Someone on Twitter or FB pointed me to this old Paris Review interview with Cynthia Ozick. From the Spring 1987 issue. So many fine moments. Here’s my little annotated version of it. But read the whole thing.
“I wrote about 300,000 words of it.”
Immediately after graduate school . . . ah, here I should stop to explain that there was a very short period in the early fifties when would-be writers were ashamed to go on to get a Ph.D. A very short period! But that was when one tried out teaching for a while after college—as a teaching assistant on a stipend—and then fled homeward to begin the novel. Mine, typically, was immensely ambitious. I thought of it as a “philosophical” novel, and was going to pit the liberal-modernists against the neo-Thomists. I wrote about 300,000 words of it.
Literature, Imagination, and Monotheism
Until quite recently I held a rather conventional view about all this. I thought of the imagination as what its name suggests, as image-making, and I thought of the writer’s undertaking as a sovereignty set up in competition with the sovereignty of—well, the Creator of the Universe. I thought of imagination as that which sets up idols, as a rival of monotheism. I’ve since reconsidered this view. I now see that the idol-making capacity of imagination is its lower form, and that one cannot be a monotheist without putting the imagination under the greatest pressure of all. To imagine the unimaginable is the highest use of the imagination. I no longer think of imagination as a thing to be dreaded. Once you come to regard imagination as ineluctably linked with monotheism, you can no longer think of imagination as competing with monotheism. Only a very strong imagination can rise to the idea of a noncorporeal God. The lower imagination, the weaker, falls into the proliferation of images. My hope is someday to be able to figure out a connection between the work of monotheism-imagining and the work of story-imagining. Until now I have thought of these as enemies.
The Sentence and the Self
Quentin Bell’s biography told the story of his aunt, who happened to be the famous writer Virginia Woolf. But it was a family story really, about a woman with psychotic episodes, her husband’s coping with this, her sister’s distress. It had, as I said, the smell of a household. It was not about the sentences in Virginia Woolf’s books. The Wharton biography, though more a “literary” biography, dealt with status, not with the writer’s private heart. What do I mean by “private heart”? It’s probably impossible to define, but it’s not what the writer does—breakfast, schedule, social outings—but what the writer is. The secret contemplative self. An inner recess wherein insights occur. This writer’s self is perhaps coextensive with one of the writer’s sentences. It seems to me that more can be found about a writer in any single sentence in a work of fiction, say, than in five or ten full-scale biographies. Or interviews!
Against Lionel Trilling
I was taking a course with Lionel Trilling and wrote a paper for him with an opening sentence that contained a parenthesis. He returned the paper with a wounding reprimand: “Never, never begin an essay with a parenthesis in the first sentence.” Ever since then, I’ve made a point of starting out with a parenthesis in the first sentence.
Cadence is the Fingerprint
Shall we turn to Puttermesser? “Puttermesser, an unmarried lawyer and civil servant of forty-six, felt attacked on all sides.”
Cadence. Cadence is the fingerprint, isn’t it? Suppose you were going to write that sentence with that precise content. How would it come out? It’s short enough for you to give it a try just like that, on the spot.
I might just write “Puttermesser felt attacked on all sides.”
Yes. That’s interesting. It’s minimalizing, paring away. You are a Hemingwayesque writer, then?
A Hemingwayesque rewriter. But to get back to my question: Is the heart of Ozick, the writer, cadence?
It’s one element, not the only one. Idea counts too.
Write About What You Don’t Know
Ah! When I’ve taught those classes, I always say, Forget about “write about what you know.” Write about what you don’t know. The point is that the self is limiting. The self—subjectivity—is narrow and bound to be repetitive. We are, after all, a species. When you write about what you don’t know, this means you begin to think about the world at large. You begin to think beyond the home-thoughts. You enter dream and imagination.
Homebody, Astronaut, Chameleon
In the kingdom of As-If, there are some writers who never leave the house, and some writers who are explorers of the universe.
And some who do both at the same time. Emily Dickinson.
Philip Roth stays close to home, Doris Lessing goes out. In terms of content, some are homebodies, some are astronauts, some are chameleons. Which are you?
None of the above. An archaeologist, maybe. I stay home, but I’m not a homebody. I go out, but only to dig down. I don’t try to take on the coloration of the environment; I’m not an assimilationist. I say archaeologist, because I like to think about civilizations. They are illuminated in comparison. Stories are splinters of larger ideas about culture. I’m aware that there are writers who deny idea completely, who begin from what-happens, from pure experience. But for me ideas are emotions.
I like the bleak day. Bleak days are introspective, evocative. They smell of childhood reading.
Inventors and Impostors
Even when one invents, invents absolutely, one is blamed for stealing real people. You remind me of something I haven’t thought of for a long, long time. One of my first short stories, written for a creative writing class in college, was about plagiarism. Apparently the idea of “usurpation” has intrigued me for most of my life. When I was a small child I remember upsetting my father; I had recently learned, from a fairy tale, the word impostor and I made him prove he wasn’t an impostor by demanding that he open the pharmacy safe, which had a combination lock. Since only my real father, the pharmacist, knew the combination, his opening it would prove he was my father.
I am still hurt by P. S. 71. The effect of childhood hurt continues to the grave. I had teachers who hurt me, who made me believe I was stupid and inferior.
Yes. You’ve written about that. Is your validation your revenge?
I’ve discussed “revenge” with other writers, and discovered I’m not alone in facing the Medusa-like truth that one reason writers write—the pressure toward language aside, and language is always the first reason, and most of the time the only reason—one reason writers write is out of revenge. Life hurts; certain ideas and experiences hurt; one wants to clarify, to set out illuminations, to replay the old bad scenes and get the Treppenworte said—the words one didn’t have the strength or the ripeness to say when those words were necessary for one’s dignity or survival.
Have you achieved it?
Revenge? On P.S. 71? Who knows? Where now are the snows of yesteryear? Where is Mrs. Florence O’Brien? Where is Mr. Dougherty? Alas, I think not. In the end, there is no revenge to be had. “Too late” is the same as not-at-all. And that’s a good thing, isn’t it? So that in the end one is left with a story instead of with spite. Any story is worth any amount of vindictiveness.
I am ashamed to confess this. It’s ungrateful and wrong. But I am one—how full of shame I feel as I confess this—who expected to achieve—can I dare to get this out of my throat?—something like—impossible to say the words—literary fame by the age of twenty-five. By the age of twenty-seven I saw that holy and anointed youth was over, and even then it was already too late. The decades passed.
The Most Interesting People
I believe unashamedly that writers are the most (maybe the only) interesting people.
Youth-envy, on the other hand, one can never recover from. Or at least I haven’t so far. I suffered from it at seventeen. I suffered from it at five, when on a certain midsummer midafternoon I looked at an infant asleep in its pram and felt a terrible and unforgettable pang.
Writing Not Writing
The only thing more tormenting than writing is not writing.