Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Magical Realism Meets the Department of Receipts and Disbursements (Books - The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick)

With a name like Puttermesser, a girl from the Bronx is likely to be a little...different. Ruth leaves a blue-blood law firm to work for the Department of Receipts and Disbursements of the City of New York.
The successive heads of this department were called Commissioners. They were all political appointees - scavengers after spoils. Puttermesser herself was not quite a civil servant and not quite not a civil servant - one of those amphibious creatures hanging between base contempt and bare decency; but she soon felt the ignominy of belonging to that mean swarm of City employees rooted bleakly in cells inside the honeycomb of the Municipal Building. It was a monstrous place, gray everywhere, abundantly tunneled, with multitutdes of corridors and stairs and shafts, a kind of swollen doom through which the bickering of small-voiced officials whinnied. At the same time there were always curious farm sounds - in the summer the steady cricket of the air-conditioning, in the winter the gnash and croak of old radiators...

Puttermesser will always be an employee in the Municipal Building. She will always behold Brooklyn Bridge through its windows; also sunsets of high glory, bringing her religious pangs. She will not marry. Perhaps she will undertake a long-term affair with Vogel, the Deputy in charge of the Treasury, perhaps not.

The difficulty with Puttermesser is that she is loyal to certain environments.
She would rather study Hebrew grammar and read Plato in bed than have a roll in the hay with her paramour. Ruth Puttermesser is driven by scholastic achievement, the value of knowledge, and the beauty and power of language. In fact, she uses three Hebrew letters (and a little potting soil) to fashion herself a Golem - part surrogate daughter, part servant - who asks to be named Xanthippe.
"I want to be Xanthippe," the thing wrote. "I know everything you know. I am made of earth but also I am made out of your mind. Now watch me walk."
Golems are funny creatures of Jewish folk mythology, think Frankenstein only in a shtetl. Made of dirt and filled with life by a Kabbalistic incantation, in one case involving the three Hebrew letters for truth: aleph, mem, and tav - they are bound to do their creator's bidding - but usually do it a bit too literally and end of wreaking havoc on the world and then have to be dismantled - unenlivened. Which is accomplished by removing the letter aleph, leaving only mem and tav - spelling met, which means dead. Pretty clever huh? In any event, I won't ruin for you how Ozick combines this creature of 13th century mythology with her dreamscape of New York's municipal bureaucracy.

Ozick's prose is, itself, pretty incantory and deadly clever. Nearly every sentence conjures up irrepressible life and you don't really know where it is going to go either. She expects a fair bit of her reader. At one point she describes her heroine:
She disdained assertiveness. Her voice was like Cordelia's. At home, in bed, she went on dreaming and reading. She retained a romantic view of the British Civil Service in its heyday: the Cambridge Apostles carrying the probities of G. E. Moore to the far corners of the world, Leonard Woolf doing justice in Ceylon, the shy young Forster in India. Integrity. Uprightness.
In those four sentences she references Shakespeare and half of Bloomsbury. But don't get the impression that this makes The Puttermesser Papers heavy going. On the contrary, Cynthia Ozick's language is bouyant, swift-moving, and hilarious. I can't believe I have put off reading one of her novels for so long. Thank you, Mark Sarvas, for raving about the riches of this book - I'm loving it.

1 comment:

J.S. Peyton said...

I started this book a few months ago and then put it back down for some reason. It's still sitting on my "in progress" table. I guess I need to pick it back up!