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Ghostly and elusive entertainment

Michael Gorra is an English professor at Smith College and the author of "The Bells in Their Silence: Travels Through Germany."

“The novel is long because it is a process,” a narrative form that “commences green and ignorant” and needs all its many pages to discover where it’s going. Short stories, on the other hand, “begin with completion.” They know their destination, and for the writer that means “you are in possession of your luck before you have gone half a mile.”

The words belong to Cynthia Ozick, who in the almost 40 years since the publication of her first book, the 1966 novel “Trust,” has split her prize-winning work evenly between short fiction and long, matching the intricate tales of “Levitation” (1982) with such plangent novels as “The Messiah of Stockholm” (1987). During those years she has become equally well known as an essayist -- as, indeed, a more formidable and erudite critic than any other contemporary American novelist. And the question raised by her expansive and much-awaited new novel, “Heir to the Glimmering World,” the tale of a family of German Jewish refugees marooned “in the marshy reaches of the Bronx,” is whether her words provide an accurate account of her own practice.

Of course, Ozick has something more than plot in mind when she speaks of the novel’s ignorance. A richer form of unknowing lies in finding not simply one’s destination but the very meaning of the end one has all along plotted to reach. Certainly she must have had this book’s last pages in mind from very early on, pages in which the narrator, Rose Meadows, sets out for Manhattan, a “hungry aspirant” to the rewards of a great city. Such aspirations make Rose a latter-day counterpart of the 19th century’s Young Man From the Provinces, so familiar from the pages of Balzac and Trollope, and indeed every chapter of this novel gives back a Victorian echo.

“Heir to the Glimmering World” offers startling coincidences and dramatic reappearances, renunciation and reversals of fortune, a hidden benefactor and a madwoman who, though not quite in an attic, is nevertheless stashed in a third-floor bedroom. Thrown out upon the world with the death of her gambler father, Rose answers this ad: “Professor, arrived 1933 Berlin, children 3-14, requires assistant, relocate NYC.”

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But how many children? The professor himself hardly seems to know, for Rudolf Mitwisser is the kind of patriarch who closes his study door against the chaos of his wife and family. “He was a man who had been much served,” accustomed to secretaries and acolytes, a “looming large” self-pitying man, a historian of religion acclaimed in Europe for knowing what nobody else knew and ignored in America for precisely that reason. Even though the Nazis have expelled him, Mitwisser remains every inch a German professor. “Why am I interrupted by such nonsense?” he shouts when Rose tries to help pack his books in boxes. “This is how an intelligent creature organizes scholarship? By how tall and how short?”

Used to servants, Rudolf and his wife treat Rose as one even though they lack the money to pay her. Yet they are not as friendless as they seem. They have a benefactor, Rose learns, a rich wastrel named James A’bair, whose father wrote a wildly popular series of children’s books about a “Bear Boy” for which James himself had served as a model. The grown-up James hates the memory of posing for his father’s pen, with his knees rouged to the proper degree of rosiness, and he is determined to stay as far away from propriety as possible; think Christopher Robin but drunk. He meets the Mitwissers soon after they arrive in America, helps with the children’s English, arranges their housing and disappears.

Later James returns, in a shower of hundred-dollar bills, and then he leaves again with the oldest Mitwisser girl, Anneliese, taking her through the rooming houses of upstate New York -- “Carthage, Rome, Ithaca, Oswego, Oneonta, Cortland” -- on a trek that recalls the road sequence of “Lolita.” And Rose too will discover her own hidden connection to the Bear Boy, one that revives the memory of her craps-shooting dad.

On its best pages, “Heir to the Glimmering World” seems too implausible to have been invented, and many of its episodes are memorable ones. Ozick’s rendering of the Mitwissers’ Germanic English has perfect pitch, and like any good Victorian she uses letters to define her characters. I particularly savored one that Rose receives from the improbable Dr. Tandoori, a letter that inevitably recalls both Jane Austen’s Mr. Collins and George Eliot’s Mr. Casaubon. For much of the book, moreover, Ozick breaks point of view, moving away from Rose’s narration and into a distanced melancholy lyricism that defines the Bear Boy’s upbringing and wanderings: “He came and he went. The tide of money rose and ebbed.”

That apparently ramshackle plot is only a disguise, however, and I suspect that very little of this picaresque and often comic novel could have been written in the green ignorant exploration of an undiscovered country. Most of Ozick’s fiction is about the unleashing of a ferocious energy, like that of the golem Xanthippe in “The Puttermesser Papers,” that must be resisted and contained. But her experiments seem always tightly controlled -- the reaction never gets out of hand, the test tube never explodes. Put another way: There’s a brooding, spiderish intelligence at work on her pages, and yet that very intelligence seems detached from the stories she tells, as though it is not fully subsumed into her fiction.

One could never say of Ozick what T.S. Eliot famously said of her beloved Henry James: that he had at once a “mastery and an escape” from the world of ideas, a “mind so fine that no idea could violate it.” That doesn’t mean her readers will find this book reducible to an easily defined thesis. The bond between Mitwisser and the erstwhile Bear Boy is a curious one and has to do with the peculiarities of the professor’s specialty. His subject is a schismatic Jewish group called the Karaites, whose heyday, insofar as they had one, was in the 10th and 11th centuries. The Karaites rejected the authority of the Talmud and stressed instead a direct and personal reading of Scripture. Rebels, fundamentalists, heretics, they scorned “metaphor and the poetry of inference” and stood against all forms of constituted authority.

James A’bair’s rejection of his own heritage makes him, in the Mitwissers’ desperate eyes, into a latter-day equivalent of the Karaites. And so he listens happily, drinking schnapps, as the professor runs on, trying to cut his own Casaubon-like “Key to All Mythologies,” to trace a connection between Karaite thought and the Bhagavad-Gita. Still, this raises a question: Would any obscure subject serve Ozick’s purposes, or does it have to be the Karaites? I think highly enough of her work to suspect the latter, and certainly the irony of a scholar devoting himself to a people who repudiate all scholarly tradition is delicious. But is that all? For the relation -- the relevance -- of the Karaites to the book as a whole, with its echoes of the Victorians and its sharp depiction of refugee life, never becomes entirely clear. There’s either too much of them or too little; this book may know precisely where it’s going, but it seems indecisive all the same.

Reading Ozick carries a steep entry price. Her narration is never less than fluent, but she does make you feel as though you can’t just savor the undoubted elegance of her prose. She wants more, and to keep up you’d better know a lot about the history of Jewish thought, a lot more than you need to understand such peers as Saul Bellow or Philip Roth. With them you need only history. With her you need theology too, and even that might not be sufficient, not if you accept her claim that because there is “no way to hear the oceanic amplitudes of the Jewish Idea in any single English word or phrase” she must write, and we must read, in the “language of a civilization that cannot imagine” her postulates.

Fair enough. Still, if she really believes that the ideational system behind her fiction cannot come fully into English, then she cannot be surprised if many readers find something ghostly and elusive about it, unrealized and even perhaps unrealizable. Ozick knows this; such difficulties are in a way her subject. In reading “Heir to the Glimmering World,” however, one cannot help but think that, for all its local pleasures, her particular blend of speculation and certainty might find a better test in a shorter form. For Ozick is right about the difference between novels and short stories. Yet even if such great tales as “The Pagan Rabbi” and “The Shawl” look, of all her works, the most likely to last, this generous and entirely entertaining new novel should nevertheless enjoy an honored place alongside them. *

*

From Heir to the Glimmering World

Except for the youngest, all the children had been enrolled, for some months now, in the Albany public schools, and (so Mrs. Mitwisser had intimated that first day) they had had a tutor besides. They had already acquired a patina of the local vernacular. It was several days before I could arrive at exactly how many Mitwisser children there were. They rushed around on this or that mission (the whole house was packing for the move to New York); it was like trying to identify the number of fish swimming in a pond. At first I counted six, then four -- the actual total was five. Their names were so many birdchirps whirling around me....


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