Cynthia Ozick: OH-zik
An Interview With Cynthia Ozick
In Heir to the Glimmering World there are several actual
heirs, including the profligate James ABair a character inspired by the
son of A. A. Milne, creator of Winnie-the-Pooh. What was the source of this
Some time ago I happened on the obituary of Christopher Milne, A. A. Milnes grown son, whom we know mainly through Ernest Shepards indelible illustrations of a small boy in short pants. At his death he was the owner of a bookshop hidden away in the north of England, having attempted all his life to slough off his identification with Pooh and Eeyore and all the rest. He wanted to flee from the artifice of his fathers creation: he longed to become an autonomous adult, to be a man, not the object of nostalgic pilgrimages to a living shrine not of his making. Or so I thought, reading that obituary notice. In my novel the character inspired by Christopher Robin is named James ABair, eventually to be dubbed the Bear Boy. The Bear Boy struggles to climb out of what Thomas Mann called "the well of the past," the past that has immured him in an imaginary childhood. His single-minded aim is to escape being costumed forever in lace collar and rouged knees, forever five years old.
Professor Rudolf Mitwisser, beneficiary of the Bear Boys profligate ways, studies an ancient Jewish sect of scriptural literalists they rejected all interpretation. How does Mitwissers obsession relate to the Bear Boy?
It would be grandiose to call my novel a novel of ideas, but I hope I may venture that it is a novel of at least an idea: the idea of the necessity of interpretation, but also the danger of interpretation. What makes a human being? Language first, and then imaginative interpretation the human mind cannot live without it. Like all literalists, the Karaites stood against imagination and interpretation, and they vanished out of historys mainstream. The author of the Bear Boy books weighed down his son with so much ineradicable embellishment that the man could never free himself from the invented boy. Whether interpretation is too little or too much, a withering will follow.
Aside from the underpinning of ideas, your novel is a delight to read with a delightful narrator, Rose Meadows. Does she see these thematic notions youve just described?
Hardly. She is only an untried motherless eighteen-year-old, carelessly abandoned by a feckless father. And anyhow, for the characters in any fiction, and above all for readers, theme is subterranean, implicit, unobtrusive, the invisible underside of the story. Rose, though, feels intelligently, and she is an acute observer: she takes things in while mostly standing apart. I compare her to the traditional Young Man from the Provinces, who enters, unprepared, into unsuspected complexities. She starts out as a witnessing eye, yet some of the complexities she encounters occur beyond her consciousness or view: the Spanish civil war, for instance, or incidents in Barcelona, Berlin, Cairo, Switzerland.
Have you yourself visited the far-flung places the novel touches on?
Ive never been to any of them, nor to those little central Pennsylvania or upstate New York towns the Bear Boy wanders through: Bellefonte, Pleasant Gap, Port Matilda, Tyrone (though I did once pass through Altoona); or Troy, Endicott, Oneonta, Batavia, Medusa. The only locality in the novel I can claim intimacy with is the untamed neighborhood in the northeast corner of the Bronx, the last stop on the Pelham Bay line, where the Mitwisser family finally lands. I grew up there, long ago, close to meadow, bay, swamp, cattails, lilacs, a World War I victory column. Except for this one setting, nothing in the novel is even faintly autobiographical.
Is Heir to the Glimmering World a comedy or a tragedy?
The story ends with a wedding ring and a baby the conventional requisites for comedy so I suppose it can count as a comedy. Yet since world upheaval is pervasive, and there are three deaths the first in a car crash, the second in war, the third by suicide some may regard it as an anatomy of melancholy. But novels are only chronicles of human lives (even if those lives are invented) and merely retell our confusions of light and dark, of loss and promise. What matters, I think, is the conviction that something significant is at stake.
Youve published four collections of essays and eight books of fiction. Which kind of writing are you more attracted to?
Definitely fiction. Fiction is all risk, all discovery, all confidentiality even secrecy. Essay writing verges on being a public act and is driven more by the intellectual faculty than by the imaginative. But fiction...when I say secrecy, I mean not only the long, long immersion in privacy and isolation, and the wooing of phantoms out of the air, but those bodiless concealments and disclosures of language that lurk in certain turns of dialogue, or the turn of an eye, or a hand, or a shaft of sky. A watchfulness, an almost perilous vigilance. A novel can be written, so to speak, out of "sociology," and it will still be a novel. But when a novels sinews are bound up in the most fearful intimations of language, when setting down a phrase feels tantamount to ingesting the blood of demons . . . just there is the difference between the safety of prose and the lusts of art: think of the haying scene in Anna Karenina, or the Marabar caves in A Passage to India. Call it language, call it intuition, call it seduction, call it idea-as-emotion. It is a voluptuousness only the novel knows, and the elusive grail we poor scribblers helplessly chase.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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