Cynthia Ozick

"Heir to a Glimmering World"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple SEP 16, 2004)

"We were sinking still more deeply into wilderness—the boys at war, underwear unwashed, pots boiling over, Mitwisser pacing behind a shut door, his wife finicky in her bed, Waltraut unbathed and growing dispirited. At times she fell into inconsolable howls. If I made order in one part, decay was already seeping into another part. I the stranger, was all that kept us from the last stages of anarchy—I had become a hidden engine of survival."

Rose Meadows, an orphan needing a place to live and work, answers a vaguely worded newspaper advertisement and is hired for some unspecified household work by the Mitwissers, for whom "disorder was…a rule of life," just as it had been in her own home. German Jews who had abandoned everything in 1933 and escaped to Stockholm, the Mitwissers had been brought by a Quaker College to Albany, New York, a place vastly different from the intellectual European milieu in which they had been living. Rudolf Mitwisser, the patriarch, is a researcher on an obscure group of ninth century Jewish scholars, the Karaites, who reject Talmudic interpretations of traditional Judaism in favor of direct and literal interpretation of the Old Testament. "Drawn to schismatics, fiery heretics, apostates, the lunatics of history," Mitwisser has little contact with the rest of the family or with the realities of day to day life, keeping to his study and expecting Rose to do his typing at any hour of the day or night.

Elsa Mitwisser, formerly a physicist and colleague of Erwin Schrodinger, is distraught that her family is dependent upon others for their survival in the United States, where they are regarded as "parasites." Mentally unbalanced and usually confined to her room, where Rose is supposed to teach her English, she, like her husband, ignores the responsibilities of the family and their five children. Only Anneliese, age sixteen, pays attention to her three younger brothers and her very needy three-year-old sister, Waltraut, with whom Rose shares a room.

With neither adult capable of supporting the family during the Depression, the Mitwissers are fortunate to have been "adopted" by James A'Bair, a young man with an independent income. James was the inspiration and model for a series of hugely popular "Bear Books," written by his father, and he still collects royalties on them. Now in his twenties, James considers himself something of a Karaite, attracted by Mitwisser's scholarly efforts and by a domestic life completely different from anything he has ever known. Periodically sending gifts to the children, along with money for the family's support, James is a much-anticipated visitor and sometime guest of the family. With his help they eventually move closer to New York City, where Mitwisser has access to the public library.

Moving elliptically through past and present, the narrative explores the backgrounds of all the main characters, moving forward and backward simultaneously. Rose is the daughter of a teacher who has lied about his credentials and about the death of her mother when she was only three. James, who became "the Bear Boy" when he was only five, has grown up as the subject of public curiosity, a person who never had his own identity because of his public identification with the Bear Books. Mitwisser himself has been regarded as a great scholar in Europe but finds his research of little interest to Jewish scholars here. Elsa Mitwisser is envious that Schrodinger ended up winning the Nobel Prize, while she ended up stuck in her bedroom in Albany, New York, and living with the plodding Rudolf Mitwisser. History has wronged her, she thinks.

Focusing on character and theme, rather than plot, the author creates an intense world in which each person seeks the fulfillment of personal dreams, which glimmer on the horizon like fireflies, fragile hopes that may die before they come to fruition. Immigrants whose careers, friends, and home have vanished overnight, the Mitwissers have found their world forever changed with their arrival in New York, but neither Rudi nor Elsa is prepared to adapt. James A'Bair, who has traveled the world, toured the United States, participated in an acting company, and finally settled in with the Mitwissers, has not broken free of the Bear Boy, nor has he set personal goals which will free him in the future. Rose is trying to give some "symmetry, routine, propriety" to the life she is living, but her past keeps intruding in the person of her Uncle Bertram and his Communist girlfriend, Ninel. Only sixteen-year-old Anneliese seems to have a chance at catching up with the "glimmers."

Ozick's smooth narrative and rich imagery help the story line to come alive and the characters to grow. James, who arranged to buy the Mitwissers' house in the Bronx, thinks of it as "shaped like a wooden dollhouse with its peaked roof: he possessed it now, the doll house and the doll house people, whose heads he had once pinched, maneuvering them upstairs and downstairs, his will their will." Anneliese is "an infant bird tapping with her little beak against the shell." Rose says that her father "robbed dailiness of predictability, so that [her] childhood's every breath hung on a contingency." Unusual characters like these, who are presented without sentimentality, may not capture the reader's heart or, in their strangeness, inspire a great deal of empathy, but Ozick's quiet humor and the irony with which she imbues their lives give them a liveliness that makes their stories important to the reader.

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About the Author:

Cynthia OzickCynthia Ozick was born in 1928 in New York City the second of two children. She subsequently moved to the Bronx with her parents, who owned a pharmacy in the Pelham Bay section. Her parents had emigrated to America from the northwest region of Russia. She attended Hunter College High School in Manhattan and then New York University, where she earned a B.A. in English in 1949. She then set out for Columbus, Ohio, where she earned a master's degree from Ohio State University in 1950 with the thesis "Parable in the Later Novels of Henry James." In 1952, she married Bernard Hallote. Upon receiving his degree, the couple moved back to New York. She then devoted the next thirteen years to "high art," yet never published the book she had been writing. She spent another six years working on Trust, which was published in 1996.

Ozick is a novelist, short-story writer, and intellectual whose works seek to define the challenge of remaining Jewish in contemporary American life. She is considered one of the most important writers of today. Over the years, she has been nominated for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Mildred and Harold Strauss Living Award. She has received several honorary doctorates and was invited to deliver the Phi Beta Kappa Oration at Harvard University. Her stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, Partisan Review, Salmagundi, Esquire, and many other publications, and her work has been translated into most major languages. Ozick has the unique honor of being the first writer to be given the Rea Award for the Short Story.

Cynthia and Bernard have one daughter (born in 1965), Rachel, a biblical archaeologist. She lives in New York City. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014