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Life sentences

Cynthia OZICK is double-barreled. She’s an inventive and revelatory fiction writer and an exacting, battle-ready critic; an impish writer of conscience and a creative intellectual. In this quartet of long stories, a supple form well-suited to Ozick’s wit and insight, she pursues her fascination with opposites and parallels, and she extends her inquiry into how language can be both liberating and oppressive.

In “Actors,” Matt Sorley (real name Mose Sadacca), a has-been character actor, relies on his wife, Frances, who supports them by creating three new puzzles a week for a crossword puzzle magazine, work that “left her confined and furious.” Finally, Matt gets a break. A hot young director wants “to restore the old lost art of melodrama” as practiced in the once-thriving, now long-dead Yiddish theater. He’s found the perfect play, one loosely based on “King Lear.” Initially, Matt is appalled by what he dubs “The Lear of Ellis Island.” Yet as rehearsals proceed, the actor who believes that “glimmer and inkling are truth” begins to understand the playwright’s trust in “malevolence, rage, even madness.” Matt realizes “that fury was truth” as he hears a steady beat within the “wild din.”

Matt is standing at the crossroads that orients Ozick’s thoughts about the role literature plays in our life. One byway is the modernist preference for interiorization and subtlety, the other is that of unbridled emotion and extravagant gestures. The head versus the heart. Order as opposed to chaos. Ozick explores these divergent states of being in great depth in the novel “Heir to the Glimmering World” and in her most recent volume of criticism, “The Din in the Head.” As for Matt, when he releases an “unholy howl” onstage, the story takes a devastating turn, inducing the reader to ask, is this catharsis or laughably bad theater? Is Ozick’s sacrificial actor a noble failure or a “charlatan”? Are we more profound when our words are meticulously measured and controlled, or when we rage like a tempest made flesh?

Charlatans abound in the wickedly satirical “What Happened to the Baby?,” another shrewd approach to questions of expression. Phyllis, a college student, is charged with looking after her enigmatic Uncle Simon, who, during her Depression childhood, was intent on creating “a wholly new language, one that could be spoken and understood by everyone alive.” The pipe dream of universality. But as Phyllis discovers, Simon’s mock attempt to trump Esperanto turns out to be the most benign of his scams. Phyllis concludes that telling lies may well be the one true global parlance.

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A language barrier instigates abrupt change in “At Fumicaro,” an acerbic, farcical and mythic tale in which Ozick steps outside the circle of Jewish beliefs, culture and history and treads Catholic ground. She also joins the likes of Thomas Mann, Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, Bernard Malamud and Elizabeth Spencer in portraying a foreigner running amok in Italy. Frank Castle, an American, is a Catholic journalist attending a religious conference during the dark reign of Mussolini. As his peers conflate the sacred and the profane in discussing the marketing of the faith, disaffected Frank falls for the chambermaid, a blooming girl he finds desirable because they cannot converse.

Women are belittled as servants literal and virtual in each of Ozick’s wily stories, but they prove to be essential and covertly in charge. In “Dictation,” the book’s mainsail and the only tale debuting here, Ozick brings forward two overlooked yet crucial players in the realm of literature, the women who served as amanuenses for Henry James and Joseph Conrad -- namely, Theodora Bosanquet and Lilian Hallowes.

“Dictation” is a lively and shrewd improvisation on historical fact and literary evolution based on the guarded friendship of the two master writers. Conrad is shocked when James tells him that he can no longer grip a pen for hours at a time and therefore must dictate his work. How dreadful to have a stranger intrude on the precious, if torturous, solitude writing requires. Yet eventually Conrad too must learn to write out loud. When the old friends (and rivals?) meet in London on a rainy day in 1910, after a long separation, Conrad arranges for Miss Hallowes to deliver a manuscript, carefully -- make that paranoically -- scheduling her arrival to correspond with Miss Bosanquet’s absence, fearing an encounter between the two women and the potential for “exposure.” No one knows him better than his assistant, after all, and what might she reveal to his friend’s equally intimate employee, and thus to James?

Miss Hallowes, nearly invisible, “like a governess in a book,” appears punctually, thrilled, as always, to serve the man she worships above all. Conrad is relieved: James is alone. But suddenly the confident, assertive and on-the-prowl Miss Bosanquet strides in to collect her forgotten umbrella. Conrad is aghast. And, indeed, the consequence of the ensuing alliance between the two different yet uniquely aligned women is far more insidious than even he can imagine.

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What fun Ozick has in this virtuoso tale of subversive revenge, this canny look at the mysterious communion involved in writing and reading. Henry James is a totem figure for Ozick. She has written fresh, animated essays about his life and work, and she has struggled against his influence. Here she permits herself to archly emulate his and Conrad’s styles, crafting a literary spoof of delectable sophistication and remarkable scope. For all her erudition and moral precision, Ozick, now 80, remains ebulliently mischievous as she rights wrongs against two forgotten women and considers the mutability of literature. What effect might Hallowes and Bosanquet have had on the sentences that came to the world through their quick fingers? Who owns a story or novel? Doesn’t each reader re-create and alter a work? And how many writers report that when they’re working at their peak and words stream in, they feel as though they’re taking dictation?

The union of old and new stories here reveals how much of a piece Ozick’s work is. How consistent her concerns remain even as she varies the settings, tone and action of her tales. One of her most playful books, “Dictation” can serve as a key to her work. And how wily she is in showcasing Henry James’ ghost story “The Jolly Corner” and Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer” in her title story. Each is a tale about a double, an alter ego, just as each amanuensis is a double for the writer. Pairings and dualities are everywhere in Ozickland. As she poses life-or-death dilemmas and entwines comedy and tragedy, she also matches sentences as sinuous and complex as those of James with pithy understatements, psychology of oceanic dimensions with briskly orchestrated slapstick. Consider the alliterative titles of her essay collections: “Art & Ardor,” “Metaphor & Memory,” “Quarrel & Quandary.”

Even her hapless actor Matt thinks, “Power and passion! Passion and power!” Perhaps one or the other will grace the cover of a future book of Ozick’s. Or better yet, “Intellect & Imagination.” Not to say that her work doesn’t have soul. It does. It’s just that Ozick doesn’t howl. *


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