BOOK REVIEW / Hushed moan and sudden clap: Anthony Lane applauds the high, refined and alarming seriousness of the celebrated American critic Cynthia Ozick - What Henry James knew: Cynthia Ozick Jonathan Cape pounds 12.99

ASKED how he saw contemporary literature, Vladimir Nabokov replied: 'jolly good view from up here.' The American novelist and critic Cynthia Ozick is up there too, breathing the pure and rather chilly air. Unfazed by the nagging demands of seriousness, apparently immune to trivia, Ozick is that unusual creature, the believer in high art. High as in church, or mountain; somewhere, in any case, where awe comes naturally, bright and bracing with the promise of better things.

She has the liturgy to go with it, red-blooded and rich in appositions. 'Who could withstand these forests of flaming prose?' So Cynthia Ozick felt about Truman Capote, and so the rest of us will feel about Ozick. She is unembarrassed by her critical language, although some readers, singed by the forests, may feel differently. 'He was liquescence, he was staccato, he was quickstep and oar, the hushed moan and the sudden clap. He was lyric shudder and roseburst.' Who is this perfumed superman? None other than T S Eliot, he of the pinstripe and bowler. The rest of us merely read him; Ozick appears to have done something more intimate with him, although I do hope she didn't catch the sudden clap. But what is worst about her writing is just over the brink from what is wonderful; both are wound up to a pitch of intensity, unimaginable in most critics, by the wish to give literature its dues. Her sense of rhythm beats time with her steady approach to the truth, as in this precise verdict on the suicidal needs of Virginia Woolf: 'Ah, that cutting difference: not that she longed for death, as poets and writers sometimes do for melancholy's sake, but that she wanted, with the immediacy of a method, to be dead.'

What Henry James Knew is a collection of her essays, most of which first appeared in American journals. English critics occasionally wad their book reviews together and palm them off as a coherent body of work; Ozick, infuriatingly, gets away with it. This volume does cohere, with pressing concerns that won't go away. She is out to reclaim the lost glory of the essay and restore some of its original sinewy meaning. You can hear the ground shaking with her mental fight, the crunch of her opinions: 'it is now our unsparing obligation to disclaim the reactionary Eliot.'

That scary proclamation rounded off her infamous stoning of Eliot in The New Yorker in 1988. It is the word 'obligation' that makes you want to hide under the bedclothes. How about 'option'? But Ozick has the crazed fervour of the convert - the youthful worshipper of Eliot who saw the light, or rather saw his unpalatable dark, and now feels sullied and duped. As someone who is still stuck at the worshipping stage, I feel mildly apprehensive, but still, that only adds spice to the pleasure; nothing is more enlivening than to read a brilliant, fortified survey of a writer one loves, and to disagree with almost every word of it. Ozick has scanned the life and works, and decided that the former stinks to high heaven, which is where the latter used to reside. And so the poems are scarred forever. But did Eliot himself not trace those scars? 'The shame / Of motives late revealed, and the awareness / of things ill-done and done to others' harm / Which once you took for exercise of virtue.' He was not begging forgiveness, yet I cannot think of anyone better qualified to offer it than Cynthia Ozick.

The book covers a lot of ground, mostly among authors who give none. Eliot, Woolf and James; Levi and Calvino; Bellow and Singer: all of them staking out their territory and ploughing it into fruitfulness again and again. It only takes Ozick two pages to come clean: 'The truth of our little age is this: nowadays no one gives a damn about what Henry James knew . . . we squat now over the remnant embers of the last diminishing decade of the dying twentieth century, possibly the rottenest of all centuries, and good riddance to it.' Few critics have the nerve to throw a grand historical wobbly like this, and whether she's right about the rottenness of the century seems beside the point; you simply enjoy the glow of her wrath, and beyond that, the unfashionable force of her belief that one way to stop the rot is to read more Henry James.

There's little charm in her choice, no antiquarian cuteness; she doesn't think we would all be better off in a Jamesian age, wooing heiresses in Rome or taking tea with men called Hyacinth. James's priestly dedication to his craft, on the other hand, sets an unchanging example, and the sight of his characters - especially his women - longing to breach the invisible barriers that enclose them never ceases to inspire. That they repeatedly fail, and fail in such style; and that some of the barriers were worth keeping up, for fear of something worse - all this, as Ozick says, is bound to drag Henry James away from popular taste, and gives her equal cause to pull him back again.

Given the solemnity of that cause, you might expect Ozick to rest her case on James's laurels - to begin with a look at his texts and never glance away. But the oddity of the essay, as of the whole book, is that although touched off by the written word, Ozick cannot wait to get behind it and start to excavate the life. She does it with James and Forster; with Virginia Woolf, 'incontrovertibly mad', her books plainly of less interest to Ozick than the saintly attentions of her husband Leonard; and with Edith Wharton, whose 'secret is divulged' by one short anecdote and a photograph. You are meant to feel a kick of intellectual excitement here, and you do; but you know as well as Ozick that writers don't have secrets - not in this sense, anyway, not as codes waiting to be cracked. Their work, you might say, is an open secret, available for public inspection at all times; isn't that enough? The door never swings open to the inmost chamber, as biographers like to think; all they can hope to find is the odd roomful of clutter, which will never be as interesting as the main facade.

And nobody has seen more facades than Cynthia Ozick. She doesn't flaunt her reading, but I have an awful suspicion that she has read everything by everyone she ever mentions; worse still, she expects us to do the same. You put her book down and try to skulk away without being stopped at the checkpoint and questioned about the collected works of Theodore Dreiser, or Edo and Enam by S Y Agnon; 'for decades, Agnon scholars . . . have insisted that it is no use trying to get at Agnon in any language other than the original.' Help. Chivvied along by Ozick's enthusiasm, however, you do want to read Agnon, however feeble the English dilution of his Hebrew; and you do feel like scouting for a copy of From Berlin to Jerusalem - the memoirs of Gerhard Scholem, Zionist historian, friend of Walter Benjamin and noted chocolate-lover.

Ozick is at her very best on Jewish writing; her passions feel undecorated and compulsory, as though she were being called as a witness, writing for the life of her kind. The book is worth buying purely for the essay on Primo Levi; you wonder what more needs to be said about his work - why deface so clear a memorial? - but Ozick suspects that readers are paying it cursory, even weary attention. She whips us back to our senses by finding in Levi not the patience of a saint, but the rage of the unconsoled. What Henry James Knew has elegance and ripeness, a leisurely love of the writer's hard graft; but Ozick proves herself a great critic when she breaks through all that, and realises that the calm voice - the signature of the civilised, whether for her or Henry James - may not be enough; that there are times when it must unleash itself into a cry.

Anthony Lane is film critic of 'The New Yorker'.

News
Mia Freedman, editorial director of the Mamamia website, reads out a tweet she was sent.
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Reach for the sky: there are around 250 new buildings of 20-plus storeys planned for London alone, some 80 per cent of them residential
architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
television
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
filmReview: The ingenious film will intrigue, puzzle and trouble audiences by turns
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Oscars
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
music
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
film
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
architecture
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower