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The Tortoise and the Hare; Or, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, and the Vagaries of Fiction Writing


ISSUE:  Summer 2005

In 1959, a thirty-one-year-old writer named Cynthia Ozick was hard at work, in her determined tortoise-like way, on an ambitious novel that, seven years later, would be published as Trust; and also in 1959, a young, in-your-face writer named Philip Roth published Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short Stories. Not since Norman Mailer set the literary world on its ear with The Naked and the Dead (1948) had a collection of stories so changed the American cultural landscape. Roth was surely the hare of Aesop’s tortoise-and-hare fable, a young man out of the literary gate before most of his competitors had made it to the track. Not only did Roth speed off with what, in those days, was a prestigious National Book Award, but he also set into motion debates about tradition, responsibility, and the individual artist that would dog his heels from then on—book after book, decade after decade.

 

Many Jewish Americans were not pleased to see what Roth’s satiric eye and deadly accurate ear could dig up about . . . well, them. Goodbye, Columbus put their manners and mores on public display, and while they may have denied the accuracy of Roth’s observations (“Unfair! Unfair!” they shouted, in what seemed a single voice), they also winced whenever his stories edged too close to the truth.

What Goodbye, Columbus laid bare was the empty triumphs of contemporary Jewish American life. He wrote, in short, about Short Hills and other outposts of the Jewish American suburbs in a way that boosters equated with prophetic scolding and that knockers worried would precipitate anti-Semitic riots. Hindsight suggests that both groups were wrong: Roth’s collection occasioned neither an abrupt shift in mainstream Jewish American attitudes nor broken noses suffered from Gentile fists. What did change, however, was a revised—and revitalized—sense of the subjects and the sounds that Jewish American writers could lay claim to.

Like John Updike, his near contemporary, Roth knew early on that his best material was near at hand, as close to him as his nose. He knew, for example, that Jewish Americans were no longer formed by a combination of Great Depression belt tightening and left-wing hope but rather that they were people with an eye on the main chance and the mainstream. Roth clearly enjoyed scolding such Jews, never missing a chance to go on a tear about their fat souls and deep pockets. Roth’s early stories were generally regarded as stunners, but in retrospect, many now seem both formulaic and cold. Why so? Because Goodbye, Columbus is the work of a very young, young man who enjoyed, far more than he should have, reducing his characters to objects of easy derision. What Roth hadn’t counted on, however, was that he would soon become outraged by the outrage his stories caused: Jewish war veterans were so ticked off by the goldbricking Jewish soldier in “Defender of the Faith” that they tried to get the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to shut this smart-ass down (to its credit, the ADL refused); and shortly afterward, Roth found himself heckled by a Yeshiva University student who sharply questioned his credentials as a legitimately “Jewish” writer. Clearly shaken, Roth vowed never to write about Jews again, but it was a promise he could not keep. For better or worse, richer or poorer, he was wedded to his memories of a Jewish childhood spent in Newark, New Jersey; and the upset that his work created would go on.

In the December 1972 issue of Commentary magazine the late Irving Howe took Roth to the woodshed for a good thrashing. True, he had been one of Roth’s early champions, but after Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), Howe jumped ship. Roth had moved from being a young writer with potential to becoming an embarrassment. Portnoy’s outbursts were so aggravating, Howe argued, that nobody should be made to read the book twice—and this was only one of Howe’s crotchets. He moved through Roth’s work deliberately, methodically, until he finally got to the bottom line: Roth, Howe declared flatly, had come from “a thin personal culture.”

Whatever his Newark childhood might have been, and no matter how many quarrels he may have had with it, Roth was furious that Howe dismissed his middle-class Jewish American ethos as so much watery gruel. “Thin” hurt, even though, by this time, Roth had acquired enough hate mail and assorted bad press to know how to slough off attacks by outraged readers: he simply ignored them. But Howe’s take-no-prisoners attack turned out to be hard to forget and even harder to forgive. He was, after all, a New York intellectual at the top of the top shelf; his pronouncements about cultural matters were influential, if not downright definitive. Small wonder that Roth coveted his approval. But if that was not to be—not since Portnoy’s Complaint muddied the waters—Roth knew how to bite the hand that once had fed him. In The Anatomy Lesson (1983), he turned Howe into Milton Appel, a literary critic as suffocating as he was moralistic, and then counter-turned Appel into a pornographer. No doubt the revenge was as sweet to Roth as it now seems sophomoric to us.

That Roth was not above using fiction to settle up old scores is true enough (see, for example, how he handles ex-wife Claire Bloom in I Married a Communist [1998]) but not as central to understanding Roth as his need, in Portnoy’s words, “to be bad and still feel good.” Let me hasten to add that Roth is not Alexander Portnoy, just as he is not Nathan Zuckerman, but there are nonetheless points of similarity: both are launching pads that allow Roth a chance to soar out of his skin and become both freewheeling and free.

What Howe regarded as a “thin personal culture” is the stuff of residue, what remains when the genuine article—which, for Howe, was the immigrant Jewish culture he so lovingly chronicles in World of Our Fathers (1975)—is no longer even a distant memory. Small wonder, then, that Roth peppers his book with the more immediate—and for him, more accessible—material of the popular culture—not only ethnic foodstuffs from the Portnoy dinner table and baseball games down the block but also the sexual boasts-cum-shameless-confessions that were becoming the anthem of the liberated, anything-goes 1960s. Roth caught the age in all its excess, and his novel quickly found its way onto bestseller lists. The number of American Jews who worried about Goodbye, Columbus increased exponentially. Here was a novel that laid bare the whole ugly business of a cramped Jewish childhood and Portnoy’s fruitless efforts to combine lust with love.

Roth’s characters, like Roth himself, often seem cut off from the wellsprings of Jewish identity. They know a little Yiddish (almost exclusively vulgarisms) and even less Hebrew. They are, for the most part, thoroughly assimilated Americans who could explain the infield fly rule but not a page of Talmud. These examples and many others are what Howe meant when he wrote Roth’s personal culture down as “thin.”

By contrast, Cynthia Ozick has rich personal cultures to spare. This fact helps to explain why she plodded along for so many years as a tortoise and why her rarified intelligence made her a literary essayist of the first rank rather than a novelist one could mention in the same breath as the dazzling speed merchant Philip Roth.

Ozick, unlike Roth, is the product of a background in which Jewishness meant religious study and observance, community affiliation and work on behalf of Israel. All these elements were in the very air she breathed growing up in the Bronx: Ozick was fluent in Yiddish as a young adolescent and studied Hebrew in college; she was familiar with the usual (Jewish) suspects by her early twenties, then added German Jewish philosopher-theologians such as Leo Baeck and Franz Rosenzweig to the mix during her mid-twenties. She was, in short, every inch the bookworm.

During the same period she also thought of herself as an acolyte of high modernism, a person, in her own words, who was “besotted with the religion of Literature.” She was a student during the heyday of Partisan Review, adding the likes of Delmore Schwartz and Isaac Rosenfeld to the modernist giants encountered in her literature classes: T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, and most revered of them all, the “Master,” Henry James.

The intertwining strands of Jewish thought and modernist literature have proven themselves to be as much a curse as a blessing because for many years she set one tradition against the other. Sometimes it took the form of Pan vs. Moses or idolatry against the law. The result, however, always seemed the same: a long bout of self-abnegation that ended in fiction pitted against the very idea of fiction. Guilty if she wrote (was that not a desecration of the first commandment?) and equally guilty, according to the Muse, if she did not, Ozick went about building in enough contradictions to fill up several lives.

Philip Roth also faced a middle period in which his mouthpiece, Nathan Zuckerman, regularly cries himself to sleep on his silken pillowcases. The problem can be stated in a single word, Carnovsky, Zuckerman’s muckraking novel about Jewish American life and the sexual outlawhood its repression created. Readers did not need a graduate seminar in criticism to know that Carnovsky was Portnoy’s Complaint, thinly disguised, and that Roth was only half kidding about the pains of becoming an instant celebrity. As Portnoy soared up the best-seller list and became, for months, the novel that people pointed to and laughed about at the office water cooler, Roth became a punching bag for rabbis looking for a sermon topic and for hack writers to quip about on The Tonight Show. As Jacqueline Suzanne of Valley of the Dolls fame told Johnny Carson, “I suppose that Roth is a good writer, but I wouldn’t want to shake hands with him.” When your character describes bouts of masturbation with such obsessed fascination, people like Ms. Suzanne will skip right over Portnoy and stick the label of “pervert” on you. In Roth’s case, cheap jokes and widespread abuse came with the territory of blockbuster sales and six-figure royalties.

Some of the jibes must have hurt. One quip making the rounds in literary circles went like this: Roth wrote a novel about masturbation that made him rich and famous. This was followed by a half dozen masturbatory novels about how tough it was to be rich and famous. The groundlings had a hard time imagining that heaps of hard cash could be a problem (“It should only be my problem!” many of them must have muttered), and it was often Zuckerman’s job, in novels such as Zuckerman Unbound (1981) and The Anatomy Lesson (1983), to convince general readers that he was a man more sinned against than sinning.

Of the early Zuckerman books, The Ghost Writer (1979) is the exception not only because it is about Zuckerman pre-Carnovsky, but also because it is so marvelously written, down to its last a, an, and the. True enough, the novel, like the bulk of Roth’s work, is about praise-begging, whether it be from E. I. Lonoff, an established, painstakingly meticulous artist, or from Zuckerman’s parents, when he imagines announcing to them that he’s about to marry Anne Frank—yes, that Anne Frank.

For the most part, however, Zuckerman is at his best when he listens to the stories that others tell and then wrinkles his sensibility into the mix. This is what he does with great success in American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000). But even as I admired Roth’s late trilogy of Zuckerman books, I could not help but wonder when a crippling exhaustion would kick in. After all, how many times could Zuckerman duplicate the Marlow of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1998) and Lord Jim (2000) without ending up with a title like Zuckerman Goes Hawaiian.

In much the same way I also could not help but wonder if Ozick’s gingham dog wasn’t going to eat up her calico cat. Never concerned that she might be too Jewish for the house (and then worrying about what that might mean), she gave herself over—as all great writers do—to the stories she thought she had to tell. “The Shawl” (1980) is one example because, intellectually, Ozick would agree with those who counsel that the Holocaust should be off-limits for fiction writers, but she tells me that she had no choice. A photograph of a young child being hurled against the electrified fence of a concentration camp so haunted her that she wrote “The Shawl” in the grip of a passion beyond the tempering spirit of “ideas.”

The case of The Cannibal Galaxy (1983) is complicated in a slightly different way: “The Laughter of Akiva,” a 1980 story she published in the New Yorker, satirized the principal of a Jewish day school. Soon after the story appeared, a lawsuit was filed by a man who claimed that he was the model for the character and that he had been defamed. The legal maneuvering went on for months and was, for Ozick, both expensive and distracting. That Cynthia Ozick—rather than Philip Roth—found herself in this legal pickle is an irony of the first order. Nobody, so far as I know, ever sued Roth for defaming the Jews, despite the fact that rabbis regularly railed against his life and art from the pulpit.

Meanwhile, Ozick eventually agreed to leave the “offensive” story out of any forthcoming collection, and the lawsuit went away; but she so loved her wrong-headed principal that he reappeared in an expanded version that Ozick called The Cannibal Galaxy (1966). I suspect that, in the somber light of day, she knew full well how risky this “revision” might be, but in the dark of night, at the writing desk, she tells me that she simply had no choice.

Ozick now insists that she is a writer. Period. No adjectives need apply. For her, the whole notion of a “Jewish writer” is something of a misnomer, despite what she so passionately argued in many of her early essays. After many decades she is back to the Jamesian notion that life is what interferes with the purity of the imagination. When she is writing, she is a writer, a person often pushed to limn personalities at once recognizable and unfamiliar. That is why the imagination remains a mystery and why art exacts such a high toll on those with the gnawing desire to be artists.

Being “Jewish” is quite another matter. It is rather like being a mother or a citizen. Here, a combination of tradition, convention, and expectation count heavily. Making the kitchen of a summer house kosher is, for example, something an observant Jewish wife simply does; it has little to do with the paragraphs that might get written after the rest of the family lies snug in their beds, toasty warm and well fed.

By contrast, writing fiction is what one invents, and there the rules are not nearly as firm as those that divide those who rigorously keep the Jewish Sabbath from the less observant. No list of commandments can tell you how to string together a sentence or describe a character’s carbuncle. Small wonder that the rabbis were suspicious of writers, of their writing, and of the potential dangers represented by both.

Given all this, had Ozick painted herself into a corner? Surely this was not the case with “Envy, or Yiddish in America” (1976), a novella that explores the jealousy that a Yiddish poet could work up whenever he thought about a rival Yiddish fiction writer who became famous because he had a translator. But trying to write a Jamesian novel had sunk her first (never published) effort at writing a long novel, and the intertwining traditions mired much of Trust’s nearly unreadable texture. As one of the very few people who has read the novel twice, I can declare, with some confidence, that it’s not enough to know that the title is ironic (most of the novel is about mis-trust) when you can’t keep the characters straight and, furthermore, don’t much care about them in the first place.

Trust gave Ozick the willies about writing long fiction and probably accounts for her decision to collect her wonderful stories about Ruth Puttermesser into The Puttermesser Papers (1997). It is the novel that has constantly eluded her talented grasp—either because her thickly textured Jamesian constructions make for heavy sledding or because her characters often seem as bloodless as they are uninteresting. Heir to the Glimmering World (2004), on the other hand, makes me glad that Ozick did not abandon the novel because, this time, her considerable talent is on vivid, absolutely delicious display. The tortoise, just as Aesop predicted, finally crosses the finish line, ahead of the hare. I make this claim knowing full well that I am probably in the minority, and that the success that Philip Roth is having with The Plot Against America (2004) far surpasses the relatively modest attention Ozick has garnered for her most recent—and I think, best—novel.

Let me begin by simply reciting some publishing facts that have much to do with the vagaries of fiction writing and very little to do with fiction proper. Both books were published by Houghton Mifflin and within weeks of one another early in September 2004. As an insider told me, Ozick’s work was scheduled to have top billing in the Fall lineup, but Roth insisted that his novel be published before the election. The result is that the two novels were thus joined at the hip: both got good reviews, but the New York Times devoted considerably more space to The Plot Against America, and Roth, ever the hare, found himself soon on the best-seller list and later selected for the New York Times Ten Best Books of 2004. Curiously enough, neither Roth nor Ozick was nominated for a National Book Award, although those who have been following the odd choices selected in recent years were probably not surprised.

Alexander Portnoy’s no-holds-barred candor about sex was enough to put his “complaints” on the best-seller list back in 1969, but with the exception of Patrimony’s brief appearance in 1991, nothing Roth wrote sold in the spectacular numbers of Portnoy, including the “seriously filthy” (Elizabeth Hardwick’s words) Sabbath’s Theater (1995). Steamy sex on the page no longer grabs people in the same way as videos of every permutation from what R-rated films call “brief nudity” to the peregrinations of Paris Hilton.

Politics, on the other hand—especially during a hotly contested presidential election—was a 100-mile-an-hour fastball headed down the center of the plate. As many reviewers were quick to point out, Roth’s novel is part of the “what if?” school of fiction that includes, among other works, Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here (1935). Both are examples of an alternate history, one in which what actually took place is replaced by dark possibilities. In Roth’s case, the imagined possibilities are fascist, and they creep up gradually as the Jews of Newark divide into camps, some supporting President Lindbergh and some bitterly opposing him.

I take Roth at his word when he claims that The Plot Against America is at least partly a paean to his father, Herman Roth. The Facts (1988) is largely an effort to make us see Philip Roth as the nice-Jewish-boy he might in fact have been, and Herman as the patriarchal force Roth would have to resist if he hoped to become a writer and a man; Patrimony is about Herman’s last years, when he was ravaged by disease and dependent on Philip for his care. Ironically enough, my difficulties with the young Philip Roth who recounts the tale of what happens, in his house, neighborhood, and America itself, when Charles Lindbergh wins the 1940 presidential election, are foreshadowed in The Facts when Roth, out to write his memoir, asks “Zuckerman” for his suggestions. Not one for the niceties, he gets to the nub of Roth’s problem by insisting that he (Roth) “Fuhgeddabout it!” Zuckerman, Roth’s ventriloquist voice, is interesting, but Roth, the ventriloquist, is not. The same thing applies to The Plot Against America, where certain facts about the Roth household must share an uneasy floor space with fiction.

The good news is that Roth’s latest novel gives us more evidence (as if more were needed) that he can still very much be the hare when it comes to writing dazzling sentences:

. . . the unfolding of the unforeseen was everything. Turned wrong way round, the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as “History,” harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides [and what, I would add, novelists such as Roth reveal], turning a disaster into an epic.

The Plot Against America is a meditation on fear as history and “historical imaginings” (Roth’s term) make their way through the consciousness of a seven-year-old Philip Roth. At a time when dark shadows are making their way across Europe, Lindbergh runs on a platform that promises to keep American boys out of the European war. The Jews in Newark—and elsewhere—rightly worry about Lindbergh cozying up to Hitler and wonder when American Jews, like their European compatriots, will be rounded up. The freedom that the Roth family associated with American liberalism is now poised to turn abruptly to the Right and become a fascist state.

In The Ghost Writer, Nathan Zuckerman fabricates the possibility that Anne Frank did not die in the concentration camps, and in Operation Shylock (1993), Roth spins out a bizarre tale in which he, working with the Mossad, saves Israel from imminent destruction. Those novels worked; unfortunately, The Plot Against America does not. That, in short, is the bad news. Part of the problem is that the plot takes such outrageous turns that the inventiveness of the novel’s premise (Charles Lindbergh as president) begins to turn tedious. It is as if Roth had blown up a balloon, held it by the nozzle, and then let it go—literally everywhere and anywhere. At one point, the flamboyant Walter Winchell, a man whose nightly radio tirades against Lindbergh are studiously followed by the Roth family, runs for the presidency and is assassinated; at another, Lindbergh himself flies into a cloud, never to return. Roth relates these tales in retrospect, trying to keep a balance between what his seven-year-old self knew (and didn’t know) at the time and how this reconstructed America appears to the present-day Philip Roth.

Sometimes the narrative maneuver works, as when Philip explains his divided loyalties to his father, his older brother, Sandy, and a cousin who joins the Canadian army only to lose a leg fighting Hitler. But on too many occasions, especially when all manner of American Jews are led off in handcuffs (including some who cast themselves as Lindbergh supporters), the plot is at best willy-nilly and at worst chaotic. The latter is particularly true of the novel’s last paragraphs, which simply dribble off the page, without pulling the book’s disparate strands together or making it clear if the Jewish worries Roth chronicles are evidence of paranoia or justifiable concern.

Writing in the pages of the New York Times Magazine, Roth famously wrote George W. Bush off as a man incapable of running a hardware store, much less a country. The remark swelled the number of those who bought his book (no doubt what Roth intended), but as an example of political argument, “sophomoric” is a charitable description. True enough, Roth, as does any citizen, has a right to voice his opinion, but that right does not extend to a piece of fiction which must necessarily operate under its own stringent rules.

In more than four decades at the writing desk, Philip Roth has set a high bar for the novel, and as such, time will be the ultimate judge of The Plot Against America. The early voting suggests that it will join the half dozen or so of Roth’s novels that have rightly become classics, but I have my doubts. There is an important novel hidden inside the padding, but Roth does not pursue America and its Jews rigorously enough. As the Jews of Newark—and especially the Jews who sit around the Roth dinner table—loudly argue about how to respond to Lindbergh, one is tempted to flash forward sixty-plus years to our own time and an America that might well find itself debating just how costly our support of Israel is and what form a contemporary “America First-ism” might take. Is it “imaginable” that American foreign policy toward the Middle East could change? And if so, would severing our ties with Israel allow red-blooded Americans to sleep soundly in their way, free at last from nightmares about terrorist attacks? After all, as I write these lines, AM talk radio is filled with callers who blame the Jews for the war in Iraq (and for much else) and propose that we wash our hands of Israel as soon as possible. What if this constituency pushed, say, Pat Buchanan into the presidency? Considered in this light—my own “historical imagining,” if you will—Roth’s novel takes on a scary dimension he may, or may not, have intended.

However one interprets The Plot Against America, politics always lurks just around the corner. By contrast, Ozick kept a copy of E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1924) beside her writing desk to remind her that novels once regarded solely as “political novels”—in Forster’s case, about India in the twilight years of the British occupation—survive because of the literary devices threaded through their pages. In the case of A Passage to India, the overriding presence of the Marabar caves and the unforgettable Mrs. Moore make Forster’s novel a crucial part of our cultural inheritance.

In roughly the same way that Ozick meant Trust to be ironic, I suspect that “glimmering” is a consciously chosen adjective pointing to the alternating currents of light, shadow, and darkness that are the threads Ozick, in Jamesian fashion, intends to pull. The tension—and intersection—between the overly interpreted Bear Boy and the Karaites who fiercely resist any interpretation is always present in the novel, unrolling naturally as the plot churns underneath, and always, thank goodness, without intrusive explanation/commentary.

Heir to the Glimmering World is filled with the grand sweeps of a 19th-
century novel and a tragic sense of 20th-century history. It features fortunes made and the reversals of fortune, along with the multiple faces that fanaticism can wear. Largely set in the Bronx of the mid-1930s (Ozick’s childhood stomping ground), the novel is narrated by Rosie Meadows, the spunky, sharply observant young lass who comes to work as an “assistant” to Professor Rudolph Mitwisser, a man obsessed with the Karaites, a medieval Jewish sect that rejected Talmud and the entire rabbinic tradition of oral law. Instead, they insisted on literalism; only Torah mattered, and that extreme position consigned them to the fringes of Jewish history.

Herr Mitwisser is an unflagging student of these fanatics and, not surprisingly, something of a fanatic himself. He is also the patriarch of a large, vivid family. His wife, once a brilliant physicist in pre-Hitler Germany, has suffered a breakdown; his children are a raucous brood who operate, usually unsupervised, outside the range of their father’s hermetic, tome-cluttered study.

Enter James A’Bair, the “Bear Boy” of children’s books that sold well into the millions and that continue to generate a considerable fortune. Inspired by Christopher Robin Milne of Pooh book fame, James is a captive of the self-consciously romantic image that his father put into the illustrations of a cherubic five-year-old boy—and like the actual, aging Christopher Robin, James wants nothing more than to escape the sticky image of childhood notoriety and to become anonymous. His travels take him to the Mitwisser household, where his largesse keeps things more or less afloat.

Heir to the Glimmering World is, at one level, about refugees, about people in flight from a probable fate—whether they be the Jewish Mitwissers who escaped 1935 Germany for America, the super-WASP James A’Bair who literally tries to escape his fortune, or the Karaites who insist on escaping the slippery slope of interpretation.

However, lest one think that the novel is full of intellectual work with no room for play, let me hasten to add that Ozick’s imagination is filled with generous servings of wit. As she recounts the Bear Boy’s picaresque adventures—which verge very far from her model of the real-life Christopher Robin—it is easy to think of Ozick chuckling at her keyboard; and when Professor Mitwisser is hot on the trail of a Karaite named Jacob al-Kirkisani (yet another escapee), the chase presents her with an opportunity—as challenging as it was bracing—to simultaneously crib and rewrite Jewish history.

What, then, is Heir to the Glimmering World finally about? On one level it focuses on the human need for interpretation, as well as on the danger of that very interpretation. It is also about the 19th-century novel as seen through Henry Jamesian filters and, in one spot, about the deconstruction of a copy of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility by a pair of Mrs. Mitwisser’s scissors.

However, whatever Heir to the Glimmering World is “about,” what strikes me as truer and more wonderful is that Ozick has written a fully satisfying novel, one with a plot that will keep intelligent readers turning her pages and enough complexity to give literary critics plenty of work. About the latter, sometimes Ozick, tongue in cheek, throws off a bone: Rosie, for example, has a “cousin” named Bertram who served as an early benefactor but who subsequently fell into bad circumstances when he gave his heart—and ultimately his money—to a Communist agitator named Ninel (Lenin spelled backwards). No doubt some neo-Marxist critic will point out that Ozick reduces poor Ninel to the level of political cartoon: every word out of her mouth is a cliché, and she dies, as she must, while embroiled in the Spanish Civil War. This, however, is to read Ozick’s novel with the wrong kind of seriousness. There are, indeed, “ideas” in this novel, but they work within the fabric of the fiction and raise their meditations long after the last page has been read.

At one point Rosie describes her employer’s ruminations on history this way: “It was not only the intoxication of these magicking words . . . but the wash of knowledge that came flooding in their wake.” Something of the same thing can be said of Ozick’s own “magicking words” and the way they slowly snake their way through the novel, and have slowly snaked their way through her by-now considerable oeuvre.

Let me conclude by admitting that hares often leave tortoises in the dust, and that may be the case with the hare-like Roth and tortoise-esque Ozick. Both are clearly impressive talents, but my hunch is that Ozick’s most recent novel packs more significance of the lasting sort and that Roth’s foray into what might have happened in 1940 Newark will, fifty years later, occupy a lower position on the slopes of Parnassus. Fiction writing has its own brand of vagaries, as does the making of literary judgments. As the Yiddish proverb would have it, “Man plans and God laughs.” It’s both funnier and more profound in Yiddish, a language Ozick understands and Roth, alas, does not.

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