Description: “True essayists,” declares Cynthia Ozick, “rarely write novels.” This pronouncement would seem to overlook a horde of ambidextrous types, from John Updike to Gore Vidal to Charles Baxter to Joyce Carol Oates – and, of course, Ozick herself. The author of three novels, she is also among our finest essayists, combining a Jamesian nose for moral nuance with some of the most playful and pugnacious prose in contemporary letters. And her fourth collection, Quarrel & Quandary, contains some of her very best work. There are ardent considerations of particular authors, including W.G. Sebald, Franz Kafka, and Swedish modern Goran Tunstrom. But this time around, the author is even more intent on exploring the rhetorical minefield where art and politics overlap. Her introduction, in fact, is one long riff on the importance of being earnestly engagÃ©, at the end of which Ozick manages to have her cake and eat it too: “Two cheers, then – when there is no choice – for being engagÃ©; but three cheers and more for that other bravery, the literary essay, and for memory’s mooning and maundering, and for losing one’s way in the bliss of American prose….”
In three provocative pieces (“The Rights of History and the Rights of the Imagination,” “The Posthumous Sublime,” and “Who Owns Anne Frank?”), Ozick suggests that the Holocaust is almost – but not quite – impervious to literature. She’s particularly angered by the morphing of Frank’s diary into a mother lode of Broadway-style uplift, a transformation that “tampers with history, with reality, with deadly truth.” Elsewhere, though, Ozick is less polemical, more willing to be dazzled by Roethke’s radiance or Henry James’s epistemological high beams. And it’s not only specific artists but entire genres that win her awed and eloquent approval:
When we say that poetry is strange, we mean not that it is less than intelligible, but exactly the opposite: poetry is intelligibility heightened, strengthened, distilled to the point of astounding us; and also made manifold. Metaphor is intelligibility’s great imperative, its engine of radical amazement.
At its best, Ozick’s prose is equally, radically amazing. She may not always compel our agreement – the scolding she administers to W.G. Sebald, whom she clearly admires, is something of a puzzler – but her voice never ceases to register distinction and detail, emitting what she calls “the hum of perpetual noticing.” Five cheers, then, for Quarrel & Quandary. And by the way, might Mooning & Maundering be a candidate for the author’s next alliterative title? – James Marcus
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Original Price: $25.00
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