Skittish Homage to Ozick: The Little Lady Packs a Punch

Heir to the Glimmering World , by Cynthia Ozick. Houghton Mifflin, 310 pages, $24.

Confession: It’s not Virginia Woolf I’m afraid of-it’s Cynthia Ozick. Even though she blurbed my last book (disclosure, disclosure) and once recommended me for a fellowship I didn’t get (thanks for the memories, Mr. Guggenheim), still I’m afraid of her. She reminds me of Virginia Woolf, is why.

And a little of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. And a lot of that odd-duck dyad, Charlotte Brontë/Jane Austen-waif-like women who pack a wallop, whose impeccably mouse-like demeanors belie their blazing insights. Just when you resign yourself to the fact that they’re as meek and timorous as they seem, powch! comes the originality of their vision, the flammability of their passion, the cunning of their wisdom. (Others find them bold from the get-go, I realize; I’m only talking about how their aura reads to me.)

But mostly Ms. Ozick reminds me of Emily Dickinson. A Jewish Emily Dickinson, two dainty birdlike poets with great swoops of language, sharp claws of syntax. Small, gentle, delicate women who veil themselves with such fluttering modesty as to blindside you to the enormous stern force of their words.

Which is why I experience a fit and proper trepidation about critiquing Ms. Ozick’s latest novel, Heir to the Glimmering World . You won’t hear reviewers say this very often, but who am I to sit in judgment of my betters ? Even if I entertain certain reservations (her plot strikes me as oddly inert, while her exegesis of the Karaites-an ancient Jewish sect of scriptural literalists-would be better off in some other book, preferably not a novel), still I stand and bow before such royal imagery as the following, which describes a man who’s aged since last seen: “His curly hair was dusted all over … as if a peculiar rime had grown over him, or out of him, like a coating of flour.” And this, about a man laughing: “It altered him. Hidden creases, bursting into folds, corrugated the long slab of his jowl, and there, behind the contorted lips, like secret things exposed, were his big ruined teeth.”

Sentence for sentence, her sense of place crackles with imperial, almost gleeful power. Here’s a character in the 1930’s coming up from the subway onto 42nd Street “into a flowing gully of striders, gray fedoras like a field of dandelions gone to seed, hurrying women stuttering on Chinese heels. A denatured autumn wind smelled of trolley ozone.” Here’s rundown upstate New York of the same vintage: “half decayed, with its dilapidated farms, barns and silos rotting, and in the towns tired frame houses with warped porches pleading for paint, town after town sluggish in the dazing summer glare, the business district-three streets lined with sickly stores darkened by canvas awnings-surrendered to exhaustion.”

Even her throwaway lines have the incongruous firepower of a stun gun. “He laughed as a scholar laughs, hearing absurdity.” “He screwed up the wistful torque of his half-smile and handed me two books; they smelled of cellar.” “The scraping of shovels on pavements rang out like bells grown hoarse.” How can I feign a semblance of objectivity toward a writer who forever alters how I hear the pealing of a snow shovel?

The truth is, she’s no daintier than those other dames were. Like her sister church mice of literature, she’s surprisingly, shockingly, anchored in the corporeal. Who but someone who has the capacity to be ecstatically physical could pull off a passage like this? “Running! It was the thrilling heat that propelled him, summer at the boil, steaming off his skin … strangely cold runnels of sweat dribbling down his shins. He was a flying bath, he was a fish hugging the tide, he was a wave!” Who could revel in reek, as she does here? “A radiant odor, just short of a stink, fumed out of the damp small of his back and his armpits.”

Ms. Ozick may write convincingly of a certain Frau Mitwisser, so incapacitated by anxiety that the mere trappings of a grand hotel cause her “to shake and walk with her hand on her chest to hide her fright,” but the same character is also revealed to be “a little woman with unknowable power.” Ditto the protagonist, Rose: She’s fragile enough so that three hours of typing leaves her enervated (“The tender balls of my fingers tingled, as if sparks had shot up from the keys; their glass shields had captured the light, and sent violet streaks into my pupils”), but her will is iron (“I would force her. I would press her with the force of an iron press”).

Mistake these characters-and their author-at your peril. Enough diffidence is at work on the surface that you hardly notice, until too late, Ms. Ozick’s aptitude for “thinking with a sublime ferocity” (a phrase she once pinned on the critic James Wood). Merry and warm she may be, and sweet in person, but never overlook that she’s capable (as she proved in her last collection of essays) of taking the world to task-in terms sulfurous enough to roast varnish-for sentimentalizing Anne Frank. She ain’t heavy. She just wears her gravity lightly, a trick worth the jereminds of a dozen blowhards.

Such indeed is the scope of her power, at this stage in a crowded career, that even her faults appear here to be strengths. Take, for example, a certain penchant for melodrama, manifest chiefly in the final sentences of various chapters. “His wife saw everything. He saw nothing.” “The ‘D,’ she said, stood for Death-what else did I think it could be?” “It was not there. My fortune was gone.” Never mind that the melodrama more than once turns out to be false (the fortune is found within five pages); still it seems a moral triumph that a writer of such high purpose should traffic in suspense and other equally plebeian, writerly wares. Composing a page-turner seems an act of literary unsqueamishness. Or am I once more being unduly deferential?

You’ll notice, perhaps, that I’ve succeeded in fulfilling my allotted 1,200 words without dipping a proverbial toe into the novel’s plot-an ambitious and commotion-packed yarn about a jumbled-about German refugee clan ensconced in the far reaches of the Bronx, who orbit the feckless, grown-up subject of a children’s book (a character based on A.A. Milne’s Christopher Robin). I’ve also nimbly side-stepped the Karaites, who have remained obscure (with good reason, it seems to me) since the eighth century. For this reticence, I claim a time-honored reason: I’m chicken!

Daniel Asa Rose reviews books regularly for The Observer .