Great Dictators

Dictation: A Quartet BY Cynthia Ozick. Houghton Mifflin. Hardcover, 192 pages. $24.

The cover of Dictation: A Quartet

History records no meeting between Miss Lilian Hallowes and Miss Theodora Bosanquet. History does not, in fact, record much at all about Miss Hallowes, who spent twenty years as Joseph Conrad’s secretary. About Miss Bosanquet—I’ll give them the honorifics of their day—we know more, not least because she left a record of her own employer, an elegant, indispensable pamphlet called Henry James at Work (1924). A graduate of University College, London, she was with James from 1907 until his death in 1916, sitting at her Remington as his dictating voice rolled from sentence to sentence. Probably she knew him as well in his final years as anyone, and indeed, she found him his last London flat, around the corner from the Chelsea building where she lived with another young woman. Later, she moved on the edges of Bloomsbury, wrote other books, worked as an editor.

It’s unlikely these women ever met, though probably they knew each other’s names. Their employers did know each other—they exchanged letters and books and also a few visits—though what they talked about remains itself unrecorded. So the first thing to note about “Dictation,” the puckish title story of Cynthia Ozick’s new collection, is that it offers an entirely plausible account of what those two great novelists might have said to each other. Ozick’s James twinkles like a self-conscious diamond. Her Conrad is terser, used to giving orders—“Make an end of it, Jess,” as he tells his wife when she seems to pry into the two men’s talk. That conversation itself turns on—what else?—the question of style. To what degree does a writer’s style remain “distinct from . . . [his] intrinsic personality?” Conrad doesn’t believe that it can; he holds that the writer reveals himself in every line. James, in contrast, maintains that “the artist multiplies his confessions, thereby concealing his inmost self. The talk went back and forth in this way, the two labyrinthine minds locking and unlocking.”

Ozick will not decide this question; instead, she plays with it. Thirty years of scribbling have left James with an arthritic ache in his wrist; he has been dictating since the 1890s, writing only his most personal letters by hand. One of Conrad’s own wrists bubbles with gout, and perhaps a part of him wants to imitate the older writer, whom he addresses as “Cher Maítre.” Enter, then, our amanuenses, in an accidental meeting between the two that James describes as “unforeseen in the higher mathematics, when parallel handmaidens collide.” Miss Hallowes is mousily hesitant, nervous, and gawkily tall; the younger Miss Bosanquet is in comparison a figure of confident ease. She pushes the relationship, suggesting that the two share a purpose, and pushes it in other ways as well, insisting on the privilege of first names, and then more, a layer cake of seductions.

Theodora Bosanquet, ca. 1890.
Theodora Bosanquet, ca. 1890.

Meanwhile, their masters—and Ozick has tweaked a few dates here—are at work on stories that oddly resemble each other, uncanny tales of an alternate life, of “the encroachment of a second self.” For Conrad, it’s “The Secret Sharer”; for James, “The Jolly Corner.” Which gives Miss Bosanquet an idea. She no longer finds it enough to serve as the conduit of genius but wants instead to leave her own impress on history, “to send into the future a nameless immutability, visible though invisible, smooth while bent, unchangeable yet altered.” For that, however, she will need a confederate, a secret partner of her own. And then? “A flowerbed unfolding. . . . Mortise and tenon! . . . [H]ot fluids . . . [and] a sutured crevice.” But this sly, lubricious prose is about writing, not sex. Sex is merely Ozick’s metaphor for the pounding of the keys, and the story has a fey glee about it, in which mischief and delight seem one.

“Dictation” prompts two thoughts about Ozick’s work as a whole. The tale has an essayistic, information-laden first sentence—“In the early summer of 1901, Lamb House, Henry James’s exurban domicile in Rye, was crowded with flowers”—and it floats a series of intellectual balloons about the nature of art. Ozick’s characters have always had to compete with her ideas, in a way suggested by the title of one of her most famous stories, “Envy, or Yiddish in America.” The double barrel links visceral emotion to treatise, though at her best there is, as “Dictation” puts it, “no visible seam, no hair’s-breadth fissure” between them. My second thought begins with the question of style—the same question her novelists debate. Does style provide a mask for the self or a revelation of it? Ozick’s most characteristic sentences move like curveballs with a sting, but I can’t pretend to define their relation to anything we might call her self. What I can say, however, is that the earliest of this volume’s stories, “At Fumicaro,” ran in the New Yorker almost twenty-five years ago, and the voice and the pace of its prose are consistent with those of her most recent work. Her style does not show the kind of continual change that James’s does, as he moves over the decades from “Daisy Miller” to The Golden Bowl. Her concerns do not alter, her sentences neither wax nor wane in complexity, she has no late manner. In that, she is closer to Conrad.

Of course, she wasn’t young when she wrote “At Fumicaro,” and she turns eighty as this book appears. But other old masters do continue to change—think of Yeats or Mann. Ozick seems, in contrast, to have found quite early a voice and a form within which she could spend her career. James has always been an obsession with her, but she has dismissed Trust (1966), her first and only long novel, as an attempt to write what she calls a “cannibalistically ambitious Jamesian” book, as an attempt, in fact, to be an old writer before she’d been a young one. There have been novels since, yet her métier has been the long story, somewhere between thirty-five and fifty pages: the four pieces here, the novellas of Bloodshed (1976), those gathered in The Puttermesser Papers (1999), and others, too, like “Rosa” in The Shawl (1989). Her gift is for compression: dark stars rather than ever-expanding novas.

Still, within that form she sometimes allows herself to play against type, to stay herself while dressing in borrowed clothes. “At Fumicaro” is an international story of a kind that James wouldn’t have written, in which Frank Castle, a Catholic journalist attending a conference near Lake Como, first seduces and then proposes to a pregnant chambermaid. Ozick’s characters always get what they have coming to them, and then some. The story suggests that the pity Frank feels for the girl, Viviana, is the penance exacted for—well, not exactly for lust. To Ozick, it’s as though pity were something you’re rightfully punished for having. Yet while it’s fun to watch her play at Catholicism, the story itself is thin. It parodies the version of Italy so common in postwar American fiction—a childlike authenticity of feeling coupled with a con game—but doesn’t get beyond it. “What Happened to the Baby” stays literally closer to home: the Bronx in midcentury, a crazy uncle with a plan for world union, even a bit of the Catskills. There are family secrets and deceptions, and Ozick’s narrator realizes, not long after she starts at NYU, that she’s “becoming an easy liar” precisely because “I was reluctant to witness my mother’s pride” in telling bigger ones. Though let that title be a warning: Ozick may in essence be a comic writer, but she often writes about horrible things.

Joseph Conrad, 1923.
Joseph Conrad, 1923.

The best piece here is “Actors,” the story of Matt Sorley, “born Mose Sadacca,” from Bensonhurst, “a character actor and (when they let him) a comedian. . . . The Brooklyn that swarmed in his speech was useful. It got him parts.” Only not enough of them. Occasional work in a “television lawyer series” keeps him going, but it’s been years since he’s been onstage, and he’s in danger of becoming one of those people who spends his days at the public library. Matt lives by understatement, “his gods were ellipsis and inference.” Small gestures only, as if “the heel of a hand . . . the widening of a nostril, could furnish a stage.” So it’s a stretch when he’s offered a play at last, a play full of “bombast and excitation,” a full-throated attempt to revive the melodramatic world of the old Yiddish theater. The director wants his cast “to pour out blood and bile and bitter gall.” He wants Matt to howl, Lear-like, to emit a sound like “the wild roaring cannon of a human heartbeat.” And Matt prepares to do it—but what he can’t prepare for is the revenant who stalks the playhouse aisle, the dybbuk at loose in the theater. I love the bookish fun of “Dictation,” but “Actors” belongs on any short list of Ozick’s best work.

Which still leaves a question, or maybe just an ambivalence. Ozick is in some ways so good, so intelligent and flexible and imaginative, that in reading her I find myself always asking why I don’t like her work as much as I respect it. That reaction may have to do with the posture she takes toward her characters. James wrote that George Eliot, whom he admired above all other novelists in English, nevertheless allowed her work to lapse from a picture into a fable; that she was always in danger of making her characters serve to demonstrate a lesson. Something like that is true of Ozick. She is a moralist, not a dramatist, who at moments seems determined to give her people the back of her hand. Sometimes I even imagine her as the coach of a bad team, shrugging her shoulders and saying, “Look what poor material I have to work with, players like these.” So one reads with a sense of indifference, involved in the brilliant carapaces of her sentences but only rarely in the story as a whole; indeed, one reads without any investment in what happens next. Or no: an intellectual investment only. One of her essay collections is called Art and Ardor (1983), but in her fiction, that ardor seems above all present as an idea; in her hands, Apollo almost always wins his battle with Dionysius. She suffers from an excess of control, from too clear a conception of how things ought to be. Maybe that’s why she likes to pop out the occasional golem—it gives her a way to shatter her own sense of order.

But there is that prose—and there is a clutch of great stories. Her work remains strong enough to make a reader doubt his doubt, to lend that ambivalence an ambivalence of its own. “At Fumicaro” offers a long description of cathedral statuary, and in reading Dictation, I began to think of her in terms of the Rococo. Ozick doesn’t offer the soaring spaces, the exhilaration, of the Baroque (whose name here might be Bellow). What she gives us instead is a sense of ornament as structure, an elaborately staged “dream of proliferation,” her sentences exfoliating into “shape after amazing shape . . . lavishly friezed and fructified.” The result is fanciful and cool to the touch; it performs its passions but seems untroubled by them. If Ozick is a specialized taste, that’s because her very strengths present a challenge to our conventions of taste itself. Probably she was right to describe the pieces in her 1982 Levitation as fictions rather than stories. The term allows her the space for parable, for pages that masquerade as essays or sermons; it allows for fantasy. It gives her the same freedom from the canons of Chekhovian realism that the word tales did for Isak Dinesen, and I suspect that in time, Ozick’s speculative modern midrash will occupy a similar place in the house of our permanent fiction.

Michael Gorra’s books include The Bells in Their Silence: Travels Through Germany (Princeton University Press, 2004) and, as editor, The Portable Conrad (Penguin, 2007).