Cynthia Ozick - What Henry James Knew

Cynthia Ozick - What Henry James Knew
Rating - 8.5

What did Henry James know? What does any author know? Is what they know important to how they write, or what topics their writing examines? Cynthia Ozick begins this loose collection of work with an introduction that quotes 'you will find no people with defined political opinions, no people with religious opinions, none with clear partisanships or with lusts or whims, none definitely up to any specific impersonal thing...It is leviathan retrieving pebbles.'

Bold words, and true enough, as it is. Many of James' characters do not seem to do a great deal, at least within the confines of the novel's pages. Nor do they talk much about things beyond the internal, or their relationships, or, often, art. James was never a great facts-stuffer like Pynchon or (George) Eliot, nor did he weigh down his text with massive amounts of allusion and reference like Joyce or (T. S.) Eliot. But what Henry James did have was an unswerving commitment to and passion for art, which through his genius came out in the form of novels, short stories, literary criticism, letters, notebooks and, disastrously, the play, Guy Domville.

Cynthia Ozick's work uses James's great talent as a springboard to discuss first modernism and then a collection of Jewish authors, both pre- and post-WWII. The book is not directly related, with roughly two thirds of the pieces being previously published in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The New Republic, Commentary, and more, and drawn together from over twenty years of writing. What Henry James Knew may be the conceit of the first few essays - which explore first Eliot, then Wharton (a great friend of James), James himself, James again, and then Woolf - but then the collection loses its focus until it picks up another thematic unity by examining a range of Jewish authors - Bellow, Malamud, Singer, Scholem, Agnon. The remaining essays, scattered throughout, tend to be shorter, between four and fifteen pages, and provide a cursory - though interesting - look at more contemporary authors.

At times, Ozick's essays descend into mere biography, which is either a shame or a blessing, depending on your preference - or perhaps both. It is interesting to learn of T. S. Eliot's rise to fame, fortune, and the Nobel - but how does it help us understand the great working of modernity and art, which is arguably the focus of the essay? Eliot 'seemed a pure zenith, a colossus, nothing less than a permanent luminary fixed in the firmament like the sun and the moon'. A literary giant, then, though no longer. Now (and Ozick is writing in the early '90s) he is a 'difficult writer', that horrible label against which only the strongest survive. He is unread - he writes poetry! - and impenetrable unless you are learned, educated, determined and willing to bow at the altar of high art. A writer of Ozick's talent - for she is witty, clever, erudite, yes, but most of all, she is a charming writer - stands a chance of bringing Eliot back, or at least, making young readers and would-be writers aware of his talent, his genius, and his belief in art. Eliot should not remain in the dusty back area, that graveyard of art known as 'the classics' or 'the canon' and read by few. No, Eliot, like James, like Woolf, like almost every author in this collection, should be read as much now as they were then. They all have a lot to offer, and though fashion may date, though social mores may change, the temperament of art remains true. Ozick does, it must be admitted, come around to explaining the why of these authors, but so often this why is prefaced with lengthy (interesting), circumlocutory (insightful) examinations of the life and times of the author.

As with all literary essays, the appreciation of the reader often stems from the familiarity they have for the subject being discussed. If, as a reader, you are interested in literature, then you are probably aware of Henry James, even if you have not read his works. Thus, learning of his life, his style and his outlook, as well as reading a detailed and intelligent examination of some of his works, is interesting. This becomes more true if you are familiar with, and enjoy, the works of the author. Myself, I had read perhaps ninety percent of the authors, and I was familiar by name with all but two of the rest. Good for me, but what of the reader who has never heard of S. Y. Agnon? Gertrud Kolmar? (The two I did not know). But also - Gershom Scholem? Bruno Schulz? Bernard Malamud? Agnon, I have since been informed, for all that he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, is a writer that should really only be read in Hebrew, and even then, if you are not well versed in the Jewish faith, the layers of his meaning remain opaque. And Gershom Scholem wrote exhaustively on Jewish Kabbalah which, again, is a specialised topic. The reader, unless they are interested in all forms of literature, may find themselves swamped with a sea of unfamiliar names and concepts.

But hold a moment. Isn't that one of the tasks of a writer, to introduce us to words and deeds and times and places unknown? Yes - and Cynthia Ozick delivers in spades. If you have never heard of Italo Calvino, it would be difficult not to put him on a reading list after completing her essay, 'Italo Calvino: Bringing Stories to Their Senses'. It is almost always the case that, after a possibly discouraging foray into biography, Ozick's essays will cajole, persuade, convince and excite. She writes less with passion or exuberance than with the steady, clear hand of an essayist who reads with a clear eye and is able to uncover, discover and recover authors and texts for others to share and enjoy.

The movement of modernity receives the most exhaustive examination, perhaps because it was more cohesive than the output of the Jewish writers of the 20th century. This makes sense, of course, because the only thing linking Jewish authors together is their religion, whereas modernism had a clear focus, temperament and goal. One towering figure of modernity who is mentioned, but never examined, is James Joyce, though perhaps this is because, as Ozick writes, Joyce has become a fixture, whereas Eliot and Woolf remain less certain. Indeed, in an attempt to capture the artistic essence of Woolf, Ozick writes heavily on the Bloomsbury Group, and of Woolf's husband, Leonard. Again, the problem lies in how much biography the reader can stomach, though also again, the text remains, always, charming, intelligent and entertaining.

So, what did Henry James know? He knew only art, and that, I suppose, is what we are left with at the end of this collection. As mentioned, the majority of these essays were published over a long span of time, which means the work has no real cohesion. That said, invariably the focus is upon art, and how the author fought to write, to show what they knew. The introduction is very grand, and also very exciting, and it is unfortunate that the lack of thematic cohesion for the rest of the work means the introduction's aim to discover what Henry James knew, fails. The essays themselves, however, are not failures, and prove a constant delight. Read them to learn of new authors (though be wary of the biography!), read them to remember why it is you enjoy your favourite authors so much. Ozick is skilled at placing an author within their milieu and examining them separate to that milieu, to show how art both fits in and fights against the temperament of its time.

See Also

The Din in the Head


The Jewish Virtual Library


American Authors