Page 91 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 42

Basic HTML Version

LOWIN / CYNTH IA OZICK'S MIMESIS
83
For the sake o f clarity, this analysis will focus on the novel rather
than the novella. One of the points of both texts is Ozick’s insist­
ence that we judge from the latest text, not the earliest.
ACCENT ON BACKGROUNDS
Auerbach characterizes Jewish representation of reality as be­
ing “fraught with background.” In significantly different ways,
Ozick supplies similar European backgrounds to both o f the
main characters o f this American novel. The biographies of both
Joseph Brill, the day school principal, and Hester Lilt, the writer
who enrolls her little daughter at the school for the regulation
eight years of elementary education, are so heavily weighted with
background that nearly all the “foreground events” that take
place in the narrative must be interpreted in the shadowy light of
what had taken place “elsewhere and earlier.” While Joseph
Brill’s background is given, there is much in it that remains to be
interpreted. It consists of a childhood spent in pre-war Paris, in
the teem ing Jewish qu a r te r known as the
Pletzl
(similar to
London’s East End and New York’s Lower East Side); of an ado­
lescence spent discovering the broader world o f art and science;
and of a young adulthood spent, during the Holocaust years, hid­
ing in a convent cellar, while his parents, his teacher/Rabbi, and
several o f his brothers and sisters are sent to the gas chambers.
Most significantly, the whole novel — except perhaps for the end­
ing — can be found in this expository section.
It is the details o f his background that loom large in Joseph
Brill’s later life. Ozick provides one o f the keys to the novel by
introducing the following curious item concerning Joseph ’s
childhood: that there were two ways to go from home to his fa­
ther’s fishstore — the direct way, leading through the Jewish
quarter, and the “roundabout way,” leading past “the loveliest
house in the world.” The seemingly innocuous childhood fancy
of taking oblique routes assumes tremendous importance when
one realizes the extent of the literary allusion inherent in it. Did
not the little Marcel o f Proust’s
Remembrance of Things Past
also
have two ways, one leading past the house of Swann the Jew, the
other past the chateau o f the lovely Duchesse de Guermantes, a
figure of intrigue? The intriguing character in little Joseph’s case
is another literary figure, the famous 17th-century
epistoliere,
Madame de Sevigne, who is credited with having molded the lit­