Quarrel and Quandary, a collection of essays, is the first book by Cynthia Ozick that I’ve read, and I finished it feeling impressed. Perhaps what stands out most strongly to me is her serious, firm, no-nonsense, occasionally devastating argumentation style. I would not ever want to be the subject of Ozick’s critique; she can be frighteningly effective when goes on the attack.
The essays cover a range of material. Many of them are literary in nature, including essays on Kafka, Dostoevsky, Sebald, Henry James, and others. Other essays explore broader literary phenomena such as the various adaptations of The Diary of Anne Frank and the treatment of the Holocaust in fiction. These last two are good examples of what I mean by her devastating argumentation style; she is angry at theatrical adaptations of the diary that downplay the horror of Anne’s fate in order to focus on the diary’s hopeful messages. In the essay on Holocaust fiction, she critiques Sophie’s Choice and Bernard Schlink’s The Reader for covering over some of the worst aspects of Holocaust history by focusing on exceptions and rare cases in the stories they tell. That essay (which you can read here) is a nuanced discussion of the tension between the right of authors to write about whatever they want and their responsibility to be ethical human beings.
Not all the essays are literary, though; there are some personal essays on, for example, Ozick’s first office job and her childhood spent in and around her family’s drugstore in the Bronx. One of my favorite essays, though, is one of the literary ones, an essay on essays called “She: Portrait of the Essay as a Warm Body.” Those of you who know my reading tastes will not be surprised that I was particularly drawn to this one (although I found the gender dynamics of the essay kind of weird — why should an essay be figured as a woman? But Ozick is impatient with talk of gender: “Essays are written by men. Essays are written by women. That is the long and short of it.” Well, yes. But perhaps there’s more to the story?) I particularly liked her description of how essays work persuasively:
The essay is not meant for the barricades; it is a stroll through someone’s mazy mind. Yet this is not to say that there has never been an essayist morally intent on making an argument, however obliquely — George Orwell is a case in point. At the end of the day, the essay turns out to be a force for agreement. It co-opts agreement; it courts agreement; it seduces agreement. For the brief hour we give to it, we are sure to fall into surrender and conviction. And this will occur even if we are intrinsically roused to resistance.
Even if we disagree with an essayist, for the time we are reading his or her essay, we are won over. I feel this when I read my favorite essays; it’s not that I give up all of my own thoughts and criticisms, but that I come to enjoy following another person’s mind so much that I’m willing to follow them anywhere. That is, I’m willing to follow them while I’m reading them. Afterward is the time for critique. She goes on to contrast essays to other prose forms such as magazine articles, polemics, and tracts, all of which are clearly looking at us, focusing on us and trying to change our minds. She writes:
The genuine essay, in contrast, never thinks of us; the genuine essay may be the most self-centered (the politer word would be subjective) arena for human thought ever devised.
Or else, though still not having you and me in mind (unless as an exemplum of common folly), it is not self-centered at all.
Instead of being self-centered, the essay is sometimes focused on the world around the essayist; it’s a way for the writer to make sense of the materials of everyday life and how they connect with one another:
The mind meanders, slipping from one impression to another, from reality to memory to dreamscape and back again.
Rather than going directly after the reader trying to make a polemical point, the genuine essay simply goes on a journey the reader will find irresistible, whether it’s a journey through the self or through the world (or both). We can’t help but follow along and end up where the writer ends, convinced, at least for a time.
I found Ozick convincing, in most cases long after the essay’s spell wore off. My favorite essay style is actually looser, more hesitant and exploring than Ozick’s, but I couldn’t help but admire her sharp mind at work.