Birnbaum v.

Cynthia Ozick

No one can escape their past, and everyone once had parents who made mistakes. Our New Hampshire correspondent chats with the wonderful Cynthia Ozick about the underpinnings of her new novel, the rewards of touring, and exactly how do publishers think.

In a quiet and perhaps inscrutable way, Cynthia Ozick has achieved acclaim and adulation that most certainly places her in the front ranks of the great living American writers. She was born and raised in the Bronx, attended Hunter College High School, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from New York University and earned her master’s degree at Ohio State University. She is the author of numerous highly regarded works of fiction and cogitation. She published her first book, a novel, Trust, in 1966 and has continued with The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories; Art & Ardor; Levitation; The Cannibal Galaxy; Bloodshed and Three Novellas; The Messiah of Stockholm; Metaphor and Memory; The Shawl; Epodes: First Poems; The Puttermesser Papers; Portrait of the Artist as a Bad Character and Other Essays on Writing; and Fame & Folly. Ozick has received numerous awards and accolades and has contributed to numerous publications. She lives in Westchester County and is without a doubt working on her next book.

Heir to the Glimmering World, her recent novel, is a vivid interweaving of the stories of a young castoff girl, Rose Meadows; a Jewish refugee family, the Mitwissers; and James A’Bair (the Bear Boy), heir to the fortune from his father’s internationally loved children’s books, in the Bronx in the late 1930s. As Richard Eder observes in the New York Times, “Ms. Ozick’s particular artistry…is one that floats out from the heaviness of the human condition and lightens it, as it did in the Puttermesser novel and does here, with the Mitwissers and their innocent chronicler, Rose.” Or perhaps more to the point is James Sallis’s conclusion in the Washington Post, “Valéry said that a work of art should always teach us that we have not seen what we see. That is a part of what young Rose Meadows comes to know as she emerges from the Mitwissers’ life into her own. Living as we all do among unwise folk, nonetheless she also has lived for a time, and lived vividly, in a wise, quietly magical book. As have we readers.” Yes, indeed.

All photos copyright © Robert Birnbaum


Robert Birnbaum: What’s your favorite color?

Cynthia Ozick: [laughs] Oh, if I were the age of your son, Cuba, six and a half, I would say, pink. But nowadays, black. [laughs] Black.

RB: Really? Because?

CO: Um, because of the clouds of life.

RB: You don’t strike me as being gloomy.

CO: I’m very gloomy.

RB: Really? You put up a great front.

CO: Yeah. It’s manners. [both laugh]

RB: OK, let’s move on to something else. Perhaps, I can steer us to a happier subject. Late in Heir to the Glimmering World when Rudolf and Rose go for a walk, you describe the scene—

CO: That’s right.

RB: And then you write about the “frogs grunting.”

CO: That’s because, though there is not a shred of anything autobiographical in that book, this neighborhood is autobiographical. It’s where I grew up in the northeast Bronx. And in the ‘30s, there were just masses of WPA sculptures and statuary and fountains and there was one particular fountain with frogs in it. And they would certainly grunt.

RB: Not croak?

CO: Oh. Oh, I see. Well, uh. The verb is what you are interested in. I thought you were suspicious of the frogs—disbelieving in the frogs. All that beautiful sculpture and statuary which was put up by true artists under the WPA in the middle of the Depression, Robert Moses came and simply swept away. Without even building a highway, [he] just took it away. I have never figured that out.

RB: No explanation?

CO: Well, not to the public. Maybe—

RB: Wasn’t Moses lionized as a great urban planner?

Cynthia Ozick, photographed by Robert Birnbaum

CO: Well, yes, but he is also destroyed and condemned because he destroyed the Bronx with the Cross Country Bronx Highway, whatever they call it. [It’s the Cross Bronx Expressway.—ed.] And there were neighborhoods, real tight neighborhoods, which—they may have looked to him like apartment houses or maybe quote tenements but those were solid neighborhoods and he destroyed them. That was part of the corruption of, or really, the destruction of the Bronx. Thanks to Robert Moses. So he is a hero to some and a demon to others. [chuckles]

RB: How do you decide—one of the notices said something about your “fiction being thought by other means.”

CO: I think that was John Leonard [in the New York Times].

RB: I was more interested in how you decided that you were going to write a fiction or an essay.

CO: That’s more than a question, that’s an insight, because if you are going to do thought and write about ideas overtly as ideas, you should write an essay. Or a sermon or a tract. If it’s going to be didactic, it’s going to be intellectual. But you write a novel, you have to use your head, as Philip Roth said in a wonderful interview in the Guardian—they asked him to define novel writing and he said it’s problem-solving. So in that sense your intellect is incorporated into it. But it’s basically chaotic imagination. So that you don’t know what’s going to happen next. If you are going to write an essay you make discoveries—you know, mental, conceptual discoveries, as you write an essay, but at the same time, you have something in your head to begin with. Say you are going to write an essay on Henry James, you know that. You know it’s on Henry James. You have something to start with. But in a novel you have nothing. You don’t know where you are going.

RB: When you started with this book, you started with what?

CO: It started with an obituary that I read of Christopher Robin Milne. He had died in the north of England in a very obscure part of the country, running away from the living shrine that his father had made of him. And he was running a little bookstore. It seemed a very odd thing. I did not know at the time, I learned later from a review that he was estranged from his father, alienated from his father. Really, really mad at his father. And I sort of made him up based on the fact that he was running a little bookstore in a hidden place in England. That was the germ of it. I began to think, “What happens to human being if he isn’t allowed to become a man? What happens to a little boy who is so embellished and over-interpreted and made into a fable and legend and who the whole world worships as that the idea of a little boy?” So that was the origin of it.

RB: That does reify what you just said about fiction. The Bear Boy in this story is important but his is not the whole story.

CO: That’s where it began. And there is a conceptual underpinning and it’s invisible and so no one seems to know but the one who put it there. It’s got to be invisible, because as I said a moment ago, if the concept is going to be visible you have written an essay. You have a written a tract of some kind. But I was interested also in the Karaites, who are totally obscure. [The Karaite Jewish sect opposed all Rabbinical traditions and laws and claimed that only the written Torah was authoritative—not the interpretations and additions of the Talmud.—ed.] Only maybe one specialist in the world alive today, whom I spoke to in Jerusalem, even knows deeply about them. Scholars may know they existed, but we don’t. And what they did was ban all interpretation. It’s inhuman. When we talk to each other we are always interpreting. What is gossip, [laughs] after all? And so I thought, “So how interesting that the Karaites, the reason we don’t hear of them is that they withered out of history, they are utterly obscure.” And the Bear Boy in my book withers out of life and in his real life apparently also, and I thought, “Well, if you over-interpret, you are going to wither out of history and if you under-interpret, ditto.” So that was interesting but it’s hidden in the narrative and I think that if any reader can utter this as a thesis as I have just done, then the book fails. But luckily nobody has seen it.

RB: [laughs]

CO: So I am hoping that in some way it can be felt. Fiction shouldn’t say something, it should make you feel.

RB: In Leonard’s piece there is a kind of showy reference to the Karaites and the Nazis.

CO: Actually, as somebody said to me, he must have googled them [laughs].

RB: Trying to become the second living expert on the Karaites.

CO: Right, exactly. Also he brought in, I forget what they are called this other group, um, that well, anyway I can’t remember their names. This is something I know but it’s recent history. The remnants of the Karaites, they are still around. There are some in Seattle, some in Jerusalem, in Israel, actually. In this country they are assimilating into either nothing or the mainstream Jewish community. But at the time of the Nazis, they were pretty bad. The Nazis came to the mainstream Jews and asked if the Karaites were Jews. And the Jews said no, in order to protect them. So the Nazis wrote up that they didn’t count, under the Nuremberg Laws, and so they were exempted from the Final Solution. But the Karaites, when there were hidden Jews, informed. So they were bad guys. They informed because even though this split [from mainstream Judaism] occurred as early as the ninth century, the hatred of the mainstream by the Karaites—why did they hate the mainstream?—because they introduced hymns, interpretations, commentary, folklore. They just embellished, embellished, embellished. They did what the human mind always does.

RB: That’s a long time to perpetuate a tribal hatred.

CO: But there are very few of them. They survived because the Jews said, “No, they are not Jews.” Which was a mitzvah act, to protect them. This had nothing to do with my novel. Which ends in 1937. So I don’t know why he brought that up. [I suppose] because he knew it. [laughs]

The glimmering world is the past. And everybody inherits a past. And it glimmers either happily or miserably. In any case it flickers in and out of our lives. We never escape from it and we all inherit it.

RB: Is Rose Jewish?

CO: Yes.

RB: How do we know it?

CO: Her father had a bar mitzvah and says so.

RB: Oh yeah, thank you.

CO: Quote, “Went through the bar mitzvah rite,” is how I put it.

RB: Her father is a pathetic person.

CO: The father? Well, I’m not so sure he’s pathetic. I think he’s driven. He wanted to be a professor of math at Yale and he is a high school algebra teacher. And I think the gambling is an addiction.

RB: And there is the loss of his wife.

CO: Which is his only true expression of loyalty. I guess you could say he is pathetic. I didn’t feel he was pathetic. I was understanding him, I think.

RB: It’s not unusual for the creator of a character to have sympathy and even love for their people.

CO: Hmm—for the bad guys.

RB: Ostensibly. I get that you might have some compassion for him based on a better understanding. I might be overly sensitive to people who are not kind to their children.

CO: Hmm.

RB: Or bad to their children. On the other hand, Rudy Mitwisser, who I am tempted to also characterize as pathetic—

CO: There is pathos in him. I feel that.

RB: There is one blatant act of cruelty and meanness when he strikes one of the children. Heinz or Willi?

CO: It’s Heinz. He is the kid who is illicit.

RB: The dubious child.

CO: We know that.

RB: Does Rudolf the father, really know?

CO: I think there is no way truly to know it. Because when Mrs. Mitwisser comes back from Switzerland, they become amorous. He’s back from Spain and hungers for her erotically. And as I understand it they sleep together but she us already slept with Erwin Schrödinger, so we don’t know whose child this is and since Schrödinger looks a good deal like Rudy, there is no way to know. [chuckles] So it’s dubious. Your word is good. Dubious. Boy, you know this book. It’s thrilling to hear that. Thank you.

RB: Well, I read it. [laughs]

CO: You did.

RB: And I very much liked it. Did you ever answer the frog question?

CO: No. I think I never thought of the word “croak.” And if I had I might have eliminated it.

RB: Croak is mundane.

CO: The sound of frogs is not a croak. It’s really a grunt. Have you heard a frog? [makes a frog-like sound] It’s not “gribbet, gribbet.” It’s “errh.” [makes the sound a few more times, laughs]

RB: Who does the “heir” of the title refer to?

CO: Everybody is the heir. “What is the glimmering past?” you have to ask? The glimmering world is the past. And everybody inherits a past. And it glimmers either happily or miserably. In any case it flickers in and out of our lives. We never escape from it and we all inherit it. And everybody in the book has inherited a past. Everybody. The original title that I wanted that everybody who read the book, at first loathed, despised, condemned, [laughs] had contempt for—

RB: [laughs]

CO:—was Lights and Watchtowers. I had swiped that from the Karaitescholar [Yacov] Al Kirkisani who had A Book of Lights and Watchtowers, and I liked those two strong nouns. Nobody liked that. So then I came up with A Bear Boy. And then that almost made the cut. But then they said—the consensus was that it was too much like a children’s book. They are calling it The Bear Boy in England.

RB: Don’t you have authorial privilege here? Or do you go, shrugging, “OK.”

CO: Yeah, I said, “OK.”

RB: I less and less want to talk about the business stuff but I have to ask, you never go out and do this? That is, tour to support a book?

CO: I have never done this.

RB: Want to explain why?

CO: I have never been asked to do it. [laughs]

RB: Seriously?

CO: Yeah.

RB: Wow.

CO: Well, here’s the story as briefly as I can make it, with my terrible, dry mouth.

RB: Shall we get you some water?

CO: No, no, we’ll see. Let’s see how bad it gets. [laughs] Thank you. I was with an agent for 42 years. And I was with Knopf for 32 years. And I left my agent of 42 years, painfully, because he was like a brother. But he had moved upstate and I just felt I needed some more professional activity. So I got a new agent and she took me from Knopf and brought me to Houghton Mifflin. Which has been powerfully supportive in a generous way. I mean look at this palace [both laugh; we are conversing in the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel in Boston] where a hard-boiled egg that I had for breakfast was $12. One hard-boiled egg! [laughs] So that’s why I am doing this. Knopf had me on Lenny Lopate at WNYC and Barnes & Noble, but never this extensive thing, right across the country.

RB: You can say you don’t want to talk about it. But one of the most memorable things I ever saw was a New Yorker panel on Book TV or something that you were a participant in—

CO: Was it on?

RB: Yes.

CO: That’s too bad; I would have changed my shoes.

RB: [both laugh] I didn’t notice. The story is that Leonard Riggio, the [former] CEO of Barnes & Noble—

CO: Oh wait, you don’t mean the recent one, you mean under Tina Brown. Oh, oh. I don’t think they had the festival then. It was just one of Tina Brown’s things. [chuckles] Yes, that was an interesting time. Leonard Riggio came up with a horrible [sighs]—I was there, in my mind, representing midlist. He came up with a paper in which he read my horrible sales record. And this is why Knopf didn’t support me. I believe this is the way publishers think.

RB: Who knows how they think.

CO: Yes, who knows how they think.

RB: There are so many anomalies in the publishing business, which is why, of course, on occasion it is interesting to delve into this almost fictive world. I am glad you are here. I am glad that the book seems to be or is getting a lot of notice—as it should. And you being put up in palatial accommodations.

CO: Yes, right, [laughs] with $12 eggs.

RB: But you are not doing 30 cities in six weeks.

CO: It isn’t wall-to-wall. I get some days in between, where I can live my real life.

RB: How has it been, doing this?

CO: In many ways, a revelation. You know those signing lines. I want to go back and tell you something about Leonard Riggio. Just so he isn’t a pure bad guy. When I spoke to him afterward—if you don’t mind, since you brought it up—I had a private conversation with him on the stairs, going off the stage. He worked in a bookstore at NYU. He told me he came from an Italian family, [and] they didn’t have any books. A Sicilian peasant background, and I was kind of thrilled for him, that he was this little boy from a non-bookish family who got involved with books. Now he’s the big corporate villain [laughs] and all of that, but there was a bit of that little bookish boy in him and I was touched by that. And I wasn’t mad at him for doing that. A lot of people were, but I truly wasn’t.

RB: Well, yeah—you are really too kind. [laughs]

CO: No, no. When somebody suddenly tells you something intimate—it’s human. And that is one of the revelations. It’s very startling for me to be sitting at a desk and then there is this long line of people who want to buy books and have bought them and I thought, “Is this going to be superficial and trivial like an assembly line? I’m going to sit there and sign my name.” Not at all. It’s remarkable. [In] that little window of time, stories come out. Because there is a kind of pressure, there’s no time, somebody is behind you and these revelations occur. So it’s been very interesting.

RB: Can I assume you have learned how much loved you are? Does that come across to you?

CO: I live a very isolated life. And I practically never go out of the house. Even three blocks to the supermarket is a very big deal. [laughs] So I have no sense of what the world is like vis-à-vis anything I write. And that’s a fact.

RB: That’s why I though the Riggio incident was cruel. It nothing to do with anything except his bottom-line reality.

CO: The sales [figures]? He runs a big emporium.

RB: But that’s nothing. That had nothing to do with what you do.

CO: In the ideal world.

RB: Which is where we are functioning at the moment.

CO: I think so.

RB: His bean counting would have been appropriate at a sales conference. I don’t think we need to have businessman tell us what the value of your book is.

CO: Apparently the value of my book is a $12 egg. [both laugh]

RB: Back to our ideal world. Were your parents born in this country?

CO: No.

RB: [One thing] I started thinking a lot about, after I read Eva Hoffman’s After Such Knowledge, was the profound dislocation of being immigrant. I was born in another country.

CO: Where were you born?

RB: Germany and my parents were born in Poland. So I am an exile.

CO: You are a refugee. Not an exile. An exile can be voluntary.

RB: I suppose immigrant is the larger class.

CO: Even that has a voluntary element in it. I think refugee is when you are running from the Nazis. Was that the condition?

RB: No, this was shortly after the war. They were displaced persons. They reunited after the war in Bamberg, Germany. Does that make us refugees?

CO: It’s a little different, isn’t it?

RB: They didn’t have to leave Europe.

CO: I thought maybe you were of the ‘38 generation.

RB: In any case, Eva Hoffman attends to the brutality of adjusting to a new culture, which we seem to take for granted as if it were just like traveling. Especially since the United States is seen as so welcoming.

CO: My mother was nine years old and a story she told me is with me now. I almost tear up when I hear it. She was in school and the teacher asked a question. She put up her hand and she was eager to give the answer. And the answer burst out of her in Russian and Miss Walsh said to her—Miss Walsh must be dead for 200 years by now. She said to my nine-year-old mother—she called her “a little grandmother,” with contempt. It hurt her for the rest of her life. It’s one of the things that she told me on her deathbed—told me again. And it was a moment like that, just a school moment, all kids get hurt by teachers in school. It happens to everybody but this one was so hurtful, because it was the Irish teacher who was here a long time, who had the language, who came with the language, mocking the child, who didn’t have the language.

Cynthia Ozick, photographed by Robert Birnbaum

RB: Let’s digress. Some people, not Americans, talk about facility with language as “having the language.” American don’t say, “Do you have French or Russian?” They say, “Do you know or do you speak such and such?”

CO: Well, “have” is ownership and “know” is mental transfer. One is internal, the other external.

RB: Anyway, in Heir to the Glimmering World, the Mitwissers are refugees—

CO: They are refugees.

RB: And seemingly shattered, but certainly traumatized.

CO: They were so assimilated, the only Jewish aspect to them is just the nature of the paterfamilias scholarship. But they are unable to assimilate here. And so they create this fiefdom. This inner kingdom of their own, which Anneliese wants to run away from. So she is a double runaway. And everybody in this book is a runaway. The Bear Boy is a runaway from his past—can’t get out of it. Rosie is a runaway in a way and she has also been thrown out.

RB: And Ninel?

CO: Were you offended by her?

RB: No, she seemed of a type.

CO: Some people were offended by her and called her a caricature—which I agree she is. [laughs]

RB: Except that there are people who really seem like caricatures.

CO: Like my uncle Joe [laughs].

RB: I notice in the review I saw that Bertram is dealt with as a minor character and I saw him as being vital.

CO: I am crazy about Bertram. Bertram was such a surprise to me. It was in somewhere at the back of my mind that wouldn’t it be interesting, I can’t have Bertram at the start and just drop him, that would be very disorganized. This is Philip Roth’s problemsolving. I had to have him come back. So he came back. And I had no idea that he was going to do what he did. Manipulate this family through this seeming kindness. And when I saw him do that I lost control and Bertram took over. And he was completely in charge to the very end. And it was very joyful, writing the end of that, because of Bertram.

RB: Speaking of the end, it would seem that in a time when people seem to like longer stories or sequels, is there more to this story? More about Rose?

CO: What becomes of her? No, I don’t think so. Not now. I don’t think it’s on my mind to do that all. I think this book is over. And I don’t think it’s important to know precisely what become of her. Three people have picked—three interesting smart people have picked up a parentheses. Somewhere I… Ninel doesn’t like imagination and at one point Rosie says, just as an aside, “I would one day come not to like novels also.” Something like that. Not verbatim. So that suggested to me—I put that in not really knowingly. If behind the question is, “What does happen to Rosie?”—

RB: No, what’s behind the question is that you spend some period of time with a world you create, people you live with and then you end, close it off, encapsulate it in a book, but does your thinking about the people of that world stop?

CO: Well, no. And particularly because of you.

RB: [both laugh]

CO: Yes, yes. This is true. Otherwise, by now I would have been deep in another project.

RB: You mean people like me?

CO: Including you, right. I think she would have gone on, not to be a typist, eventually.

RB: In 1937.

CO: When she became an adult—I don’t know how she would get educated in the middle of the Depression. I haven’t got any of the logistics of it. I think her mind, that observing mind, would do something that counted in the world. But I am not going to follow her.

RB: So you rarely leave the house in New Rochelle. So what do you do?

CO: I read and I write. And I stay up all night. [laughs] Sometimes I’m catatonic before an old movie on Channel 67, Turner movies or some thing. You’re not in New York, where are you?

You can’t say that writers don’t have ambition. But the ambition is so different. It is so—it’s almost solipsistic.

RB: New Hampshire.

CO: Oh, oh. You’re a northerner.

RB: I lived in Brookline for much of my time on the East Coast. But I decided to abandon what Jim Harrison calls “centers of ambition.” I no longer like living in cities where people are falling and crawling over each other to succeed. I manage to find something worthy in front of a computer.

CO: That’s so interesting that phrase “the centers of ambition.” How does that apply to a writer who lives alone? I think the center of ambition then—actually I have written an essay on ambition. This same publisher, Houghton Mifflin, did a really nice thing and they are not going to make a penny on it.

RB: [laughs]

CO: They put in paperback, my first novel, which nobody has ever read. And I say, I will have struck a gold medal, for anybody who can give me evidence that they actually finished this book. [laughs] But I wrote an afterword for it which also is a piece in American Scholar, about ambition. And it’s exactly what you are talking about. It’s not the external center of ambition but the writer’s deeply internal center of ambition. And you can’t say that writers don’t have ambition. But the ambition is so different. It is so—it’s almost solipsistic.

RB: Almost? Is that novel already available?

CO: Yes, it’s out. If you read it, I will look up a foundry—is that where—

RB: [laughs] You can go to a sporting goods store. I am sure they have—

CO: No, I promised gold. I never said it was going to be genuine gold. I did promise, feeling completely safe. That I would never have to give it.

RB: When was this essay written?

CO: Right now.

RB: You read. You write. You watch movies.

CO: Not too often. I just wanted to sound normal, so I threw that in.

RB: You wanted to sound normal because?

CO: Because normal people look at TV. [laughs]

RB: I don’t.

CO: I guess you are not normal. [laugh]

RB: I know what separates me from normality.

CO: What?

RB: I don’t shop except for food.

CO: By shop, you mean?

RB: I don’t go to a store without a fixed idea of what I need to get.

CO: I don’t go to stores at all. I go to catalogs. Cheapy catalogs. [points to her clothes] Chadwick, Chadwick.

RB: I love that color. Olive drab. And I don’t watch television, though I have been forced to get basic service along with cable internet access. And I read books. So that separates me.

CO: Walter Vatter, who is lovely, absolutely lovely, one of the loveliest human beings, said of you, “I think he is a sort of character.” [both laugh]

RB: We’ve had contact recently. I have done some Houghton Mifflin authors. Robert Stone. Joseph Epstein, Kate Wheeler.

CO: Are you going to go after Roth?

RB: I’d love to. I am a recent convert to his greatness.

CO: Are you?

RB: You know you can’t read everything, right? Or I can’t. So there are big holes in my—literacy?

CO: No. Field of dreams. [chuckles]

I am boiling with an idea for a short story. Which is a problem because it’s about a relative and I have to hide it in some way. [laughs] And I don’t know how—this is a problem to be solved.

RB: I hadn’t read anything by Roth and finally I gave into this chorus of people who would go, “How could you not read anything by Roth?” So I picked up American Pastoral and there is this great passage1 early on about how we always get people wrong. I was convinced by those few hundred words, how great he is. I thought this passage was genius.

CO: That’s a masterwork, that novel.

RB: So yeah, I would love to talk with him. I haven’t read The Plot against America.

CO: It’s amazing. You’ve got to read it. It’s everything I remember from childhood. Father Coughlin. Father Feeney here in Boston. These anti-Semitic priests. The Nazi Lindbergh. America First. The German Bund. Yeah.

RB: It’s a fantasy.

CO: Yeah, but it almost happened according to the novel. But it didn’t almost happen because Roosevelt was elected and we did defeat the Nazis. But it is a true, very accurate, genuine record of the atmosphere in the ‘30s for the Jews in America, except for those early-arrival German Jews who came as peddlers and became department-store owners. Jews then were little storekeepers and garment workers and blue collar and lower middle class, and they had no power. And they were very fearful. And they had been here 30 years, most of them from the turn of the century—my father since 1921.

RB: Conversations about anti-Semitism always remind of a film called The Believer about a Hasidic Jew who becomes a neo-Nazi skinhead. He gives a speech where he answers why people hate the Jews with something like, “They just do. They can’t give a reason.”

CO: It’s a mystery. It’s one of the world’s great continuing mysteries.

RB: Sometimes I will enter an argument and if I don’t like something about it I will claim that it is anti-Semitic—I try to joke about it. But I don’t for minute think it has subsided.

CO: Oh, come on, it’s all over Europe.

RB: Maybe in America it’s more civilized but I think people still hate the Jews, not explicitly, no huge waves of synagogue violations, but still they are not liked.

CO: If it’s going be social snide comments, I say the hell with it. If they are not out making pogroms, I don’t care. Also, they are marrying Jews like mad. [both laugh] They are.

RB: Hendrik Hertzberg was so thrilled in talking about Barack Obama and his appearance at the Democratic convention because here was this product of what racists in America feared most, miscegenation, child of a mixed marriage.

CO: That’s America.

RB: Are you in a kind of creative limbo because of your book tour?

CO: That’s true, but I am also making notes like mad about my experiences. Some of them are funny and I am also, when I am alone, I am boiling with an idea for a short story. Which is a problem because it’s about a relative and I have to hide it in some way. [laughs] And I don’t know how—this is a problem to be solved.

RB: You expressed an admiration for Roth’s new book. Are there other things you have read recently that have moved you?

CO: [emphatically] Yes, yes. Gish Jen’s novel [The Love Wife]—I think it’s wonderful. Talk about so-called miscegenation and intermarriage. It’s witty. It’s very warm hearted and I never wanted it to end. There is another book I am in the middle of, and that’s by Jonathan Rosen, It’s called Joy Comes in the Morning. I haven’t seen them yet but Alice Munro’s stories—I love her stories. And right now I am simply enthralled by an autobiography by Amos Oz. It is one of the most thrilling books I’ve read in my entire life. It has a name that is sort of ambiguous—A Tale of Love and Darkness. It’s about these thoroughly Europeanized intellectuals who come to what they regard as western Asia. And they come with their heads full of literature and humanism and history and language expertise and this community—his great uncle Joseph Klausner lived across the street from the not-yet Nobel winner S.I. Agnon. They never talked to each other. They disliked each other. This boiling community of European intellectuals—he says a remarkable thing there. The only Europeans at that time (now everybody in Europe is a European)—but then there were Italians, there were French, there were Germans, there were Serbs, there were Croatians, Macedonians, Slovenes, Russians, Poles. Only the Jews were Europeans. Yugoslavia, which had numerous nationalities, only the Jews were Yugoslavian. This humanist idealism that he is taking about that these people came with and how they lived their lives under the mandate—

RB: Has he written nonfiction before?

CO: Yes, political stuff. On the left.

RB: There are three recent books, from the 21st century, I now group together as great 19th-century novels: Louis De Bernieres, Birds Without Wings; Edward P. Jones, The Known World; and Francisco Goldman’s The Divine Husband.

CO: Can I ask you something? My book has been called a 19th-century novel by so many reviewers; I never had that in my mind. Does it strike you as a 19th-century novel?

RB: No, some notices I read mentioned Jane Eyre. But I am hardly conversant with much other than the late 20th-century fiction. I am trapped in modern times.

CO: [laughs]

RB: The oldest thing I have read in the last 20 years is The Great Gatsby. But in the main I am interested in good stories. We digressed at the point where you talked about making notes, for a story you have in mind. And then you are learning things, revelations on this book tour. And when you go back to New Rochelle and finally settle in, will all this be—

CO: A dream? [both laugh] Yes.

RB: Are you in touch with other writers?

CO: I have writing correspondents. All in writing.

Cynthia Ozick, photographed by Robert Birnbaum

RB: Handwriting?

CO: Handwriting, but just in the last few weeks, it’s turning into email and I don’t like it because—writers write the way they would write with pen on paper but if you print it out, it looks funny. I hate the way it looks. I want a letter to come in the mail that I can open a physical letter from a writer in handwriting, which has a face. I got a letter the other day from Sandy McClatchy. And he wrote it on his old typewriter. I was so happy. He used the word “praise” and he types fast so it came out “p-r-i-a-s-e” and I wrote [back to him] to get “priase” from a writer on a typewriter—it was wonderful. [laughs]

RB: I wonder if there will be even email correspondences as there were these great exchanges of the past?

CO: They’ll be lost. They’re ephemeral. They’re gone. You go into the New York Public Library and there is a room called the Berg Room and you can look down (as Bertram and Rosie do) under glass and see cross-outs, the greatest English -language writers who ever lived and see their minds at work. You can see them change their minds. You can see the thought that went behind the change of word. All gone. All gone. Irving Howe was the first to complain about this about 10 years ago.

RB: I like to think that there are some benefits, some gains to these new media.

CO: If you are going to send a finished manuscript to a publisher on a disc, there is no record—I mean, I have a paper record of every cross out, because I use a pen and then just go to the computer to make a current copy.

RB: Me too. I like to correct on paper. I am suspicious of the archival longevity or durability of everything but paper.

CO: Hurray.

RB: That’s it. So you know where you are. Are you teaching?

CO: No.

RB: Do you want to?

CO: I have, but I don’t want to. I taught in an MFA program at City University about 1980. I am still in touch with them. [the students] I became their mama. [laughs]

RB: You have a degree from Ohio State University. Which means you had to leave New York, travel to and live in the Midwest, Columbus, Ohio. Was that a culture shock?

CO: Oh, was it ever a culture shock. Oh my God. Yeah, in so many ways. The dean of housing, “There is another little Jewish girl here from New York.” She was actually from Toronto. The landlady, “What kind of name is Ozick?” This was 1949. Being a New Yorker and walking down High Street in Columbus, totally empty, one person coming toward me. The person smiled. I had just arrived that morning. The person smiles at me. I think, “It is impossible. What is going on? Why is somebody smiling at me when I just got here and I don’t know anybody in Columbus, Ohio?” Little did I know that in the Midwest people are human and acknowledged each other when they pass. In New York, you avert your eyes.

RB: That glimmer of humanity, you were never tempted to move to more humane shores?

CO: No, I live about five miles down the road from where I grew up. So, you know, I have to—

RB: You have to stay.

CO: Yeah. I am not an adventurer except make-believe adventures where I can go anywhere in my head. As long as I don’t get dressed. [I work in my ]—I was going to say pajamas—what passes for pajamas. I can sleep in my clothes, in short.

RB: Well, thank you. I hope you do this again and I hope we do this again.

CO: I don’t know. I have a book of essays, my fifth, that I have to deliver in January and I don’t think for a book of essays I will get $12 eggs. [laughs]

RB: You never know.


  1. From page 35, American Pastoral, Philip Roth: “You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick: you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them: you get them wrong while you’re with them and then you get home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on a significance that is ludicrous, so ill equipped are we all to envision one another’s interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle with our ignorance every day? The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we are alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that—well, lucky you.”

Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum