Quarrel and Quandary: Essays by Cynthia Ozick

Article excerpt

New York: Alfred Knopf, 2000. 247 pp. $25.00.

Cynthia Ozick's vision, glimpsed in her new collection of essays, despite unmistakably pointing towards the rough beast of a new millennium, is still shadowed by the ghosts of the previous century. As Ozick hurtles with ever increasing speed towards the future, it seems she is pursued ever more aggressively by the specter of the past. From the Unabomber's attempted erasure of history to the contentious issue of Holocaust literature and the responsibilities of history, Ozick manages to be au courant: she is politically engaged without ever sliding into pedantry or polemics. In Ozick's fourth collection of essays published in America, political engagement has served to sharpen her already razor-like prose and cunning eye for the absurd. This new collection sparkles with light, dazzles with metaphor, and stuns with airy conceits. Only Ozick's maundering mind could magically transform a common kitchen ladle into a cosmic device of human ingenuity "as it dips down, down, down into memory and imagination, into the bottomlessness of the word". If Ozick is at times difficult, the perspicacious and patient reader will be amply rewarded by her scrupulousness. Given Ozick's previous forays into moral and philosophical issues it is not surprising that she continues her political engagement in this volume.

Although this collection is a grab bag of a book containing literary essays, auto-biographical pieces, book and movie reviews, there are still major themes that may be teased out from Ozick's roaming imagination. The issue of usurpation, or ownership in a digital age animates many of these essays. From the powerful "Who Owns Anne Frank?" to the equally compelling "The Rights of History and the Rights of Imagination," ownership of memory and history becomes a touchstone for Ozick. In a digital age where memory is measured in gigabytes and re-writable CD-drives, Ozick's conception of memory, tradition, and history is of a more lasting variety.

Ozick launches into an illuminating, if at times troubling, discussion on the limits of the imagination when dealing with history -- particularly Holocaust history -- in her essay "The Rights of History and the Rights of Imagination." Ozick begins with a description of famous Holocaust photographs, before turning to contemporary fictional representations of the Holocaust. Although Ozick states that "[t]he conflict between the freedom to invent and an honest confrontation with the constraints of the historical record remains muddled -- and often enough, muddied", she manages to still the roiled waters of contemporary culture in order to make important distinctions. Despite the fact that "a work of fiction, by definition, cannot betray history", Ozick convincingly argues for high standards when literature deals with history, especially when a writer attempts to bridge historical reality with an imaginative work. Ozick argues that the key issue distinguishing between genuine and spurious historical fiction lies in authorial intention. For example, she maintains that Bernard Schlink's creation of an illiterate SS Guard in his recent novel The Reader, when "universal literacy was the German reality", is an anomaly intended to exculpate an entire generation of Germans. Ozick concludes her essay by stridently calling for a responsible historical fiction stating: "anomaly sweeps away memory; anomaly displaces history" (pp. 118-119).

Not only is Ozick emphatically opposed to contemporary culture's lack of literary standards, she is also saddened by its deficient attention to detail. Reflecting on Henry James's age (a time and place she repeatedly visits), Ozick proclaims: "Literature mattered acutely, centrally." Recalling her own youth she says, "Even forty years ago we lived in the residue of that notion," only to mournfully sum up that today "All that has been eclipsed by film, TV, and dot-com". …