Book Review: The Dazzling Dissent of Cynthia Ozick
By Tess Lewis
This masterful new novel sees heresy and idealism as the warp and woof of history.
Heir to the Glimmering World by Cynthia Ozick. (Houghton Mifflin)
Little in Cynthia Ozick’s books is predictable or simple. Her sinuous essays are, as she says, “thing[s] of the imagination,” “the movement of a free mind at play.” Ozick’s fiction is equally replete with lightly-worn but surprising twists of knowledge. Her fiction also glories in implausibilites: a shawl that feeds a concentration camp inmate’s baby, a Swedish writer who believes he is the son of the murdered Polish writer Bruno Schulz and is obsessed with finding the lost manuscript of Schulz’s only novel, or a New York lawyer who creates a golem in order to help her win the mayoral election and refashion her city.
Ozick’s latest novel, “Heir to the Glimmering World,” is every bit as intelligent and witty as her earlier fiction, but its demands on the reader’s moral imagination are more insistent and stringent. This is not to say that the book is a chore to read or improving in some grim, Victorian way. It offers the challenges of watching a free and brilliant mind at play.
“Heir to the Glimmering World” is a dense tale of lost innocence and of inherited burdens too heavy to bear. It is also panoply of heresy and dissent, of theological, political, and psychological deviation. Yet these familiar abstractions and weighty themes are firmly anchored in compelling and complicated characters. In fact, few writers today rival Ozick’s ability to create vital and convincing figures in fiction, and to do so through a few perfect details, rather than pages of descriptive prose.
At the center of this novel is Professor Rudolf Mitwisser, a refugee from Nazi Berlin and the preeminent authority on the Karaites, a community of 9th century Jewish heretics who rejected the Talmud and all rabbinic commentary for only the most literal reading of the scripture. He is a large, awkward man, “densely, irrevocably German,” with eyes “dyed by some physiological thaumaturgy to the bluest depth of topaz.” Mitwisser rarely laughs, but when he does, laughter transforms him: “Hidden creases, bursting into folds, corrugated the long slab of his jowl, and there, behind the contorted lips, like secret things exposed, were his big ruined teeth.”
Mitwisser was hired by a Quaker college in upstate New York on the mistaken assumption that he is a scholar of the Christian sect, the Charismites. He abandons that post, bringing his ailing wife and five children to the Bronx in order to pursue his research in New York’s libraries. But he becomes lost in his “makeshift, provisional, resentful” exile and in his host country’s indifference to his life’s passion.
Nonetheless, he advertises for an assistant. Despite the Depression’s hard times, the only candidate to respond is Rose Meadows, “prim and smug,” who has given up her half-hearted studies at a teacher’s college. Rose’s mother died when she was an infant, and the strain of her neglectful father’s lies and gambling have turned her into a “mad perfectionist.” Initially overwhelmed by the chaos of the household and Mitwisser’s “oceanic library of negation and mutiny,” Rose remains, having nowhere else to go.
The invalid mother, Elsa Mitwisser, is a bitter, shrewish woman. Once a colleague and mistress of the Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Erwin Schr?ger, Elsa has taken refuge from the terror she fled and the isolation of exile in lethargy and delusion. Rose will become her caretaker, confidante, and, to a certain extent, her rival.
Elsa’s perfect madness is a foil for Rose’s mad perfectionism. And Rose recognizes the advantages of Elsa’s psychosis. “Was she Hamlet, for whom madness is ruse and defense and trap, or was she Ophelia, whom true madness submerges?” Either way, Elsa is “privy to magic things and delusions denied to others, she shrank herself at will. She was a little woman with unknowable powers.” Ironically, insanity leaves Elsa able to see, sporadically, more clearly than those around her.
These exiles with their “broken dignity” are adrift in a land too culturally deprived to accord them the reverence they had received in Germany. Whereas Mitwisser bans German from his home, Elsa laments that land of Bildung, an elusive term that signifies more than just cultivation. It is an idealized humanism, an aristocracy “of sensibility and wisdom.” But Europe’s vast heritage of cultural refinement and education provided no protection against fanaticism or the corrosive effects of money.
The Mitwisser family’s only support is the haphazard patronage of James A’Bair. James is a Christopher Robin figure. His father made a fortune creating illustrated books about him as the Bear Boy. James is all but destroyed by the weight of resentment. “He was not a normal boy; he was his father’s drawing, his father’s discourse, his father’s exegesis of a boy. His father created a parallel boy; his father had interpreted him for the world.” Little wonder that he is drawn to Mitwisser’s ascetic literalists.
The Bear Boy’s inherited wealth is power, but James is still a spoiled child torn between generosity and revenge. He lavishes gifts and cash on the Mitwissers then leaves them without word or means for months. In the end, his support will cost Mitwisser his daughter and his life’s work.
James represents the brash materialism of the new world that has little time for intricacies of intellectual history, except perhaps as curiosities. James is the least convincing of Ozick’s characters, in part because he has such a great (and obvious) symbolic weight to bear. But he also represents a realm of experience for which Ozick has less affinity. She effortlessly evokes the lost world that still believed in the power of Bildung and Kultur with its charms and its flaws, but strains to capture the desolations of abundance and the callous naivet?f pre-World War II America.
For all its engagement with heavy-duty ideas and themes, “Heir to the Glimmering World” avoids didacticism by refracting complicated ideas through engaging minor characters. Most appealing is Dr. Tandoori, an Indian philosopher turned tailor who bears his loss of academic eminence with equanimity and puns on materialism, texts and textiles. The five Mitwisser children gradually emerge from the household anarchy as distinctive individuals, ruthless in their childish egoisms and generosities. There is also a Communist activist who, though a bit flatter than the other characters, is suitably destructive in her fervent political idealism.
In “Heir to the Glimmering World,” heresy and idealism are seen as the warp and woof of history. Mitwisser’s passion for Karaite thought does not blind him to the transience of their belief. “Those who rebel do not regard themselves as heretics. Hardly so! They believe heresy lies in the very men they repudiate. For them, whatever is orthodox is heretical, so they depart from it.” Rage against established order and the desire for better systems are inevitable. Ozick wisely reminds us that the variable is the human cost they entail.