The Bear Boy, by Cynthia Ozick

An eccentric let loose in the Depression

Cynthia Ozick is one of the most consistently inventive novelists at work today, and The Bear Boy is as exciting and diverting as anything she has written. It is set in the mid 1930s, when the Bronx was an afterthought as far as the rest of New York City was concerned. A rambling house in this urban wasteland is occupied by the Mitwisser family, refugees from Germany.

Cynthia Ozick is one of the most consistently inventive novelists at work today, and The Bear Boy is as exciting and diverting as anything she has written. It is set in the mid 1930s, when the Bronx was an afterthought as far as the rest of New York City was concerned. A rambling house in this urban wasteland is occupied by the Mitwisser family, refugees from Germany.

Professor Rudolf Mitwisser is an authority on an obscure religious sect while his wife Elsa has abandoned her career as a physicist who worked alongside Edwin Schrödinger. She is in a state of near-dementia when the reader first encounters her. They have three unruly sons and two daughters, the youngest barely out of infancy.

The story of the Mitwissers and their strange benefactor is told mainly by Rose Meadows, who acts as nanny to the baby girl, and to Elsa, who has tantrums about matters Rose initially doesn't understand. She eventually becomes the professor's amanuensis, typing on a machine that cannot cope with "W". When, she wonders, will she be paid? Whenever she broaches the subject, she is made to feel mercenary by Anneliese, the elder daughter who runs the household.

It is with the arrival in the richly detailed narrative of James A'Bair, the son of a famous writer of children's stories, that the identity of the benefactor is revealed. As with Christopher Robin, son of AA Milne, James has had to live with unwanted fame. He is now fabulously rich, because royalties from his father's "Bear Boy" books are paid into the estate he has inherited. He showers money on the Mitwissers, for eccentric reasons. Elsa resents his largesse, and becomes ever more deranged at his every appearance.

Rose has a "cousin", Bertram, with whom she was briefly in love. He is obsessed with the self-named Ninel (Lenin backwards), a militant Communist who has abandoned the bourgeois moniker "Miriam". The haranguing Ninel is a superb creation. She will go to Spain, and Bertram will lose his job and dignity, thanks to his involvement with Ninel and her fellow revolutionaries. Except that Bertram will turn out to be - along with almost everybody else - more resourceful and surprising than appears on the surface.

The considerable achievement of this novel is the manner in which its people refuse to stay true to type. Elsa, so touching and droll in her madness, is granted a return to sanity. The melancholy giant Rudolf Mitwisser is never more noble than in the final pages, as he approaches Rose with something akin to affection. The Depression years are captured flawlessly: there is no one here who is not displaced in some way. Ozick allows them to be as mad, as kind, as impossible as they wish. She gives them their freedom, which is what the best novelists always do.

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