Cynthia Ozick: The Puttermesser Papers

Just in case anyone was wondering whether my goal to read more Cynthia Ozick was still in tact, the answer is a resounding Yes!  Any of the books I’ve read so far (The Shawl, The Cannibal Galaxy, and Foreign Bodies) would be enough to keep up my interest, and I’m happy to say that my hunger was far from sated — rather, it was substantially increased — when I read The Puttermesser Papers (1997).

Honestly, I could spend this entire review and then some simply writing about the first twenty pages of this fantastic book.  It is in those pages that we meet Ruth Puttermesser when she is still young.

Puttermesser was thirty-four, a lawyer.  She was also something of a feminist, not crazy, but she resented having “Miss” put in front of her name; she thought it pointedly discriminatory; she wanted to be a lawyer among lawyers.  Though she was no virgin she lived alone, but idiosyncratically — in the Bronx, on the Grand Concourse, among other people’s decaying old parents.

This first chapter is called “Puttermesser: Her Work History, Her Ancestry, Her Afterlife.”  When we meet Puttermesser she is employed in the blueblood Wall Street firm of Midland, Reid & Cockleberry; she was hired “for her brains and ingratiating (read: immigrant-like) industry, was put into a back office to hunt up all-fours cases for the men up front.”  It is the middle of the century, so it is surprising that Puttermesser has even this job.  Perhaps it is because the firm is doing its part for diversity:

Three Jews a year joined the back precincts of Midland, Reid (four the year Puttermesser came, which meant they thought “woman” more than “Jew” at the sight of her.

Somehow, while touching upon the Jewish lawyers, Ozick also touches on some hilarious aspects of Wall Street culture.  Did she once work in a Wall Street law firm?  I don’t believe so, though it is hard to imagine anyone coming up with the following quip without having direct experience.  Even better that it is subdued and part of a passage meant to show the failed attempts at solidarity between the Jews and the other lawyers:

They bought the same suits from the same tailors, wore precisely the same shirts and shoes, were careful to avoid tie clips and to be barbered a good deal shorter than the wild men of the streets, though a bit longer than the prigs in the banks.

Puttermesser doesn’t last long in this environment.  After suffering through an “anthropological meal” where her employers “explored the rites of her tribe,” Puttermesser leaves private practice to work for the City of New York’s Department of Receipts and Disbursements, as Assistant Corporation Counsel — “it had no meaning, it was part of the subspeech on which bureaucracy relies.”  We’re only a few pages into the book at this point, though it has been funny and sad already.  We have a firm picture of Ruth Puttermesser, the trials in her life, her attitude toward those trials — Ozick has let us know that we’re in the hands of a master.  And that this portrait, while comic, will also be sad.

Now if this were an optimistic portrait, exactly here is where Puttermesser’s emotional life would begin to grind itself into evidence.  Her biography would proceed romantically, the rich young Commissioner of the Department of Receipts and Disbursements would fall in love with her.  She would convert him to intelligence and to the cause of Soviet Jewry.  He would abandon boating and the pursuit of bluebloods.  Puttermesser would end her work history abruptly and move on to a bower in a fine suburb.

This is not to be.  Puttermesser will always be an employee in the Municipal Building.  She will always behold the Brooklyn Bridge through its windows; also sunsets of high glory, bringing her religious pangs.  She will not marry.  Perhaps she will undertake a long-term affair with Vogel, the Deputy in charge of the Treasury; perhaps not.

The difficulty with Puttermesser is that she is loyal to certain environments.

The loneliness and tragedy of Puttermesser’s life is especially apparent in the next passage when Puttermesser has a type of out-of-body experience and we hear of her visits to her great uncle Zindel, “a former shammes in a shul that had been torn down.”  (On John Self’s review of this book he quotes a great passage about the disintegration of the shul.)  But . . .

Stop.  Stop, stop!  Puttermesser’s biographer, stop!  Disengage, please.  Though it is true that biographies are invented, not recorded, here you invent too much. 

This long scene did not occur.  “Uncle Zindel lies under the earth of Staten Island.  Puttermesser has never had a conversation with him; he died four years before her birth.”  We learn that “Puttermesser is not to be examined as an artifact but as an essence.”  What does this mean exactly?  It seems Ozick herself had this question when she closes this first section, “Hey!  Puttermesser’s biographer!  What will you do with her now?”

This opening section was originally published in 1977, in The New Yorker.  Subsequently it was collected in Levitation: Five Fictions, Ozick’s third collection of short stories.  Over the years, Ozick answered the question “what will you do with her now?” by publishing four more chapter in Puttermesser’s life — “Puttermesser and Xanthippe,” “Puttermesser Paired,” “Puttermesser and the Muscovite Cousin,” and “Puttermesser in Paradise” — each also published in various literary magazines before coming together in this remarkable collection.

In each, Puttermesser ages approximately one decade.  In “Puttermesser and Xanthippe,” Puttermesser is 46, still working at the same place, and having an affair with Morris Rappoport, “a married fund-raiser from Toronto.”  Within the bureaucratic system, there is abuse of power — even corruption.  And Puttermesser’s tolerance ends one night when Morris leaves her because she’d rather read Plato than have sex.  She’s uncertain exactly how it happens and is shocked when she find a female clay figure lying in her bed.  Unwittingly, she brings the creature to live; Puttermesser has created Xanthippe, the first female golem.  Together they work to make Puttermesser the new mayor of New York City, ushering in a brief period of unprecedented prosperity and peace.

We next meet Puttermesser at “the unsatisfying age of fifty-plus” in “Puttermesser Paired.”  She’s been reading George Eliot and George Lewes, fantasizing about her own George Lewes, when in walks a potential mate twenty years her junior.  This particular story offers a tremendous essay on the relationship between Eliot and Lewes and Eliot’s subsequent husband John Cross, twenty years Eliot’s junior and potentially a George Lewes wannabe.  It’s a remarkable story.

In “Puttermesser and the Muscovite Cousin,” Puttermesser reconnects to her Russian roots when her Soviet cousin asks for some help.  Not only is this story interesting for its portrayal of Perestroika, but also it looks at Puttermesser’s guilt when she traces her ancestry back and realizes how different her life has been from her cousin.

Finally — well, nearly finally (more on that in a second) — we find Puttermesser on the night of her violent death when she is nearly 70.  She has occasion to ponder her name, which literally means “butterknife.”  There’s no greatness there, and there’s evidence that a name can denote greatness:

For instance: the poet Wordsworth giving exact value for each syllable.  Or Mann himself — Man, Mankind, seeking the origins of human character in Israelitish prehistory.  Or how one Eliot reins in the other Eliot: “the jew squats on the windowsill” — that’s Tom — rebuked by Deronda’s visionary Zion — that’s George.  And James the aristocratic Jacobite, pretender to the throne.  Joyce’s Molly rejoicing.  Bellow fanning the fires; Updike fingering apertures; Oates wildly sowing; Roth wroth.  And so on.  Puttermesser: no more cutting than a butterknife.

Before we leave her entirely, though, we go with her back to when she was 19 and madly in love with an prideful intellectual college boy.

There is much to experience in these pages, and Ozick throughout is entirely in control and pays out by the sentence.  Surely Ruth Puttermesser (“no more cutting than a butterknife”) is one of the great literary creations of all time.

4 thoughts on “Cynthia Ozick: The Puttermesser Papers

  1. Lee Monks says:

    Great review, Trevor, and I can only agree, predictably enough……

  2. leroyhunter says:

    Sounds top-drawer, Trevor. A good place to start for an Ozick newbie, would you say?

  3. We are both on the same Ozick journey, but following somewhat different paths so I very much appreciate this review. What did strike me from the quotes is the dry humor that is a constant part of her writing.

    I’m saving this one, because I know I will like it. Your review tends to confirm that impression.

  4. Ted says:

    I too admired it – hilarious, intellectual, violent – wonderful fiction.

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