Reprinted with permission from JBooks.com.
Cynthia Ozick’s publicity style is as meek as her public persona. Her fans adore her, writers would like to be her, but she rarely claims the spotlight. Readers are often surprised, even slightly jarred, by her soft and high-pitched voice and apparent timidity when they see her speak or read for the first time, having expected to encounter a presence as forceful as her writing. Ozick doesn’t do book tours–her readings for the much-lauded 2004 novel, Heir to the Glimmering World, constituted her first, at age 76. She often seems to take the back stage compared to other writers of her repute, letting her books speak for themselves. And yet when Ozick publishes a new novel or a collection of criticism, or often even simply an essay in The New Yorker, she commands such attention that people can’t stop talking about her.
Such is the case with Ozick’s 1997 The Puttermesser Papers, a novel that chronicles five major episodes in the life of Ruth Puttermesser, a single Jewish New York lawyer. On its surface the story seems as if it could be completely ordinary–when it comes to single Jewish New York lawyers, Puttermesser is one of many. But in Ozick’s hands, Puttermesser’s life is fantasic: her tale is at once a satire, a tragedy, a fantasy, a romance, and a meditation on Jewish history.
The Puttermesser Papers–which landed on the Best of 1997 lists of many American newspapers–begins with Ruth Puttermesser at age 34, an ambitious, beautiful, intelligent New Yorker living in the Bronx in the apartment she grew up in after her elderly parents move to Florida. The book’s five chapters detail the events of her life, some mundane, some fabulous.
Ruth leaves the Bronx after her apartment burns down; she gets fired from her job in the city’s Department of Receipts and Disbursements; she accidentally creates a female golem who helps her become mayor of New York; she takes in her Soviet émigré cousin; she falls in love with a painter who misleads her for the sake of his art; and she is brutally raped and murdered. It’s the somewhat ordinary, somewhat shocking, somewhat devastating life of a character who is simultaneously sweet, infuriating, lonely, and life-affirming. Puttermesser is a friendless hermit with a voracious appetite for life and literature who embodies all of life’s contradictions.
What’s Jewish about Puttermesser? An astonishing amount. In the work of another writer–or perhaps in the chick-lit of the 21st century–Puttermesser easily could be a secular everywoman, biding her time in the New York City bureaucracy as she searches for a man. But Ozick creates a Jewish life force. It’s subtle: Puttermesser doesn’t go to synagogue; we don’t see her gathering with the family for Passover seders; she doesn’t spend her time at Israel rallies or UJA events. But, as Ozick wrote 30-some years ago, in an essay called "Esau and Jacob," compiled in her Art and Ardor collection, "What makes a Jew is the conscious implication in millennia. To be a Jew is to be every moment in history, to keep history for breath and daily bread."
Puttermesser is so firmly rooted in Jewish history that her life could easily be a mini-course in modern European Jewry and the immigration experience. After reading Ozick’s chapter about Xanthippe, Puttermesser’s golem, readers will be well-versed in the historic golem legends and the history of the Jews of Prague. Puttermesser’s relationship with Lidia, the Soviet cousin who comes to stay with her but decides she prefers Russia, can be read as Ozick’s somewhat snide commentary on the expectations of Soviet Jewish immigrants to the United States and the Americans who so desperately, and maybe misguidedly, want to help them. Even Puttermesser’s own move from her parents’ home in the Bronx to her own apartment on Manhattan’s East Side can be seen as a typically Jewish saga of "making it" in New York–leaving behind the old Jewish enclave in favor of a place of her own. Even Puttermesser’s version of heaven seems particularly Jewish: it is a place where she finally has a child, circumcises him, loses him, and ends up as alone as she was in life.
Overall, The Puttermesser Papers is a whirlwind of both comedy and tragedy, a novel so intriguing that is hard to put down and that so critically examines its main character it is hard to know whether to sympathize with her or be disgusted by her. Ozick, perhaps more than any other writer today, is equally at home as a novelist and a literary and social critic, and The Puttermesser Papers leaves no doubt that she is a master at both.