Cynthia Ozick

Ozick's version of Jewish literature is more than Yiddish words and slapstick.

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Tradition is the air Ozick breathes, informing nearly all of her work. Her novella “Envy, or Yiddish in America” (1989) envisions the writers of her generation—Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow—-through the eyes of a frustrated Yiddish writer of an earlier time named Edelshtein, infuriated by what he sees as the race away from Jewish heritage and their desire to conform: “Jewish novelists! Savages! The allrightnik's children, all they know is to curse the allrightnik! Their Yiddish! One word here, one word there. Shikseh on one page, putz on the other, and that's the whole vocabulary!” Here, a social critique takes the form of a literary one.

As a novelist and short-story writer, Ozick has alternated between her debts to Judaism and to modernism, seeking to combine the two when she can. Ozick’s master’s thesis was on the late novels of Henry James. Her novel Foreign Bodies retells James’ famously forbidding The Ambassadors as a post-World War II European adventure, with the horrors of the Holocaust, and the war itself, lingering over a family of American Jews. James is a regular presence in Ozick's work, his twisting spirals of prose and his devotion to literature among her greatest inspirations, and at times, her explicit subject. James makes an appearance in Ozick’s novella Dictation (2008), in which he and fellow novelist Joseph Conrad, both in their golden years, hire youthful typists to help with the act of writing.

Ozick also displays a devotion to another icon of modern literature, Franz Kafka, who informs one of her funniest novels, the amiably rollicking The Puttermesser Papers (1997). Ozick presents the book as a collection of loosely linked stories concerning the life of Ruth Puttermesser, an extraordinary New York Jew. In one story, Puttermesser creates a female golem to assist with her work; in another, she runs for mayor. The gently comic tone, sustained even after Puttermesser is raped and murdered and ascends to the afterlife, makes Ozick the unlikely successor to Jewish humorists past, and to Kafka himself.

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Saul Austerlitz

Saul Austerlitz is a writer and film critic in New York.