Review by Ari Hoffman
Published a little less than forty years ago, Cynthia Ozick’s Bloodshed and Three Novellas (Knopf, 1976) manifests the tangled considerations that make Ozick’s work so idiosyncratically brilliant and challenging. Perhaps surprisingly, three of the book’s stories (“Bloodshed,” “An Education,” and “A Mercenary”), while artfully achieved, do not constitute a particularly strong sampling of Ozick’s work. They share a common concern with the displaced and unhappy, those for whom neither ambition nor self-effacement provide meaning or connection. Ozick traces this theme across a wide array of settings, from academia to the Foreign Service and the Haredi hamlets of upstate New York, but the stories are ultimately bearish on the possibility of finding happiness in an American Jewish landscape that seems to be alternately depleted and traumatized. Again, these vignettes are artfully drawn. But the collection’s enduring resonance lies elsewhere.
That resonance rests in two pieces that are thematically contiguous, a “Preface” in which Ozick herself focuses on the final story, “Usurpation (Other People’s Stories).” In an egregious act of an author playing favorites with her own work, mitigated only by that judgment’s confirmation by subsequent readers and critics, Ozick herself identifies “Usurpation” as the collection’s centerpiece. As she explains, “Usurpation” sprang from an obsession with the frisson between halacha and aggadah, religious fretting and novelistic fancy. Together, the “Preface” and “Usurpation” tease out the tensions between Jewishness and art while also managing to be both aesthetically exuberant and theologically engaging. This makes sense, as Ozick’s career features achievement in both the essay and the short story; her thinking easily crosses the border between prose and polemic.
The Preface offers two allied arguments that preoccupied Ozick in the 1970s, and both remain provocative and compelling today. The first revolves around the agon between Judaism and imaginative creation in the arts. For Ozick, the latter is a kind of idolatry, and making stories and populating them is an affront to the Jewish God and a tempting but ultimately destructive foray into image-making. In this vein, “Usurpation” is Ozick’s attempt to turn fiction against itself, a “story written against story-writing…an invention directed against inventing.” And yet, there is attraction as well as iconoclasm- “Why do I, who dread the cannibal touch of story-making, lust after stories more and more?” Ozick herself is a central player in this drama of ideas, both victim and proud bearer of a special kind of dual-loyalty.
The language of these loyalties and this lust is Ozick’s second major concern here. Namely, Ozick articulates the painful contradictions a Jewish writer feels writing in English. “When I write in English,” she argues, “I live in Christendom. But if my postulates are not Christian postulates, what then?” As both a committed Jew and a literary artist who completed a master’s degree on the “master,” Henry James, Ozick feels these dilemmas acutely. The Preface thus frames much of her work as a meditation on the jurisdiction of “the Commandment against idols.” Even if one finds all this a bit affected—and some readers may—it makes for great theater and a compelling authorial voice.
“Usurpation” both sharpens these anxieties and attempts to allay them. It is a marvel, one of the wildest and most indelible works in Ozick’s career. There are few texts more intoxicated with the joy of tales. It is an antic meditation on the Jewish literary tradition from the inside-out, an example of a story written in the kind of Jewish-English that Ozick worked tirelessly to instantiate, rich with glancing quotations to texts sacred and profane, knowing winks to Malamud and the textual mesorah both. It is also, structurally, a series of stories nested one inside the next that references everyone from Agnon and Tchernikhovsky to Malamud and Isaiah.
“Usurpation”’s greatest achievement is the way in which it embeds some of the greatest authors the Jewish tradition has known within a story “nobody wrote, nobody wants.” Of course, this is not quite true: Ozick wrote it, and this is the kind of story, learned and joyous and reckless, that we will always want and perpetually need.
Ari Hoffman is a PhD Candidate in the Department of English at Harvard University, where he serves as a Senior Resident Tutor in Lowell House. He is a three-time Tikvah Fellow, a two-time Malloy Research Fellow, and a former Acting Allston Burr Assistant Dean of Harvard College.