The estimable Cynthia Ozick
By Brian Doyle
I have had the inordinate luck, in 30 years as a writer and editor, of meeting and conversing and corresponding with many of the finest writers of our time. Were there ale enough between us, I could tell you entertaining stories of Peter Matthiessen (who died two weekends ago, and who once spent an hour regaling me with his experiences in the Navy in Hawaii during the Second World War, when he ran the military baseball league and surreptitiously sold passes for the use of Navy vehicles), and Barry Lopez (a genius, and one of the wittiest men I ever met), and Ivan Doig (who loves to talk about the craft of writing, the linguistic carpentry of it), and Mary Oliver (the single best reader aloud I have ever heard), and Australia’s Helen Garner (who is utterly fascinated in her work by “the ragged hole between ethics and the law,” as she says), and Annie Dillard (a genius with a startlingly deep gravelly amused voice), and Ursula Le Guin (who is tiny and brilliant, and we ought to admit right here that she is one of the finest writers in American history), and the late Andre Dubus the Second (the best Catholic writer since Flannery O’Connor and J. F. Powers, I believe), and Allan Gurganus (who is gentle and hilarious in person), and Jan Morris (who writes the most graceful lucid limpid prose of anyone alive, I think). But this morning I would like to celebrate one smiling brilliance among many: Cynthia Shoshana Ozick, of the Borough of the Bronx, where she was born on April 17, some years ago.
I once shared a stage with her, during which my role was to choose and ask questions from the audience, a task I immediately flubbed, for I could not resist asking this deeply devout Jewish mystic an ancient silly Catholic Boy Question, “If God is all-powerful, can he make a rock so big not even He can lift it?” to which she gave the right answer, which was to giggle.
But before and after that moment, I was transfixed by her wit and erudition, her lack of arrogance, her silver intelligence, her soaring insistence on story as the crucial act of reverence, civilization, community—all the things that fill her work to overflowing. So this morning I send us all back to the work of one of the finest writers ever born in our rich and blessed country; in fact, I assign homework. Read the terrific essayist—choose any one of her alliteratively titled collections: Art and Ardor, Metaphor & Memory, Fame & Folly, or Quarrel & Quandary. (As an editor, I would have pushed for her to complete a set of 22 more collections along those lines.) Read the fictioneer: start with her searing brief masterpiece The Shawl, and then read The Messiah of Stockholm or the wry and haunting Puttermesser Papers. Or, for a greatest-hits leap into her work, if you have never read a page of it, find the excellent Cynthia Ozick Reader, and open it anywhere.
And let us conclude by joining together, in every office and den and subway and breakfast table where you are reading this note, by briefly humming happy birthday to Ms. Ozick, and wishing her health and peace, and thanking her for her gift to us—unforgettable, graceful, sinewy, honest, blunt, lyrical stories. Madame Author, you use your capacious gifts to wonderful effect, for which we thank you, most sincerely. And so, amen.
Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland magazine and the author of numerous books, most recently the novel The Plover.