The Grand Master

Four novellas, literary and lofty

The new short story collection from Cynthia Ozick, Dictation: A Quartet (Houghton Mifflin, $24.00), is a cerebral look at lives in the thrall of devotion to God, art and self.

The four long stories here exemplify her well-honed writerly strengths — lean and lucid prose, astute observational distance, intellectual rigor and emotional curiosity — in the service of illuminating the lives of artists and intellectuals, characters to whom revelation does not come easy, if it comes at all.

In “Actors,” Matt Sorley (né Mose Sadacca) clings to shifty notions of personal artistic integrity at the cost of his ambition. His dour, crossword-puzzlewriting wife, Frances, nags him to go on pointless, ignoble auditions. With some ambivalence he accepts the role of a modern- day King Lear, which may or may not resurrect his career and creative dignity.

In “At Fumicaro,” we meet Frank Castle, who “knew everything.” Who “reread The Heart of the Matter a hundred times, weeping… for poor Scobie.” At an Italian villa for a conference on the Catholic Church, the lofty intellectual finds himself inexplicably drawn to a pregnant teenaged chambermaid, suddenly ripe for religious and cultural illumination of the decidedly non-cognitive sort.

“What Happened to the Baby?” gives us college-aged Phyllis and her aged, charlatan Uncle Simon, whose Depression-era attempts to create a universal language were perhaps not as noble as had been assumed.

And in the immensely satisfying title story, Ozick — herself once a typist — imagines a chance meeting and lopsided friendship between the secretaries of Henry James and Joseph Conrad. James’s secretary is hot-blooded and intense, while Conrad’s is somewhat removed and proper, each in direct contrast to her famous employer’s literary sensibility. And though those seemingly opposing personalities are the subject of some debate between the amanuenses, they agree that, as “conduits,” they are integral to the development of their respective literary giants. Certainly typing is not the extent of their contribution to the literature they help bring into the world. Ozick toys brilliantly with notions of procreation, artistic and otherwise: these secretaries are “the artist’s true vessel, the sole brain to receive the force of creation in its first flooding… ” But still they wonder: Will posterity have a place for them?

James (who was, not incidentally, the subject of Ozick’s graduate thesis) is a real presence throughout Dictation; his legacy looms large within Ozick’s narrative voice. Unsurprisingly, many criticisms often leveled against James — authorial remove, emotional chill — can likewise be directed at Ozick. She seems to write less from the heart than from the head. She is lofty, cogent and in control, like the writers and artists of great seriousness she honors here. Ozick is a deeply knowledgeable, trustworthy and cerebral writer, but if you like your fiction hot-blooded and untidy, passionate and unrepentant, you’ll likely identify with Conrad’s imagined secretary, who, lashing out, notes that “Mr. James’s tales simply evade… they leave behind no more than a phosphorescent trail… ”

Elisa Albert is the author of The Book of Dahlia and How This Night Is Different. She is fiction editor of Nextbook and an adjunct assistant professor of writing at Columbia.