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FAME AND FOLLY by Cynthia Ozick



by Cynthia Ozick

Pub Date: May 3rd, 1996
ISBN: 0-679-44690-7
Publisher: Knopf

No trace of stingy critical minimalism can be found in Ozick's heated new essay collection. Instead, this critic (Metaphor and Memory, 1989, etc.) draws on her resources as a novelist--characterization, irony, metaphor, narrative ingenuity--to attack or affirm other writers and traditions. The boon: goodbye to the rarefied professional concerns and language of the common academic reader. The farewell is liberating. Even when you disagree resoundingly with Ozick, her conviction is likely to indirectly aid and clarify your own by offering an exemplary force of feeling and depth of reason. For example, "Old Hand as Novice," a piece about the experience of a novelist as a fledgling playwright, is pumped with literary bravado, as though the craft of theater had little to teach a tyro ("real apprenticeship is ultimately always to the self"). Yet the sometime beginner offers insights into a play's structure that are likely to impress. ("A novel is like the physicist's premise of an expanding universe . . . a play is just the reverse"). Ozick's range is remarkable, from literary memoir ("Alfred Chester's Wig") to criticism (of Henry James, George Steiner, Isaac Babel) to cultural history ("Against Modernity," a scathing appraisal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters). Her vituperative zeal can be suspect, as in the brilliant piece on her onetime friend Chester, which insists, unconvincingly, that an old rivalry has passed. But the author's powers of evocation tend to amaze, despite some moments of excess ("coiled in the bottommost pit of every driven writer is an impersonator--protean, volatile, restless, and relentless"). Ozick reminds us of how few critics are writers in their own right. The protean self-portraiture suggested here is at least as interesting as Ozick's critical votes.