Cynthia Ozick's Book of Creation: Puttermesser and Xanthippe

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We live in times that valorize experimental ingenuity over traditional vision. Because the experimental repudiates convention and employs alternative forms, it is proclaimed unprecedented and, therefore, innovative. In her recent collection of essays, Art and Ardor, Cynthia Ozick argues powerfully against the formlessness of experimental fiction, its absence of seriousness, its want of interest, its dearth of intelligence, its failure of mastery; and she maintains that the two lines of experimentation and innovation are asymptotes, and can never meet. Her essay, “Innovation and Redemption: What Literature Means,” redefines the innovative: “The innovative imagines something we have never experienced before ... sets out to educate its readers in its views about what it means to be a human being ... [and] has as its motivation the extension of humanity,” All that Ozick avers in her essay is transmuted into Puttermesser and Xanthippe, where the reader enters a world never experienced before and emerges aware of what it means to be a human being ; Puttermesser and Xanthippe is a complex, witty, and moving depiction of consuming intellectual passion, burgeoning self-discovery, and the veneration of artistic perfection.

Puttermesser and Xanthippe evolves from “Puttermesser: Her Work History, Her Ancestry, Her Afterlife,” a short story that introduces Ruth Puttermesser, lays the groundwork for her further development, and glimpses the direction of Puttermesser and Xanthippe. In “Puttermesser: Her Work History,” we discover that Puttermesser, who is “something of a feminist,” has created an imaginary relative, an Uncle Zindel, in an effort to “claim an ancestor” and because, as a Jew, she must “own a past.” Acknowledging that “Butterknife” is an unfortunate name for a girl, Zindel explains: “But by us—what we got? A messer! Puttermesser, you slice off a piece butter, you cut to live, not to kill. A name of honor, you follow?” Zindel's imagined existence and the narrator's witty description of Puttermesser, an ambitious lawyer who “lived alone, but idiosyncratically” (p. 21), attest to her solitary way of life.

Like her biblical namesake, Ruth Puttermesser is an alien. But her intellectual passions, not her Jewishness, generate her intensely private life and her ironic dream of a gan eydn, a “reconstituted Garden of Eden, which is to say in the World to Come” (p. 31). In this paradise, Ruth Puttermesser who “was looking to solve something, she did not know what,” would sit alone and “take in”—from a bottomless box of fudge and an unending stack of library books (p. 32). This paradise, like her Uncle Zindel, is “a game in the head.” Reminding us that she is not providing an optimistic biography of an ambitious lawyer who marries a rich young commissioner and moves to a suburban bower of bliss, the narrator detaches herself from Puttermesser, and that distance emphasizes Puttermesser's isolation. At the end of “Puttermesser: Her Work History,” the narrator declares that “Puttermesser is not to be examined as an artifact but as an essence.... Puttermesser is henceforth to be presented as given” (p. 38), and the question...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100003685