The longing for celebrity and immortality is a biological imperative unique to the human experience. Some would willingly sacrifice their lives for fame, Scottish writer John Sinclair observes, and not a few would rather be known by their crimes than not known at all.
Cynthia Ozick’s new work of fiction, Dictation: A Quartet, artfully sews together four short novellas exploring this human striving for posterity with equal measures of wit, sorrow, and pity. Ozick’s devastating intellect is finely displayed in this slim but powerful collection, a crowning achievement in a distinguished literary career that has spanned more than four decades and produced over a dozen acclaimed works of fiction and nonfiction.
Having received nominations and outright wins for almost every literary prize known to mankind—including a Pulitzer nomination and the 2007 Presidential Medal for the Humanities—the masonry work for Ms. Ozick’s pedestal in the literary Hall of Remembrance is complete. At the age of 80, when, it is safe to assume, one has acquired an abundance of wisdom and hindsight, Ozick reflects with personal experience upon the human canonization process with soft laughter, deep dismay, and no easy answers to the pathogenesis of our diseased need to be remembered by future generations.
The soil that Ozick is tilling in Dictation has been previously cultivated by Aldous Huxley in such masterful works as After Many a Summer Dies the Swan (1939), and Time Must Have a Stop (1944), chilling and thought-provoking explorations of the complex interlocked battles between many modes of existence: the human and the spiritual, the intellectual and the psychic, the timeless and the temporal.
Ozick’s literary skills are lighter and dripping with more subtlety than Huxley’s; she allows the plot to deliver the message whereas Huxley, for all his attendant brilliance, often threw linear narrative into the weed patch. The four tales that form Dictation are, above all meaning, engaging stories with a compact three-act structure, sparkling dialogue and complex and believable representations of human behavior. Huxley was charmed by science. Ozick is enchanted with people.
Posterity, Ozick muses, is gullible, perhaps passing over ten true geniuses for every two chosen in a random shuffle for eternal remembrance. One such genius that the carvers of granite monuments have overlooked is Thoedora Bosanquet, a stenographer employed by American novelist Henry James in the title story, a tale of fear, insecurity, artistic rivalry, jealousy, and deceit, revolving with serpentine twists around the tenuous friendship between James and the Polish seafarer-turned novelist Joseph Conrad. The story commences with the first tentative meeting between the young upstart Conrad and the elder lion-in-winter James at the latter’s cherished Lamb House estate outside of London in 1901:
(Conrad) carried himself with a look that hinted at a scarred and haughty nature. He had since brought out half a dozen majestic works of fiction; two of them, The Nigger of the Narcissus and Lord Jim, had already placed him as a literary force. He and James regularly exchanged fresh volumes as soon as they were out; each acknowledged the other as an artist possessed—though in private each man harbored his reservation and his doubt. James thought Conrad a thicket of unrestrained profusion. Conrad saw James as a heartless alabaster.
Thus the stage is set for a battle between two titanic and monstrous egos. But the internecine warfare never happens on the main stage, rather behind the scenes when James’ bold and Sapphic stenographer meets timid and conservative Lilian Hallowes, professional transcriber for the gout-ridden Conrad.
Working all day, side by side in intimacy with writers of such immense talent, sharing the doubts and hesitations of their creative masters as they commit thought to paper, Theodora and Lilian are nothing more or less than “the conduits of genius.” For faint-hearted Lilian, hopelessly in love with her brooding employer, this is a better shake than the hard-working, lower-class girl expected life to hand her, even if Conrad only sees her as an “enigmatically living limb” of the typewriter.
In contrast to Lilian’s resignation to a marginalized existence above ground, Theodora spitefully covets the immortality that has already been bestowed upon the arrogant and demanding authors; she lures Lilian “to a far lighthouse built on a rock in the middle of a treacherous estuary”, first through psychosexual manipulation and later through an intricate scheme of secretly inserted wordplay in the works of James and Conrad:
What has Theodroa won? Exactly the thing that she so resplendently envisioned, two negligible footnotes overlooked by the most diligent scholarship, unsung by all the future, leaving behind an immutable mark—an everlasting sign that they lived, they felt, they acted!
The catechism that Ozick meditates upon in Dictation is: Can mere mortals truly ascend to gods? And the author’s shout back from the bowels of the abyss is a proclamation that all human life is holy and sacred, screw the well-remembered artists and the writers and the patron saints and martyrs—no Christ who suffered on the cross is better than you or me; in this regard, the author resurrects the ghost of Shrike, the cynical, atheistic newspaper editor in Nathanael West’s classic novella Miss Lonelyhearts (1933):
“I am a great saint,” Shrike cried, “I can walk on my own water. Haven’t you heard of Shrike’s Passion in the Luncheonette, or the Agony in the Soda Fountain? Then I compared the wounds in Christ’s body to the mouths of a miraculous purse in which we deposit the small change of our sins. It is indeed an excellent conceit.
In At Fumicaro, the third and most haunting story in Ozick’s quartet, the reader is introduced to Frank Castle, a freelance journalist, art and book critic, Op-Ed writer, and, above all else “he was a Catholic … He was a parochial man who kept himself inside a frame. He had few Protestant and no Jewish friends. He said he was interested in happiness, and that was why he liked being Catholic. Catholics made him happy.”
A native New Yorker, thirty-five-year-old Castle is attending a Catholic seminar at Villa Garibaldi in Mussolini’s Italy, a musty, over-intellectualized, four-day affair called ‘The Church and How It Is Known.’ The seminar is merely window dressing for a dark Cinderella parable wherein avowed bachelor Castle hastily beds and marries a 16-year-old Italian chambermaid who has been impregnated by her stepfather. The chambermaid, Viviana, is a simple woman of faith who “was more hospitable to God than anyone who hopes to find God through books.”
Once again, the narrative in At Fumicaro exists to underscore Ozick’s lofty preoccupations. In the closing pages of the story, Castle and his new bride visit a Gothic rooftop shrine at a Milan cathedral; they walk over the roofs among hundreds of in memoriam statues:
Behind each figure stood a dozen others. There were saints and martyrs and angels and gryphons and gargoyles and Romans; there were Roman soldiers whose decorated sword handles and buskins sprouted the heads of more Roman soldiers. Viviana peered out through the crenelations at the margins of the different roofs, and then again there were hundreds of sculptures; thousands. The statues pullulated. An army of carvers had swarmed through these high stones, century after century, striking shape after amazing shape. Some were reticent, some ecstatic. Some were motionless, some winged. It was a dream of proliferation, of infinity: of figures set austerely inside octagonal cupolas, and each generative flank of every cupola itself lavishly friezed and fructified; of limbs erupting from limbs; of archways efflorescing; of statues spawning statuary.
Or, as Castle observes earlier in the story, reflecting upon another stone Roman statue: “The mighty descend to powder and leave chalk on the fingerprints.”
It is too cheap and easy (the route many critics have taken) to cite Ozick’s previously unpublished title story as the jewel in the crown here. Dictation is a wicked and gleeful romp through literary revisionism but it is merely a lush dessert in comparison to the hearty dish that is At Fumicaro. There is a frightening urgency to the story of Castle and his innocent, faithful child bride, oppressively played out against a looming world war where man’s barbarous, material nature will trump religious dogma. Tyrants like Hitler and Mussolini—once more, the wrong people – will be tapped on the shoulder for a place at the dinner table among The Immortals.
The other two stories that round out this superb collection are Actors and What Happened to the Baby?, previously published in The New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly, respectively. Both are fine additions to Ozick’s theme-driven work but are overshadowed in many regards by the breathtaking mastery on display in Dictation and At Fumicaro.
Not unlike her novel The Messiah of Stockholm (1987), Dictation is, in part, a meditation on the nature of writing. American satirist and editor H.L. Mencken once observed that an author, “like any other so-called artist” is a person “in whom the normal vanity of all men is so vastly exaggerated that he finds it a sheer impossibility to hold it in.” The overpowering impulse of the writer, Mencken remarked, “is to gyrate before his fellow men, flapping his wings and emitting defiant yells. This being forbidden by the police of all civilized nations, he takes it out by putting his yells on paper. Such is the thing called self-expression.”
Amen, and may we all ascend to immortality.