The Washington Post
Dictation: A Quartetby Cynthia Ozick
Ozick’s latest work of fiction brings together four long stories, including the novella-length "Dictation," that showcase this incomparable writer’s sly humor and piercing insight into the human heart. Each starts in the comic mode, with heroes who suffer from willful self-deceit. From self-deception, these not-so-innocents proceed to deceive others, who… See more details below
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Ozick’s latest work of fiction brings together four long stories, including the novella-length "Dictation," that showcase this incomparable writer’s sly humor and piercing insight into the human heart. Each starts in the comic mode, with heroes who suffer from willful self-deceit. From self-deception, these not-so-innocents proceed to deceive others, who don’t take it lightly. Revenge is the consequence—and for the reader, a delicious if dark recognition of emotional truth.The glorious novella "Dictation" imagines a fateful meeting between the secretaries to Henry James and Joseph Conrad at the peak of those authors’ fame. Timid Miss Hallowes, who types for Conrad, comes under the influence of James’s Miss Bosanquet, high-spirited, flirtatious, and scheming. In a masterstroke of genius, Ozick hatches a plot between them to insert themselves into posterity. Ozick is at her most devious, delightful best in these four works, illuminating the ease with which comedy can glide into calamity.
The Washington Post
The New York Times
A carefully honed, sharply intelligent new collection of four stories shows Ozick (The Heir to the Glimmering World) at the height of her stylistic powers. The title story, by far the strongest tale, 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 masters' work; in so doing, they exalt, with an undeniably sexual glee, that they will thus attain immortality. "Actors" looks on wryly as TV character actor Matt Sorley, né Mose Sadacca and nearing 60, reluctantly takes a role that will either cap his career or defeat him. "At Fumicaro" follows an American Catholic literary critic in Mussolini's Italy 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 exuberant "What Happened to the Baby?" follows a young college student and her eccentric Esperanto-spouting uncle to his mid-20th-century meetings of the League for a Unified Humanity. Ozick's stories ingeniously put scholarship in the service of human flowerings. (Apr.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
In her elegant new collection, Ozick (Heir to the Glimmering World) examines with characteristic humor the passions that motivate the human heart and the human foibles that often lead to self-deception and misery. In the wonderfully witty and biting opening novella, "Dictation," Miss Bosanquet and Miss Hallowes, the respective amanuenses of Henry James and Jospeh Conrad at the height of their careers, concoct a marvelous scheme to write themselves into posterity. This novella alone is worth the price of the book for its detailed portrayals of characters and its careful construction of story. "Actors" follows the fortunes of Matt Sorley as he searches for work in New York and eventually is tapped to play Lear in an adaptation of the play that features Lear as a Jewish emigrant. Sorley's production is interrupted by a real Lear-an elderly and quite mad Jewish actor who had performed this role originally many years ago. In "At Fumicaro," an art critic attempts to marry his Italian maid only to realize that she has strung him along to rob him. Finally, in "What Happened to the Baby?" a young girl rehearses the story of her uncle's infidelity and her aunt's Medea-like revenge. Ozick is at the top of her form in these splendid stories, and every library will want a copy. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ2/15/07.]
Henry L. Carrigan Jr.
"Deceptions and obsessions drive this elegant collection of four stories...Playful, teasing, provocative fare from this most accomplished of ironists." Kirkus Reviews, Starred
"These novellas are prime examples of Ozick’s rigorous writing style, her propensity for recognizing the element of ridiculousness in human tragedy, and her second-nature sympathy for eccentric characters." Booklist, ALA, Starred Review
"A carefully honed, sharply intelligent new collection of four stories shows Ozick at the height of her stylistic powers...Ozick's stories ingeniously put scholarship in the service of human flowerings." Publishers Weekly
"Ozick is at the top of her form in these splendid stories, and every library will want a copy. Highly recommended." Library Journal Starred
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Read an Excerpt
Matt Sorley, born Mose Sadacca, was an actor. He was a character actor and (when they let him) a comedian. He had broad, swarthy, pliant cheeks, a reddish widow’s peak that was both curly and balding, and very bright teeth as big and orderly as piano keys. His stage name had a vaguely Irish sound, but his origins were Sephardic. One grandfather was from Constantinople, the other from Alexandria. His parents could still manage a few words of the old Spanish spoken by the Jews who had fled the Inquisition, but Matt himself, brought up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, was purely a New Yorker. The Brooklyn that swarmed in his speech was useful. It got him parts.
Sometimes he was recognized in the street a day or so following his appearance on a television lawyer series he was occasionally on call for. These were serious, mostly one-shot parts requiring mature looks. The pressure was high. Clowning was out, even in rehearsals. Matt usually played the judge (three minutes on camera) or else the father of the murder victim (seven minutes). The good central roles went to much younger men with rich black hair and smooth flat bellies. When they stood up to speak in court, they carefully buttoned up their jackets. Matt could no longer easily button his. He was close to sixty and secretly melancholy. He lived on the Upper West Side in a rent-controlled apartment with a chronic leak under the bathroom sink. He had a reputation for arguing with directors; one director was in the habit of addressing him, rather nastily, as Mr. Surly.
His apartment was littered with dictionaries, phrase books, compendiums of scientific terms, collections of slang, encyclopedias of botany, mythology, history. Frances was the one with the steady income. She worked for a weekly crossword puzzle magazine, and by every Friday had to have composed three new puzzles in ascending order of complexity. The job kept her confined and furious. She was unfit for deadlines and tension; she was myopic and suffered from eyestrain. Her neck was long, thin, and imperious, with a jumpy pulse at the side. Matt had met her, right out of Tulsa, almost twenty years ago on the tiny stage of one of those downstairs cellar theaters in the Village — the stage was only a clearing in a circle of chairs. It was a cabaret piece, with ballads and comic songs, and neither Matt nor Frances had much of a voice. This common deficiency passed for romance. They analyzed their mutual flaws endlessly over coffee in the grimy little cafe next door to the theater. Because of sparse audiences, the run petered out after only two weeks, and the morning after the last show Matt and Frances walked downtown to City Hall and were married.
Frances never sang onstage again. Matt sometimes did, to get laughs. As long as Frances could stick to those Village cellars she was calm enough, but in any theater north of Astor Place she faltered and felt a needlelike chill in her breasts and forgot her lines. And yet her brain was all storage. She knew words like “fenugreek,” “kermis,” “sponson,” “gibberellin.” She was angry at being imprisoned by such words. She lived, she said, behind bars; she was the captive of a grid. All day long she sat fitting letters into squares, scrambling the alphabet, inventing definitions made to resemble conundrums, shading in the unused squares. “Grid and bear it,” she said bitterly, while Matt went out to take care of ordinary household things — buying milk, picking up his shirts from the laundry, taking his shoes to be resoled. Frances had given up acting for good. She didn’t like being exposed like that, feeling nervous like that, shaking like that, the needles in her nipples, the numbness in her throat, the cramp in her bowel. Besides, she was embarrassed about being nearsighted and hated having to put in contact lenses to get through a performance. In the end she threw them in the trash. Off stage, away from audiences, she could wear her big round glasses in peace.
Frances resented being, most of the time, the only breadwinner. After four miscarriages she said she was glad they had no children, she couldn’t imagine Matt as a father — he lacked gumption, he had no get-up- and-go. He thought it was demeaning to scout for work. He thought work ought to come to him because he was an artist. He defined himself as master of a Chaplinesque craft; he had been born into the line of an elite tradition. He scorned props and despised the way some actors relied on cigarettes to move them through a difficult scene, stopping in the middle of a speech to light up. It was false suspense, it was pedestrian. Matt was a purist. He was contemptuous of elaborately literal sets, rooms that looked like real rooms. He believedd that a voice, the heel of a hand, a hesitation, the widening of a nostril, could furnish a stage. Frances wanted Matt to hustle forrrrr jobs, she wanted him to network, bug his agent, follow up on casting calls. Matt could do none of these things. He was an actor, he said, not a goddamn peddler.
It wasn’t clear whether he was actually acting all the time (Frances liked to accuse him of this), yet even on those commonplace daytime errands, there was something exaggerated and perversely open about him: an unpredictability leaped out and announced itself. He kidded with all the store help. At the Korean-owned vegetable stand, the young Mexican who was unpacking peppers and grapefruits hollered across to him, “Hey, Mott, you in a movie now?” For all its good will, the question hurt. It was four years since his last film offer, a bit part with Marlon Brando, whom Matt admired madly, though without envy. The role bought Matt and Frances a pair of down coats for winter, and a refrigerator equipped with an ice-cube dispenser. But what Matt really hoped for was getting back onstage. He wanted to be in a play.
At the shoe-repair place his new soles were waiting for him. The proprietor, an elderly Neapolitan, had chalked Attore across the bottom of Matt’s well- worn slip-ons. Then he began his usual harangue: Matt should go into opera. “I wouldn’t be any good at it,” Matt said, as he always did, and flashed his big even teeth. Against the whine of the rotary brush he launched into “La donna e mobile.” The shoemaker shut off his machine and bent his knees and clapped his hands and leaked tears down the accordion creases that fanned out from the corners of his eyes. It struck Matt just then that his friend Salvatore had the fairy-tale crouch of Geppetto, the father of Pinocchio; the thought encouraged him to roll up the legs of his pants and jig, still loudly singing. Salvatore hiccupped and roared and sobbed with laughter.
Sometimes Matt came into the shop just for a shine. The shoemaker never let him pay. It was Matt’s trick to tell Frances (his awful deception, which made him ashamed) that he was headed downtown for an audition, and wouldn’t it be a good idea to stop first to have his shoes buff ed? The point was to leave a decent impression for next time, even if they didn’t hire you this time. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, buy some shoe polish and do it yourself,” Frances advised, but not harshly; she was pleased about the audition.
Of course there wasn’t any audition — or if there was, Matt wasn’t going to it. After Salvatore gave the last slap of his flannel cloth, Matt hung around, teasing and fooling, for half an hour or so, and then he walked over to the public library to catch up on the current magazines. He wasn’t much of a reader, though in principle he revered literature and worshiped Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde. He looked through the Atlantic and Harper’s and The New Yorker, all of which he liked; Partisan Review, Commentary, magazines like that, were over his head.
Sitting in the library, desultorily turning pages, he felt himself a failure and an idler as well as a deceiver. He stared at his wristwatch. If he left this minute, if he hurried, he might still be on time to read for Lionel: he knew this director, he knew he was old-fashioned and meanly slow — one reading was never enough. Matt guessed that Lionel was probably a bit of a dyslexic. He made you stand there and do your half of the dialogue again and again, sometimes three or four times, while he himself read the other half flatly, stumblingly. He did this whether he was seriously considering you or had already mentally dismissed you: his credo was fairness, a breather, another try. Or else he had a touch of sadism. Directors want to dominate you, shape you, turn you into whatever narrow idea they have in their skulls. To a director an actor is a puppet — Geppetto with Pinocchio. Matt loathed the ritual of the audition; it was humiliating. He was too much of a pro to be put through these things, his track record ought to speak for itself, and why didn’t it? Especially with Lionel; they had both been in the business for years. Lionel, like everyone else, called it “the business.” Matt never did.
He took off his watch and put it on the table. In another twenty minutes he could go home to Frances and fake it about the audition: it was the lead Lionel was after, the place was full of young guys, the whole thing was a misunderstanding. Lionel, believe it or not, had apologized for wasting Matt’s time.
“Lionel apologized?” Frances said. Without her glasses on, she gave him one of her naked looks. It was a way she had of avoiding seeing him while drilling straight through him. It made him feel damaged.
“You never went,” she said. “You never went near that audition.” “Yes I did. I did go. That shit Lionel. Blew my whole day.” “Don’t kid me. You didn’t go. And Lionel’s not a shit, he’s been good to you. He gave you the uncle part in Navy Blues only three years ago. I don’t know why you insist on forgetting that.” “It was junk. Garbage. I’m sick of being the geezer in the last act.” “Be realistic. You’re not twenty-five.” “What’s realistic is if they give me access to my range.” And so on. This was how they quarreled, and Matt was pained by it: it wasn’t as if Frances didn’t understand how much he hated sucking up to directors, waiting for the verdict on his thickening fleshy arms, his round stomach, his falsely grinning face, his posture, his walk, even his voice. His voice he knew passed muster: it was like a yo-yo, he could command it to tighten or stretch, to torque or lift. And still he had to submit to scrutiny, to judgment, to prejudice, to whim. He hated having to be obsequious, even when it took the form of jolliness, of ersatz collegiality. He hated lying. His nose was growing from all the lies he told Frances.
On the other hand, what was acting if not lying? A good actor is a good impostor. A consummate actor is a consummate deceiver. Or put it otherwise: an actor is someone who falls into the deeps of self-forgetfulness. Or still otherwise: an actor is a puppeteer, with himself as puppet.
Matt frequently held forth in these trite ways — mostly to himself. When it came to philosophy, he didn’t fool anybody, he wasn’t an original.
“You got a call,” Frances said.
“Who?” Matt said.
“You won’t like who. You won’t want to do it, it doesn’t fit your range.” “For crying out loud,” Matt said. “Who was it?” “Somebody from Ted Silkowitz’s. It’s something Ted Silkowitz is doing. You won’t like it,” she said again.
“Silkowitz,” Matt groaned. “The guy’s still in diapers. He’s sucking his thumb. What’s he want with me?” “That’s it. He wants you and nobody else.” “Cut it out, Frances.” “See what I mean? I know you, I knew you’d react like that. You won’t want to do it. You’ll find some reason.” She pulled a tissue from inside the sleeve of her sweater and began to breathe warm fog on her lenses. Then she rubbed them with the tissue. Matt was interested in bad eyesight — how it made people stand, the pitch of their shoulders and necks. It was the kind of problem he liked to get absorbed in. The stillness and also the movement. If acting was lying, it was at the same time mercilessly and mechanically truth-telling. Watching Frances push the earpieces of her glasses back into the thicket of her hair, Matt thought how pleasing that was, how quickly and artfully she did it. He could copy this motion exactly; he drew it with his tongue on the back of his teeth. If he looked hard enough, he could duplicate anything at all. Even his nostrils, even his genitals, had that power. His mind was mostly a secret kept from him — he couldn’t run it, it ran him, but he was intimate with its nagging pushy heat.
“It’s got something to do with Lear. Something about King Lear,” Frances said. “But never mind, it’s not for you. You wouldn’t want to play a geezer.” “Lear? What d’you mean, Lear?” “Something like that, I don’t know. You’re supposed to show up tomorrow morning. If you’re interested,” she added; he understood how sly she could be. “Eleven o’clock.” “Well, well,” Matt said, “good thing I got my shoes shined.” Not that he believed in miracles, but with Silkowitz anything was possible: the new breed, all sorts of surprises up their baby sleeves...
Meet the Author
Author of numerous acclaimed works of fiction and nonfiction, CYNTHIA OZICK is a recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Man Booker International Prize. Her writing has appeared in The New Republic, Harper's, and elsewhere. She lives in New York.
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