Cynthia Ozick has long held her reputation as one of the most acclaimed critics working in America. Her essays are, without fail, uncompromisingly optimistic about what literature can do, what literature has done, and the hopes of literature for the future. Unlike other academics or critics, Ozick does not bemoan the novel's current lack of favor when compared to movies or the internet - her approach is positive, reasoned, passionate and compelling. The essays contained in The Din in the Head, while not explicitly thematically linked, share a common bond in exploring either less well-known but still luminous authors of the twentieth century, or the minor works of acknowledged and remembered masters.
A Jew, Ozick directly addresses the question of what it means to be a “Jewish writer” in her essay “Tradition and (Or Versus) the Jewish Writer.” She believes that if a Jewish author is not tackling such massive problems as the Holocaust or the creation and stability of Israel, then “All other subject matter in the so-called Jewish-American novel is, well, American, written in the American language, telling American stories.” She rejects the concept of a Jewish novel unless, as stated, it is forcibly and solely Jewish in origin and intent. Catholic, Protestant, atheist, etc. novels are not usually branded with their religion before being read, and nor should they be - it seems only the Jews and minorities such as colonial literature suffer from this problem. A novel is what it is, the aim of an author is not “community service or communal expectation.” She finishes by saying that writers “are responsible only to the comely shape of a sentence, and to the unfettered imagination.”
That being said, a number of her essays do directly deal with leading Jewish authors such as Saul Bellow, Delmore Schwartz, Lionel Trilling, Isaac Babel, Gershom Scholem. Other authors include Updike, Tolstoy, Kipling, Plath and Henry James. Roughly half of the book deals with Jewish authors or themes, the other half with novels in general. While the book cannot honestly be claimed as Jewish - witness Ozick's own attack on the concept, but also consider the inappropriateness of a book on literary criticism not analyzing the works of such masters as Saul Bellow - Ozick's pride in her heritage is plain. But it is not the pride that comes from grandstanding or self-propelling ambition; rather, Ozick discusses these things because they have merit to herself, and by extension, to others.
Her essay “John Updike: Eros and God” is a remarkable piece of sustained admiration for an author who, sad as it is to say, seems to be less appreciated than is his due by today's younger authors, who value the flash and fire of literary psuedo-pyrotechnics, all the while ignoring Updike's supreme command of the English language, his ease and skill and, dare it be said, grace in composing sentences that show us the ordinary in a way we couldn't - wouldn't? - have looked at it ourselves. “Language in all its fecundity is Updike's native country, and he is its patriot.” Fecundity is right. Updike’s language grows and stagnates, flourishes and falls, but it is always abundant and verdant, ripe to read and delicious to see.
One of the primary questions Ozick is attempting to answer throughout this book is the deceptively simple: What is a novel? She baldly states it only once, but every essay dances around the topic before culminating in yet another insightful, illuminating aspect of an answer. Granted, there may never be a complete, coherent response to the question, but beautiful, intelligent and important attempts may be given. The novel is, she writes, “A persuasion towards dramatic interiority. A word-hoard that permits its inventor to stand undefined, unprescribed, liberated from direction or coercion.”
Lionel Trilling, a once-famous critic whose star has long since dimmed, is given a twenty-page examination, and is the saddest essay in the novel. Trilling, though respected, even revered in his own time, always chafed against the mantle of “critic”. He wanted to be a novelist and envied Hemingway beyond all others. His own novel, The Middle of the Journey, which is by Ozick's account a certainly capable novel, was not received well. Trilling, writing in his diary, noted, “The attack on my novel, that it is gray, bloodless, intellectual, without passion, is always made with great personal feeling, with anger. -How dared I presume?” The weight of a man's sadness, heavy to behold and difficult to read.
There are small pieces scattered throughout the novel. Kipling's essay is very short, a mere two pages; Plath receives five, miscellaneous topics stay under ten. But even these remain worthwhile and interesting. I am lucky in that I am familiar with most, though not all, of the authors, but even with those about whom I know little, the encouragement to explore their works is vast. A difficulty in any collected work of criticism is the reader's potential unfamiliarity with the subject matter - the question of, “If I have not read the author, why would I read criticism of them?” - is firmly answered by the exuberance and enthusiasm of Ozick's prose. She captures not the essence of the writer, necessarily, but the essence of what it meant to them to write, how important it was to be writing, and how important is it to read their work.
Ozick shows a clear preference for literature above all other forms of entertainment and communication. “The din in our heads, that relentless inward hum of fragility and hope and transcendence and dread - where, in an age of machine addressing crowds, and crowds mad for machines, can it be found? In the art of the novel...And nowhere else.” And she's right. Literature speaks to the interiority of ourselves, that endless, limitless space in which we define who we are, what we are about, why we are here and what it is that we hold closest to ourselves. Literature, more than any other medium, directly address this interior, it furnishes it with rooms and chairs, carpets and chandeliers, mountains, lakes, rivers and cities. It makes of the blankness of our births a glorious empire, but an empire that we create. Literature is our friend and our confidante, it is our enemy and our attackers. It challenges, harmonizes, repudiates and chastises. It is capable of all this and more - endless reams of purple prose, all for the sake of novels and reading. Ozick may be preaching to the converted with her book of essays, but the enjoyment, exuberance and passion she receives from reading is so beautifully conveyed that I cannot help but suggest it to people who are non-readers, as a way of allowing them into the realm of the written word. Ozick kindles - or rekindles - the love of literature until it is a raging fire alongside which we could warm ourselves forever.