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Q&A: Author Cynthia Ozick will spend her 92nd birthday ‘contemplating mayhem’

Writer Cynthia Ozick.
(Ulf Andersen / Getty Images)

Thanks to COVID-19, journalists suddenly have to make up their own minds about who’s worth talking to, regardless of whose new novel or show or 45th anniversary re-release is coming out. Cynthia Ozick’s most recent book, “Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays” came out fully four years ago, and yet her voice — forthright, erudite, word-smitten, ringingly lucid — seems more worth listening to right now than ever.

Ozick is the author of six novels, eight books of essays and seven collections of short stories. David Foster Wallace once put her alongside Cormac McCarthy and Don DeLillo as “pretty much the country’s best living fiction writers.” I met her when the Big Read, the national reading initiative I was running at the National Endowment for the Arts, inspired several American cities and towns to delve into her slender, haunted novella of the Holocaust, “The Shawl.”

For the record:

10:42 AM, Apr. 09, 2020Ozick’s just-finished novella is not titled “That Homeless Misfit”; that was her description of the form.

Cynthia Ozick was born April 17, 1928, shortly after Thomas Hardy died. She will be celebrating her 92nd birthday under lockdown at her home in a modest New York City suburb that suffered one of the first outbreaks of coronavirus in the U.S.

Midway through her rereading of George Eliot’s last novel — about love and Judaism in Victorian London — Ozick settled in recently for an extended email chat (“Can’t do breezy,” she’d warned) about pathology, prejudice, literature and longevity.

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First, how are you? What’s it been like for you to experience all this awfulness from an unwanted ringside seat in your own backyard?

On the morning of March 3, I woke to learn that I lived in the blazingly perilous epicenter of a pandemic. And then! An entire community was cordoned off into a notorious zone of pariahship: “contained,” a euphemism for the confinement of untouchables. Hygiene became hardship, though of a relatively cushioned kind; this was, after all, America. An America in which lethal disease was democratically in favor of full diversity and unquestioned equality.

For a time. Then the breaches began. Because of a crowded funeral followed by a crowded celebration of a bar mitzvah in a single synagogue on a single street, 2020 suddenly became 1348, the year of the start of Europe’s Black Death. In the 14th century the Jews were accused of poisoning the wells and were massacred by the thousands. In the 21st, in the absence of wells and slickly updated with social media, the medieval mobs are once again charging the Jews with deliberately hatching the plague. In my hometown and elsewhere (elsewhere nowadays being everywhere) this old disease of enduring hatred has come to perch on the head of the coronavirus like a bubonic flea on the head of a rat.

Ozick's 2006 essay collection, "The Din in the Head."
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

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The Spanish flu missed you by a good decade. Do you remember anything about its aftermath?

A few months ago, my father’s World War One draft card turned up unexpectedly. It gave his name, age, residence, a draft number, a date (1918) and a notice of exemption. What happened was this: He was standing on line in the draft office, awaiting induction, when he suddenly collapsed. As my mother told the story long afterward, she and “a male nurse” pulled him through to recovery. His fever was stratospheric, and penicillin hadn’t yet been invented.

So they filled a bathtub with very cold water and tossed in a quantity of bed sheets, and wrapped him in one set of sheets and then instantly with another when the earlier one rapidly turned blazingly hot. In the morning the fever broke, and his life was saved. They married in June of 1919, and “took the Albany night boat” for a honeymoon, though I’ve forgotten its destination. The Albany night boat! Somehow a Gatsbyish ring to it. And I still have a souvenir of that journey: three small soapstone monkeys: See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil.

So if the 1918 flu pandemic hadn’t spared your father from the war, you might never have been born? Could you ever imagine something remotely as good coming out of what we’re all living through now?

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Thank you. A very nice birthday greeting. It’s good that you question whether “anything constructive can come out of this crisis” rather than speak of a gossamer silver lining, of which there is none. Most constructive of all: authoritative societal voices, medical and governmental, and not excluding the authority of the voice of individual conscience. … Are we witnessing the resurgence of the idea of nationhood? Not in the sense of hierarchical flag-waving jingoism, but pragmatically, through the locally responsible sovereignty of neighbor-with-next-door-neighbor?

Authors like Lionel Shriver, Alexander McCall Smith, Laura Lippman and Steph Cha are under coronavirus quarantine too. Here’s what they’re reading.

Let’s hope. What are you reading at a time like this?

Daniel Deronda.”

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Why? And how many times does that make for you?

Two or three, the first lost in the mists of long ago. Why now? Because of the siege by intellectuals (never mind the dregs) on Jewish sovereignty and liberty and independence. And because of the trashing of history in favor of “narrative.” (Thank you, Edward Said.)

How do you generally decide what to read next?

Dunno. It’s harder to decide what to write next.

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OK, you brought this on yourself: What are you writing next? Are you in the same predicament as a lot of us, whose novels-in-progress suddenly look like period pieces?

When all this happened, I was just finishing a novella (that homeless misfit). If it looks different under the carapace of our pervasive gloom, then there must be something wrong with it. The germ that generates Story ought to be able to withstand the germ that generates plague. … A hot book, even (or especially) one gone viral, will be stale meat in a matter of weeks.

A Passage to India” is a topical novel, and at the time of its publication a seriously political one. ... But today, a century later, India is a free and independent polity, while the novel is more alive than ever, and why? Because of Mrs. Moore, because of Aziz and Professor Godbole, because of the echo in the Marabar caves. Because the humane and the metaphysical outrun the stations of history.

Ozick's  2004 novel, "Heir to the Glimmering World."
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

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What among your work, maybe your essays especially, might have some special relevance to the way we’re living now?

The way we live now: frightened and masked and confined and ordered to stand six feet apart. I suppose we must give this world-infestation of Plague a name beyond its viral specificity. Then call it history-in-waiting, certain as we are that it will become as indelible as the Spanish flu of 1918, or the Black Death of the 14th century, or, for that matter, the typhus epidemic that engulfed Athens in 430 BCE.

But think: it was, in that same hour, the Golden Age of the Parthenon, and of the philosophers and historians, and of Socrates. Plagues, though shattering, are intermittent. Socrates is timeless — which is to say that the timeless is always timely. Are there less distant essayists who address the urgency and crisis of their moment, and still are of immediate relevance to the way we live now? Who have the power to confront even the terror of pandemic with stoic and merciful historic perspective? Who have mettle enough to catch hold of the demons of our era and blow them to pieces?

If so, I am not one of them.

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Says you.

You are a buoyer-upper!

So what’s your secret? How can we still be writing well at 92?

I am murderously ferocious on this matter. If a 6-year-old were to write a novel, it would be appropriate to remark, in genuine wonder, at the writer’s prowess. That 6-year-old would deserve to be marveled at as a prodigy. But to treat longevity as an accomplishment in itself, let alone a literary accomplishment, is idiocy.

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Then what are you doing for your birthday?

I plan to spend my birthday contemplating mayhem.

Kipen is the founder of the nonprofit lending library Libros Schmibros and the author of the forthcoming “Dear California.”


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