The Puttermesser Papers: A Novel

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From Cynthia Ozick, a masterful modern-day picaresque - the adventures of a female Don Quixote transplanted in Manhattan. Ruth Puttermesser, yearning for a life of the mind (her idol is George Eliot), finds herself mired in the lowest circles of city bureaucracy. Her love life is hopeless. Her fantasies are more influential than wan reality - she takes Hebrew lessons from an uncle who died before she was born; she makes a golem out of the earth of her houseplants. Still, she turns out to be the best mayor New ...
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From Cynthia Ozick, a masterful modern-day picaresque - the adventures of a female Don Quixote transplanted in Manhattan. Ruth Puttermesser, yearning for a life of the mind (her idol is George Eliot), finds herself mired in the lowest circles of city bureaucracy. Her love life is hopeless. Her fantasies are more influential than wan reality - she takes Hebrew lessons from an uncle who died before she was born; she makes a golem out of the earth of her houseplants. Still, she turns out to be the best mayor New York City has ever elected (with the most unusual campaign manager). Soon enough, though, paradise gained becomes paradise lost, and the impact of getting exactly what you want and then losing it plays itself out in dramatic and surprising fashion.
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Editorial Reviews

San Francisco Chronicle
The finest achievement of Ozick's career. . . It has all the buoyant integrity of a Chagall painting.
Joan Smith

The Indian guru Krishnamurti taught that bliss is the suspension of thought, and most religious mystics believe that thought -- the naming and analysis of experience -- is (alas) the enemy of both experience and true joy. We are compelled to organize our ideas about a moment, and thus lose the moment itself. This is the old cautionary fable of the poet, the philosopher, the crusader so enamored of abstraction -- world peace, justice, universal love -- he is oblivious to people, and to the embodiment of those ideals in his immediate vicinity.

To anyone who loves ideas and words, this is a painful wisdom, and a doubtful one. If we were not meant to cogitate our way through life, why were we blessed with the gift of thinking so elaborately and with such pleasure? Yet it is clearly true that mental virtuosity, however desirable a talent, is no guarantee of emotional satisfaction.

In her new high comic novel, The Puttermesser Papers, Cynthia Ozick, one of our most gifted interpreters of the idea, delineates this dilemma in the person of Ruth Puttermesser -- brilliant, Jewish, bookish, pedantic, lonely, funny, endearing and so enamored of her ideals she invents life to fulfill them, featuring a job as a lawyer in Manhattan's civil service, a system she idealizes as the perfect meritocracy, the embodiment of democratic dreams, until she is summarily dismissed by a new commissioner who wants to appoint an old friend to replace her. A golem named Xanthippe (for the shrewish wife of Socrates) turns Ruth into the mayor of New York and helps her turn the city into a crime-free cultural and intellectual utopia. She wins a lover who seems the fulfillment of her fantasy of an intellectual soul mate, a dream modeled on 19th century novelist George Eliot's love affair with George Lewes. Lastly, she finds an afterlife in which old rejections and humiliations and failures are redeemed: Indifferent lovers turn ardent, audiences respond with respect to work they once disdained.

But each fulfillment of a desire, whether on earth or in Paradise, seems in the end to bring new pain. Golems and soul mates betray our Puttermesser. Edenic love fades away. For if meaning is an elusive pleasure and the intellectual life seems lonely and fraught with idiosyncratic cravings, pure experience -- Puttermesser in Paradise has a baby and marries her first unrequited love -- is equally unsatisfactory when it is invoked to fulfill old desires.

A Buddhist might say that desire itself is the problem, but Ozick's Puttermesser is so funny and lovely in her cravings. "In Eden (she writes) all satiabilities are nourished. I will learn about the linkages of genes, about quarks, about primate sign language, theories of the origin of the races, religions of ancient civilizations, what Stonehenge meant. I will study Roman law, the more arcane varieties of higher mathematics, the nuclear composition of the stars, what happened to the Monophysites, Chinese history, Russian and Icelandic."

Puttermesser is all of us who read and yearn, and if her world is illusory, her life often lonely and painful, Ozick has, with her acute sympathy and her own verbal virtuosity, rendered her unforgettable -- master of a sad, funny illusion that is nonetheless thrilling and worth having, however a mystic, or Puttermesser herself, might judge it in the end. -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In the world of Ozick's novels, nothing happens by chance. Ruth Puttermesser, 34 when this book begins, is aptly named, for puttermesser means butterknife, a word that indicates the contradictory sides of her nature. Puttermesser is a lawyer by training, yet ethical to her bones; an idealist and visionary, yet a cynic and pragmatist. She is a lover of classic literature and civility who can dismiss a stupid comment with the best New York sass; a rationalist seduced by her own imagination; a woman too wise to be surprised by the dark corners of human nature, who is nonetheless betrayed time and again by her own desires. In a droll, effortlessly erudite fable that mixes brilliant fantasy and the gritty details of urban life, Ozick follows her protagonist through decades of aspiration, achievement, failure, hope, death--and its aftermath. The story encompasses the themes of power and the lack therof, the high aspirations of art versus the realities of existence, the vanquishing of ethics by the persistent presence of greed and selfishness, the condition of Paradise, the essential puzzle of existence--all the while conveying mordant observations about contemporary culture. Unjustly fired from her civil service job, Puttermesser constructs a golem who helps her become mayor of New York on a reform ticket; falls from grace into limbo; is duped in love by a superb copyist who plays on Puttermesser's love of George Sand; is duped again by family loyalty when she attempts to help a Russian emigre; and endures the final irony at the point of a knife blade. Playfully employing the nuances of language to amuse, instruct and astonish the reader, Ozick has created a witty, intelligent and intensely imagined narrative that will stand among her best work.
Library Journal
Veteran novelist and essayist Ozick continues to impress with this episodic, highly imaginative, humorous exploration of the disappointed life of brilliant Jewish lawyer and scholar, Ruth Puttermesser. In her thirties, Ruth found her early success in law school quickly turning to failure as she descended through the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of New York City government. In her forties, she unwittingly creates a golem, an artificial human being derived from Hebrew folklore who gets Ruth elected mayor of New York but soon destroys the Eden it helped create. In her fifties, Ruth finally finds a soul mate in flamboyant artist Rupert. But as soon as they get married, Rupert leaves. A master stylist with a powerful command of the English language, Ozick has created a revealing portrait of a complex woman, as well as a dark satire of government bureaucracy. Essential for literary collections and highly recommended for general collections. Patricia Ross, Westerville P.L.,Ohio
Kirkus Reviews
From the author of The Messiah of Stockholm (1987), and other highly praised novels, a gathering of previously published stories and their newer counterparts, comprising a fictional biography of the remarkable character whom it's tempting to proclaim Ozick's alter ego.

Ruth Puttermesser, who first appeared in 1981's Levitation: Five Fictions, is a formidably learned polymath deeply rooted in the world of literary culture (she idolizes George Eliot, and has read the entire 'Faerie Queene') and that encompassing her more mundane duties as attorney for New York City's Department of Receipts and Disbursements ("Her heart beat for law, even for tax law"). Puttermesser rises to the post of First Bursary Officer but is abruptly demoted, then terminated, by an upstart colleague. When her frustrated love life and yearnings for motherhood overstimulate her imagination, Puttermesser unintentionally wills into being a golem (named Xanthippe, after Socrates's shrewish wife), a creature that serves her impeccably, even orchestrating her initially successful tenure as New York's Mayor—until the golem, like her human creator, succumbs to the madness of love and must be destroyed. This literally surreal sequence is followed by Puttermesser's star-crossed liaison with a younger man (who, she fantasizes, will play the twentysomething J.W. Cross to her aging George Eliot), then by a rather muted account of her sponsorship of her Russian cousin Lidia ("a perfected Soviet avatar"). Finally, Ozick portrays "Puttermesser in Paradise," where, after being murdered and raped (in that order), she experiences the fulfillment denied her in life: marriage to the older lover who had long ago abandoned her, and the birth of her child.

Despite its slapdash structure and inevitable narrative lacunae, this is one of Ozick's most appealing books: a witty, precisely written, enjoyably sympathetic depiction of a worldly woman who's also a hopeful romantic—a thinker who learns that "it was possible for brains to break the heart" and that it's also possible to muddle through, and maybe even endure.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780517357408
  • Publisher: Random House Value Publishing, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 1/2/1999

Meet the Author

Cynthia Ozick
Cynthia Ozick
Long regarded as one of the country’s foremost literary luminaries, CYNTHIA OZICK attracts as much praise for her morally rigorous essays as for her satirically witty fiction. Counted among her impressive works of fiction are The Shawl (1989), which won an O. Henry Prize for both short stories that comprise it. She is a Man Booker International Prize nominee as well as a National Book Critics Circle Award winner.
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Interviews & Essays

On Sunday, September 7th, welcomed Cynthia Ozick to discuss THE PUTTERMESSER PAPERS.

Moderator: Welcome to the Live Events Auditorium. Tonight Cynthia Ozick is joining us by phone to respond to questions about her latest novel, THE PUTTERMESSER PAPERS. Welcome, Ms. Ozick! Thanks for joining us tonight. Is this your first online interview?

Cynthia Ozick: Thank you. No, actually, it is not. I've done one with The Atlantic Monthly in the same, rather inconvenient manner, since though I do own a modem, it is under the dresser.

Anna Collins from Larchmont, NY: How is writing essays different from writing fiction? Do you have a more specific audience in mind when you are writing essays?

Cynthia Ozick: Very important question. The difference is profound. I have no specific audience in mind when writing either. The difference, however, is that with an essay, you know at least what you're writing about. You may not know precisely what you may think, or what conclusion you will come to in the end, but you surely do know what the subject is. With fiction you face a vast unknown, you hear at first mysterious voices, but they are whispered behind a veil.

Jerard from United Kingdom: I've read some of your work with great interest, but it is hard to find in the UK. Will more of it be published over here soon, including your new book?

Cynthia Ozick: I hugely hope so! There are two collections of essays in Britain. One is called WHAT HENRY JAMES KNEW, and the other is PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A BAD CHARACTER. Jonathan Cape has published THE SHAWL.

Cheryl Singer from Jewish Communication Network, NY: Why did the golemette come and go so quickly in the book? My favorite. Keep her around longer in your next book, please.

Cynthia Ozick: The female golem, like all members of her species, is fashioned only to be undone; that, alas, is the nature of her species: dust unto dust. However, Cheryl, you can easily whip up your own golem if you can discover the necessary incantation.

Rory from Florida: Hey, Cynthia. I have one question and one statement for you:
1) I am planning to write a book of commentaries very soon (I am already in the eighth grade and figured that December would be the perfect time to start). When I start writing this book, should I think of what commentaries I want to write? Do some research? What should I do?
2) Also, my Mom, Faith (Fuhrman) Aronsky went to school from sixth to eighth grade with your nephew Daniel at West Chester Day School in Mamaroneck, New York, and was wondering how he is doing. Thanks a bunch!

Cynthia Ozick: To respond to the second part first: Daniel Ozick is a computer engineer in the superwhiz category. Please allow me to be his surrogate in sending your mom best regards! As for commentaries, I hope you won't think this reply condescending, it is not meant to be, but I think it is first necessary to study at least five more years. Commentaries are, even for the prodigious, the work of ripeness. Good luck!

Philip from Brooklyn: What is it about George Eliot that is so attractive to Ruth?

Cynthia Ozick: The story of George Eliot's life is an intellectual Cinderella tale, a mind brought to exuberant flower through love of another mind. Ruth is in love with the metaphysical and cognitive forces of the human race as well as the moral and the psychological, and so is George Eliot.

Sara K. from Washington, D.C.: It's interesting that Ruth doesn't reproduce the way most women do, by getting pregnant, but instead creates a golem. What is behind this idea?

Cynthia Ozick: I think the difference is significant. It relates to the old saying that any cat can have kittens. The human intellect creates eggs and fertility without ovaries.

Robert Markham from Hartford: Do you have any quirky writing habits? Do you listen to music, write in the nude? I think your piece in The New Yorker Love edition was fantastic! All my best to you!

Cynthia Ozick: Thank you immensely. I write in loose clothing but definitely clothed. I write mainly at night, and though I used to be an afficionado of the fountain pen, I am now acutely attached to the dollar and a half espresso, which flows from the fingers ecstatic. Which is not to say writing isn't the hardest work I know.

Derek from Grosse Point: I am just getting through PUTTERMESSER, I think it is wonderful, but I am dying to know: Why the Department of Receipts and Disbursements? Did you have a particular experience with this department that inspired their role in the book?

Cynthia Ozick: I personally didn't, but I am close to someone who witnessed the bureaucratic worms.

Darla from Hinsdale, IL: What's your most oft-repeated advice to fiction-writing students?

Cynthia Ozick: Pay no attention to writing seminars when you are told, "Write what you know." If you are a woman, pay no attention to the shoddy notion that you must have a female role model. In other words, seek out what you don't know and refuse being circumscribed by the limitations of your own experience and your own body. Venture into invention.

Donna Fischer from Westchester: What do you say to those who say Ruth Puttermesser is your own alter ego? True or false or not that simple?

Cynthia Ozick: Both utterly false and not that simple. Autobiographically speaking, I have nothing in common with her. Yet there are a few traits we are both heir to: bookishness, brooding, self-doubt, inferiority, lack of self-confidence. However, one reviewer attributed Ruth's periodontal disease to me, and that, I confess, angered me. My gums happen to be in excellent condition.

Thom Frick from Columbus, OH: Did your vision of THE PUTTERMESSER PAPERS change at all over the 30 years it took to complete? Were you surprised at all by the way it turned out?

Cynthia Ozick: I was often enormously surprised along the way, but I was not in the least surprised by the way poor Puttermesser's life ended. This was foreshadowed in the very first chapter in her fears of street muggers. What I didn't foresee was that she would be murdered and raped in her own home. This amazed and shocked me.

Molly from South Bend, IN: What is the building pictured on the cover of THE PUTTERMESSER PAPERS? Did you design the jacket?

Cynthia Ozick: A designer at Knopf is responsible for the jacket. The building is New York City's city hall at night. It does somehow suggest Sherlock Holmes's spooky London. Do you like it?

Rebecca Harper from Portland: What was the first piece that you wrote that was published? You are a great voice in literature and criticism!

Cynthia Ozick: Many thanks. As I recall, my first published fiction appeared in Prarie Schooner, a publication at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. I was then already quite old -- 28 -- for a first publication, and I went to the zoo that day to celebrate.

Rick Forest from Wilmington: Do you have a favorite writer?

Cynthia Ozick: Not one, not several, but many. Most are the traditional 19th-century masters, among them the Russians, Henry James, Conrad; Forster was a strong early influence. Among contemporaries, I hugely admire Alice Munro, our Chekhov, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and John Updike, American masters all. I also believe that the voice of Gordon Lish is astoundingly original and sorrowful.

Carson from Baltimore: Thanks for taking my question here tonight, Ms. Ozick. Your writing has always seemed to me to have a touch of magical realism in it. Has this been an intentional effect, or are you a reader of magical realism?

Cynthia Ozick: I think writers really don't know who and what they are, and surely not what they do and how they do it. Earlier in my life, I was certainly profoundly influenced by reading, but by now I seem to float in my own hermetically sealed, aging amniotic fluid.

Carey Barden from Manhasset, NY: As a reader of classic literature, do you agree with claims that contemporary writing is going downhill? How do you think today's literature compares with the classics? Do you think the change has anything to do with the proliferation of superstores?

Cynthia Ozick: No. Superstores carry books, this makes them valuable. The change in the literary atmosphere, I fear, is not in any diminishment of the quality of writers and writing, but rather in the quality of readers and reading. I believe that literature -- the real thing -- is becoming more and more the province of a select few, and that the habit of reading is being displaced and replaced by the habit of these appliances that take all our attention, such as film and TV. This very medium that you and I are communicating through, by contrast, appears to be reviving an epistolary culture, and may, after all, contribute to a rise in high literacy.

Mira from Long Beach: I was really impressed by THE PUTTERMESSER PAPERS; it is truly a fantastic story. But why on earth did you have to kill her off in the end? Why such a violent death?

Cynthia Ozick: To my astonishment, a number of readers have asked this and appear to be offended by the violence. How can this be, given the violence all around us and in film and on TV? Puttermesser has crashed into reality.

Pat from California: With which of your stories do you laugh the most?

Cynthia Ozick: Such an interesting question. I'm afraid that the act of writing is so scary and anxiety-filled that I never laugh at all. In fact, when people tell me that such and such a scene or story is comical, I tend to gape. I did not intend comedy -- ever, as far as I know. It's probably all a mistake. I am essentially a lugubrious writer. Ha ha!

Flo from Washington, D.C.: What do you feel is the best way to become a good writer, by reading good works, taking classes, or simply writing? How did you perfect it?

Cynthia Ozick: Whatever else you do, read, read, read. No one can teach writing, but classes may stimulate the urge to write. If you are born a writer, you will inevitably and helplessly write. A born writer has self-knowledge. Read, read, read. And if you are a fiction writer, don't confine yourself to reading fiction. Every writer is first a wide reader.

David Schneider from Marymount: What are you working on now? Fiction or more essays? When will it be out? Also, who, if anyone, do you consider a strong Jewish voice in fiction?

Cynthia Ozick: The answer to the second question is Philip Roth, among American writers. In Israel there is preeminently Aharon Appelfeld. To the first question: a long essay and a short story.

Craig from Ottawa, IL: I enjoy good writing and envy those with the skill. Your sentences snuggle together so nicely, encouraging me forward, and at times, I can lose myself in their flow. I have long wished to write with enjoyment. Any suggestions for a middle-aged man who is usually all thumbs with the pen?

Cynthia Ozick: I don't know any writer who can be said to write with enjoyment. It seems to me that every sentence begins with, as you put it, the thumbs, but scratch away long enough at a sentence and the thumbs can turn into swans. In this connection, Philip Roth in THE GHOSTWRITER expresses it best: "A writer turns and turns a sentence and then turns and turns it again." The age of the writer, by he way, is irrelevant to the work. Charge ahead!

Rory from Florida: Cynthia, three more questions:
1) How do you overcome writer's block?
2) How much time do you spend writing?
3) How do you put life into your characters? Do you use character sheets? Do you watch people's personalities and write them down? How do you do it?

Cynthia Ozick: Dear Rory, I write all the time except when I am interrupted by having to live. I certainly use no mechanical techniques like character sheets. I read, I think, I write. I've more or less given up living in the sense of social life, but you, as an eighth grader, should not contemplate this. What kind of name is Rory for a yeshiva boy?

Sara Barker from Manhattan: I read in your bio that you are a James reader. Do you think he is still relevant in today's society?

Cynthia Ozick: Good God, yes!

Paul from New Jersey: Do you think that Ruth grew along with you over the years? Could you mark her development in sync with your own?

Cynthia Ozick: Not truly. I think a fictional invention grows according to its own development, not the author's. Characters in fiction are not simply as alive as you and me, they are more alive. Becky Sharp, Elizabeth Bennett, and Don Quixote may not outlive the burning out of the sun, but they will certainly outlive the brief candle of our lives.

Moderator: Thanks so much for satisfying our curiosities here tonight! We hope you'll be back to discuss your future projects in the Auditorium. Goodnight!

Cynthia Ozick: Well, thank you

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 1, 2002

    Surreal and Picaresque

    Although The Puttermesser Papers is billed as a novel, it is not a novel in the traditional sense but rather five short works of fiction, each of which could stand alone. Each 'story' gives us insight into the life of Ruth Puttermesser, student, idealist and lover of the law. These fictions illuminates various stages of Puttermesser's life, about a decade apart, and beginning when Puttermesser is thirty-four. Although we come to realize in the first story that this will constitute a biography of sorts, it is a very different biography in that the facts seem, more often than not, to contradict themselves. Identity, in Puttermesser's world, is something very elusive and suspect. For example, we witness a conversation between Puttermesser and her Uncle Zindel only to later learn that the conversation really did not occur. This is a surrealistic book and we learn to accommodate its contradictions. In fact, after a time, they even become rather comforting rather than disorienting. Life, after all, is full of contradictions and Ozick wisely challenges the very idea that one's life story can be set in stone and fully told. What is consciousness and what is below the surface, she seems to be asking. Is life more accurately represented by external or internal experience? Ozick shows us Ruth Puttermesser's life from both the external and the internal viewpoint and she also leaves a good many gaps in between. One thing, though, is abundantly clear: Puttermesser's life as a lawyer in the New York City Department of Receipts and Disbursements is, internally, far richer than it is externally. We first encounter the eternally unattractive Ruth Puttermesser in bed, engaged in the study of the Hebrew grammar she loves so much and eating the fudgy sweets to which she seems addicted. In fact, the only thing more enticing for Puttermesser than a night of Hebrew grammar and fudge seems to be the idea of paradise, a paradise in which she envisions herself voraciously reading anything and everything she somehow managed to miss while on earth. While waiting on paradise, however, Puttermesser must endure the day-to-day bureaucracy of city government. This is a bleak existence, but one in which Puttermesser dreams of ideals like merit and justice for all. As an independent candidate from the Independents for Socratic and Prophetic Justice party, Puttermesser dreams of running for mayor and transforming New York into a place where youth gangs wash cars for fun, where slum dwellers suddenly transform their own dwellings out of a sense of pride and nothing else and pimps decide it's high time they learn some computer skills. In short, Puttermesser dreams of transforming New York into a place that is simply not New York. In a section entitled Puttermesser Paired, the heroine develops and idealized friendship with a younger man in which she confirms her belief that the brain is the seat of the emotions. The man, a reproduction painter, does little more than read with Puttermesser, something that fascinates them both, and their relationship is the very embodiment of George Eliot's romantic life. The final section, Puttermesser in Paradise, is a Mobius strip and suggests that the written word is tantamount to life, itself. This is a picaresque and surreal book and one that is highly entertaining if not completely fulfilling. Sadly, I think it will appeal to only a very limited audience.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 6, 2000



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