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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'.