In a story from Cynthia Ozick’s 2008 collection “Dictation,” an aging actor recognizes that he still has one strength left: “His voice he knew passed muster: it was like a yo-yo, he could command it to tighten or stretch, to torque or lift.” Ozick, who turns ninety-three on April 17, remains similarly in command of voice and its modulation. She can sing and she can rant; she can praise and she can castigate. (In 2016, she responded to a negative review with a poem. It opens, “Zoë Heller / kicked me down her cellar / (a lit’ry penitentiary) / for being so ‘midcentury.’”) In essays, stories, and novels, Ozick writes of the mind’s “persistent internal hum,” and her sentences match this hum’s pitch and rhythm.
“Antiquities” adds a new note to the Ozick scale. To be sure, there are recognizable elements. The short novel, set in 1949, takes place “in the familiar greenery of Westchester County,” where Ozick resides. As in previous novels, Judaism plays a crucial role, here in the history of a fifth-century Jewish community exiled on an island in the Nile. Most familiarly, there’s the spectral presence of Henry James, on whom Ozick wrote a master’s thesis back in 1950 and with whom she’s been wrestling ever since.
What’s most striking about “Antiquities,” though, is how rigorously Ozick disciplines her normal verbal extravagance, her habitual attraction to “the holy power of language and its cadences.” The book’s narrator, Lloyd Wilkinson Petrie, is the latest lawyer in a family of lawyers and he writes like one — equal parts restraint and fuss. “I am told that I have myself a certain prowess in the writing of prose,” he says, before adding, “at least in the idiom appropriate to the law.”
Petrie is an Episcopalian trustee of his old boarding school, the Temple Academy for Boys. Located in Westchester, the school, closed to students for thirty-four years, now houses Petrie and six other trustees, all elderly and well-off. They have been tasked with creating “a collection of small memoirs meant to stand out from the welter of the past — seven chapters of, if I may borrow an old catchphrase, emotion recollected in tranquility.” The odd stuffiness of “catchphrase,” as well as its Wordsworthian referent, captures much of Petrie’s style. It also shows the ethos of the Temple Academy, where a headmaster was fired “due to his inadequate accent”; where, up until Petrie’s tenure, Jews had largely been excluded.
“Antiquities” presents itself as Petrie’s “album of remembrance” of what life was like at the old school, though details of his later life — deceased wife; estranged son — keep seeping through. That Wordsworthian catchphrase is only part of a sentence from the poet’s preface to the “Lyrical Ballads.” The first half reads, “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” The friction between the practiced tranquility of Petrie’s self-account and the powerful feelings underneath generates considerable heat.
Petrie writes on a Remington typewriter — beloved because it belonged to a former secretary. “Thinking back,” he writes, “I am much moved to recall that the day I made Miss Margaret Stimmer’s typewriter my own was the very day I permitted myself to call her Peg.” We don’t hear much about Petrie’s late wife, but we do come to sense that Peg was the great unachieved love of his life. At one point, a Temple House denizen spills ink on Petrie’s typewriter. “Miss Margaret Stimmer’s Remington violated,” he laments, “the very machine, now mine, once touched by her prancing fingers, and all I have left to remind me of my sweet Peg.” Peg’s fingers prance and unsettle in Petrie’s memory; the lawyer’s style begins to crack.
More cracks develop as he recalls, then pulls back from recalling, a transient friendship with a Jewish schoolmate named Ben-Zion Elefantin. One day, Elefantin told Petrie that he was a descendant of those Jews exiled long ago on Elephantine Island in Egypt; he and his parents were the outcasts of an outcast people. Petrie doesn’t know whether to believe the tale, but the scene of its telling is charged with, to use a favorite Ozick word, ardor: “And now, the two of us prone on the floor among the nubbles of dust, breathing their spores, I seemed to be breathing his breath. Our bare legs in the twist of my fall had somehow become entangled, and it was as if my skin, or his own, might at any moment catch fire.”
All of this — the life not lived with Peg; the attraction not spoken of with Elefantin — is pure James, as is Petrie’s increasing obsession with, and fear of, knowing the truth about Elefantin, and himself, and his life. “It is the conscious mind I value, not its allegedly secret underworld,” Petrie declares, even as memory and desire pull him down. In the 1890s, James published one story called “The Real Thing,” another titled “The Real Right Thing.” It’s fitting that the final page of Ozick’s masterful tale contains this Jamesian exclamation: “I think I know the significant thing. Ben-Zion Elefantin too knows the significant thing. Only the two of us know.”
Anthony Domestico is an associate professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of “Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period.’'
By Cynthia Ozick
Knopf, 192 pages, $21