Cynthia Ozick’s Quarrel & Quandary

Asked to name America’s best living novelist, the late David Foster Wallace skipped over the usual heavy-hitters – Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, and even Thomas Pynchon – in favor of a celebrated but far less widely-read author: Cynthia Ozick. Her name comes up regularly in a second capacity, that of America’s greatest living literary critic, and while I have read too little into her work to affirm those judgments, I have read just enough to see the merit in the claims. Quarrel & Quandary, her sixth collection of essays, and her first in the 21st century, compiles her thoughts on subjects as various as Kafka and Anne Frank, the Unabomber and cinema’s attempts at rendering Henry James on the silver screen – not to mention a handful of endearing personal essays, recounting her Bronx childhood, or how she met her husband. Fair warning, though: this diminutive elderly Jewish woman, with glasses thick as bottle bottoms, can wield the written word like a whip – and woe to those victims of her lash.

Our first taste of her ire comes in one of the collection’s centrepieces: “Who Owns Anne Frank?” It is not the ill-fated Anne who earns Ozick’s scorn, but the stewards of her literary estate, who, Ozick argues, have bowdlerized and sanitized her story, the better to commodify it for a mass audience – particularly in its staged editions. Anne’s father, Otto, is the first culprit: it seems, out of shame or modesty, he expurgated Anne’s sexual curiosity entirely. Gone are the passages discussing contraception, for example, or recounting her own anatomical self-exploration: “In the upper part, between the outer labia…” Erasing these passages might have preserved Otto’s propriety, but they forever diminished Anne’s precocity – but one wonders what could have motivated him to remove references to Yom Kippur, or Anne’s expressions of religious faith, or the “terrified reports of Germans seizing Jews in Amsterdam”? An unabridged version was finally released, in 1991, but the damage had been done: “the image of Anne Frank as merry innocent and steadfast idealist – an image the play vividly promoted – was by then ineradicable.” Next to earn Ozick’s anger is Anneliese Schütz, the earliest German translator of the diary, who took it upon herself to exculpate her compatriots:

“Heroism in war or when confronting Germans” is dissolved into “heroism in war and in the struggle against oppression.” (“A book intended after all for sale in Germany,” Schütz explained, “cannot abuse the Germans.”) The diarist’s honest cry, in the midst of a vast persecution, that “there is no greater hostility in the world than exists between Germans and Jews,” became, in Schütz’s version, “there is no greater hostility in the world than between these Germans and Jews!” 

Otto Frank acceded to these changes, taking it upon himself to interpret his daughter’s words for the masses, and this muddled indictment of “oppression” represented, for forty-one years, the only Diary available to German readers. Here is how Ozick sums up this shameful history of literary license:

Evisceration, an elegy for the murdered. Evisceration by blurb and stage, by shrewdness and naïveté, by cowardice and spirituality, by forgiveness and indifference, by success and money, by vanity and rage, by principle and passion, by surrogacy and affinity. Evisceration by fame, by shame, by blame. By uplift and transcendence. By usurpation.

Behind these barbed words is a simple concept, summed up by that last word, usurpation: the Diary did not belong to Otto Frank, or to the translators, or to the hack screenwriters and playwrights who sought to stage it. It was the exclusive property of Anne Frank, and therefore to water down, re-interpret or otherwise sanctify its message constitutes a violation – and a particularly egregious one, given Anne’s fate.

These insights and accusations shade nicely into her next essay, “The Rights of History and the Rights of Imagination,” which surveys the artistic response to the Holocaust to make a vital point: that history and imagination are owed separate, often conflicting allegiances, and that – in the wrong hands, with the wrong intentions – the mingling of the two forms can be disastrous. The earliest recordings of the Holocaust, and of the entire German assault on Jewish existence, were photographic, by necessity: they capture the moment as it occurred.

The pictures belonged to their instant; though they could serve memory, they were not the same as memory. You could not quarrel with the pictures. You could not change what they insistently and irremediably saw. But as the words rushed in in torrents, as they proliferated, becoming more and more various and removed, some broke through the gates of memory into the freer fields of parable, myth, analogy, symbol, story. And where memory was fastidious in honoring history, story turned to the other muses. Where memory was strict, fiction could be lenient, and sometimes lax. Where memory struggled for stringency of historical precision, fiction drifted toward history as a thing to be used, as imagination’s stimulus and provocation.

If, as she later insists, “history is that which is owed to reality,” where does that leave art and the imagination? “Fiction has license to do anything it pleases. Fiction is liberty at its purest.” But should we understand that to be a positive thing, especially if fiction can mine even the Holocaust for its own purposes? Ozick herself has not made up her mind, and part of the privilege of reading her nonfiction comes from observing her mind work through the contradictory positions.

On what basis, then, can I disdain a story that subverts document and archive? On what basis can I protest a novel that falsifies memory? If fiction annihilates fact, that is the imagination’s prerogative. If fiction evades plausibility, that too is the imagination’s prerogative. And if memory is passionate in its adherence to history, why should that impinge on the rights of fiction?

Not content to rest here, Ozick takes us through examples of the eradication of fact and plausibility – a Holocaust memoir written by a fraud; a novel whose plot hinges on an unlikelihood – and where these fabrications lead us, as a culture, striving not to forget. Her melancholy conclusion – melancholy, especially, for a writer – is that, in some instances, the word “came not to illumine but to corrupt.”

It is the job of literary critics – the good ones, at least – to be able to wield the whip of scorn when their standards are not met, but it is equally their job to venerate, appreciate, even canonize. And if there is a certain pleasure in witnessing Ozick eviscerate frauds and opportunists, there is far greater pleasure in her appreciations. Kafka, Sebald, Dostoevsky, and Henry James are all celebrated, and a hundred others besides, in prose worthy of these worthies. I give Ozick the last word: “[…] three cheers and more for that other bravery, the literary essay, and for memory’s mooning and maundering, and for losing one’s way in the bliss of American prose, and finding one’s way, too, when politics is slumbering, in the surprising atlas of all that is not benign, yet (somehow, sometimes) stirring.”