“The term ‘Jewish writer’ ought to be an oxymoron,” observed Cynthia Ozick in her typically sharp essay “Tradition and (or versus) the Jewish Writer,” from her 2006 essay collection The Din in the Head. Here Ozick is specifically referring to novelists like Norman Mailer, whose best work, she believes, stems from a rejection of the bonds of tradition—be it literary or religious.
Ozick admires those writers who do not identify as Jewish in their work, believing their rejection of tradition encourages their fearlessness in exploring the literary unknown. And yet Ozick has made a career–and burnished a fearsome reputation–as a writer whose Jewishness is part and parcel of her authorial persona. Ozick, relatively conservative in her artistic temperament, writes as one absorbed in Jewish heritage and literature in equal parts. She describes herself in her essay “On Discord and Desire” as sitting, “in my room with its yellow wallpaper reading Henry James and volumes of Jewish history and The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.”
Ozick was born in New York City in 1928 to Russian immigrants who owned a pharmacy. She earned her Bachelor’s degree from New York University and an M.A. in English literature from Ohio State University. Ozick did not publish her first work of fiction, Trust, until she was nearly 40, but has kept a steady pace of publications since, writing six novels, six story collections, and seven essay collections.
As an essayist, Ozick has won the National Book Critics Circle Award for her book Quarrel & Quandary in 2000. She writes as someone who cannot but see the world through a Jewish lens. Ozick did, after all, name her first collection of essays All the World Wants the Jews Dead (1974). Considering Tolstoy’s novel The Cossacks, she ponders its elision of Cossack horsemen’s anti-Semitic raids, and its author, “who, though steeped in principles of compassion, turned away from what he knew.” For Ozick, the writing of literature and writing about literature also intertwine. One of her most beloved books, The Messiah of Stockholm (1987), is about one of her literary heroes, the short-story writer Bruno Schulz, who was murdered by the Nazis.
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.
Ozick is, as her character Edelshtein would have known, of the generation of writers that produced Roth, Bellow, and the like. And yet, being a woman, a relatively late bloomer, and still prolific into her eighties, she has always felt like a writer apart, tied less to her contemporaries than her favored predecessors and influences, Kafka and James among them. Ozick has set out what she hoped to accomplish all along—-to become a timeless writer, one more attuned to the great writers of the past than the waves and trends of the present.