The Puttermesser Papers, by Cynthia Ozick, is actually five linked stories. Between them, they tell the life (and death and afterlife) of Ruth Puttermesser, whose name means “butter knife”, and who is a low-level bureaucrat in Manhattan. From the first sentence, Ozick’s distinctive voice never stops telling us who Puttermesser is:
Puttermesser was thirty-four, a lawyer. She was also something of a feminist, not crazy, but she resented having “Miss” put in front of her name: she thought it pointedly discriminatory; she wanted to be a lawyer among lawyers. Though she was no virgin she lived alone, but idiosyncratically — in the Bronx, on the Grand Concourse, among other people’s decaying old parents. Her own had moved to Miami Beach; in furry slippers left over from high school she roamed the same endlessly mazy apartment she had grown up in, her aging piano sheets still on top of the upright with the teacher’s X marks on them showing where she should practice up to. Puttermesser always pushed a little ahead of the actual assignment; in school too.
The first story establishes Puttermesser as a character: her work, her ancestry, her idea of paradise. The second story, “Puttermesser and Xanthippe,” has Puttermesser reacting against the long, drab injustice of bureaucratic corruption by creating a female golem from the earth of her own houseplants. Daughter of her hands and her mind, the golem creates a plan and executes it: Puttermesser is mayor of New York, the greatest mayor the city has ever known! But golems outgrow their creators, and the end of the story is both inevitable and a surprise. The third, “Puttermesser Paired,” goes into Puttermesser’s love life. Her idol is George Eliot, and Eliot’s long intellectual romance with George Lewes. When she finds a young artist (or is he an artist?) to share this passion with, she believes for a time that she may be able to recreate the sanctuary of that romance. “Puttermesser and the Muscovite Cousin” finds Puttermesser welcoming a young, cynical relative from the Soviet Union. And the last, brilliant, heartbreaking story is “Puttermesser in Paradise,” which explores Puttermesser’s death and afterlife.
Throughout all these stories, Cynthia Ozick’s voice is distinctive and completely original. The stories are wildly inventive, even surreal, and yet solidly real at the same time: Puttermesser, having breathed life into her golem, orders her to cook dinner.
“If you think you’re too good for kitchen work,” Puttermesser retorted, “don’t call yourself Xanthippe. You’re so hot on aspiration, you might as well go the whole hog and pick Socrates.”
The golem wrote: “I mean to be a critic, even of the highest philosophers. Xanthippe alone had the courage to gainsay Socrates. Nay, I remain Xanthippe. Please do not allow my Swedish mushroom souffle to sink. It is best eaten in a steaming condition.”
Puttermesser muttered, “I don’t like your prose style. You write like a translation from the Middle Finnish. Improve it,” but she followed the golem into the little kitchen.
Seemingly ordinary people in ordinary circumstances suddenly become visionaries. It’s a little like a Chagall painting, where strange images float in the sky above a picnic or a city. And each story follows the same painful, exquisite arc: the story of what it is to get exactly what you want, and then lose it. Sometimes Puttermesser has lost what she wanted even before she was born. Sometimes what she wanted was never real to begin with. Sometimes she gains something perfect, something ideal, and then must give it up. But each time, the loss is real, and not to be redeemed. In the end, even paradise is this way, and Puttermesser sings her song:
Better never to have loved than loved at all.
Better never to have risen than had a fall.
Oh bitter, bitter, bitter
I loved this book. Sometimes you read a new author, and you feel as if the book has been waiting for you, in hiding, all this time. I can’t believe I haven’t read this before, you think. That’s how I feel about this book, and about Cynthia Ozick. It’s brilliant, funny, sad, strange, beautiful, moving. If I were there with you, I’d put my copy into your hands.