ABOVE CYNTHIA OZICK’S writing desk there is a quote from Kafka’s diary: “I hate everything that does not relate to literature, conversations bore me, to visit people bores me, the joys and sorrows of my relatives bore me to my soul. Conversation takes the importance, the seriousness, the truth, out of everything I think.” The writer, as Kafka sees it, must take cover from the Babel of the street. Nothing but the library will do. Forget tea in the park and disputes with the bank clerk, the task is to develop a monastic patience, to become a hermit that rivals St. Jerome. Only then might literature be possible.
In a short article on Kafka from her collection, Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays, Ozick suggests the scribbler from Prague was a language fanatic. This fanaticism, according to Ozick, was fueled by his experience as a German-speaking Jew living in a city where most of the residents spoke Czech. When he declared, “I am made of literature,” Kafka meant that it was German idioms that formed him. And yet, for much of his life, he also translated Hebrew. Fanaticism drove him to master his own visionary language in a sea of others. It was a pathology — a hunger for unattainable perfection.
Lloyd Wilkinson Petrie, the narrator in Ozick’s new novel, Antiquities, is having trouble with language. A retired lawyer in his early 80s with a preference for solitude, he is attempting to write his memoirs. The trouble, though, is his memory is faulty, his hands tremble, and his sentences are run through with coarse legalisms. Even with the aid of his much-loved Remington typewriter, the task often seems impossible, even pointless. He is forever growing tired at his desk, composing in patches, then digressing, breaking off to nurse his lunch tray and argue with his German maid, Hedda. In Petrie’s frustration, he muses on the writing process: “Is it a fanatical dream?”
We are in the hot seat with an unreliable narrator — one prone to fabrications, delusions, and paralysis. The year is 1949, and while the newspapers are rife with news of Europe’s death camps, Petrie has turned inward to recollect his childhood at the Temple Academy for Boys. He is one of the few remaining trustees of the Academy who live on the grounds, in Westchester, New York, among wide lawns and golden maples. There are scenes that would give P. G. Wodehouse a spot of giggles, where Petrie must tolerate the incompetence of his laundress, who mixes up his socks, and then endure the sabotage of his typewriter by another elderly resident. He thinks little of his late wife and instead dreams of nights he spent with his secretary, Miss Margaret Stimmer, now also dead.
High above the campus, in his study, Petrie combs through his father’s notebook and becomes intrigued by a passage that recounts an archaeological dig in Egypt. He pictures his father in the blazing summer of 1880, pickaxe in hand, and is drawn back to a mysterious friendship with an older boy at the Academy, Ben-Zion Elefantin, who claimed his family originated on Egypt’s Elephantine Island. Something connects his father’s diary and this boy. But what?
Elefantin is a peculiar figure with a bony physique, curly red hair, and a penchant for Shakespeare and Dickens. He is almost certainly a ghost. Like other Jews at the Academy, he is shunned and subjected to antisemitic slurs. When the two boys meet, they bond over chess and a fear of the jocks (known as “the rowdies”). Before long an aggressive intimacy plays out when Elefantin pulls Petrie to the floor: “I could almost see my eyes in the black mirror of his own [and] I seemed to be breathing his breath.” They lie in each other’s arms for hours, a burgeoning love between Jew and Gentile.
The boys’ relationship put me in mind of Kafka’s story “Unhappiness,” where a man, alone in his apartment, catches sight of himself in the mirror, which causes a ghost child to appear and argue with the man. The ghost child is a product of the man’s psyche, and also a pesky interruption to his solitude, a neighbor blown in from the twilight to harass him. Reality becomes slippery, just as in Ozick’s novel, where Petrie and Elefantin are shapeshifters, alive one moment, apparitions the next.
With Ozick, we often encounter characters who appear in fantastic guise to disrupt contemporary life. They tend to embody a fragment of Jewish history and offer a warning about the consequences of forgetting. These characters are beguiled, and frequently undone, by the enigma of memory. Think of the golem Xanthippe who impedes Ruth’s life in The Puttermesser Papers, and of the specter of Bruno Schulz that warps Lars’s world in The Messiah of Stockholm. For Ozick, the continuity of Jewish memory is pivotal, the command to remember — zakhar in the Hebrew bible — absolute. “The secrets that engage me,” she said in an interview with Esquire, “are generally secrets of inheritance.”
In Antiquities, this inheritance comes with the boy Elefantin. Prior to the 19th century, there was no record of the Elephantine Jews, nothing in the works of Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, and nothing in the Talmud or official Jewish records. It was only when farmers discovered papyrus rolls on Elephantine in 1893 that we learned of a Jewish settlement on the island in the fifth century BCE. The Jews built a temple, which functioned alongside that of the Egyptians, and even had Egyptian wives. The shocking discovery of these papyri shows clear evidence of a polytheistic sect of Jews without knowledge of a written Torah. They suggest Moses might never have existed, there might have been no bondage in Egypt, no prophets, monarchy, or exodus. Their settlement existed on the margins with no claim to heritage in Judea.
These people were written out of official Jewish history, and yet they appear, like ghosts, on the Egyptian scrolls. At one point in the novel, Elefantin says, “We, the Elefantins, hold our own truths.” And, “So we live on as apparitions, fearful of mockery. And I, Ben-Zion Elefantin, am just such an apparition, am I not?” He is a container of the past, an embodiment of the papyri. He speaks in odd rhythms. His sentences have no beginnings or ends, offering a hallucinatory mixture of languages and histories. While Petrie is the last remaining trustee of Temple Academy, Elefantin is the lone trustee of Jewish outsiders, and the two characters meet across time.
In her essay collection Metaphor & Memory, Ozick writes, “To be a Jew is to be old in history, but not only that; to be a Jew is to be a member of a distinct civilization expressed through an oceanic culture in possession of a group of essential concepts and a multitude of texts.” In Antiquities, Elefantin contains that multitude. Like Kafka, he is a language fanatic, attempting to bring life to his own language in a sea of others.
But what of Ozick’s language in this novel? Her sentences are highly caffeinated; black coffee, double shot. She is forever pulling at verbs and adjectives as if they are different colors, launching micro-experiments in form. There are paragraphs where form butts up against comprehension, and yet at the same time there is a sense of wonderment at language being so severely tested, puzzled, thrown into new meanings and shapes. She has so lavishly attended to her sentences that she asks the reader, too, to be lavishly attentive.
For all the novel’s complexity, it also offers aphorisms that could easily have been plucked from Marcus Aurelius or Simone Weil:
Life’s fundamental rhythms depend on sameness, not deviation.
Omission is untruth.
The oasis is always over the next hill. And the next hill is always more of the same desert.
Too many reflections on death contaminate life. And should not each man live every day as if he were immortal?
Despite the elegance of these lines, there is nothing pat here. Neatness is always resisted. I have attempted to draw a piece of string through the maze, but Ozick is always beckoning around the next turn. And yet when you arrive she has doubled back and changed the route, which makes for an exhilarating, and often dizzying, experience. Antiquities is a deeply intellectual meditation on memory, history, and mortality. It is breathtaking in its beauty, erudition, and evocation of a lost world. At any age this would be a stunning achievement, but for Ozick, at 92, it is still more remarkable. She certainly shows no sign of retreat or of settling down. In the words of her narrator Petrie: “I write, indeed I speak, in turbulence.”
Nathan Dunne is the author of Lichtenstein and the editor of the essay collection Tarkovsky. He has written for The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Slate, and Artforum. His website is: www.nathandunne.com.