Wednesday, May 26, 2010

trapido, ozick

#54 Temples of Delight, Barbara Trapido [re-read]

Trapido's give-and-take with the world of classical drama extends to a playful, brainy, subversive [when is Trapido not subversive?] engagement with opera -- here it is The Magic Flute that becomes the basis for the story of Temples of Delight, as well as a thread that runs through the novel itself. Her shy, somewhat remote and masochistic heroine - Trapido's protagonists are heroines - must pass through a cave of horrors in search of her lost and very true love -- her childhood best friend, the clever and evidently disingenuous Jem McCrail. Alice loses her before a school year is out, and when she finds her again, does so in bizarre and tragic circumstances. Trapido explicitly connects the improbable conventions of opera with the dream-logic of unconsciousness. The jealous and repressed ex-best friend can turn up in a moment of absolute triumph that -- well, that actually reminds you of that bit in Amadeus where Mozart's mother-in-law is raging at him about his irresponsibility and is transmuted in the blinking of an eye to the Queen of the Night shrieking Der Holle Rache. The gifts are invariably poisoned. Love is outright bizarre - as are lovers. In comedy, of course, one can cut across lines of status and identity in a way that would be unthinkable in the rule-bound world. Trapido talks to us, not only through Alice, but also through Mozart [with whom one doesn't need to be familiar to find this a superb read - I'm hardly so, for starters] to persuade us of something many English students have grown accustomed to believing after having read too much Shakespeare: the destructive power of the emotions is balanced out well by the human heart's capacity for survival; forsaking one means forsaking the other; embracing both is the best way forward.

I love this book, though not as much as Brother of the more Famous Jack. Trapido is never quite safe, never quite celebratory, always ready to pull you back from the brink because there's something even more questionable behind you. There is even something quite cynical about Temples of Delight, towards the end - but in a Trapido book it is always evident that philosophy is a mechanism, and all mechanisms are interesting and even useful, in pursuit of survival.

#55 Heir To The Glimmering World, Cynthia Ozick

I began this book eagerly because Ozick is often mentioned among the greats of modern Jewish-American literature alongside Grace Paley. I don't know anything about modern American literature, but I think Grace Paley is great, and following on that affection, I assumed that no one mentioned in the same breath as Grace Paley can be anything but awesome.

Now since Ozick is a major novelist I cannot decide whether she is awesome or not on the basis of one book, particularly since it left me cold. She is obviously a magistra - Heir to the Glimmering World is as much the work of a thinker as a writer. It is the story of rootless young Rose Meadows, who ends up as nursemaid and secretary in the newly-established house of a refugee family, intellectuals who have fled to the edge of New York in the 1930s to form a family singing troupe, led enthusiastically by their governess-turned-stepmother from Nazi Berlin. Their benefactor is a half-crazed, immensely wealthy Christopher Robin figure [explicitly based on the son of A A Milne] himself a floater on the tides of the world. Ozick retreats behind a detached voice to let her protagonist assemble - begin to assemble - the tragedy of their alienation: a dreary, disturbing, but never simple state of affairs.

Ozick, too, is concerned with survivors, and her protagonist - again a slight, blonde lost girl - is a resilient one, as are most of her acquaintances in the novel. But resilience in itself has no value - it would be stupid to say so under the circumstances. Often a story begins when we try to assemble something out of wreckage, with the assumption - spoken far too often for its own good - that we are still fighting, or that there is some victory still to be won, or that not to react resourcefully would be to 'let them win'. It's just as true that 'they' have already won. Ozick does not reach for the comfort of salvaging, even though the novel closes on the promise of marriage and birth, and the beginnings of Rose's own coming-of-age. The novel itself evokes a purgatorial stage - where the Mitwissers, Rose, and James A'Bair are all grappling with the loss of the past and coming up empty-handed time and time again.

Yet, it does not work. Rose and the Mitwissers are complex organisms, but there is too much echo to James, who is unfortunately far too important to the novel to be dismissed. He is also an exile, as is clear in the text, but he is a flat character where the others live - fretfully and resentfully, but live. Elsa Mitwisser's scholarship, lost forever to her, is vivid to the reader, but Rudolf's work on the philosophy of the Kara'ite Jews - supposedly more central to the novel and to Rose - does not live in the same way, in spite of Ozick's treatment of it. Ozick is also wonderful at calling up the dream-logic of unpredictable relationships, of strange connections and even stranger, and grotesque, dissolutions, but the disengagement of the authorial voice becomes static in these circumstances.

And it takes me aback that someone so obviously scholarly as Ozick, who can let philosophical theory adrift in her book in such subtle and shapely ways, who can formulate learned and genuinely absorbing, complex conversations on the connections between the Bhagavad Gita and obscure branches of Judaism, can be so remiss in her research as to leave in an Indian character called Gopal Tandoori. Tandoori is what one calls the product of a particular roasting process in the kitchen. I don't deny that there may be Indians living in the US who are calling themselves 'Tandoori' right now - in fact, I'm sure I'll find people calling themselves that in Bombay right now if I look hard enough - but this is contextually wildly inappropriate. It's like how most of us don't name our children Taj Mahal. Ozick may have a reliable explanation, but it certainly wasn't evident in the book, and it puzzled me enough to throw me out of the novel almost completely, once it appeared.

Not a good experience, all in all. Time to go back to Paley.

1 comment:

  1. I typed Barbara Trapido into Twitter and yours was the sole name that appeared.Sad. Have you read Sex and Stravinsky yet? I heard the author give a reading in Hexham , Northumberland (UK) but so far have not yet located the book. Brilliant author .