BOOK REVIEW / First-class second thoughts: What Henry James knew and Other Essays by Cynthia Ozick, Cape pounds 12.99

Paul Taylor
Monday 12 October 2015 13:31

THE WAY the passage of time can discredit certain works of literature is one of the preoccupations that run through this thought-provoking collection of essays by the American-Jewish novelist and critic Cynthia Ozick. That such downgradings entail a retrospective judgement on former fans is also something of which she is keenly conscious: 'the book lies there, a shaming thing because it shows us how much worse we once were to have liked it', she states in an article on Truman Capote.

So it's more than a little irritating that these essays, written over the past two decades, appear here without dates, which means that you can't be sure, with some of Ozick's reconsiderations, whether she is running ahead of the pack, repeating a new orthodoxy, or leaping on to a bandwagon. The flow of influence, too, is hard to determine. A piece on Gertrud Kolmar, the German-Jewish poet who died in Auschwitz in 1943, contains a striking, wishful sequence where Ozick imagines death-camp footage in regenerating re-wind, 'every skull blooming into the quickness of a human face, every twisted shoe renewed on a vivid foot'. There may be no connection, but it would be interesting to know if this was written before or after Martin Amis's Time's Arrow.

Lethal second thoughts provide some of the book's more bracing moments. Ozick's essay on Maurice is a tenacious attack on E M Forster's style of liberalism which is tainted, she resourcefully argues, by hidden self-interest. 'It is no trick, after all, for a Jew to be against anti-Semitism . . . or, by extension, for a writer to champion only those oppressed minorities he can identify with. As for choosing to betray your country rather than your friend, this one-person-at-a-time morality is deeply inadequate, vulnerable to the fact that friendship can turn, in a trice, to hate.'

Ozick's tough, discriminating mind is well equipped to trace the intricate tensions between sympathy and antagonism, whether it be in her essay 'Literary Blacks and Jews', which uses the fiction of Bernard Malamud to explore the problems of interracial relations, or in her frequent fixings on the pull within artists between engagement with the world and aesthetic detachment. The temptation to separate art and life provokes her severest censure, as when, in what at first seems a paradoxical manoeuvre, she accuses the 'non-fiction novel' In Cold Blood of having the worst traits of narcissistic art because Capote 'with aesthetic immaculateness' removes himself (and hence judgement) from the account.

Sometimes this admirable sticking up for life clouds Ozick's vision. The long opening essay on T S Eliot, for example, seeks to show that the poet's theories of impersonality were strategies 'to prevent old-fashioned attempts to read private events into the lines on the page'. Unconstrained by any such inhibition, Ozick goes in for some clumsily coercive analysis - ' 'I think we are in rats' alley / Where the dead men lost their bones': That, wailing out of a jagged interval in 'The Waste Land', can only be Vivien's hysteria, and Eliot's recoil from it.' (My italics.) But if matters are now so clear, shouldn't the poet be applauded rather than decried?

Ranging from a re-evaluation of Edith Wharton to an interpretation of The Drowned and the Saved as Primo Levi's suicide note, these dense, doggedly argued essays repay close re-reading. One could wish that Ozick wasn't given to phrases like 'driven Parnassian ardour' (used of a friend of her daughter's who may have 'the future of belles-lettres secreted in his fountain pen'). There is a fussy self-consciousness, too, that prevents anything being said very rapidly. For the astringency of what she does say, though, it is worth persisting with this writer.

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