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.