In a 1997 interview, Cynthia Ozick explains why she rejects the phrase “women’s writer” but accepts “Jewish writer”:
“Jewish” is a category of civilization, culture, and intellect, and “woman” is a category of anatomy and physiology. It’s rough thinking to confuse vast cultural and intellectual movements with the capacity to bear children.
Rough thinking? Ms. Ozick I disagree. Are you saying that there is no vast intellectual and cultural movement by women, focusing on women, exploring women’s experience? Because, if so, this book doesn’t quite add up.
Ozick’s latest novel (2010) is a re-visioning of Henry James’ The Ambassadors, with a divorced, solo woman at the center, a spinster teacher, instead of James’ man-with-a-fiancé. Both characters go from the US to Europe to retrieve younger, semi-distant relations. In James’ novel, Europe represents true freedom, compared to the stultifying pretense of freedom in America. But Ozick’s Paris of the early 50s is overrun by DPs, persons displaced by the Holocaust. Parisians are not pleased.
And, frankly, Americans are not pleased either.
Because 50s America is not that welcoming of Ozick’s secular Jewish characters. Bea Nachtigall, the protagonist, has changed her name to “Nightingale,” ostensibly so that her students can pronounce it but, more probably, to perform her own version of the assimilation her brother Marvin began: he married into a family of Protestant blue-bloods and constantly strives for acceptance by the Brahmin class.
However, Marvin’s focus on American, WASP-style success has torn apart his family. And when he browbeats long-estranged Bea to fix it all for him, her actions are fueled by her own resentments, loneliness, and jealousy.
A feminist novel! The woman at the center is a female human, unlikely to save anyone, let alone herself.
I loved it.
But its portrait of this family is dark. Only the barest glimmers of light in the canvas.
Women do not fare well here, but neither do men. Jewish people, especially, do not fare well.
Marvin has encountered racism on every step of his ladder to the penthouse. And compared to Europe, where liberated Paris is as eager to expel Jews as the Nazis were, where traumatized survivors are treated with contempt, America isn’t much better. None of Marvin’s family has any sympathy, let alone respect or kinship, for the survivor his son married. In Marvin’s hateful words, his son has regressed 3 generations, after all Marvin’s struggle to get to be a real American. His son’s marriage makes him fit only for exile.
The characters are relatively more free in America than they were in Europe, but no one will thrive. The principle of exile rules most of their lives, making this novel very much about both Judaism and women.
Unless! Unless you consider that these women–three full generations of them–are choosing not to have children. They are choosing to have other kinds of lives, which is radical for the 50s. And as we like to say at the university, every historical novel is about two times: the time it’s written, and the time of its setting. This choice is almost as radical now.
But their choices for independence are shaped as much by the men in their lives as by their own desires. Bea has given up her own creative ambitions to support her husband’s music, only to be abandoned by him and haunted by the ghost of his creative passions (in the form of the piano they bought instead of paying for a wedding). It takes her decades to make room for herself in her apartment, and her attempts to do so result in tragedy.
These states of permanent exile–from each other, from American culture, from Jewish culture–are difficult to live with. These characters are doing the best that they can.
In very important ways, this book is about the 50s, about American Jews coming to terms with persistent global anti-Semitism after the Holocaust. And about women figuring out how to live in a male-dominated world, where the men are as unhappy and unfulfilled as they are.
But for most of the book, I forgot that it was not about 2012.