Cynthia Ozick: Jane Austen in the Bronx

Cynthia Ozick, once the best-kept secret in American fiction, is now a high-profile contender for the first 'global Booker'. Matthew J Reisz meets New York's finest
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"There's an abstract intellectual infrastructure," Cynthia Ozick tells me about her novel The Bear Boy, although "most people read it without noticing. And that's fine with me, because I don't think you should get an idea from a novel. You should get a feeling."

The New York novelist is a dark-horse contender for the first Man Booker International Prize for career achievement, due to be awarded in Edinburgh in June from an 18-strong list that also features Günter Grass, Ian McEwan, Philip Roth and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Most of Ozick's earlier books have been critically acclaimed but gained a fairly limited readership largely, I suspect, because they are seen as cerebral, with too much "intellectual infrastructure". But her new US publisher, Houghton Mifflin, was convinced that this could be her break-through novel. So last year, in her mid-seventies, she was trained up by a media coach who, as she wrote, "impersonat[ed] every possible species of television interviewer: breezy; bright; bored; brazen; stupid; intense; indifferent", and then embarked on her very first author tour.

She hardly needed the training. When Ozick recently appeared at Jewish Book Week in London to launch The Bear Boy, she won the audience over with her spiky wit and vivid account of her long struggle to break through as a novelist. Asked whether she considered herself a Jewish writer, she replied: on the one hand, yes - she was Jewish and a writer, so how could she not be a Jewish writer? But on the other hand, no - being Jewish was about "civic responsibility, mercy and justice", whereas writers were "wild beasts dedicated to unrestraint".

Her fiction has always been equally notable for its moralism and its wildly imaginative experiments. She is fascinated by high literary culture, but also by the byways of Jewish tradition. And there are often signs of the deep, rather black-and-white conservatism evident in some of her celebrated essays. I got several flashes of this ("the left today is fascist"), although everything she had to say about writing, her own and others', was subtle and rewarding.

The Bear Boy is set in the 1930s, in the semi-rural part of the Bronx where Ozick grew up. An orphan called Rose Meadows answers an advertisement to be an assistant to the émigré German-Jewish Professor Mitwisser, and slowly penetrates the mysteries of a noisy traumatised family stranded far from home. Had the eminent refugees from Hitler impinged on Ozick's own childhood? "A few children of the refugees were my classmates in high school," she recalls. "The father of one had been a distinguished professor in Germany. I went to their house once. He was very full of himself and self-assured, but broken - because he had lost everything and was living in an apartment house in a lower-middle-class area of the Bronx. You could see how he had come down and that there was no future and no place for him. His wife was working as a saleswoman in a dress shop and he was doing nothing."

Mitwisser is an expert on the Karaites, a heretical Jewish sect who took the Protestant line that the Bible should be read straight, without any interpreters acting as intermediaries. In Germany, he was an academic star ("they compared him to the man who had discovered the ruins of Troy"), while his wife was a leading physicist. In America, their learning means nothing and they have become nobodies, "hardly noticed at all".

Why has Ozick focused on the Karaites? Does she see a parallel with today's sterile academic debates about the interpretation of literary texts? She has little patience with the "crazy relativism" of today's academia ("Postcolonial Studies, I think, is anti-Semitism - that's what it generally amounts to"), but insists that her novel is built round "a much more down-to-earth juxtaposition". This, astonishingly, turns out to be a juxtaposition with Christopher Robin.

For the other key character is the Bear Boy himself, James A'Bair, inspired when Ozick read the obituary of Christopher Robin Milne - a man immortalised in a children's book and so never allowed to grow up. Other children can escape their parents' malign or sentimental fantasies, but, as Ozick explains, "The Bear Boy cannot escape, because he is a living shrine and there are always pilgrims."

By yoking together disparate worlds, Ozick draws out intriguing parallels. But it also gives the novel an unexpectedly broad canvas. Even the minor characters seem to have lives of their own: "When I first began to write about Rose's cousin Bertram, I didn't know him - or didn't know I knew him. The copy editor pointed out to me that you have Bertram making omelettes at the start and the very end of a book which took me four and a half years to write. I was delighted. I didn't know that about Bertram, but one of the things he does is make omelettes. When he comes back to the Mitwisser household, I couldn't wait to get back to my desk every day to watch his behaviour evolve."

An American newspaper described The Bear Boy as "Jane Austen in the Bronx". Ozick is adamant that the props she incorporates from the classic English novel ("the happy ending, the wedding ring, the babies") are undermined by irony and "crushingly negative elements". Yet there are also many elements to the book - the cityscapes of her childhood, the ignored émigré professor, the Bear Boy himself - that possess a fairly obvious kind of pathos. This is not to say that she has gone soft and turned sentimental. She does make us feel for James but also spells out, in unsparing detail, how his damaged personality causes him to manipulate and destroy other people. But, along with its wide-ranging intelligence, The Bear Boy possesses a messy capaciousness and warmth of human feeling far less obvious in Ozick's earlier fiction.

It is safe to assume that Jewish theology has never met Winnie-the-Pooh in a novel before. Where did Ozick see a link? She points at the poignant photograph of A A Milne, the young Christopher Robin and the original Pooh Bear in her English edition, and argues: "The Karaites underinterpreted, they were against interpretation, and so withered out of history. The picture seems to encapsulate what happens when you do the opposite - when you overinterpret."

In Winnie-the-Pooh, Milne "overinterpreted" his son, fixed his image in aspic, and so destroyed his life. Exactly the same thing has happened to the Bear Boy. Between these poles, Ozick draws her moral: "In order to be human you have to have just the right amount of interpretation. You have to have just the right amount of feeling and understanding and not go to these wild extremes."

The novel before The Bear Boy, The Puttermesser Papers (1997), consists of five episodes from the life of Ruth Puttermesser, a New York lawyer who brings to life the world's first female golem (an animated clay strongman dreamt up by powerless Jews as a revenge fantasy), re-enacts the marriage of George Eliot, and is eventually killed and raped by a vicious intruder. She wakes up in Paradise, only to discover that: "The secret meaning of Paradise is that it, too, is hell."

Much of the book is astringent urban magic realism. How had Ozick come to write it? "Once I had Ruth Puttermesser as a character," she says, "I was 34 years old. My idea was to write the novel in stages, waiting until I found something appropriate for her, with one chapter per decade. It didn't work out like that and I was quite happy in the end to turn her off and be rid of her."

It is perhaps because of this that, although her creator claims to love Puttermesser, she describes her death with an almost pornographic detachment: "She could smell the rubber soles of his sneakers, but the rubber smell was oddly mixed with vomit and she understood that it was her own vomit."

Ozick is totally unrepentant about this: "I would abhor being a sentimental writer, but it's a pitfall one could very easily fall into. There's nothing more trivialising than sentimentality. It's a paradox: the more distance, the more penetration; the closer you get, the less penetration. If you throw a javelin and want to get a trajectory, you can't be up close - you have to go far and then it will penetrate."

Matthew J Reisz is editor of the 'Jewish Quarterly'

Biography: Cynthia Ozick

Cynthia Ozick, the daughter of Russian-Jewish pharmacists, was born in New York and has lived in or around the city ever since. Always determined to be a writer, she remained unpublished until the age of 37, when her first novel Trust (1966) appeared. She is the author of four more novels: The Cannibal Galaxy, The Messiah of Stockholm, The Puttermesser Papers and now The Bear Boy (Weidenfeld & Nicolson). She has also written a novella on a Holocaust theme, The Shawl, and three collections of stories, and is well-known as an essayist who has written in The New Yorker and elsewhere about writers who matter to her (EM Forster, Henry James, Kafka, Virginia Woolf), as well as polemical pieces. These have been assembled into four collections; Quarrel & Quandary (2001), the latest, won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

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