Dictation book cover
February 07, 2008
Dictation is Cynthia Ozick’s fourth collection of short stories. It is also one of her best.
Of the book’s four pieces, three were originally published in The New Yorker (“Actors” and “At Fumicaro”) and The Atlantic (“What Happened to the Baby?”).
The collection’s title story, which details an audacious plan by two turn-of-the-century literary secretaries, drips with the delicious wit for which Ozick is justly famous. At issue is the intrusion of typewriters into the creative process and the women who peck away as their respective bosses — none other than Henry James and Joseph Conrad — dictate the paragraphs that will later make them famous.
The rub is that the secretaries — overworked and underpaid — also want a share of immortality and the result is a tour de force on Ozick’s part, half reversal, half revenge, that ends with a paragraph by James being slipped, undetected, into the manuscript of a tale by Conrad. Ozick has a sly wit and no doubt part of her enjoys placing versions of James and Conrad into the same drawing room:
“I note, sir, James remarked, that you observe with some curiosity the recent advent of a monstrously clacking but oh so monumentally modern Remington. The difficulty of the matter is that my diligent typewriter, a plausible Scot conveniently reticent, is at bottom too damnably expressive, and I believe I can get a highly competent little woman for half, n’est-ce-pas? May I presume, Mr. Conrad, that you, in the vigor of youth, as it were, are not of a mind to succumb to a mechanical intercessor, as I, heavier with years, perforce have succumbed?”
But surely a greater part of Ozick’s imagination continues to brood about the inextricable relationship between the making of art and the itch for immortality. Indeed, this is why, from her first short stories onward, Ozick can fall into fits of self-abnegation, wondering, first, if the literary artist competes with God and then if there is something profoundly wicked in giving oneself over to the demands of a short story.
The result is a story that fits easily onto Ozick’s top shelf, so seamlessly fashioned that, like the story of the conspiring secretaries, some readers will (wrongly) imagine it is “true.”
Of the remaining three stories, “Actors” is my clear favorite, not only because I cannot entirely shake the feeling that Ozick writes about the theater with an insider’s disappointment (her theatrical version of The Shawl bombed before making it to Broadway) but also because actors, like writers, want to stride across the boards as gods. To infuse Shakespeare’s words with meaning, to convince us that Lear is, indeed, a man “more sinned against than sinning” is a measure of the actor’s immortality, or more often, his dream of avoiding the ash heap of bygone actors.
In “What Happened to the Baby?,” Ozick goes so far as to invent GNU (Nu?), a universal language that fancies itself competing with Esperanto.
The wacky scheme, as ancient as that which gave rise to the Tower of Babel, is about separating the heavens from the earth and about the place of language in the human condition.
Finally, “At Fumicaro,” a story that follows an intellectual Catholic journalist as he attends a conference in Franco’s Spain, only to find himself suddenly married to a local peasant and feeling in his very bones what the Catholicism of Cardinal Newman, Jacques Maritain, and Graham Greene (especially in The Heart of the Matter) really means. To so vividly imagine a Catholic intellectual may strike many of Ozick’s Jewish readers as odd, but her critics have known, for a very long time, that one of the American writers Ozick most resembles (allowing for a nip here and a tuck there) is the uncompromising, take-no-prisoners Catholic-American writer Flannery O’Connor. Ozick shares her eviscerating wit as well as an utter commitment to religious values that wear a disarmingly human face.
Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor at Franklin and Marshall College. He now lives in south Florida, where he writes about Jewish literature and culture on cloudy days.