The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories
By Cynthia Ozick
Original Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Current Publisher: Out of Print
Kirstin Allio writes:
What startles me most in this collection is a paradox of sorts: how Cynthia Ozick seems to want to moralize from a feminist perspective, yet she’s most persuasive―brilliant and devastating―when she’s writing as one of a chorus of spidery, estranged, self-deluding, even raging old men. Indeed The Pagan Rabbi is a Pandora’s Box of suffering and insufferable geezers, roiling and poignant and loud with language, banging with words, rattling words across the pages, cranky, kvetchy, bitter, neurotic, pissed.
But there is no such thing as a fair reading, only a personal one. In The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories, with its mixed salad of magical realism (there is a sex scene with an eggplant-skinned dryad), satire, feminism, and parable, I realize, with some surprise, that I favor domestic realism and close-up relationship drama. I’m unfairly applying that preference, digging for it; I’m yielding to the appetite for watching “real” people live their “real” lives. But Ozick twists and turns; she resists simplistic judgments or generalizations, which is what keeps you reading.
The most accessible story for me, then, is “The Doctor’s Wife,” where domestic scenes are lifelike, cutting, and clever; dialogue is marked by exquisite comic timing. In this story more than any other in the collection writerly artifice is on the back burner, as if Ozick characters are not limited by their creator. It’s thrilling to witness Ozick take the smallest screw of human machinery between her teeth and play it like a virtuosic harmonica. Here, for example, is an ecstatic, banshee fragment:
(meanwhile his brain roared like a sunflower)
The economy and poetry are exhilarating, a whole song’s worth of phrasing in seven words, all without breaking a sweat, juxtaposing high and common language. This is Doctor Pug (for pugnacity; his name is Pincus), small-town bachelor practitioner, not an obvious candidate for a brain like a sunflower.
Doctor Pug is a half century into a definitively unrequited life. He’s a celebrity to his overbearing, loopy sisters, constantly jostled and fretted over, adored and projected upon.
Doctor Pug is not a misogynist, but Ozick lays bare his feelings about women in a deadpan that is never free from the suggestion―nor from authorial machination. Doctor Pug does not distinguish between women. They are a blur, a collective, and most crucially, they have no choices. It’s almost as if they are pre-choice, pagan in their relationship to choices. If this view seems bizarre, and narrow-minded, Doctor Pug himself is ever-benign and kind-hearted. In fact “he knew he had a vulgar talent for compassion.”
Shopping with his sister Frieda, Doctor Pug is capable of great feeling in his observations:
Maternally she picked up a grizzled melon, squeezed the stem
depression, sniffed it, shut her eyes at the hummingbird
sweetness, and restored it to the rack like a baby prince.
Doctor Pug’s solo practice is in a poor and sulkily racially mixed neighborhood. He is generous and broadminded regarding his patients:
Among these people there were surprisingly few physical
diseases . . . It was the old recurrent groans of life . . . Everyone
had a story to tell him.
The story is framed by the very homemade 50th birthday party Doctor Pug’s sisters throw him. They’ve plotted and schemed, and managed to identify and invite an eligible spinster they’re sure their dear unmarried brother will fall for. The sense of Doctor Pug’s dismay and domestic dishabille is palpable:
The air . . . felt clotted, sluggish, hot, partisan, and impassioned,
like the breathing of a vindictive judge.
Defending himself against the set-up―literally up against the wall―Doctor Pug is forced to reveal his great private fantasy, the lynchpin of his character, and of the story. To keep the spinster at bay, he claims that he’s already married. For the doctor has long and secretly been in love; in fact he considers his soul―or some inchoate part of him―to be married. He found her in a library biography of Chekhov. In an old black and white group photo she’s tellingly labeled “Unknown Friend.” A beautiful dimpled Russian girl who, if she were improbably still alive, would be ninety-three or ninety-four years old, according to Doctor Pug’s morose calculations.
As the bewildered spinster reels from the sense of betrayal, the doctor tumbles into his fantastical narrative. I have the visceral sense that Cynthia Ozick is roping Doctor Pug in, and cornering him. What choice does he have, as he gets deeper and deeper, other than admit he keeps his wife locked away―and their children? To the mounting indignation, then disgust of the spinster, Doctor Pug describes his wife’s hidden life―muted, she doesn’t even speak English―and implicit, his complete power over her.
The almost folktale punishment the doctor receives for his lack of imagination regarding women is, of course, his author’s condemnation. I have the sense that Ozick will make him pay and pay for his dullness and his refusal to see the intricate, creative, life-affirming array of his sisters’ choices. This is the moralistic twist that keeps Ozick frustrating, but eminently readable: Pug is alive but compromised.
In the final, novelistic story, “Virility,” the pseudo-poet-imposter Edmund Gate composes his masterpieces in the tortured narrator’s attic (the poet appears as the original freeloader).
The tapping went on and on, and since he never stopped, it was
clear that he never thought.
Again, Ozick offers a sly twist and a punishing ending: it turns out the great poet had nothing to say for himself but was busy copying the letters of the saint-like aunt who rescued and raised him, and whom he unflinchingly abandoned.
I very much like not liking the title story. It seems like a showcase, Nabokovian, airless, and pyrotechnical. I admire the symphonic sex scenes with the wood dryad, and the fact that the soul turns out to have a human form whose “notched toenails gored the path” is breathtaking. But the conflict between intellectual, scholarly pursuit and the natural, bodily world seems contrived, soapboxy, and even―I get it―angry.
Something I haven’t experienced before, then, reading: I’m struck that Ozick’s voice is foreign and jarring to the mood of the city I currently live in. She’s edgy. She’s sometimes even vicious. If you met her on the freeway she would curse you and cut you off. This is not how folks express themselves―comport themselves―in Seattle. Drivers are polite to the point where merging feels like kowtowing butlers dying to outdo one another.
Then a strange thing happens. The more I read, the more I want to join forces with Ozick’s lashing-out characters. It’s a little bit embarrassing, but I want to rant along with them, these verbose imaginers and overheated dreamers. In “Envy, or Yiddish in America,” I want to screech my defense of a dying language too. I want to smash a shelf of e-readers, for example, ubiquitous overnight, consumer gadget on a rampage, on trumped-up praises of delivering a better quality of life.
Ozick’s characters may be turtles of men, carrying everything around on their naked, unathletic persons, including ancient grudges; they may be shy, obsessive, burbling with acid reflux. But they’re fiercer than Seattle at the end of 2011. I imagine them trying to keep their copious vocabularies dry, their memories clear. There’s a nautilus quality, a spiral into the mind, that arrests me. And galloping impatience, razor-sharp scorn in Cynthia Ozick that incites me.
Kirstin Allio was selected for 5 Under 35 in 2007: many thanks to the National Book Foundation! She is the author of the novel Garner and numerous short stories, including one in The 2010 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories. She lives in Seattle. (Photo: Michael K. Allio)
Fiction Finalists That Year:
- Frederick Buechner for Lion Country
- E.L. Doctorow for The Book of Daniel
- Stanley Elkin for The Dick Gibson Show
- Tom McHale for Farragan’s Retreat
- Joyce Carol Oates for Wonderland
- Cynthia Ozick for The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories
- Walker Percy for Love in the Ruins
- Earl Thompson for A Garden of Sand
- John Updike for Rabbit Redux
Fiction Winner That Year: Flannery O’Connor for The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor
Fiction Judges That Year: Joan Didion, Martha Duffy, Joseph Heller, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, L. Woiwode
The Year in Literature:
- Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
- Heinrich Böll won the Nobel Prize for literature.
More Information: Ozick was a Fiction Finalist once more, in 1997 for The Puttermesser Papers.