Antiquities
by Cynthia Ozick (2021)
Knopf (2021)
192 pp

When I saw that Cynthia Ozick was publishing a new book in 2021, I was so excited. For me, this is one of the publishing events of the year. Ozick has never published in great volume, but the last book we got from her was 2010’s Foreign Bodies (which I reviewed here). I didn’t expect to see anything else; Ozick turns 93 this Saturday, April 17, after all. I’m so glad that we now have Antiquities!

This is a relatively quick read, but it packs a lot into its pages. The year is 1949, and the elderly Lloyd Wilkinson Petrie, a retired lawyer, has moved himself, his Remington typewriter, and some artifacts, to live his retirement out at Temple Academy for Boys, the school he attended as a youth.

This is a perk he obtains because he serves as a Trustee. Indeed, the seven living Trustees all live there. Coming together late in life, they have taken on a new project: to write some stories from their time at the school to form, in the end, a positive history of the great institution. Temple Academy, you see, is rather prestigious (to these gentlemen); it was named after the Temple family, cousins to Henry James.

Our agreed intent, then, is to produce an album of remembrance, a collection of small memoirs meant to stand out from the welter of the past — seven chapters of, if I may borrow an old catchphrase, emotion recollected in tranquility. When completed, it is to be placed in the Academy vault at J. P. Morgan & Co., together with the History and other mementos already deposited therein, including the invaluable portrait of Henry James that once adorned the chapel.

Ha! That’s quite the school, then, with James hanging in the chapel! But as we go further, it is harder to fully accept Petrie’s insistence that the Academy was particularly special, other than as a part of his own past. No students have walked its halls in 34 years, since 1915. In 1949 it has become a final residence for the men who were once students and who are now in charge of of the ruins around them. These living quarters are granted to the Trustees in perpetuity, but it seems unlikely the Grantors feel “perpetuity” will be too long. Petrie and his colleagues have nearly spent their time in life, and we definitely get the sense that this attempt to document a history of the school is a pitiful — if understandable — attempt to assert their lives were worth living.

Petrie is not the most faithful memoirist. His attempts to sit and write this great project result in the very book we are reading, which is a kind of journal, with each entry dated — from April 30, 1949 to May 30, 1950. There are many tangents that pop up in Petrie’s ongoing attempts to document his history of the school.

Of his present concerns, we learn that Petrie is a widower who has even lost the woman who became his great “friend” late in life; he is estranged from his son; and he doesn’t really have the greatest relationship with the other Trustees.

Of his shadowy past, two themes continue to invade the pages. First is one he does not even know much about. His father disappeared, abandoning his mother, in 1880, before Petrie was born. While his father returned, his disappearance is something his family never spoke of, but Petrie has clearly wondered about it all of his life. This is particularly notable since his father disappeared, it turns out, in order to go on an adventure with a distant cousin — a famous explorer — in Egypt, while his mother was sick. He brought back a few antiquities that Petrie still possesses in his makeshift retirement home. Second, while in school Petrie had an unlikely friendship and infatuation with a boy who claimed to be from Egypt, the young Ben-Zion Elefantin: “That my friendship with him, unlikely as it was, would taint me, I knew. Willy-nilly, I must in earnest soon begin.”

All of these issues intertwine and spark as Petrie tries to understand something:

As I move on with my chronicle, I more and more feel an irrepressible ache of yearning, I know not for what.

I loved it. Ozick has not lost a step.

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