June 1997

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Letter and spirit

The fictional biography of a polymathic New York lawyer

by Elizabeth Manus

THE PUTTERMESSER PAPERS: A NOVEL, by Cynthia Ozick. Alfred A. Knopf, 236 pages, $23.

There is something deeply dislikable about Cynthia Ozick. It is difficult not to resent her when, for instance, she refers to a character's having "been infected by periphrasis, pleonasm, and ambagious tautology." You see the problem. But then the ignorant reader consults a dictionary, and all is forgiven: the passage is suddenly very funny. So it goes with Ozick. But there is enough accessible humor, tenderness, intelligence, and beauty here to appeal instantly to those of us with a garden-variety liberal-arts vocabulary.

Though billed as a novel, The Puttermesser Papers is not one in the traditional sense. Instead, it is five short fictions -- each could stand alone -- illuminating the life of one Ruth Puttermesser, ardent lover of law, consummate student, romantic idealist. The fictions dip into Puttermesser's life at successive stages, about a decade apart; in the first story she's 34, and by the end she's retired. In the first section, the narrator, or self-described "biographer," clues us in to the fact that there is a biography in progress, but it is clearly a rather slippery one -- facts don't stick, for instance. Already Ozick is up to something grand; the very notions of "life" or "history" or "identity" suddenly become suspect, caught up in a destabilized narrative vortex. "Puttermesser is not to be examined as an artifact but as an essence. . . . Puttermesser is henceforth to be presented as given," the biographer declares.

Thus we accept whatever we are told, even when it's later untold. Even when things get weird. We witness a conversation between Puttermesser and her uncle, and then learn that "[t]he scene with Uncle Zindel did not occur. How Puttermesser loved the voice of Zindel in the scene that did not occur!" We acclimate to the surrealism, and, in time, it proves comforting; after all, life is full of contradiction, and even a narrator can't -- or perhaps shouldn't -- set everything in its place. Indeed, Ozick continually challenges the idea that the story of a life can be fully told. What is the stuff of consciousness anyway? Is a life more accurately represented by external or internal experience? Puttermesser's life is presented both ways, with a great many gaps. But one thing is very clear: this lawyer in the New York City Department of Receipts and Disbursements lives a mental life far richer than the factual evidence of her material existence could ever account for.

When we first meet the polymathic (and not physically unattractive) Puttermesser, she is in bed studying Hebrew grammar, which agrees with her as much as the fudgy sweets she eats to the point of periodontal crisis: "The idea of the grammar of Hebrew turned Puttermesser's brain into a palace, a sort of Vatican; inside its corridors she walked from one resplendent triptych to another." Perhaps the only thing more enticing than Hebrew grammar for our heroine is the thought of paradise, where she envisions she will while away eternity reading everything she didn't get to cram in on earth -- a lovely idea indeed.

Until then, though, she must endure the entrenched bureaucracy of city government. And "[e]very day, inside the wide bleak corridors of the Municipal Building, Puttermesser dreamed an ideal Civil Service: devotion to polity, the citizen's sweet love of the citizenry . . . joy in the Bronx, elation in Queens." She dreams of merit and justice, eventually pursuing them with the help of a golem she fashions in her bathtub, a situation Ozick renders wholly believable. This delightful section, entitled "Puttermesser and Xanthippe," will have particular appeal for city dwellers -- and literary New Yorkers in particular.

As an independent candidate from the Independents for Socratic and Prophetic Idealism party, Puttermesser, with Xanthippe's help, runs for mayor and transforms New York utterly. "Gangs of youths have invaded the subway yards at night and have washed the cars clean. . . . In their high secret pride, the slums undo themselves. . . . The ex-pimps are learning computer skills." One might say it no longer could be called New York, but the sheer daring and scope of Puttermesser's vision is intoxicating. And the remarkably drawn golem is fascinating, chiefly in the way she expresses Puttermesser, embodying the lawyer's urges and cravings. Ultimately, though, certain longings are at odds with others, and creation -- even of something that "breathe[s] outside history" -- has a Janus face.

Longings, this time private ones, complicate matters again in the extraordinary "Puttermesser Paired," a less surreal fiction. Pursuing an ideal friendship with a younger man, Puttermesser confirms her idea that "the brain is the seat of the emotions." The man is a reproduction painter; their relationship, in which reading occupies a primary position, is a re-creation of George Eliot's romantic life; and their story becomes a fascinating, many-layered exploration of the duplicitous nature of copies.

With a quiet magic, the final section, "Puttermesser in Paradise," twists the novel into a Mobius strip, and in the process suggests that the written word is tantamount to life. And the reader, as if to confirm, may well finish the book and return immediately to the first page. So it goes with Ozick.

Elizabeth Manus is a staff editor at the Boston Phoenix.