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Quarrel & Quandary, by Cynthia Ozick; xiii & 247 pp. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000, $25.00.
Ask Cynthia Ozick to define a Jewish book and she launches into an extended defense of the integrity of the body of traditional Jewish writing: Torah, Talmud, liturgy, ethics, and philosophy. Ozick takes her Judaism seriously; its literature, in the broad sense, for her, is didactic and dedicated to the promotion of virtue attained through study. She takes literature seriously too and strenuously defends fiction as an act of the "free imagination," with an equal emphasis on both elements of that phrase although, Ozick rightly argues, the imagination by definition is free. Thus, a Jewish book and Jewish fiction are contradictory. To different degrees, emphasis, and purpose, both are freighted by moral purpose.
So are the various Ozicks! A traditional Jew, a Jewish American writer, a novelist, an essayist, a classical feminist—all describe Ozick who obviously belies all simple categories save one: writer. Yet even as a writer, Ozick is complex and conflicted, lamenting that she hasn't written enough fiction but claiming that it simply could not have been different.
While Ozick may not be as prolific as she would like, she is a commanding presence in American fiction and belles lettres. Her latest collection of non-fiction work, Quarrel & Quandary, demonstrates her clear thinking, breadth of expertise, seriousness, and intelligence. Ranging from the autobiographical to the political, each essay is informed by history and none is light nor nostalgic. "Dostoyevsky's Unabomber" is perceptive and regrettably prescient in its depiction of the philosopher-murderer. In "The Posthumous Sublime," Ozick walks us through the "grieving that has been made beautiful" in the four stories of Sebald's The Emigrants. "A Drug Store Eden" is a warm and familiar but never sentimental portrait of her hard-working parents and her Uncle Ruby. The humor of "Lovesickness" and "How I Got Fired from My Summer Job" resonate for middle-class, studious, awkward young girls. In another essay, awe-inspired respect for Kafka is balanced by reverent awe of God, which is tempered by an uncomfortable acceptance of Job's acquiescence. Where is Job's "impious impatience" in the face of his renewed prosperity and health?, she asks. Where is "the father's bitter grief over the loss" of his first family? In quintessential [End Page 456] Ozick, she acknowledges the staying power of the ancient sages who argued God's majesty at the same time reserving her right to "philosophic doubt," especially in light of the Shoah.
Two essays in this volume are exceptional in their insight and influence. "Who Owns Anne Frank?" should put to rest the sentimentalization of Anne Frank and her diary. It should stop the shameless marketing of the Holocaust—the catastrophe that marked a century—as yet another genocide. Ozick's relentless focus on the reality of Nazi evil and its consequent waste of human lives and potential should abort further distortions about Anne's short life, but it probably won't. The diary has been "bowdlerized, distorted, transmuted, traduced, reduced . . . infantilized, Americanized, homogenized, sentimentalized, falsified, kitschified, and, in fact, blatantly and arrogantly denied." It has "nonsensically" been described as cheerful and optimistic, even in the face of the fact that Anne, along with other members of the attic community, were targeted for murder and that, one month before liberation, Anne and her sister Margot died as prisoners in the unimaginable horror of Bergen Belsen, a camp so lice-ridden and disease-infested that it was burned to ashes by the British rather than cleansed, disinfected, or rehabilitated.
Ozick tracks the controversy centered on the transformation of Anne's diary into the Americanized, christianized, perky Junior Miss that American audiences would accept, including the fabrication of lines that rendered the targeting of the Jews as one victim among many: "We're not the only people that've had to suffer" instead of Anne's more thoughtful and complex—and potentially problematic—"In the eyes of the world, we're doomed. . . . Who knows, maybe our religion will teach...