Friday, July 19, 1996

Fame & Folly, by Cynthia Ozick

A review of Fame & Folly, by Cynthia Ozick
Published July 19th, 1996, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine

Faulty Towers
Ozick Exposes Folly of Literature’s Greats

By Cynthia Ozick
Knopf, $21 

In her new collection of essays, Fame & Folly, Cynthia Ozick writes that her favorite book by Anthony Trollope is The Way We Live Now, his thirty-third novel out of forty-seven, because it’s his longest—952 pages. About herself she writes that she “has not written enough”—just under 2,000 published pages in thirty years—and that she “is little-known or not known at all, relegated to marginality, absent from the authoritative anthologies that dictate which writers matter.”

Yet despite her “marginality” and the sparseness of her oeuvre, she’s one of the finest writers and critics of our time. She doesn’t need forty-seven novels (although they would certainly be welcome), because in those 2,000 pages she’s written such gem-like masterpieces as Levitation, The Shawl, and The Messiah of Stockholm.

Like her idols Franz Kafka and Bruno Schulz, Ozick combines traditional Jewish history and mythology with fabulous technical innovation, creating a literature that’s both forward- and backward-looking. Her “Puttermesser” series of short stories rewrites the creation myth, weaving a modern New York sensibility into the ancient “golem” tales, and her chilling story “The Shawl” and its follow-up, “Rosa,” portray the awesome void created by the Holocaust.

Along with her masterful authorial presence, Ozick also brings an astute literary and social consciousness. A champion of “high art” and an espouser of her own self-styled feminism, Ozick writes about literature and history with equal doses of passion, humor, and awe. She balks at nothing—T.S. Eliot’s anti-Semitism, Henry James’ existential dread, her own obscurity—and her erudition allows her an almost omniscient view of whatever subject she chooses.

Her essay “Eliot at 101,” from Fame & Folly, examines Eliot’s phenomenal rise and fall from public favor. Unabashedly stating that Eliot was the center of her literary apprenticeship, Ozick describes him at his height as “pure zenith, a colossus, nothing less than a permanent luminary fixed in the firmament like the sun and the moon.” He filled football stadiums—the University of Minnesota’s football stadium, to be exact: 14,000 seats—with adoring fans of his poetry and of his “New Criticism.”

Eliot’s readers rebelled against Wordsworthian tradition in favor of Modernism, but “the young who gave homage to Eliot,” writes Ozick, “were engaged in a self-contradictory double maneuver: They were willingly authoritarian even as they jubilantly rebelled… they were ready to fall on their knees to a god. A god, moreover, who despised free-thinking, democracy, and secularism; the very conditions of anti-authoritarianism.”

By now the god has fallen: Nobody’s interested in Eliot’s fascist apologetics or his rigid criticism anymore. But his fall seems to have ushered in a loss of popular interest in “high art.” No writer could possibly fill a football stadium now, and Ozick mourns this loss. “What we will probably go on missing forever,” she writes, “is that golden cape of our youth, the power and prestige of high art.”

Other essays in Fame & Folly, notably “What Henry James Knew,” “Mark Twain’s Vienna,” and “Isaac Babel and the Identity Question,” discuss the relationship between what Ozick calls “fame and folly.” James’ ambition and ego were driven by intense insecurities; Twain was momentarily anti-Semitic; Babel rode with the Red Cossacks—yet critics treat these artists as holy. As with Eliot, Ozick reveres the writers but doesn’t agree with their mystification. As Ozick’s essay “Rushdie in the Louvre” argues, mysticism in at the very heart of fanaticism and authoritarianism, and this fascinating and accomplished collection of essays does great service in holding great art up for all to behold while allowing the artists under discussion to remain merely human. Ozick may not be in danger of being idolized by anyone other than me, but this book succeeds brilliantly at rising up as a work of high art while remaining tethered to a very humble and very earth-bound author.

—David Wiley

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