Atlantic £8.99

The Puttermesser Papers, By Cynthia Ozick - Review


Ozick’s The Puttermesser Papers, reissued here for the first time since 1997, was initially published as five separate short stories in magazines. The stories were then produced in book form in 1997, as a novel which was nominated for the IMPAC Prize. Ozick, who has also won the National Book Critics Circle Award and four O Henry Prizes, is known as an intellectual as well as a gifted writer, and this book oozes erudition, with its long segues to the Classics, George Eliot, the history of golems, and so on.

But although Ozick is unashamedly a scholar, she is also a writer with an immensely light touch as regards characterisation, dialogue and description, her prose is pithy, nimble and imbued with a smart, ironic wit.

Written in the form of a biography, the story follows a Jewish woman, Ruth Puttermesser, during five decades of her life. With its occasional conditional tense (“if this were an optimistic portrait”), its rewinding (“Stop, stop! Puttermesser’s biographer stop!”) and changing of events (Puttermesser’s Uncle Zindel teaches her Hebrew, but then we are told the uncle died before she was born), Puttermesser comes across as a creation and not a real person, and the story is one step removed from reality. This is useful when fantastical elements creep in.

In the first story, we are introduced to the 34-year-old Puttermesser, who has recently quit her job in a white-collar law firm to work in a dreary office in the Department of Receipts and Disbursements, which is as grim as it sounds. Puttermesser is far better at her job than her lackadaisical colleagues, (“They walked round and round the work, ruminating, speculating. They could not judge it; they did not understand it.”) but she is demoted.

Ozick’s throwaway method renders revelations of anti-Semitism (“the young male Jews ... committed to the squash courts .... Alas, the athletic clubs would not have them”) and nepotism (“Sometimes a mayor would have more friends than there were jobs, and then this or that commissioner would suddenly be called on to devise a whole new management level”) even more shocking than they would otherwise be.

In the second story, Puttermesser , now 46, creates a golem, a legendary animate being made from clay. Ozick tells us about the history of golems – in the 16th century a rabbi in Prague called Judah Loew ben Bezalel created a golem to save the Jews from persecution, for example. This intellectual information is paired with Ozick’s droll insouciance: when the ever formal golem writes “I will ameliorate your woes”, Puttermesser volleys back “I didn’t say woes, I said hot water. Trouble. First kitsch, now rococo. Observe reality, can’t you?”

The golem helps Puttermesser become Mayor of New York. Whether the golem is an example of Ozick’s oft-used allegory (perhaps for Puttermesser’s own creation of her destiny in her achievement of the Mayor’s post; perhaps Puttermesser ascertaining that having a child would not have been easy), or whether our fictional protagonist has taken one more step away from reality, is unclear. Still, the chapter is entertaining: the golem becomes more trouble than she’s worth.

The third story, “Puttermesser Paired”, sees Puttermesser long for an intellectual companion with whom she can read, in the same way George Eliot had her partner, the married George Lewes. She finds him in a talented painter, Rupert, and they spend blissful hours reading George Eliot together, but in the end Rupert turns out to be more of a Johnny Cross – the man Eliot married after Lewes’s death, who made an inexplicable exit from a Venice hotel window for a swim during their honeymoon. Again, the long descriptions of Eliot’s life with Lewes are saved from becoming dryly teacherly by Ozick’s incisive, lively prose and snappy dialogue.

In the fourth story, set during Russia’s period of perestroika, Puttermesser, whose father was an immigrant to the US from Russia, meets the daughter of a Russian cousin, who has come to the US. But, as with the golem, Puttermesser’s plans for the girl, Lidia, do not coincide with events. Lidia, brilliantly rendered as a fan of capitalism, wishes to make as much money as possible (“I want cleans for womans”), and embarrasses Puttermesser.

The final chapter provides a rather grisly end to the novel as a whole. The action ascends to Paradise. where we find out that even that is not what we thought it would be. Puttermesser marries a childhood sweetheart and has a son, but ultimately it turns out that Paradise too is transient.

The Puttermesser Papers is an immensely enjoyable novel if suspension of reality is not a problem. The writing is quick, satirical and funny, and Ozick’s insights and light-handed critiques of a society that prizes material goods over lives are a joy.

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas