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.