Cynthia Ozick’s The Puttermesser Papers was published in 1999 in the UK and short-listed for the IMPAC Award. I see that when David Foster Wallace read his HB copy he noted and/or checked some of the same words [as news of his papers arriving at the HRC Texas reveal] as me. Tellurian, for example. I’m posting two images that speak for themselves and a light-weight review I wrote for The New Statesman during a divertingly busy year. Within a few months, the tanks had re-entered occupied territories- shattering any last delusions/illusions.
I remain a fierce reader and admirer of Ozick’s work, despite her quixotic blindness towards/repellant views about Palestinian dispossession. I was re-reading The Messiah of Stockholm in late December 2008 [trapped again, wrestling with her singular sentences], just before the white phosphorus went in to Gaza’s already besieged schools and, even now, am re-reading the essays collected in The Din in the Head . Fortunately, the cold obscenity of what she wrote in the same year aboutRachel Corrie‘s Journals is not included.
Ozick is a curious and extreme instance of a vexatious problem and in posting this I’m forcing myself to come back to it, soon. Nothing I say will reduce the brilliance of this novel and others because writerly singularity outplays historical anomaly however grotesque the views. At least, on the billionth loop around it, that is what I feel, but I know the ice is very thin hereabouts. Meanwhile, roll on the day that nakba-denial is also a crime and when universal crimes already constituted are actually prosecuted.
Puttermesser Paper, Cynthia Ozick
by Guy Mannes-Abbott
Like an eager parliamentarian, I should confess my ‘interests’ in this new novel of Cynthia Ozick’s. My 7 year old cat is named after Ruth Puttermesser -lawyer, Mayoress and murderee- the heroine of these stories. I’ve also got form, having greeted the publication of her 1993 collection of essays What Henry James Knew with extravagant polemic in these same pages. I was championing her astonishing stylistic precision, singular appetites and general awkward brilliance. I don’t retract a word.
If you don’t know Ozick, you’ll find an infectious deep mining and celebration of writing, ranging from the thunder of James and Bellow to the lightning of Bruno Schultz and JM Coetzee, in her essays. In them she animates the Classics and invests her fascination with mystical Judaism to great effect, just as she does in her short and long fiction. All of this is apparent in The Puttermesser Papers which, if you do know Ozick, you’ll recognise as a cycle of stories from the last 20 years. The Puttermesser Papers earnt substantial praise when it was published in the United States in 1997 and was nominated for the 1999 IMPAC Award. Such recognition came late to Ozick and remains incomplete while novels like The Messiah of Stockholm are still unavailable here.
So, what is it about Ozick? Well, it’s difficult to convey the astonishing fecundity of this novel in summary. There’s just so much in it, for one thing; all condensed into a swiftly flowing stream of exquisitely placed words. But this is not writing for swooners because Ozick means what she writes. She’s serious, high minded and literary in that sense and yet her’s is a gleeful kind of seriousness.
We first meet Ruth Puttermesser as a 46 year old lawyer in the New York Mayor’s office. She’s insistent that her married lover, Morris Rappaport, allows her to finish Plato’s Theaetetus before they have sex. The previous night she’d read him a line of Socrates, defending the enquirer’s mind “for being so eager to know what was happening in the sky that he could not see what lay at his feet.” This is typical of Ozick; to begin a story with a quote like that, but also for the quote to be one expressive of unbounded yearning.
Puttermesser goes on to lose her job unfairly and to conjure a female golem into being who becomes her peculiarly loyal public servant; successfully campaigning for Puttermesser to become Mayor. As Mayor she establishes a paradisal realm in Manhattan for a while until Xanthippe the golem does what golems do and runs amok. So with Puttermesser’s reputation and the city in ruins Xanthippe is dispatched back to the earth from where she came.
We next meet Puttermesser in her mid-50s as she falls in and out of love, through a filter of the life and work of George Eliot which is, I promise, no less vivid for that. Eventually we witness the aged Puttermesser being murdered and then raped, in that order, after which she describes life in paradise -where the quality of timelessness proves bitterly disappointing.
Ozick’s insistent awkwardness is her great attraction for me. She does things writers of fiction are not supposed to do, like giving dismissive summaries of plot which “must be recorded as lightly and swiftly as possible.” She also tells you things in a spirit of enthusiastic sharing, so you end this book knowing all about golems, for instance. There is the Prague golem as a protector of the Jews but also the earlier mystical golem conjured out of nothing but unformed matter. This latter quality of blooming impossibility is also her work’s great strength.
Puttermesser embodies notions of Jewish as well as American redemptiveness and utopianism. Ozick writes, “Puttermesser craved. Her craving was to cleanse the wilderness … of injustice”. She is encouraged in this by Xanthippe’s notes saying things like; “No reality greater than thought.” She is the kind of retired Mayoress whose tea bags come with Nietzschean aphorisms saying “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” Before retiring she’d dreamt about appointing PB Shelley, to honour his principle that “poets are the legislators of mankind.”
These are not exactly belly laughs but there are plenty of smiles in The Puttermesser Papers. However both Ozick and her heroine are yearners for ideas and a better world. Yet if this book is an embodiment of that yearning, it is a kind of visceral, sexy tango of yearning -strange as it sounds. It’s this crazy exuberance along with her singular style that makes me recommend this book to you in the way that I would recommend Kafka or Calvino, Jean Rhys or Virginia Woolf.