The story raises questions, as well, about what originality means in art. Conrad believed literature revealed the author; James believed it obscured him. And Ms. Ozick? I don’t think anything in Dictation is true. Ms. Ozick, I’m sure, doesn’t care. In an essay on Bellow’s Him With His Foot in His Mouth, she wrote, “The life on the page resists the dust of flesh, and is indifferent to external origins.”
But what if—not true but plausible—Conrad’s The Secret Sharer did have a bit of James’ “The Jolly Corner,” and vice versa, and neither author noticed? One could not imagine any such traffic between, say, Daisy Miller and Typhoon. But when you think about those two stories of the confused self, written almost at the same time, the overlap is intriguing. James’ ghost is a cousin of Conrad’s Leggatt. What would it mean, “Dictation” asks, if we cannot even be sure whose words are whose, or worse, of the validity of the categories of literature—James: high priest of English letters; Conrad: hotheaded autodidactic gatecrasher? If literature is a temple, where’s the beadle?
But I don’t mean to suggest that “Dictation” and the other stories in this collection are itching to make a point; they aren’t. What makes Cynthia Ozick a wonderful and surprising writer—and this was equally true of Bellow and no longer very true of Phillip Roth—is that her characters live. They not only live—they insist on living. This verve come partly from her talent, but also from a commitment to the animation of the inert, playing Rabbi Loeb to fiction’s golem, that borders on the moral.
Ms. Ozick’s characters are never vessels for ideas nor are her ideas vessels for characters. The two coexist, join and separate, illuminate and obscure personality, just as they do in the real world. Dictation is a brilliant book, a necessary book, a book that radiates the true intelligence of literature from every page.
D. T. Max is the author of The Family That Couldn’t Sleep
: A Medical Mystery (Random House). He can be reached at email@example.com.