surely to recognise that the brash collision of television and film culture with that of the "great book" might at this very moment be producing something equally bracing.

! Lisa Jardine, Professor of English at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London, will publish 'Worldly Goods: A History of the Renaissance' in September