Quarrel and Quandary

Quarrel and Quandary, a collection of essays, is the first book by Cynthia Ozick that I’ve read, and I finished it feeling impressed. Perhaps what stands out most strongly to me is her serious, firm, no-nonsense, occasionally devastating argumentation style. I would not ever want to be the subject of Ozick’s critique; she can be frighteningly effective when goes on the attack.

The essays cover a range of material. Many of them are literary in nature, including essays on Kafka, Dostoevsky, Sebald, Henry James, and others. Other essays explore broader literary phenomena such as the various adaptations of The Diary of Anne Frank and the treatment of the Holocaust in fiction. These last two are good examples of what I mean by her devastating argumentation style; she is angry at theatrical adaptations of the diary that downplay the horror of Anne’s fate in order to focus on the diary’s hopeful messages. In the essay on Holocaust fiction, she critiques Sophie’s Choice and Bernard Schlink’s The Reader for covering over some of the worst aspects of Holocaust history by focusing on exceptions and rare cases in the stories they tell. That essay (which you can read here) is a nuanced discussion of the tension between the right of authors to write about whatever they want and their responsibility to be ethical human beings.

Not all the essays are literary, though; there are some personal essays on, for example, Ozick’s first office job and her childhood spent in and around her family’s drugstore in the Bronx. One of my favorite essays, though, is one of the literary ones, an essay on essays called “She: Portrait of the Essay as a Warm Body.” Those of you who know my reading tastes will not be surprised that I was particularly drawn to this one (although I found the gender dynamics of the essay kind of weird — why should an essay be figured as a woman? But Ozick is impatient with talk of gender: “Essays are written by men. Essays are written by women. That is the long and short of it.” Well, yes. But perhaps there’s more to the story?) I particularly liked her description of how essays work persuasively:

The essay is not meant for the barricades; it is a stroll through someone’s mazy mind. Yet this is not to say that there has never been an essayist morally intent on making an argument, however obliquely — George Orwell is a case in point. At the end of the day, the essay turns out to be a force for agreement. It co-opts agreement; it courts agreement; it seduces agreement. For the brief hour we give to it, we are sure to fall into surrender and conviction. And this will occur even if we are intrinsically roused to resistance.

Even if we disagree with an essayist, for the time we are reading his or her essay, we are won over. I feel this when I read my favorite essays; it’s not that I give up all of my own thoughts and criticisms, but that I come to enjoy following another person’s mind so much that I’m willing to follow them anywhere. That is, I’m willing to follow them while I’m reading them. Afterward is the time for critique. She goes on to contrast essays to other prose forms such as magazine articles, polemics, and tracts, all of which are clearly looking at us, focusing on us and trying to change our minds. She writes:

The genuine essay, in contrast, never thinks of us; the genuine essay may be the most self-centered (the politer word would be subjective) arena for human thought ever devised.

Or else, though still not having you and me in mind (unless as an exemplum of common folly), it is not self-centered at all.

Instead of being self-centered, the essay is sometimes focused on the world around the essayist; it’s a way for the writer to make sense of the materials of everyday life and how they connect with one another:

The mind meanders, slipping from one impression to another, from reality to memory to dreamscape and back again.

Rather than going directly after the reader trying to make a polemical point, the genuine essay simply goes on a journey the reader will find irresistible, whether it’s a journey through the self or through the world (or both). We can’t help but follow along and end up where the writer ends, convinced, at least for a time.

I found Ozick convincing, in most cases long after the essay’s spell wore off. My favorite essay style is actually looser, more hesitant and exploring than Ozick’s, but I couldn’t help but admire her sharp mind at work.

10 Comments

Filed under Books, Essays, Nonfiction

10 responses to “Quarrel and Quandary

  1. Interesting. I read her novel ‘Foreign Bodies’ recently and wasn’t blown away by it. Perhaps I’d prefer her essays…

  2. Well, thanks to your tip about the Kafka essay, I got this volume out of the library and have it with me now. She’s an interesting writer, ferociously intelligent as you say, but I could use a few more light-hearted moments. Is that really shallow of me? I felt i was reading an academic book with a strong didactic intent more than a collection of essays, but then I have only read a few from the collection and should read more before passing judgement! I like what you say about her take on the essay here – that’s a chapter of the book I should definitely read.

  3. I’ve been curious about Ozick ever since I passed on the chance to take a class on her and Nadine Gordimer in college. This sounds engaging, and I have some sympathy for her points about softening the atrocities of the Holocaust by writing books about exceptions to the rule.

  4. Ozick is one of those authors I haven’t read but mean to one of these days. Her essays sound interesting. Though it is curious that she called the one essay “She” but goes on to say gender doesn’t matter. If it doesn’t matter, then why title it the way she did? Is she secretly up to something? ;)

  5. Londonchoirgirl — Thanks for stopping by! It’s hard to tell if you would like the essays or not. I often find that I like someone’s essays but not their fiction and occasionally, but not as often, the other way around. The essays are worth giving a try, though, particularly if you like the genre.

    Litlove — I think you’re right about needing light moments. I read the essays at the rate of one or two a day, so the heaviness didn’t get to me too much, but reading straight through could get to be too much. She does have some lighter essays, but they are toward the end, and maybe they could have been dispersed throughout more.

    Emily — now that sounds like an interesting combination of writers! I haven’t read the fiction of either one, so I couldn’t say how they would connect in a class, but I’m sure it would have been fun to explore. It might be fun to read them and see where the connections lie.

    Stefanie — good point! I think she was critiquing the current “fashion” or whatever for considering gender when writing about literature, in a grumpy, “I hate literary theory” kind of way. And her use of “she” for the essay itself is exactly the kind of thing that calls for the kind of analysis she doesn’t want to give. Maybe she’s trying to flout expectations?

  6. You always find the most interesting collections of essays. She sounds pretty formidable to me–maybe a book to just pick and choose from rather than read straight through (at least for me anyway).

  7. I haven’t read Ozick for a long time. Have you ever read The Shawl? I read it many years ago and it was haunting. I don’t even remember whether I liked it or not–just the hauntingness of it.

  8. She sounds terrifying! I like what she says about the essay being a force for agreement. I’d never thought about that before.

  9. Ooh, what a fabulous review! This is definitely going on the (recently ressurected) tbr list…I’ve always heard good things about this author but haven’t read anything by her yet…really looking forward to tackling this book! Thanks!

  10. Danielle — yeah, it could well be a book to pick and choose from, or a book to read slowly through, which is what I did. No need to rush! She IS formidable — that’s a good word — but well worth it.

    Lilian — interesting. This is the first I’ve read of Ozick, except perhaps for a random essay here and there. I have yet to try her fiction, and I should one day.

    Nicola — I really loved her idea about essays as seducing the reader and obtaining agreement, even against the reader’s will.

    Courtney — I’m really glad to have inspired you to put her on your list! I know you love essays like I do, and she’s a great writer. I hope you like her work.

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