Levitation

A few months ago, I read The Puttermesser Papers, by Cynthia Ozick. Those were five linked short stories about the ordinary life and fantastic times of Ruth Puttermesser, a civil servant in New York, and I rated it one of the best books I read in 2009. I immediately wanted to read more by Ozick: her combination of keen, earthbound details (plumbing and head-colds) with luminous, strange plot elements (golems and parallel lives) was addictive. So I mooched another book of hers the moment I could.

Levitation is also a collection of five stories, published earlier than The Puttermesser Papers. Two of the stories I’d already read, as they were Puttermesser stories. The other three (“Levitation”, “Shots”, and “From a Refugee’s Notebook”) were so wonderful — exactly what I’d hoped from more Ozick — that I found myself slowing down, rereading, trying to make them last.

“Levitation” was my favorite of the three non-Puttermesser stories (and you really should read Puttermesser in her entirety.) Two minor literary figures, married to each other, both editors and authors, have bold aspirations, and throw a party to which they invite a constellation of literary figures. The party is a complete disaster, but the insight that comes to the wife, about Judaism, cruelty, salvation, imagination, and her own conversion, is fantastic — literally a fantasy — and as biting as a cold wind. One line of the story, “Cruelty came from the imagination and had to be witnessed by the imagination,” had me closing the book and pondering for a good fifteen minutes before continuing. Is that true? What impact does that have on our jadedness when it comes to war, torture, and the pain of others? If we enter into it imaginatively, or through art, can we remain empathetic? The final line, “All the Jews are in the air,” adds the perfect touch of strangeness and lostness to a marvelous story.

“Shots” and “From a Refugee’s Notebook” are more oblique, but also offer precise, beautiful language, humor, and the snap of insight. While Levitation is rather a slight book, especially once you take out the Puttermesser stories, it was definitely worth reading. For me, Ozick is one of those authors who makes me wonder why I never discovered her earlier, and I really look forward to more.

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6 Responses to Levitation

  1. JoAnn says:

    That’s exactly how I felt after reading The Shawl last year (very short story/novella combo). Went out and bought Heir to a Glimmering World, but haven’t gotten to it yet. Will add the Puttermesser Papers to my list. Ozick is an incredibly talented writer!

    • Jenny says:

      I agree with you, JoAnn (well, obviously.) I don’t know why I didn’t hear of her ages ago. Let me know what you think of Puttermesser.

  2. Sandra says:

    I bought and read Ozick’s books as they each came out over the years. I loved them all. I don’t know why more people don’t read her. She offer’s more in one sentence than many give us in volumes of writing. Glad you reviewed this.

    • Jenny says:

      I don’t know why more people don’t read her, either, except if it’s that she’s not easily classifiable. Just as you think it’s going to be the old everyday-epiphany hat-trick, it turns into something completely different. Which I love.

  3. litlove says:

    I couldn’t get through Heir to the Glimmering World, but felt it was my fault rather than Ozick’s as it’s clear she is a good writer. I’d like to try The Shawl one of these days as I’ve heard good things about that.

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