01 May 2011


"Everyone uses it," she said. "Everyone, all over the world."
And was that it really, what Essie gave out just then in her mercurial frenzied whisper? Lie, illusion, deception, she said — was that it truly, the universal language we all speak?
From Dictation, a quartet by Cynthia Ozick.
  • After my immersive, romance-tempering experience of reading The Folding Star, I thought I'd follow it up with something less draining and slightly more idle, like, say, a collection of short stories. Just then I'd purchased a copy of Cynthia Ozick's Dictation, which, as it turns out, is every bit as brilliant as I'd expected my first Ozick would be, yet certainly not any lighter or more idle than the Hollinghurst novel.
  • I say that because a week after deciding I wanted to write exactly like Alan Hollinghurst, I changed my mind and decided to want to write like Ozick instead. Not that either task is easy. But probably the best advice that I ever was given is this: don't be afraid of imitation.
  • And who would not want to imitate the way Ozick writes? Her stories remind me of Alice Munro's. (Hey, both writers even have the same sagacious white hair!) You cannot read them in a way that's disaffected or merely transitory. The title story is awesome, of course, and, reading it, I experienced what any fan-boy would — to be that close to, or intimate with, the genius of Henry James and Joseph Conrad — but the story I liked best is "At Fumicaro": a love story. It is a modest love story, so modest there's nothing extraordinary in it, but Ozick captures perfectly, I believe, the dynamic of any (blasphemously) interracial relationship, as well as the social and intellectual imbalances that often enough happen to contextualize that relationship. "There were scores of poor young women all over Italy — perhaps in Fumicaro itself — in her position," reads an unforgettable passage. "He could not marry them all. Her tragedy was a commonplace. She was a noisy aria in an eternal opera. It did not matter. This girl was the one that he had been led to."
  • There are certain writers reading whom a wannabe like me finds his mojo. In my case, I've found that Edith Wharton, Evelyn Waugh, and Hemingway, among a few others, are the ones who jolt me into the urgency of "write like that if you're going to write at all". Not even coming close to any of them is not important — at least not yet. The point is to understand why it's them who jolt me and not others. The point is to identify, when one goes into studying the craft of storytelling, which writers one wants to study. Having finished Dictation in a matter of two sittings, I am left with no room to doubt that Cynthia Ozick is the newest addition to my list.

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