Saluting Cynthia Ozick

July 30, 2021 at 8:10 pm (Book review, books, Judaism)

Cynthia Ozick is “…an American short story writer, novelist, and essayist.”

Thus saith Wikipedia.

This statement is, of course, entirely accurate. Except that it doesn’t convey half of what this writer has achieved in her long and varied life, a life lived in literature and in the explication of the New York mind and the Jewish mind.

Ozick’s latest fiction is entitled Antiquities. In it, a superannuated academic relates his melancholy life story, which is centered on a relationship which was formed in a boarding school. There, the adolescent narrator contracts an intense friendship with the oddly named Ben-Zion Elefantin. The latter is Jewish – emphatically so – which makes him an untouchable at the school. The narrator, by association, also becomes untouchable. But having had few intimates to begin with, it hardly matters.

This is a mordant, melancholy little tome (192 pages in hardcover), enlivened frequently by Ozick’s wit and eloquence:

It is from my discreet and quietly dispirited mother, in a burst of confession in her seventieth year, and seriously ailing, that I know something of the effects of this perfunctory escapade.

Really, I do live to absorb such phrases as “perfunctory escapade!” And to just what is this felicitous phrase referring? You will find out as you read. At this point I will only say that it has to do with a journey to Egypt, to see the ancient ruins, in the company of none other than William Flinders Petrie:

Here I speak of William Matthew Flinders Petrie, knighted by the Queen, and more  broadly known as the illustrious archaeologist Sir Flinders Petrie.

More on this expedition:

He describes the green of the water, a massive colony of storks dipping their beaks, a glimpse of an occasional water buffalo, and on the opposite bank, as they were nearing the First Cataract at Aswan, a series of boulders on the fringe of what (so the guide informed him) was an island with a history of its own, littered with the vestigial ruins of forgotten worship.

‘vestigial ruins of forgotten worship…’ With such eloquence is Ozick’s prose liberally strewn, like the potsherds at an ancient site.

Antiquities is both intriguing and puzzling. It is mercifully short – just under two hundred pages. I enjoyed it.

I am not nearly as well read in this author’s works as I should be. But I wanted to take this opportunity to praise her. Ozick’s life in letters is greatly to be admired.

Born in 1928, this year Cynthia Ozick turned ninety-three.

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