A veteran novelist (Heir to the Glimmering World, 2004, etc.) and essayist (Quarrel and Quandary: Essays, 2000, etc.) expatiates on the lives and works of literary figures as diverse as Helen Keller and Isaac Babel, Sylvia Plath and Azar Nafisi.
In these rich and varied essays, Ozick displays not only the wide range of her reading but also the impressive capaciousness of her imagination. The title essay is a brief, eloquent plea for the novel (threatened by movies and memoirs), which Ozick claims is “the last trustworthy vessel of the inner life.” A prominent presence throughout is Henry James (Ozick says she kept The Ambassadors on her desk while she wrote her own first novel, Trust), no more so than in the final essay, an ironic “interview” in which James endures and counters questions about his sexuality from a 21st-century interviewer. Another of Ozick’s interests is the conflict between high and low culture. In “Highbrow Blues,” she recalls the Franzen-Oprah contretemps and comments with some sadness that Philip Roth’s Shop Talk (2001), which in more literary times might have made a splash, instead caused barely a ripple. Ozick greatly admires Roth and Bellow but has little use for Mailer, whose work she dismisses in a couple of places. In the rare Sylvia Plath item with nary a mention of Ted Hughes (a review of Plath’s The Unabridged Journals, 2000), she quips, “She was both Emily Dickinson and Betty Crocker.” But it’s a long, reflective and personal piece about Lionel Trilling that is the book’s payoff.
Erudition lightly worn, eloquence finely crafted.