It’s said of the James brothers that William wrote philosophy like a novelist and Henry wrote novels like a philosopher. Something similar came to mind while reading Cynthia Ozick’s essay, “W. H. Auden at the 92nd Street Y” in her new book, Critics, Monsters, Fanatics & Other Literary Essays: Auden was a poet who (she says) “read poetry as if . . . reading prose” and Ozick is a critic (as well as novelist and former poet) who writes prose as if writing poetry.
And what fierce, scintillant, take-no-prisoners prose: apotheosizing Auden as “the touchstone for all serious poets writing now,” and a greater god than T. S. Eliot (“Eliot’s thundering fame has since shrunk to a period datum, or, as in The Four Quartets, a mystical haze”), she lands the current poetry scene a metaphor-loaded, swift kick-in-the-keister: “Poetry then had not yet fallen into its present slough of trivia and loss of encompassment, the herding of random images of miniscule perspective leading to a pipsqueak epiphany, a delirium of incoherence delivered, monotone upon monotone, in the cacophony of a slam.” Unfair? Too broad-brushed? Maybe—though deep down, don’t you kind of agree? At least you know what she means.
Most of the essays in this short (211 pages), compulsively re-readable book deal not with poetry, but fiction. (Two incandescent exceptions are “The Rhapsodist,” an homage to the current dean—nay, “Colossus”—of American literary criticism, Harold Bloom, about whom Ozick raises the question: Can a critic be so aflame with insight and love for poetry—so possessed by “the daemon,” as he calls it—that he might be every bit the equal of great poets?; and an essay (‘Nobility Eclipsed”) that tells the strange story of a quixotic group of early 20th Century American poets, writing everything from Irish-flavored odes praising Yeats to Whitmanesque epic poems about America—the American Indians, the Gold Rush, the plight of southern blacks, the New England landscape—all in Hebrew! (A foreign language nut myself, I just love this impossible, only-in-America story.) “Hebrew as a burning bush in the brain,” Ozick describes their obsession. Ashamed of her own failure to master Hebrew, she poignantly eulogizes these forgotten poets’ fanatical literary adventure.
But to fiction. The first, and longest, essay in the collection, “The Boys in the Alley, the Disappearing Readers, and the Novel’s Ghostly Twin” begins by mockingly dismissing a notorious literary dustup, ostensibly about the future of the novel, between novelists Jonathan Franzen and Ben Marcus, played out on the pages of Harper’s. I’ll skip the details; what’s important is her diagnosis of the real problem affecting the novel and her suggested remedy. The novel’s not in danger, she argues, but is suffering from insufficient critical “infrastructure.” There are critics—fine ones: James Wood, Daniel Mendelsohn, Adam Kirsch—but not enough. (Reviewers aren’t critics, she asserts.) She calls for “a critical mass of critics,” to “fertilize” the literary consciousness of the reading and writing community, adding historical perspective, challenging assumptions. “In times that are made conscious of the air they breathe—a consciousness that only a critical infrastructure can supply—the varieties of literary experience become less antagonistic than inquisitively receptive.” Pipe dream? Not exactly: she even names names—28 current scholars and writers—implicitly challenging them to get cracking.
But for me her most riveting essays deal with the public and private struggles of becoming and being a novelist, often illustrated through the lives of novelists, famous or forgotten. A particularly sad, surprising example of the latter is Lionel Trilling, barely remembered now, but a renowned literary critic and towering “figure” of the mid-20th Century. (She defines “figure”—a favorite term of Trilling’s, ironically—as “a thinker or artist . . . who stands for the inmost meaning of an era; an interpreter of society and its mainspring.” These outsized “figures,” perhaps doomed by Sixties skepticism and the balkanization of culture, no longer exist.) But as it turns out, Trilling, this superb essayist, lionized by the reading public, in private berated himself as a failure: “Nothing has so filled me with shame and regret,” he wrote in his journal, “as what I have not done.” And what hadn’t he done? He hadn’t become a famous novelist! What?
Oh, he tried. He published a novel, The Middle of The Journey, which Ozick adjudges “a very good novel”—though not a great one. Unsurprisingly, his reviewers smelled blood: How could this expert of “the secret workings of the Novel” produce anything but a great novel? Thus, in his critics’ minds, he’d failed. Embittered but not beaten, he tried again. This time he really did fail, abandoning his second novel after 150 pages. According to Ozick, who’s read the text, he fell, despite flashes of narrative brilliance, into the traps one might expect a critic-novelist to succumb to: overthinking his characters, deadly prose, a lifeless, bottled-up pivotal character, Trilling’s eerie doppelgänger. It was as if Trilling virtually murdered himself on the page.
So what led this revered “figure,” a moral compass for the country, to so belittle his own outstanding literary achievements, judging himself a failure for not having become the new Hemingway? (Apparently, he idolized Hemingway.) And what is this bizarre neurosis, that afflicts, it seems to me, mainly men, whereby we need to have written the Great American Novel in order to feel adequate, and perhaps even to validate our manhood? I know that women also indulge in literary jealousy, but they don’t seem to me to suffer from this “Novel or Nothing” (Trilling’s phrase) syndrome, whereby we men stake our worth on a chimera.
Fortunately, in another essay, “Writers, Visible and Invisible,” Ozick’s vivid imagining provides encouragement to those of us actually trying to write the Great American Novel: “[Imagine] this blustering, arrogant, self-assured, muscularly disdainful writer who belittles and brushes you aside, what is he really? When . . . spotted facing the lonely glow of his computer screen, he is no more than a frightened milquetoast paralyzed by the prospect of having to begin a new sentence.” Take that, Hemingway!
In “The Lastingness of Saul Bellow,” aptly following the Trilling essay, Ozick offers an inspiring counterpoint to failure: In the same year (1948) that the blood of Trilling’s novelistic ambitions was painfully clotting in his veins, Bellow’s blood was slowly, but also painfully, filling new vessels. He’d just published his second novel, but Augie March was not yet born, and Bellow expressed frustration with himself: “I somehow failed to write freely . . . there’s a certain diffidence about me . . . that prevents me from going all out . . . I am working towards something and have not arrived . . . I wanted to write before I had the maturity to write as ‘high’ as I wished and so I had a very arduous and painful apprenticeship and am still undergoing it.”
Saul Bellow diffident? Music to the ears of this apprentice novelist. Even though, three months later, Bellow disputed his own words (oddly, seeming to project them onto a critic) and Cynthia Ozick, sixty years later, agrees with his revised self-assessment: he was well beyond apprenticeship even before Augie. But that’s okay: this essay sent me rushing for Augie (a shameful gap in my education.) Bellow, “high” or low, inspires.
So does Cynthia Ozick. Each of these essays is full of such case studies, goads, cautionary tales. They glow with Ozick’s generous passion, luminous thought, love of language and hard-earned wisdom. The book is divided into five sections: Critics, Figures, Fanatics, Monsters, Souls. In her preliminary essay on “Fanatics,” she quotes Kafka’s translator’s definition of fanaticism as “that absolute, unalterable necessity for perfection, purity and truth,” and adds, “It was Kafka she meant.” I’d argue they describe Cynthia Ozick too. I’ve gleaned from other sources that she rarely goes out, and that she distinguishes between “life” and “art,” dismissing “life” (with tongue in cheek?) as what “interrupts” art. She’s a fanatic, no doubt, and an under-appreciated treasure. And she’s only 88. Here’s hoping she keeps it up to a Biblical old age. Meanwhile, I’m chomping to get to her novels (another shameful gap)—as soon as Augie frees me.