"Dictation: A Quartet" by Cynthia Ozick comprises the PEN/Nabokov winner's vivid stories of visionary cranks

Share story

“Dictation: A Quartet”

by Cynthia Ozick

Houghton Mifflin, 179 pp., $24

Feverish, funny, visceral, cerebral — the fiction of Cynthia Ozick is all these things. And in her new quartet of novellas, “Dictation,” she hits a peak of verve and acuity. The book offers an ideal introduction to this recent winner of the PEN/Nabokov Award, honoring a body of work marked by “enduring originality and consummate craftsmanship.”

Ozick’s recurring subject here, as in her earlier work, is the Visionary Crank. The settings range from 1910 London to 1930s Italy to Ozick’s native New York City. But in every case, the animating genius of the story is a character who’s out of sorts with the world — a restless, sidewinding soul who sees grandly subversive or sublime possibilities where others might see only a rash move or a dull secretarial task.

Take the title story. In it Theodora (“Teddie”) Bosanquet, a typist for Henry James, boldly initiates a friendship with Lilian Hallowes, a typist for Joseph Conrad. Is Teddie’s interest in Lilian sexual?

Yes, perhaps. But she also has a scheme in mind to do with the new works the authors are dictating to their respective assistants. Her ruse — a bid for a literary immortality of her own — requires the cooperation of “a sharer, a double, a partner.” But it’s questionable whether she can get meek Conrad-worshipper Lilian to go along with her.

Ozick, who knows her James and Conrad inside out, moves with perfect, playful ease through the writers’ milieu. And her eye for the half-shades of intimacy that exist between great creative minds and their “office help” is equally on the mark.

The second novella, “Actors,” might drily be described as a multigenerational conflict over who has the strongest claim to a specific theater aesthetic. But that would be ignoring the crazy vitality of the piece, established in its opening lines: “Matt Sorley, born Mose Sadacca, was an actor. He was a character actor and (when they let him) a comedian. He had broad, swarthy, pliant cheeks, a reddish widow’s peak that was both curly and balding, and very bright teeth as big and orderly as piano keys. His stage name had a vaguely Irish sound, but his origins were Sephardic.”

The man is there, right in front of you. And in the tale that ensues, which pits 60-something Matt against a bright young stage director and a nonagenarian veteran of the Yiddish theater circuit, the contest for legitimacy of artistic vision gets entirely out of hand.

Ozick made her reputation as a chronicler of Jewish New York. But in “At Fumicaro” she tries her hand at “being” Catholic — at least vicariously — through a hero on a mission either to save himself, destroy himself or some baffling combo of the two.

The place: Mussolini’s Italy. Catholic journalist-critic Frank Castle is at Lake Como attending a conference on “The Church and How It Is Known.” After this, he plans to travel to Florence and Rome. But, we learn two pages into the story, “on the fourth day, entirely unexpectedly, he got married instead.”

His bride-to-be? A teenage chambermaid who’s pregnant, illiterate and can barely speak a word of English.

This matrimonial move seems not entirely of Frank’s own making — at least not his conscious making — and it hangs in doubt throughout the four-day timespan of the story, thanks to his ever-changing take on his own actions. (One fleeting phase: “He saw that he had committed the sin of heroism, which always presumes that everyone else is unreal, especially the object of rescue.”)

The result is a twist-filled farce that’s also a sly meditation on the marriage of intellect and instinct.

“What Happened to the Baby?” concludes Ozick’s quartet with a tricky tale that keeps falling through layers of delusion and deception. On the surface, it’s a humorous account of a New York eccentric who’s on a one-man crusade to replace Esperanto with an international language of his own invention. But as the narrative trap doors keep opening, “Baby” becomes something more intense: a look at how one man’s “gibberish” can be a desperate ploy to cover up the truths of his life.

Each novella offers plenty of food for the mind. As for the senses, Ozick keeps them happy with the lilt, the savor and the urban rasp of her prose.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@ seattletimes.com. He

has been the Seattle Times book critic since 1998

and has published four novels.