Cynthia Ozick’s latest book of essays, The Din in the Head, contains a surprising splinter of biography. In “James, Tolstoy, and My First Novel,” Ozick reveals that she once taught freshman composition to engineering students.
The mind reels—not just from the essay, which is one of the collection’s best (a direct response to “The Lesson of the Master” from Art & Ardor, and another installment in her lifelong rumination on James and ambition)—the mind reels at the prospect of having Ozick as a composition instructor, of having her guide you through a course that is still the burden of every undergrad. Aside from inflaming pedagogical jealousy, the detail feels appropriate, and when considering the shelf of nonfiction she has written alongside her fiction, her true effect becomes clear: Ozick has slowly been teaching us how to write. Everything is there: the rhetoric swinging from the semi-colons; the javelin-like thrust of the dash; the blood-rush of the exclamation point; the subtle side-of-the-mouth allusion.
But this is not all. She has also taught us how to read. Ozick embodies the ideal reader—propped in bed, book after book placed on the belly, reading modeled as a private, endlessly renewable rapture. Over the course of her essays the word “conflagration” repeats over and over. But you forgive this repetition—true talent repeats with emphatic shamelessness—because the word is apt, not only in each particular context, but as a metaphor for the essays themselves, each one a furnace of prose, a bonfire of the humanities.
As good as Ozick is, you may ask What’s the point of mere literary essays nowadays? With the world of belles letters quickly moving onto the reservation of the web; with once-esteemed publications packing up and skipping town, both geographically and ideologically; with blogging creating the only real surge in the world of book talk, who has the time, nay, the cognitive room, for a few thousand words on Hellen Keller, or early Tolstoy, or Gershom Sholem?
As it so happens, this very question is one of The Din in the Head’s enlivening strains. Like “conflagration,” the waning of literary attention has become a personal Ozickian siren song. Call it the Belletristic Blues, but if you do, then know that the tune keeps getting better with each book, not just because hearing about the good old days is comforting (even if you weren’t alive to experience them yourself), but also because it’s educational. We need to be reminded that, to pluck an example from one of the five collections, T.S. Eliot used to have the moral and literary authority (these two weren’t even separate) of a high priest, or an A-list celebrity.
Or to pluck from The Din in the Head’s, Ozick has a great bit in “Highbrow Blues,” (ostensibly about the Franzen/Oprah affair (remember?)), where she reflects on how little attention was accorded to Philip Roth’s Shop Talk: A Writer and His Colleagues and Their Work. And she’s right; for all of the attention Roth has gotten (and reading reviews of his late novels has been like watching a crowd do The Wave at the big game), this book arrived in a critical darkness. Ozick maintains that in the past this would have been an impossibility. Everyone would have been arguing over this book—a happy, sad thought.
But glumness is not all. This collection is just as well-read and well written as her previous four, more literary than its predecessors, if that’s possible. What I mean is that her attentions here are almost exclusively literary. She alights on Helen Keller, Tolstoy, James (3x!), Bellow, Updike, Plath, Trilling (in one of the book’s best essays), Babel, Alter’s new translation of the Pentateuch (which has harvested some of our best critical writing as of late), and even Susan Sontag (in her forward). The essays are not as brazenly political as some in her first collection, Art & Ardor, not as canon-aimed-at-itself as in Fame & Folly (her third collection), and the collection doesn’t include the few impressionistic, anecdotal, autobiographical essays that can be found in Metaphor & Memory and Quarrel & Quandary.
This collection is titled—shockingly—The Din in the Head, her first title that’s not a competitive sonic binary. (If I were working on a dissertation, this would merit at least a chapter.) The essays appear to be commissioned review-essays for a handful of top-shelf literary publications, an ungenerous, naked description, but again, what’s in a commission? Reading Ozick on Plath’s journals makes one wish all the world freelanced.
It’s difficult to praise this book without laying down vast swathes of prose; I want to overload you with samples, but I’ll restrain myself; here’s a small bit of Ozick discussing Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein:
The words are unruly because they refuse to be herded into categories of style: they are high, low, shtick, soft-shoe, pensive, mystical, sermonic, eudaemonic—but never catatonic; always on the move, in the swim, bathed in some electricity-conducting effluvium.
Hearing Ozick on Ravelstein is like hearing a type of call-and-response—one performer commenting back to another with their own performance. (It reminds me of another call-and-response, albeit of a decidedly more mandarin, WASPy sort: the plumage of Nicholson Baker’s U & I.). Reading Ozick’s essays is like hearing a jazz musician take on a handful of standards—the sound of the past modulated to a different voice.
But despite my enjoyment, the collection misses some notes. For example, the autobiographical essays are absent. I’m severely disappointed that “Lighting Out for the Territory,” an essay from The New York Times Sunday book review about her first book tour ever, was not included. Also, I see omissions of certain authors from Ozick’s critical oeuvre, the most glaring being one Philip Roth. Though he appears as a secondary character briefly in “Highbrow Blues,” there is no review focused exclusively on him in her collected essays thus far.
Considering that she’s engaged with various heavy hitters—Updike, Bellow, James, Eliot, Tolstoy—more than once, Roth’s exclusion becomes a glaring omission. What’s the cause? Certainly hearing Ozick reflect on Roth’s virile nihilism would be provocative, perhaps even procreative. After five collections, a fan becomes possessive, picky, petulant. One wants to hear Ozick riff on current progressions: on Eggers, on Frey, on Wood; on David Foster Wallace, on David Effing Mamet, on Jonathan Safran Foer. One wants to drag Ozick down to the club and show her some moves. One wants to take Ozick out.
One wants, ultimately, for Ozick to be something she isn’t—a type of cultural pundit, feeding you her thoughts to fortify your own. Yet in the end, this is a false yearning: I think Ozick’s eloquence and her passion make her appear suitable for this, when she totally isn’t. The eloquence and the passion are embedded within her mole-like sensibility, which finds its quarry on its own, without the help of the overly anxious, and overly trendy, fan. And even though these essays are extended book reviews (that supposedly flimsy genre) they grow into much more than book chat. They exclude themselves from gossip. Or, to be more precise, they elevate the mere review into analysis, into history; they elevate literary appreciation into literature; they propagate a cultural loop while unlocking the library doors. Hearing Ozick debate the merits of her addiction to James is itself a type of art, filled as it is with desire, joy, pity, and despair—always a winning combination, no matter the genre. To read Ozick is to encounter a mind in mid flex. It leaves you stronger.
Read More on this Subject:
No related posts.
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Barrett Hathcock