restricted access Cynthia Ozick's Fiction: Tradition and Invention (review)
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Reviewed by
Elaine M. Kauvar. Cynthia Ozick’s Fiction: Tradition and Invention. Jewish Literature and Culture Series. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1993. xx + 264 pp.

Over the past decade Cynthia Ozick has become outstandingly popular with the critics and with literary scholars. Her recognition came late, given the fact that her first novel, Trust, dates back as far as 1966. But when it was finally launched by a section devoted to her in the 1983 summer issue of Texas Studies in Literature and Language other work followed in almost avalanche-like proportions. To date, apart from numerous articles and interviews, there are six monographs and one essay collection devoted exclusively to the critical assessment of her work. Her reputation has even crossed the Atlantic, since one of those monographs was written by a young German scholar. The two most recent book-length studies are the book under review here, and Victor Strandberg’s Greek Mind/Jewish Soul: The Conflicted Art of Cynthia Ozick (1994).

It seems appropriate to be writing about Kauvar’s book subsequent [End Page 159] to the publication of an even more recent critical study, since Strandberg’s exploration of Ozick’s development follows the trend of the bulk of Ozick criticism in that his focus is, like in almost all previous studies, on the Jewish sources of her fiction, both in a cultural and in a religious understanding. His book thus adds to our sense of the uniqueness of Elaine Kauvar’s approach to her subject. Kauvar does decidedly not subscribe to the view that Ozick is primarily a religious or an ethnic writer. Quite on the contrary, her study takes its cue from the firm conviction that “[Ozick’s] is not a parochial art.”

To be sure, the widespread notion that Cynthia Ozick is a writer of orthodox theological persuasions, who was primarily intent on a propagation of such views through the medium of literature, emanated from certain provocative statements made by Ozick herself early on in her career. The locus classicus is probably her notorious essay “Toward a New Yiddish” from 1970. In that essay Ozick likens literature to idolatry which violated the Second Commandment—“Thou shalt not make my graven images”—and which therefore should be shunned. It is plausible to assume that pronouncements of this sort did have a strong effect on the direction that criticism concerned with her work has taken. What is important in our context, however, is that Elaine Kauvar has successfully avoided the trap of an intentional fallacy. She is aware that Ozick quickly overcame the dilemmas of her early career by translating them into sophisticated fictions about artists and the choices they must face in their life and work.

She is also aware that, like T.S. Eliot, Cynthia Ozick is a writer with a deep commitment to the concept of high art and to the legacy of an artistic tradition. More specifically—and this is one of the book’s central theses—it is a commitment to the quest for identity or to the search for a father figure, a fascination with the idea of artistic influence and inheritance in the Bloomian sense. Kauvar demonstrates that both Ozick’s first novel, Trust, and her latest novel to date, The Messiah of Stockholm (1987), are centrally concerned with the struggle for identity. Whereas Trust is seen in this framework as Ozick’s portrait of the artist as a young woman, The Messiah of Stockholm, in which the protagonist believes that he is the son of the Polish writer Bruno Schulz, is discussed as the climax of this preoccupation. Unlike Eliot, however, Cynthia Ozick does not separate the author from the text; Kauvar cautions us that Ozick refuses to accept Eliot’s celebrated formulation, the [End Page 160] objective correlative. She sees Ozick instead as a strong believer in the marriage between biography and art and points to a number of instances in her fiction and in several of her critical essays where this conviction is foregrounded.

On the basis of these major insights into the structure of Ozick’s aesthetic choices and predilections, Elaine Kauvar’s study offers a meticulous and highly informed archeology of her...