Book Review | Sifting Through Memory with Cynthia Ozick

By | Mar 29, 2021

By Cynthia Ozick
Knopf, 192 pp., $21.00

Let’s get this part out of the way first: Antiquities is, by my count, Cynthia Ozick’s 24th book, and she is publishing it at the age of 92. As an obsessive fan of Ozick’s since I was in ninth grade (and despite nearly 30 years of reading her work, I am weirdly still less than half her age), I approached this book with no small amount of fear. Was it really possible for a novel written in one’s 90s to be as marvelous as all that preceded it? Couldn’t one, at 92, be entitled to a bit of slack if one happened to publish something short of one’s best work?

Well, let’s lay all that aside, because I’m delighted to report that Antiquities is peak Cynthia Ozick. This slim novel (Ozick rarely writes long) is not merely a gem but also a tiny peephole into the purpose of living in a world that outlasts us. I devoured it in one sitting and then thought about it for days, trying to solve its puzzle.

It’s a very tiny peephole, of course—which, short of standing at Sinai, is all we mortals are likely to get. And in Antiquities, that peephole is so tiny that even a thoughtful reader might well toss the book aside, in the what’s-the-point frustration that American culture today demands of us: If someone won’t say something outrageous in 280 characters or less, why read their work at all? But the fact that our culture has trained us to pass over the profoundest of insights in favor of vanity is itself Ozick’s point. Most of us go through life this way, missing even the moments of revelation available to us. In Antiquities, the narrator almost does too.

That narrator is Lloyd Petrie, a blueblood alumnus of the defunct Temple Academy for Boys in Westchester, a once-elite institution that by the novel’s 1949 setting is merely an old-age home for its dwindling Board of Trustees. These trustees are preparing a book of personal memories of Temple (the school is named for its WASPy benefactor, but the idea of remembering the Temple is as fundamental to Antiquities as it is to, well, Judaism—stay tuned), inspiring Petrie to recall a precious encounter with a schoolmate so strange that his existence altered Petrie’s relationship with history itself.

Ozick winds toward this encounter through the roundabout reminiscences of Petrie, a man haunted by a dead father whose claim to fame was an amateur excursion to Egypt in the late 19th century, where he joined the archaeological excavations of his cousin, the British Egyptologist Sir Flinders Petrie, and returned with small relics of questionable authenticity. Here the alert reader (or the reader using Wikipedia) begins the archaeologist’s work, sifting through the detritus of Petrie’s memories to corroborate clues outside the novel’s text: Sir Flinders Petrie was, in fact, a real Egyptologist whose signature discovery, unmentioned in this novel, was the Merneptah Stele, a 13th-century-BCE inscription that famously features the earliest Egyptian reference to the Israelites. This, along with Temple Academy’s name, is one of many clues to the hidden history Ozick and Petrie are actually excavating.

As Petrie tells us in his deliberately arch style, “Most unfortunate was the too common suspicion that ‘Temple’ signified something unpleasantly synagogical, so that on many a Sunday morning the chapel’s windows…were discovered to have been smashed overnight. The youngest forms were regularly enlisted to sweep up the shards and stones.” Petrie’s unexamined anti-Semitism here is structural to the plot as well as to the world we live in; we readers are enlisted to sweep up such shards and stones from Petrie’s narrative, the necessary archaeological sifting work for the gradual revelation of what this vast edifice of elitism conceals.

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That anti-Semitism, which Petrie imbibes along with “the classics” and the top-down Anglicanism that defined his late-19th-century education, first draws his attention in fifth grade to a new student whose room is across from his at Temple, with the improbable name Ben-Zion Elefantin. The school’s few Jewish students are mocked and shunned by the other boys, but Ben-Zion Elefantin, with his “loam-red hair” (not coincidentally, the same color as King David’s), silent mien, complete disinterest in children’s frivolities, and “odd” habits (eating only cold vegetarian foods; failing to ever remove his cap), is shunned even by the Jews. This strands him with Petrie, a loner who plays chess against himself in his room while the other boys play football, until Elefantin enters uninvited and checkmates him. Petrie claims to be disgusted by “so freakish a boy” and is truly disgusted by how he too is suddenly ostracized for associating with Elefantin. But his attraction to this stranger is erotic in every sense. There is a brief and fairly innocent homoerotic moment between them, but the attraction really comes from how Elefantin continues to checkmate Petrie in more profound ways—most of all, in Elefantin’s reveal of his own origins, which, like Petrie’s father’s artifacts (his own patrimony, if you will), may or may not be authentic, and whose story itself is far more compelling than its odds of being true.

Ozick’s work is deeply Jewish, which means that knowledge is required to recognize its depth.

I won’t spoil Ozick’s revelation here but will merely provide the little-known but entirely factual historical superstructure that exists outside her book, which involves a Jewish colony on Elephantine Island at the First Cataract of the Nile, the southern border of ancient Egypt. Elephantine was a military outpost of the Persian empire in the 5th century BCE, and the Persians, searching for regime loyalists unlikely to sympathize with the locals, employed Jewish mercenary soldiers, who resided at the garrison at Elephantine with their families. One of the earliest documented Diaspora Jewish communities, and far-flung by ancient standards, Elephantine Jews apparently developed their own traditions, including building their own Temple while the Jerusalem Temple stood. This Temple was adjacent to an Egyptian shrine to a local deity, whose adherents ultimately destroyed this Jewish Temple. Elephantine’s Jewish community is remarkably well documented for the period, thanks to the early 1900s discovery (not long after the excavations of Sir Flinders Petrie) of remarkable archives of papyri and ostraca (inscribed potsherds).

These antiquities, so to speak, leave many questions unanswered, including essential ones concerning why these Jews built their own Temple, as well as the origins of this community, which may have predated the Persian garrison. In the novel, Elefantin supplies his own answers, which involve a kind of Judaism-within-Judaism of ostracized ostraca, along with his parents’ unending quest for what Elefantin calls “the significant thing,” a “certain relic” lost somewhere in the Levant, which the novel does not otherwise identify. (Fans of Indiana Jones should feel free to guess.) But as Elefantin points out, “Though the significant thing has yet to be discovered, I have by now seen for myself who we are.”

That answer, which Petrie only comes to understand decades later, is deeply related to the rejection of idolatry, whether in antiquity or now. This idolatry, the novel implies, does not merely mean worship of false gods, but also the worship of more-modern idols like fame (Petrie’s estranged and untalented son aspires to Hollywood success), elitism (the Temple trustees keep their defunct school’s commemorative volumes in a bank vault, preserving them for…what?), social conventions (Petrie only gradually reveals his lifelong love affair with his secretary, and he is publicly shamed for visiting her grave), class barriers (the trustees’ house servants, who spend their days fulfilling the whims of entitled old men, turn out to be highly educated Holocaust refugees), and even “antiquities” themselves (Petrie’s relationship with his father’s Egyptian items comes close to worship), with their promise of a meaningful connection to an inert past to which we owe nothing in the present.

As Elefantin quotes his mother, explaining why Westerners covet ancient Near Eastern artifacts, “It is because they [the buyers of antiquities] are hollow and have no histories of their own.”

This hollowness is at the core of Petrie’s haunted memories. His haute pedigree with all of its accompanying value is, by midcentury, not only out of style but revealed to have a horrifying emptiness at its core, sterile and devoid of commitment, its only legacy a broke boarding school, decades at an inherited job at the family firm, an immature son and a father revered for rummaging through ancient strangers’ relics. Petrie perceives this emptiness as he observes the Jewish boys he shunned at school taking pride in building their own families and careers despite, or perhaps because of, their social ostracism. As he nears his own life’s end, Petrie borrows meaning from Elefantin’s memory—and it is impossible to miss that this borrowed memory is exactly the kind of appropriation that Christianity and Islam enacted, founding themselves on Jewish antiquities. He wonders about that “significant thing,” concluding that it is perhaps “a mighty idea.” The reader versed in Torah will recognize that mighty idea, coded deeply into this novel’s deliberately obscuring language, revealed and not-revealed throughout and especially at the novel’s end. One finds, in the end, the significant thing, and the least important question is whether it can be “authenticated” in any material sense.

It is, as both Petrie and Deuteronomy put it, not in the heavens. Much of this novel will seem rambling and tangential to readers unfamiliar with Ozick’s style, but part of her alchemy is how each sentence upon rereading is revealed to be essential to the puzzle, another hidden clue, although often to a world outside the text. For a book ostensibly about a childhood encounter, for instance, most of its pages are taken up with Petrie’s daily life in old age, with its losses great and small. (This is, one suspects, the novel’s most autobiographical element—that, and the fact that Ozick’s daughter is an archaeologist.) But this, too, is part of Ozick’s point, because of course Petrie himself is an artifact, as is the Temple he inhabits, along with the exercises in memory attempting to reimagine its past through many renovations and attempts to erase it.

The apparently random details dropped throughout this book—a housemaid recites lyrics from the German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine (whose career, unmentioned here, embodied the triumphs and compromises of Jews living the half-lives of assimilation); the Temple boys snicker through a visitor’s description of the Dreyfus Affair (which, unmentioned here, was the beginning of political Zionism)—are actually clues to a mystery that readers might not even realize they are reading, when they think they are reading the ramblings of a grumpy old Gentile man.

Ozick’s work is deeply Jewish, which means that knowledge is required to recognize its depth. It is a profoundly acquired taste, acquired through years of communal thought about the meaning of worshiping an eternal God during an ephemeral life. Petrie himself would never get it, although Elefantin would.

Antiquities is classic Ozick, marvelous Ozick, Ozick at the height of her powers. She has of course been at the height of her powers for at least 50 years by now, but that only makes her ongoing creativity an even greater gift to those readers lucky enough to encounter it and to give it the attention it boldly demands. May she continue until 120—and I mean that literally. I’m looking forward to her next book.

Dara Horn is the author of five novels, the most recent of which is Eternal Life

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One thought on “Book Review | Sifting Through Memory with Cynthia Ozick

  1. Eric Writes! says:

    Ozick: Always, when you care about something, you breath fire, Dara!

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