Assessment: Cynthia Ozick’s evocative new novella, “Antiquities”

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On the Shelf


By Cynthia Ozick
Knopf: 192 pages, $21

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Cynthia Ozick’s “Antiquities” is a piece of previous age. That will appear apparent, provided that its narrator, Lloyd Wilkerson Petrie, is an octogenarian reconsidering an unresolved relationship of his youth. But I’m referring much less to Lloyd than to his creator, who turns 93 on April 17.

I hesitate to push this level too onerous; it’s harmful to conflate a author along with her character. Nonetheless, how else to interpret essentially the most trenchant passages within the novella, which mirror on mortality and time? “I feel incessantly of demise, of oblivion,” Lloyd acknowledges, “how nothing lasts, not even reminiscence when the one who remembers is gone.” Can I be the one reader to see in these sentiments the determine of Ozick peeking out from behind the fictive veil?

To some extent, it’s because “Antiquities” is a e book that traffics in its personal technique of being written. In the middle of what he calls a memoir — though it operates extra as a free set of diaristic recollections — Lloyd affords excuses or explanations for the slowness of his progress, pleading bodily as a lot as emotional reticence. “The reader will, I belief, perceive why I have to eke out my memoir in these unsatisfying patches,” he opens one entry. “Partly it’s easy fatigue.”

Ozick has lengthy been a author whose fiction is conscious of itself by means of the lens of literature. Her 2010 novel “Overseas Our bodies” is constructed as an echo of Henry James’ “The Ambassadors,” whereas “Inheritor to the Glimmering World,” which got here out in 2005, includes a character impressed by Christopher Milne. In “Antiquities,” nevertheless, the connections evoked by type and narrative should not vital or mental however emotional.

Lloyd is very conscious of the change — the upcoming disappearance — that makes him determined to settle a number of issues. Considered one of seven remaining trustees of the long-shuttered Temple Academy for Boys, he has been charged with spearheading a reminiscence mission, through which every trustee will produce a quick memoir of his time on the faculty. Complicating issues, all seven at present dwell on campus, which has been reconfigured right into a type of retirement group for them. This implies the previous, or at the very least its panorama, isn’t totally out of attain. The 12 months is 1949, and as Lloyd recollects his boyhood affiliation with Ben-Zion Elefantin, a Jewish pupil shunned by the opposite boys, he can’t assist however reveal himself as nicely.

Describing a group of artifacts he inherited from his father (“clay lamps, jugs with handles like ears and spouts just like the mouth of a fish, amulets, feminine collectible figurines, and the like”), he remembers, “I had carried them to the Academy … with no notion of the place I might maintain them. Not on show in my chilly little Fifth Type cell, just like the silly female bric-a-brac we had at residence: this might certainly invite jeers.” The irony is that almost eight many years later, the character stays in hiding — not from the opposite college students now however from the trustees. When, in spite of everything this time, his assortment is lastly found, he’s subjected “to muted however sly hints and taunts. … My worthy friends, aged widowers all, show the spiteful conduct of a pack of kindergartners!”

"Antiquities," a novella by Cynthia Ozick.

Ozick is doing one thing fascinating right here — or a few fascinating somethings. First, she is blurring the road between previous and current to mirror not solely the muddle of her protagonist’s reminiscence but in addition the insular society through which he has spent his life. Much more, she is aligning Lloyd, a scion of the WASP institution, with the outsiders, the denigrated — who, within the rigidly hierarchical universe of “Antiquities,” are principally Jews. His solely two faculty buddies are Jewish, as is the prepare dinner with whom, as an aged widower himself, he has a quick however vivid fling. Extra to the purpose, he’s ostracized, a pariah each as a pupil and later as a trustee.

That is hardly unfamiliar territory for Ozick; you may say she’s been working from inside all of it alongside. I consider the golem in “The Puttermesser Papers” or the demise camp in “The Scarf.” “Antiquities,” although, flips the dynamic, framing it by means of the opposite finish of the lens. Lloyd is a genteel anti-Semite, satisfied that his privilege is proof of his superiority. “I used to be embarrassed by all this untampered emotion,” he admits about one Jewish acquaintance. “That’s how these individuals are, their overflowing sentimentalism. Their movement image type of exaggerated feeling.” (In one other irony — solely intentional — Lloyd’s son, somewhat than assume his function as Petrie inheritor, has decamped to write down screenplays in Hollywood.)

Right here is the prowess of the novella, in addition to its creator, now in her tenth decade: “Antiquities” offers us a narrator not solely unreliable however actively self-deceptive, unable to reckon with who he’s. That on some stage Lloyd acknowledges this solely underscores the depth of his denial and shame. This emerges most totally in his reminiscences of Elefantin, whom he posits because the Johnson to his Boswell, his life spent within the reflection of the opposite’s gentle. That their friendship, reminiscent of it’s, lasts solely a short while makes Lloyd’s longing — for decision or reconciliation, for the possibility to work by means of his sense of getting been deserted — extra intense. “What has develop into of me?” he wonders midway by means of the telling. “How can I discover my method out of this wilderness of hesitation? Or dare I say disgrace?”

The reply is that there is no such thing as a reply — that our historical past, like every little thing, evaporates, leaving us alienated from ourselves. All these occasions, Ozick wonders, in what method do they add up? “And the way can I’m going on with my memoir,” Lloyd laments, “to what finish, for what function? What which means can it have, aside from its author? And for him too (I imply for me) the previous is mist, its figures and pictures no higher than pale work. The place now’s Ben-Zion Elefantin, did he the truth is exist?” The identical is perhaps mentioned of Lloyd or Ozick or any one in every of us.

Age, we wish to think about, is what occurs if we’re fortunate. However the actuality is extra advanced. That’s each the topic and the subtext of this novella, which is most resonant, maybe, in the way it by no means seems to be away from the gradual however regular disintegration that awaits. Lloyd is a flawed and contradictory character, but his vulnerability turns into its personal type of power. In that, it’s lots like life, through which, Ozick reminds us, “Absence itself is a type of proof.”

Ulin is the previous e book editor and e book critic of the Occasions.

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