Good Reads: "Dictation" " Cynthia Ozick’s latest a quartet of human insight |

Good Reads: "Dictation" " Cynthia Ozick’s latest a quartet of human insight

I first encountered Cynthia Ozick in the early 1980s when I happened upon a remarkable short story she had written that won her the Pushcart Award. I still remember being both delighted at ‘discovering’ her and surprised I had not known of her work before, as she had been writing for at least 20 years.

Since then I have read and reread, often with awe, much of this prolific, masterful and honored author, poet, critic and essayist who has received much well-deserved praise in the literary press.

And since the time I ‘discovered her,’ so did everyone else. She was the first winner of the Rea Award for the Short Story, was short listed for the coveted 2005 Man Booker International Prize, was a first prize O. Henry Award winner four times, is a member of The American Academy of Arts and Letters, was a recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship and the Mildred and Harold Strauss Living Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, was a finalist for the National Book Award for her previous novel “The Puttermesser Papers”(1997), was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, was the winner of the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism, and is the recent winner of the PEN/Nabokov Award honoring a body of work marked by “enduring originality and consummate craftsmanship.”

Her classic novella “The Shawl” (1980), which was produced for the stage in New York City, directed by Sidney Lumet, has been chosen by the National Endowment for the Arts as part of the nationwide Big Read program. And her work has been translated into 13 languages worldwide.

That being said, I hope that you will also ‘discover’ Cynthia Ozick, and her latest work, published April 17 on the eve of her 80th birthday. Her fiction has been described as “feverish, funny, visceral and cerebral,” and her latest new quartet of novellas “Dictation: A Quartet” is no exception. Publishers Weekly describes it as “a carefully honed, sharply intelligent new collection of four stories (that) shows Ozick at the height of her stylistic powers…Ozick’s stories ingeniously put scholarship in the service of human flowerings.”

Her recurring subject here, as in earlier works, is the ‘Visionary Crank.’ The settings in the stories range from 1910 London to 1930s Italy to Ozick’s native New York City. In every case the genius of the story is a character who is ‘out of sorts with the world.’

The four stories include comedy, deception and revenge and reveal her sly humor and piercing insight into the human heart. And the long story, as Donna Seaman of the Los Angeles Times points out, provides the perfect form to display “her wit and insight, her fascination with opposites and parallels, and her inquiry into how language can be both liberating and oppressive.”

In pointing out the historical inaccuracies of Dictation’s title story, Ozick writes, “Never mind, says Fiction; what fun, laughs Transgression; so what? Mocks Dream.” “And she cons us with lies and truths that are as pleasurably interchangeable as the holy and the satanic,” David Wiley adds in his review of the book in ‘Rain Taxi.’

The first story, “Dictation,” follows the female secretaries of Henry James and Joseph Conrad, both of whom take dictation from the two egoist titans. When the authors meet in London, their two amanuenses collude to make their own mark on their master’s work; in so doing, they exalt, with undeniably sexual glee, that they will thus attain immortality.

“Actors,” the second story, looks wryly as middle-tier TV character actor Matt Sorley, ne Moses Sadacca and nearing 60, reluctantly takes a role that either can end his career or defeat him.

“At Fumicaro,” the third story, follows an American Catholic literary critic and intellectual in Mussolini’s Italy for a conference as he falls head over heels in love with a pregnant 16-year-old peasant girl: She was more hospitable to God than anyone who hoped to find God in books.

The final story, the exuberant “What Happened to the Baby?” follows a young college student, Phyllis, and her eccentric self-taught universal language-spouting uncle to his mid-20th-century meetings of the League for a United Humanity. She discovers he is less than open when it comes to his own past. “Lies, illusion, deception,” she concludes, “Was that it truly, the universal language we all speak?”

Ozick doesn’t write action packed page-turners but something is always going on. Her books are hard to put down. I bet you can’t read just one!

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