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Ghostly and elusive entertainment

Heir to the Glimmering World: A Novel, Cynthia Ozick, Houghton Mifflin: 312 pp., $24

September 05, 2004|Michael Gorra | Michael Gorra is an English professor at Smith College and the author of "The Bells in Their Silence: Travels Through Germany."

"The novel is long because it is a process," a narrative form that "commences green and ignorant" and needs all its many pages to discover where it's going. Short stories, on the other hand, "begin with completion." They know their destination, and for the writer that means "you are in possession of your luck before you have gone half a mile."

The words belong to Cynthia Ozick, who in the almost 40 years since the publication of her first book, the 1966 novel "Trust," has split her prize-winning work evenly between short fiction and long, matching the intricate tales of "Levitation" (1982) with such plangent novels as "The Messiah of Stockholm" (1987). During those years she has become equally well known as an essayist -- as, indeed, a more formidable and erudite critic than any other contemporary American novelist. And the question raised by her expansive and much-awaited new novel, "Heir to the Glimmering World," the tale of a family of German Jewish refugees marooned "in the marshy reaches of the Bronx," is whether her words provide an accurate account of her own practice.

Of course, Ozick has something more than plot in mind when she speaks of the novel's ignorance. A richer form of unknowing lies in finding not simply one's destination but the very meaning of the end one has all along plotted to reach. Certainly she must have had this book's last pages in mind from very early on, pages in which the narrator, Rose Meadows, sets out for Manhattan, a "hungry aspirant" to the rewards of a great city. Such aspirations make Rose a latter-day counterpart of the 19th century's Young Man From the Provinces, so familiar from the pages of Balzac and Trollope, and indeed every chapter of this novel gives back a Victorian echo.

"Heir to the Glimmering World" offers startling coincidences and dramatic reappearances, renunciation and reversals of fortune, a hidden benefactor and a madwoman who, though not quite in an attic, is nevertheless stashed in a third-floor bedroom. Thrown out upon the world with the death of her gambler father, Rose answers this ad: "Professor, arrived 1933 Berlin, children 3-14, requires assistant, relocate NYC."

But how many children? The professor himself hardly seems to know, for Rudolf Mitwisser is the kind of patriarch who closes his study door against the chaos of his wife and family. "He was a man who had been much served," accustomed to secretaries and acolytes, a "looming large" self-pitying man, a historian of religion acclaimed in Europe for knowing what nobody else knew and ignored in America for precisely that reason. Even though the Nazis have expelled him, Mitwisser remains every inch a German professor. "Why am I interrupted by such nonsense?" he shouts when Rose tries to help pack his books in boxes. "This is how an intelligent creature organizes scholarship? By how tall and how short?"

Used to servants, Rudolf and his wife treat Rose as one even though they lack the money to pay her. Yet they are not as friendless as they seem. They have a benefactor, Rose learns, a rich wastrel named James A'bair, whose father wrote a wildly popular series of children's books about a "Bear Boy" for which James himself had served as a model. The grown-up James hates the memory of posing for his father's pen, with his knees rouged to the proper degree of rosiness, and he is determined to stay as far away from propriety as possible; think Christopher Robin but drunk. He meets the Mitwissers soon after they arrive in America, helps with the children's English, arranges their housing and disappears.

Later James returns, in a shower of hundred-dollar bills, and then he leaves again with the oldest Mitwisser girl, Anneliese, taking her through the rooming houses of upstate New York -- "Carthage, Rome, Ithaca, Oswego, Oneonta, Cortland" -- on a trek that recalls the road sequence of "Lolita." And Rose too will discover her own hidden connection to the Bear Boy, one that revives the memory of her craps-shooting dad.

On its best pages, "Heir to the Glimmering World" seems too implausible to have been invented, and many of its episodes are memorable ones. Ozick's rendering of the Mitwissers' Germanic English has perfect pitch, and like any good Victorian she uses letters to define her characters. I particularly savored one that Rose receives from the improbable Dr. Tandoori, a letter that inevitably recalls both Jane Austen's Mr. Collins and George Eliot's Mr. Casaubon. For much of the book, moreover, Ozick breaks point of view, moving away from Rose's narration and into a distanced melancholy lyricism that defines the Bear Boy's upbringing and wanderings: "He came and he went. The tide of money rose and ebbed."

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