Cynthia Ozick

“I have a theory that your true psychological—even, in the deepest sense, metaphysical—age is the age you mostly are in your dreams,” said Cynthia Ozick, 77, in a fluttering voice as girlish and diffident as a college co-ed’s. She was speaking by phone from her home in New Rochelle, which she shares with her husband, Bernard Hallote. It was shortly after 3 p.m., and Ms. Ozick—who spends her nights scribbling Emily Dickinson–style in a small garret—had just had her breakfast.

“And I am generally in my 20’s,” she continued, “full of aspiration, very much overlooked, very diffident, very envious, very aspiring—all those things.” Then she added after a pause, “I have stood still and the decades have passed.”

For a woman who has “stood still” as the decades passed, however, Ms. Ozick has accomplished some rather remarkable feats.

During the 50 or so years since she was a “diffident,” “envious” and “aspiring” young writer, Ms. Ozick has become known as one of the most rigorous scribes of her generation. Long hailed as a writer’s writer, she is one of those rare literary double-threats who is as comfortable scribbling the lyrical prose of fiction as she is thundering away in a polemical essay. She has written five novels and five books of essays, several collections of stories, a smattering of poetry and a play called The Shawl, based on her haunting story of the same name about a broken survivor of the Holocaust. In February 2005, she was nominated along with Philip Roth, John Updike, Gabriel García Márquez and several other literary titans for the first Man Booker International Prize for achievement—which is to say, all-around literary titanism—in writing.

Ms. Ozick didn’t win in the end (the prize went to the Albanian author Ismail Kadaré), but it was a powerful acknowledgement of a career that has flared increasingly brightly in recent years. For the first 15 or so years of her writing life, the young Ms. Ozick scribbled and imagined largely in obscurity, without publishing a single book or story (though several poems did make it into print). Even later, when her books had won acclaim and admirers, she was often assigned the role of “Jewish writer,” a title that still makes her bristle—not out of shame or self-denial, she says, but because the notion of a Jewish writer is an oxymoron.

“The Jewish side represents all kinds of sobriety, responsibility, civic decency,” she explained. “The writer side represents the vilde chaya [wild beast]. And the beast and the citizen can’t live side by side in the same person.”

But in recent years, with the publication of 1997’s The Puttermesser Papers and last year’s Heir to the Glimmering World in particular, the landscape of perception has begun to shift. Each novel was greeted as a kind of literary event, showered with praise and nominated for awards. There was a sense that Ms. Ozick had arrived, finally achieved the potential of her awesome writerly powers and claimed her place among her generation.

Ms. Ozick, however, finds the idea perplexing. “I don’t feel any difference between how I wrote when I was 22 and how I write now,” she said. “I just feel that it’s the same flame.”

“Flame” is the essential word for Ms. Ozick, who holds writing as a kind of sacred rite, a ner tamid, that must be carefully nurtured and honored. True writing, she has said, is not a profession or anything so grubby and striving as a “career”—a word she “repudiates”—but rather is a devotion demanding an almost “religious immersion.” Never mind that she has often, and paradoxically, railed against this literature worship as a kind of paganism in her essays; she has honored it, practiced it, upheld it in her own daily life.

“Writing comes to genuine writers in this way of no choice, ein brira,” she said, punctuating the thought with Hebrew. “I often quote Martin Luther: Ich kann nicht anders. I can do no other.”

Ms. Ozick knew that she was a writer “as soon” as she was sentient, she said. Growing up in the Bronx, the daughter of Jewish immigrants who ran a local pharmacy, she began spouting stories before she could even read or write. “My mother was my amanuensis,” she recalled. “She recorded some poems that I was writing.”

The young Ms. Ozick embarked on a formal writing path at 22, after returning from Ohio State University, where she had received her master’s degree in literature (she wrote her thesis on Henry James, who has remained one of her most enduring inspirations). It was not an easy beginning.

Her first effort was a “philosophical novel” called Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love (or MPPL) that she eventually abandoned after several long and fevered years of work. From there, she moved on to another massive novel called Trust, which took nearly seven years, and a novella, which she dashed off in six weeks. The novella never made it into print, but Trust went to press in 1966. (Despite its lack of critical recognition, she maintains that Trust displayed some of her best writing.) Ms. Ozick was nearly 40.

“Along with despair, I had a great deal of envy of my age cohort—to use a sociological term—who were publishing and distinguishing themselves with a great deal of recognition,” she said of those early, struggling years. “But along with this envy and suffering, there was a great deal of reading and enormous determination.”

This determination began to bear fruit in the late 1960’s, as Ms. Ozick turned for a time from novel writing and began scratching out short stories and, later, essays. Tracing many of the Jewish themes that have continued to define her writings, these stories, like “The Pagan Rabbi” and “Envy; or, Yiddish in America,” were incisive and lyrical, and they quickly established her as a nascent force in the small but influential world of Jewish intellectuals and authors. Work begat work. She spilled out stories, novellas, and fierce polemics on feminism, anti-Semitism, Israel, Palestinians, art, Holocaust denial and a library’s worth of other combustible topics. Along the way, she raised a daughter, Rachel, who is now the director of Jewish studies at SUNY Purchase.

These days, the daughter has her own children and Ms. Ozick is a white-haired grandmother. But little has changed in the force of her writing beyond, perhaps, her habit of working late into the night rather than beginning early in the morning.

“[I sit] in a tiny room off the bedroom,” she said. “It’s got a window, and I don’t face the window because I don’t want to be distracted. It has no plants in it, because I don’t want anything to breathe or live around me. The phone doesn’t ring; it’s very still. It’s not the real world then.”

The unreal world—or, more precisely, creating unreal worlds—has always been Ms. Ozick’s true passion. As a young woman, she always imagined that she would write “many novels.” That was her dream, and she confessed that she is “disappointed” in herself for not writing more fiction.

And so, as she looks to the coming years, she has decided to devote herself primarily and pre-eminently to the world of the unreal, to writing short stories—including one she is finishing now called “What Happened to the Baby”—and to weaving novels.

“I just essentially want to keep writing fiction,” she said. “That’s my very old ambition, unaltered.”

Cynthia Ozick