Cynthia Ozick: Quarrel & Quandary

Cynthia Ozick
Quarrel & Quandary
Knopf

OPENING, SUMMARY, A line or two of evaluation: Most book reviews resign themselves to a structure so tired that one wonders whether there isn't some common template where a critic can paste a book's vital statistics and come out with a publishable capsule. Against this sluggish formula Cynthia Ozick's Quarrel & Quandary stands as a vibrant reminder that, given space and a gifted practitioner, the book review can rise to the level of sparkling essay.

Almost all the pieces in this collection have a book at their center, be it Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment or the Old Testament. Yet Ozick engages so deeply with the ideas of each that her expositions extend far beyond the usual parameters of a review, and are likely to captivate even readers who are not familiar with the books she discusses. A review of Kafka's The Trial, for example, mulls over the limitations of translation and debunks the popular belief that the Jewish writer was irreligious. A survey of Anne Frank's famous diary becomes an impassioned condemnation of the way this young writer's history has been distorted and converted into "usable goods."

An incisive fiction writer, Ozick excels at biographical overviews, and her central preoccupations--Jewish history, the Holocaust, Henry James, the relation between an artist's work and life--are never far from view. James, in particular, merits two essays: one on the film version of Portrait of a Lady (which she believes "coarsens" the book) and another, inspired by Lyndall Gordon's biography, that overthrows James's reputation as a charming gentleman by tracing how he consistently "placed writing above compassion." Ozick leavens these literary discourses with three autobiographical pieces, one of which humorously recounts how her youthful earnestness got her fired from a clerical job.

Ozick does make a few missteps. The meandering style of her longer essays can feel truncated in her shorter works. Elsewhere, she castigates William Styron (Sophie's Choice) and Bernhard Schlink (The Reader) for using "the autonomous rights of fiction"--otherwise known as artistic license--to obscure the Holocaust's true history. This argument might be more convincing if Ozick's own prologue didn't deride Edward Said's attempt to examine the political content in another work of fiction--in his case, Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. In fact, by trying to impose an artificial cohesion over these independent works (some of which originally ran in the New Yorker and the Atlantic Monthly), the entire prologue succumbs to a disagreeable self-righteousness.

A better overture for this exceptional collection can be found in Ozick's paean to her chosen form, "She: Portrait of the Essay as a Warm Body." "An essay," she writes, "is a thing of the imagination...it is the movement of a free mind at play....An article has the temporary advantage of social heat....An essay's heat is interior." In such heat, even Ozick's quarrelsome inconsistencies burn away.

 
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