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The Puttermesser Papers

The Puttermesser Papers

4.0 2
by Cynthia Ozick

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With dashing originality and in prose that sings like an entire choir of sirens, Cynthia Ozick relates the life and times of her most compelling fictional creation. Ruth Puttermesser lives in New York City. Her learning is monumental. Her love life is minimal (she prefers pouring through Plato to romping with married Morris Rappoport). And her fantasies have a


With dashing originality and in prose that sings like an entire choir of sirens, Cynthia Ozick relates the life and times of her most compelling fictional creation. Ruth Puttermesser lives in New York City. Her learning is monumental. Her love life is minimal (she prefers pouring through Plato to romping with married Morris Rappoport). And her fantasies have a disconcerting tendency to come true - with disastrous consequences for what we laughably call "reality."

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

Editorial Reviews

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

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

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Vintage International Series
Edition description:
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Product dimensions:
5.10(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.50(d)

Meet the Author

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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The Puttermesser Papers 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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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