I’ve now read three collections of Cynthia Ozick’s fiction, and it isn’t hard to find things to admire: sly humor, impressive stylistic mechanics, and an engagement with serious themes come to mind. Other than an essay or two though, I am not familiar with her nonfiction, and it seems this is the way she is often judged. However, it is her careful and deliberate use of the sentence to convey meanings both immediately apparent and deeply concealed that cause me to rate her new collection Dictation as one of the best books I’ve read this year.
Though the four long stories seem to be fairly dissimilar, there is the overarching comment on the nature of truth and authenticity in all of humanity but especially channeled through these characters who exist in the world of ideas.
The title story tells of the secret friendship between the two typists who work for Joseph Conrad and Henry James. Ozick is a James devotee, writing her master’s thesis on his later novels. Theodora Bosanquet, the secretary for James, describes her the intimacy of her relationship with the writer by calling herself ‘blessed to listen to the breathings, and the silences, and the sighs, and the pacings,’ finding herself closer to him than any other person for she witnesses firsthand his deliberations and process. Lilian Hallowes does the same work for Conrad, falling in love with him in the process.
Each woman believes her boss is the best writer of the age, and this debate allows for some charming conversation. Yet Theodora wants more. She wants to live forever as James’s amanuensis, but live both in plain sight and hidden at the same time. She can’t do it alone, needing a ‘secret sharer,’ none other than Lilian. Ozick blends history with invention, taking time to note that she is not beholden to history itself. Licenses have been taken, which are noted at the end of the story in a footnote and commented on: ‘Never mind, says Fiction; what fun, laughs Transgression; so what? Mocks Dream.’
‘Actors’ focuses on an aging actor who plays bit parts and was trained in the Method school. He is at odds with himself over the necessity to appease his wife (who is herself a crossword writer delivering cross words to her husband) and their financial situation by taking a Lear-like role in a production meant to revive the histrionics of the Old Yiddish theater. In ‘At Fumicaro,’ a Catholic journalist travels to Italy in the 1930s and finds himself attracted to the pregnant young maid of his cabin. This mix of sex and sin reminds one of an older writer like Graham Greene with the setting, but works the least well of the four stories.
‘What Happened to the Baby?’ sees the narrator’s uncle Simon create a new language called GNU, which attracts all sorts of left-wing students in the NYC that one imagines Ozick grew up in. As the story progresses, the narrator finds out the circumstances that led to her uncle’s quest for the universal human language, his hatred for Esperanto, and answers the title question. Her revelation has shook me since I read it yesterday evening: ‘Lies, illusion, deception, she said—was that it truly, the universal language we all speak?’
That sentence could serve as a thematic link for the entire book, with each story following essentially the same trajectory. Comedic beginnings grow increasingly darker and end with pathos.
Ozick is a deliberate writer, claiming that she cannot proceed to a new sentence until the one before is perfect, making her a one-draft writer who must figure everything out for she can’t go back a drop in something to foreshadow a later event if the story leads her that way. It is a bit of an odd style, I suppose, though I have read that other writers like Tim O’Brien and Zadie Smith do it as well. Yet that care is evident in the powerful works that make up Dictation, and I am quite excited that I have so much more Ozick to read in the future.