Authors: Cynthia Ozick
THE PUTTERMESSER PAPERS
Fiction by Cynthia Ozick:
Heir to the Glimmering World
The Puttermesser Papers
The Messiah of Stockholm
The Cannibal Galaxy
Levitation: Five Fictions
Bloodshed and Three Novellas
The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories
First published in the United States of America in 1997 by
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
This edition published in Great Britain in 2014 by Atlantic Books, an
imprint of Atlantic Books Ltd.
Copyright Â© Cynthia Ozick, 1997
The moral right of Cynthia Ozick to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author's imagination and not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities, is entirely coincidental.
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A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
Paperback ISBN: 978 0 85789 979 8
E-Book ISBN: 978 0 85789 980 4
Printed in Great Britain
An Imprint of Atlantic Books Ltd
26â27 Boswell Street
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Francine, Gloria, Helen
Merrill, Norma, Sarah
Flaubert does not build up his characters, as did Balzac, by objective, external description; in fact, so careless is he of their outward appearance that on one occasion he gives Emma brown eyes; on another deep black eyes; and on another blue eyes.
âA comment by Dr. Enid Starkie,
quoted (disapprovingly) in
, by Julian Barnes
Her Work History
Her Ancestry, Her Afterlife
Puttermesser and Xanthippe
Puttermesser and the Muscovite Cousin
Puttermesser in Paradise
HER WORK HISTORY,
UTTERMESSER WAS THIRTY-FOUR
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 idiosyncraticallyâin the Bronx, on the Grand Concourse, among other people's decaying old parents. Her own had moved to Miami Beach; in furry slippers left over from high school she roamed the same endlessly mazy apartment she had grown up in, her aging piano sheets still on top of the upright with the teacher's X marks on them showing where she should practice up to. Puttermesser always pushed a little ahead of the actual assignment; in school too. Her teachers told her mother she was “highly motivated,” “achievement oriented.” Also she had “scholastic drive.” Her mother wrote all these things down in a notebook, kept it always, and took it with her to Florida in case she should die there. Puttermesser had a younger sister who was also highly motivated, but she had married an Indian, a Parsee chemist, and gone to live in Calcutta. Already the sister had four children and seven saris of various fabrics.
Puttermesser went on studying. In law school they called her a grind, a competitive-compulsive, an egomaniac out
for aggrandizement. But ego was no part of it; she was looking to solve something, she did not know what. At the back of the linen closet she found a stack of her father's old shirt cardboards (her mother was provident, stingy: in kitchen drawers Puttermesser still discovered folded squares of used ancient waxed paper, million-creased into whiteness, cheese-smelling, nesting small unidentifiable wormlets); so behind the riser pipe in the bathroom Puttermesser kept weeks' worth of Sunday
crossword puzzles stapled to these laundry boards and worked on them indiscriminately. She played chess against herself, and was always victor over the color she had decided to identify with. She organized tort cases on index cards. It was not that she intended to remember everything: situationsâit was her tendency to call intellectual problems “situations”âslipped into her mind like butter into a bottle.
A letter came from her mother in Florida:
I know you won't believe this but I swear it's true the other day Papa was walking on the Avenue and who should he run into but Mrs. Zaretsky, the thin one from Burnside not the stout one from Davidson, you remember her Joel? Well he's divorced now no children thank God so he's free as a bird as they say his ex the poor thing couldn't conceive.
had tests he's O.K. He's only an accountant not good enough for you because God knows I never forget the day you made Law Review but you should come down just to see what a tender type he grew into. Every tragedy has its good side Mrs. Zaretsky says he comes down now practically whenever she
calls him long distance. Papa said to Mrs. Zaretsky well, an accountant, you didn't over-educate your son anyhow, with daughters it's different. But don't take this to heart honey Papa is as proud as I am of your achievements. Why don't you write we didn't hear from you too long busy is busy but parents are parents.
Puttermesser had a Jewish face and a modicum of American distrust of it. She resembled no poster she had ever seen: she hated the Breck shampoo girl, so blond and bland and pale-mouthed; she boycotted Breck because of the golden-haired posters, all crudely idealized, an American wet dream in the subway. Puttermesser's hair came in bouncing scallopsâlayered waves from scalp to tip, like imbricated roofing tile. It was nearly black and had a way of sometimes sticking straight out. Her nose had thick, well-haired, uneven nostrils, the right one noticeably wider than the other. Her eyes were small, the lashes short, invisible. She had the median Mongol lidâone of those Jewish faces with a vaguely Oriental cast. With all this, it was a fact she was not bad-looking. She had a good skin with, so far, few lines or pits or signs of looseness-to-come. Her jaw was pleasingâa baby jowl appeared only when she put her head deep in a book.
In bed she studied Hebrew grammar. The permutations of the triple-lettered root elated her: how was it possible that a whole language, hence a whole literature, a civilization even, should rest on the pure presence of three letters of the alphabet? The Hebrew verb, a stunning mechanism: three letters, whichever fated three, could command all
possibility simply by a change in their pronunciation, or the addition of a wing-letter fore and aft. Every conceivable utterance blossomed from this trinity. It seemed to her not so much a language for expression as a code for the world's design, indissoluble, predetermined, translucent. The idea of the grammar of Hebrew turned Puttermesser's brain into a palace, a sort of Vatican; inside its corridors she walked from one resplendent triptych to another.
She wrote her mother a letter refusing to come to Florida to look over the divorced accountant's tenderness. She explained her life again; she explained it by indirection. She wrote:
I have a cynical apperception of power, due no doubt to my current job. You probably haven't heard of the Office for Visas and Registration, OVIR for short. It's located on Ogaryova Street, in Moscow, USSR. I could enumerate for you a few of the innumerable bureaucratic atrocities of OVIR, not that anyone knows them all. But I could give you a list of the names of all those criminals, down to the women clerks, Yefimova, Korolova, Akulova, Arkhipova, Izrailova, all of them on Kolpachni Street in an office headed by Zolotukhin, the assistant to Colonel Smyrnov, who's under Ovchinikov, who is second in command to General Viryein, only Viryein and Ovchinikov aren't on Kolpachni Street, they're the ones in the head officeâthe M.D.V., Internal Affairs Ministryâon Ogaryova Street. Some day all the Soviet Jews will come out of the spider's clutches of these people and be free. Please explain to Papa that this is one of the highest priorities of my life at this time in my personal history. Do you think a Joel Zaretsky can share such a vision?
Immediately after law school, Puttermesser entered the firm of Midland, Reid & Cockleberry. It was a blueblood Wall Street firm, and Puttermesser, 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. Though a Jew and a woman, she felt little discrimination: the back office was chiefly the repository of unmitigated drudgery and therefore of usable youth. Often enough it kept its lights burning till three in the morning. It was right that the Top Rung of law school should earn you the Bottom of the Ladder in the actual world of all-fours. The wonderful thing was the fact of the Ladder itself. And though she was the only woman, Puttermesser was not the only Jew. 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). Three Jews a year leftânot the same three. Lunchtime was difficult. Most of the young men went to one or two athletic clubs nearby to work out; Puttermesser ate from a paper bag at her desk, along with the other Jews, and this was strange: the young male Jews appeared to be as committed to the squash courts as the others. Alas, the athletic clubs would not have them, and this too was preternaturalâthe young Jews were indistinguishable from the others. 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 then the prigs in the banks.