The Rarefied Heir


Heir to the Glimmering World
By Cynthia Ozick
320 pages. Houghton Mifflin. $24.

After the experimental, comic-philosophical cunning of The Puttermesser Papers, there is no doubt that some readers will be surprised by Heir to the Glimmering World, a novel as the genre is taught, a genre that reached its developmental peak around the end of the 19th century and has since fragmented into the various novelistic forms that Puttermesser bested. They ought not be surprised. In her essays and fiction, Cynthia Ozick has praised, criticized, and fixated her literary attentions so squarely on the likes of Henry James, George Eliot, and Charles Dickens that she would likely care much more for the criticism of a Lewes or Thackerey than a Kakutani. In many respects, Ozick’s literary world’s capital city is 19th century London, not today’s New York. So a novel set in 1930s New York, in a style reminiscent of the works of her literary heroes but in her own unmatched language, is in fact long expected—and worth the wait.

The difference from Puttermesser is great, but not severe. While the prose is less hyperbolic here, Ozick remains playful. In Puttermesser the dread monotony of so much of her New York City required a whirling of the magic wand to remind us of how horrible a place it could be, and with or without Puttermesser’s mayoral intervention, of how dazzling it was capable of becoming again. Here, the city is rarely the city as we know it, but “an obscure little village in a remote corner of the sparse and weedy northeast Bronx,” a place painted in drab yellows and browns. But into this and her upstate New York settings, she brings bright splashes of individual portraits and neon bursts of characters who ought not confront one another.

The story, largely, is of the late adolescence of Rose Meadows, raised from earliest childhood by a scoundrel of a father, and orphaned at 18 into the care of her earnest but weak-willed cousin Bertram. Before a year has passed since her father’s death, she joins the household of a family of Jewish refugees from Germany, the Mitwissers, accompanying them in their move from Albany to New York City, where she is to serve in an unspecified and seemingly unsalaried position as nanny of the five children, typist for the father, and caretaker of the mother, who appears upon Rose’s arrival to be stuck in the past, and to have settled into dementia. After observing the mother’s complete neglect of her infant child, Rose asks, trying to spur conversation, whether she ever sings to the baby. In response, Mrs. Mitwisser “was all at once fiercely alert. ‘Natürlich, the child must not make a noise. When we go with the chauffeur in the auto. We go in the streets around and around. Gert and Heinz and Willi, my husband gives them Spielkarten—’ She released a sly brown look and reached under her pillow. Out came the pack of cards. ‘Will you like a little to play?’” Mrs. Mitwisser, when she is not reliving the past, only faces the present with intense, frightening bursts of energy or odd, distracted comments about trivia or her ideas about education.

As we’d expect from a novel narrated by a 19-year-old single woman, there is much to be said about education and development of character. In the Mitwisser house, we see at least two competing conceptions of what an education is and what an education is worth. It is typical of Ozick to challenge stereotype as to the type of education that would be championed by Professor and Mrs. Mitwisser. For Mrs. Mitwisser—formerly a fellow in physics at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, known but not titled as every bit the Professor Mitwisser as her husband—an education has practical value, must have practical value, and in practice serves as a conduit between life and study. An educated person cannot but have his or her character shaped by education. Both in her sane and delusional moments, the word that she whispers in her revelations to Rose, is Bildung (perhaps here Ozick is too overt in declaring her novel a bildungsroman) and this is as much a declaration as we will find that she believes that character development and education are inseparable. Her studies too, are inseparable from the actions of the world in her time; her science split the atom.

Her husband’s scholarship is so rare and so advanced that he is seen even by those who disagree with him as the only expert on his subject: a long-vanished Jewish sect called the Karaites. Were he teaching in an American university today, his lot would be in the humanities department. Ironically, his wife, the scientist, has an outlook that is much more humane, and a study that is much more alive than his. Her perspective on Bildung  is confirmed in his behavior, whether he recognizes it. His education has contributed to his becoming a backwards-looking man, a father and husband who can confront and obsess over the intractable problems of the distant past, but who cannot be made even to acknowledge the turmoil that begs for solution in his own house.

The Mitwissers are a family of once-prosperous Jewish academics, stripped of all possessions, without acquaintances in a new country that does not acknowledge or value the virtues upon which their renown was built in Germany. Like so many Jews who evacuated Europe in the years before World War II, the Mitwissers relied upon a combination of appeals to the greed of their persecutors (bribes paid to keep them safe until their departure—leading up to the loss of everything they owned, but for a single picture frame, the Professor’s books, and the clothes they wore) and the charity of strangers. The alien land they arrive in, while safe, is not home. But then, like all the Jews who fled Europe, their home no longer exists. Totally homeless, they neither assimilate nor yearn for the past. The family is even divided over language. While Mrs. Mitwisser stubbornly refuses to learn fluent English, the professor declares that “Naturally one must read German, but I will not employ that tongue, neither in speech nor in writing, however flawed or foreign my English may be.”

While it is charity that has brought them to New York, that charity is due only to a mistake on the part of a Quaker college (Professor Mitwisser was erroneously thought an expert on the Charismites). The college provided housing, but the family only sustain themselves on the benevolence of an undependable young man named James A’Bair, who has attached himself to Professor Mitwisser and turns up occasionally to shower the family with gifts and money. His fondness for the Professor and the source of his wealth are both shrouded in some mystery, but their dependence is such that few questions are asked. Seeing him as a poison in the house who turns her young sons into typical American hooligans and convinced that he has designs on her teenage daughter, Mrs. Mitwisser despises James and refuses even to emerge from her bedroom during the months that he comes to stay. Her husband is uneasy about James’s presence, but is aware that his family is getting by on their guest’s generosity—a generosity that frees him from having to puzzle through the matter of their survival.

Add to the mix a broken marriage between the Mitwissers, the development of their eldest daughter into adulthood, Rose’s inability to escape from the shadow of her disgraced father, and the intrusive wiliness of Bertram and his Communist girlfriend, Ninel (who named herself for Lenin), and well, nothing’s going well for the Mitwissers or Rose. The novel, ostensibly Rose’s story of her own education in this house, is as much the story of the late education of Professor Mitwisser, and of the impossibility of Bildung for James A’Bair. That is to say, this is a novel in which no character is a prop to another, one that sits comfortably among those to whom it is something of a tribute, and one which, no doubt, her Thackereys would applaud.