What Cynthia Ozick’s Been Reading

Cynthia Ozick responds to my inquiry about her recent literary encounters:

Two electrician-boys were here yesterday, installing robust new wiring for an air conditioner, and keeping me from my desk; so I wandered lonely as a cloud along some lately unvisited shelves, and happened on a book that had been loitering there, unread, for 40 or 50 years (the same 40 or 50 years this house has survived without artificial cooling, taking Mother Nature as she comes, naked and unmitigated): it was The Holy Sinner, by Thomas Mann. A second-hand volume (Alfred A. Knopf, 1951, first edition) that was apparently once in a lending library, where it had been stamped as follows:
20¢ FOR 1ST 3 DAYS

(And I’ve had it all these years for free!)

The Holy Sinner is a jape, a fairy tale, a poem, a dream, a maze of half-invented mock-medieval tongues. Here is Mann’s note: “This story is based in the main on the verse epos “Gregorious vom Stein” by the Middle High German poet Hartmann von Aue (c. 1165-1210) who took his legend of chivalry from the French.” But never mind origins, and come instead to unholy substance: brother-and-sister incest; the fruit of this sin a child set out to sea in a tiny bark to be rescued on a remote island and reared by rude fisherfolk and learned monks; the child grown up to marry his mother, sire daughters, and become Pope! Jollity and bliss and marveling—especially the jollity and bliss and marveling that cavorts in the language of the telling. The translator is H.T. Lowe-Porter, whose words are Thomas Mann (did he ever write in any language other than this tricky, sly, imbricated, laughing English?) and whose ingenuities are as magical as any magical story will allow.

I read this book all day yesterday (at the close of which—the day and the book—cold air blew in).
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