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September 11, 1987 - Image 121

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1987-09-11

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

PEOPLE

A Thoughtful Expression...
With a
Cookie or Candy Tray

glorko

Author Cynthia Ozick Rides
A Popular Wave of Mysticism

JUDITH COLP

Special to The Jewish News

W

ashington — Au-
thor Cynthia Ozick
cuts a prim figure.
Her shoulder-length grey hair
is held back by rainbow bar-
rettes, her skirt is flouncy and
her shoes are patent leather.
When she talks informally to
people — such as at her recent
reading at the American
Academy and Institute of
Arts and Letters here — there
is a certain nervousness in
her girlish tone. But her
sharp intellect is obvious.
It's ironic then that Ozick,
59, is riding the wave of suc-
cess by writing about
mysticism. She has published
two critically acclaimed
novels, three collections of
short stories and more than
100 essays. Grants have
enabled her to stop teaching
and write full-time.
Still, she is not resting easy.
In a recent interview, Ozick,
who resides in New Rochelle,
N.Y., confessed that she is still
haunted by her failure to
publish until she was 37,
some 14 years after she
started writing.
"You suffer humiliation and
pariahship," she said. "You're
not there. You look out onto
the world at people five or ten
years younger who are
already publishing, and
where are you? I think it's a
scar that I will never recover
from. That's a very long
period of defeat. It's a very im-
portant and impressionable
part of your life. I never relin-
quish my sense of gratitude
for publication."
As complex and demanding
as Ozick's writing is, her
works are concerned with one
central theme: remaining
Jewish in the assimilated
societies of the Diaspora. Her
protagonists are intellectual
and alienated Jews who
become attracted to mystical
and pagan elements which
are symbols of the non-Jewish
world.
One of her best-known
stories, "The Pagan Rabbi,"
describes a New York rabbi, a
"man of piety of brain," who
hangs himself from a tree. His
diaries reveal a belief in
animistic forces including an
affair with a mystical, Pan-
like creature.
Ozick said she became
fascinated by the mystical in
college while reading
William Butler Yeats' poem
"Leda and the Swan." The
swan is a symbol for Zeus,

Cynthia Ozick: Revolted by the
imaginary

and so is mythical, but the
language makes the creature
appear so real that "it's prac-
tically reality," Ozick said.
She said she is drawn to the
imaginary because she finds
it so "revolting."
"I'm a rationalist and cer-
tainly wouldn't allow it into
my life as an influence, but it
is very good story matter," she
said.
Ozick grew up in a Bronx
neighborhood that was
primarily Irish and German,
and she recalls being stoned
because she was a "Christ-
killer." Her parents were
pharmacists and she long
knew she wanted to be a
writer, having an uncle who
was an author. After
graduating from New York
University, she went to Ohio
State University to pursue a
master's degree, studying
The
Henry James'
Ambassadors.
Ozick said her admiration
of this work was her downfall.
Attempting to write in her
20s in a style James had
perfected at age 40, Ozick was
unable to match her skills to
her intentions.
It wasn't until 1966 that
her first novel, Trust, was
published. It was followed, six
years later, by The Pagan
Rabbi and Other Stories,
Bloodshed and Three
Novellas in 1976 and later
Levitation: Five Fictions and
The Cannibal Gallery.
Ozick's newest novel, The
Messiah of Stockholm, deals
with the work of Bruno
Schulz, a real Jewish-Polish
author who was killed in the
Holocaust. Ozick came up
with the idea for the work
during an eight-day visit to
Stockholm where she heard a
rumor that Schulz's last

novel, The Messiah, had turn-
ed up in the city.
Ozick described his writing
as "symbolic, metaphoric,
dazzlingly bizarre." The idea
of the manuscript mysterious-
ly appearing fascinated her.
"Why in Stockholm? Could
it be possibly true, could such
a manuscript have survived
and where was it? How could
it have happened? This began
to boil and I couldn't wait to
get home and write a short
story that I was sure would
take two weeks," she said.
A year-and-a-half later, the
short story had become a
novel. The protagonist, Lars
Andemening, a reviewer for a
Swedish newspaper, is a
typical Ozick character — a
refugee from Poland, twice
divorced, and alienated from
the literary stewpot of
Stockholm. His belief that he
is the son of Schulz turns in-
to an obsession.
Ozick says she writes fiction
last in her day, usually late at
night. She devotes her days to
what she described as
secretarial and domestic
duties, including answering
her mail. Like a good Torah
student, she has spent hours
framing a reply to an Old
Testament issue.
When a fellow author
recently wrote to challenge
her on the absolute meaning
of the commandment "Thou
shalt not kill," she took up
the challenge, maintaining
that some murders are
justified. The assassin of
Hitler, she observed, would
have saved millions of lives.
In her 20s, Ozick "besotted"
herself with Jewish
philosophy and history,
becoming impressed by the
influence of Judaism on
Western civilization. Without
Judaism, she pointed out,
there would be no Christiani-
ty, no Islam, no U.S. Constitu-
tion or Bill of Rights.
She is deeply concerned
that Jews are losing their
identity, particularly those
who are best educated.

Copyright 1987, JTA, Inc.

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THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS

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