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Puttermesser yearns for a daughter and promptly creates one, unassisted, in the form of the first recorded female golem. Laboring in the dusty crevices of the civil service, she dreams of reforming the city - and manages to get herself elected mayor. Puttermesser contemplates the afterlife and is hurtled into it headlong, only to discover that a paradise found is also paradise lost. Overflowing with ideas, lambent with wit, The Puttermesser Papers is a tour de force by one of our most visionary novelists.
"The finest achievement of Ozick's career... It has all the buoyant integrity of a Chagall painting." -San Francisco Chronicle
"Fanciful, poignant... so intelligent, so finely expressed that, like its main character, it remains endearing, edifying, a spark of light in the gloom." -The New York Times
"A crazy delight." -The New York Time Book Review
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Cynthia Ozick: I personally didn't, but I am close to someone who witnessed the bureaucratic worms.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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?
Cynthia Ozick: Good God, yes!
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.
Cynthia Ozick: Well, thank you
Posted January 1, 2002
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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Posted January 6, 2000
RUTH PUTTERMESSER APPEARS TO REPRESENT LONELY, INTELECTUAL WHO WAS UNABLE TO EXPERIENCE DELIGHT AND SATISFACTION IN THE HERE AND NOW. HER INTELLECT BECAME A SCREEN THAT PREVENTED HER FROM LIVING IN THE REAL WORLD, AND THE DEEP EMOTIONAL FEELINGS THAT MAKE LIFE INTERESTING AND FULFILLING.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 24, 2009
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