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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Cynthia Ozick

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Dictation

Title: Dictation
Author: Cynthia Ozick
Genre: Stories
Written: 2008
Length: 179 pages
Availability: Dictation - US
Dictation - UK
Dictation - Canada
  • A Quartet

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Our Assessment:

B+ : enjoyable, playful

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bookforum . 4-5/2008 Michael Gorra
The LA Times . 27/4/2008 Donna Seaman
The NY Sun B 2/4/2008 Benjamin Lytal
The NY Times Book Rev. . 20/4/2008 Christopher Benfey
The Washington Post . 13/4/2008 Michael Dirda

  From the Reviews:
  • "Dictation prompts two thoughts about Ozickís work as a whole. (...) Ozickís characters have always had to compete with her ideas, in a way suggested by the title of one of her most famous stories, Envy, or Yiddish in America. The double barrel links visceral emotion to treatise, though at her best there is, as Dictation puts it, "no visible seam, no hairís-breadth fissure" between them. My second thought begins with the question of style -- the same question her novelists debate. Does style provide a mask for the self or a revelation of it ? Ozickís most characteristic sentences move like curveballs with a sting, but I canít pretend to define their relation to anything we might call her self." - Michael Gorra, Bookforum

  • "In this quartet of long stories, a supple form well-suited to Ozick's wit and insight, she pursues her fascination with opposites and parallels, and she extends her inquiry into how language can be both liberating and oppressive." - Donna Seaman, The Los Angeles Times

  • "(A) gathering of leftovers related, very subtly, by theme (.....) The neat symmetries at work in Dictation are entertaining, aided as they are by Ms. Ozick's fleet style and always-refreshed vocabulary. And the whole is greater than the sum of its parts: A fascination with cultural authority gone wrong, despite their being written in different decades, unites these novellas ó much as related essays would unite a good critical collection." - Benjamin Lytal, The New York Sun

  • "The four expertly turned stories in Dictation: A Quartet extend her revenge, using art to celebrate the arduous ardor of life." - Christopher Benfey, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Dictation shows that Ozick continues to command her usual mastery of voices and tones. And while these four long stories are all seemingly dissimilar, one can trace subtle links among them -- in particular, the notion of authenticity, in a person or an artist. (...) All four stories loosely follow the same arc: They begin as comedies but gradually darken, grow increasingly unsettling and end on a note of pathos. Ozick is a whiz at voices; she can pastiche the style of middle James or the over-the-top spiel of a Teddy Silkowitz presenting his vision of a new, bolder theater." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Dictation is a collection of four stories, and fairly typical Ozick fare. Each story in some way deals with (or is set in) the past, and the writing in each is consistently lively (the English practically skipping along in places) -- with a good deal of word- and language-play on top of it (as she can't even resist making one of the characters a crossword-puzzle writer). It's also a collection of sudden turns, revelations, and reversals, of abrupt changes and shifts -- as when she sets up the story in 'At Fumicaro':

Frank Castle intended to travel to Florence first (he hoped for a glimpse of the portrait of Thomas Aquinas in the San Marco), and then to Rome, but on the fourth day, entirely unexpectedly, he got married instead.
       The title-story imagines that the real-life secretaries of Henry James and Joseph Conrad -- Theodora Bosanquet and Lilian Hallowes -- got to know each other better than is generally supposed. Here, too, Ozick lets the story unfold by seeming to go down one path, and then turning onto another, focussing first on the meetings between James and Conrad. At one of these 'the Machine' -- James' typewriter -- as writer's aid is among the topics discussed, while neither woman is yet in the picture. Conrad can't imagine any sort of assistance with even just the act of writing yet at that point, not wanting the help offered by either machine or (wo)man:
     "An amanuensis ?" he replied. "No, Mr. James, I am not so progressive. Indeed I loathe revolution. I have run steam in my day, but I was trained to the age of sail. I fear I am wedded to my bad old habits."
       Among the things James and Conrad talk over are matters of literary style, and that's a recurring theme, coming up also when Conrad does, indeed, eventually hire an amanuensis -- and when James' secretary eventually hatches a plot to garner a small piece of immortality for herself and Miss Hallowes. It's a clever (and amusing) plan, too, as:
Shakespeare, Archimedes, Pythagoras, and any number of other luminaries (not forgetting James and Conrad) may all merit immortality in the ordinary sense -- but Theodora's notion of everlastingeness was more cunning than any such homage given to the longevity of a proper noun. What Theordora was after was distinctly radical: she wished to send into the future a nameless immutability, visible though invisible, smooth while bent, unchangeable yet altered, integrated even as it sought to be wholly alien.
       The most outright entertaining of the four tales, 'Dictation' succeeds as well as it does because Ozick doesn't harp on the plan the secretaries hatch, but because of the personal portraits: Conrad's wife's jealousy, James' and Conrad's thoughts about each other, and the relationship between the two women (and especially how Miss Hallowes allows herself to sink into it yet resists being completely seduced).
       'Actors' deals with identity and tradition -- as is already suggested in the opening line:
     Matt Sorley, born Mose Sadacca, was an actor.
       He hasn't had great success, but now has a decent opportunity. It's a blow to his vanity -- he thinks he's too young for the role -- but he's offered the lead in a modern Lear-variation. But he's also not happy with the kind of play it is, too close to the old, over-the-top traditions of Yiddish theatre -- and the fact that the director thinks he's such a great fit for the part:
     "A replay of the old country, that's my type ? I was doing Eugene O'Neill before you were born."
       The playwright dies before Matt has even agreed to take the part, but the director sends him to meet with her ancient father -- who happens to have been a star of the Yiddish theatre (and by now has become a very Lear-like figure). But his daughter never knew any of that:
By the time she's born, it's after the war, it's 1948, it's finishing up, it's practically gone. Gone -- the whole thing ! After Hitler, who has a heart for tragedy on a stage ?
       For Ozick, of course, tradition is inescapable and while the Jew can change his name that's only superficial: the underlying rest can't be gotten rid of anywhere as easily. Mix in the Lear-issues, and Ozick spins a nice tragi-comedy out of the situations and characters. And again it is the supporting characters -- such as Matt's wife, Frances, -- and the way Ozick presents and uses them (in part also to misdirect the reader) that enrich the story as a whole, and allow it to unfold so much more effectively.
       In 'At Fumicaro' Frank Castle travels to Italy -- to Fumicaro, to be exact. He's excited about it, but it surely wouldn't be everyone's favoured destination at that time:
     Fumicaro made him happy. To get there he left New York on an Italian liner, the Benito Mussolini.
       Politics do intrude, but isolated Fumicaro is more or less beyond the fray for the time being -- "The Fascists interfered, but not much, out of a lazy sense of duty; so far only a convention of lepidopterists had been turned away." The Villa Garibaldi has been set up: "for conferences of a virtuous nature", and the one Frank is participating in deals with 'The Church and How It is Known'. But Frank's attentions quickly turn elsewhere -- to the distressed and pregnant chambermaid. Between the comic misunderstandings and the lust, Frank soon finds his heart perhaps moving faster than his head -- and yet even as he thinks he's being outwitted he's constantly surprised. With the long shadows of faith and fascism looming always in the background, Ozick has fashioned an amusing and occasionally uncomfortable piece.
       'What happened to the baby ?' is also a story in which an apparent reality is revealed to be something quite different. Narrated by Phyllis, she finds that what she'd heard about her Uncle Simon (in fact her mother's cousin) and his wife Essie -- and, in particular, what she (and her mother) had imagined happened to their baby isn't close to the truth.
       Simon was the leader for the League for a Unified Humanity, and his lifelong ambition and obsession was to come up with a universal language. Like Esperanto -- but not the detested Esperanto. Instead:
He had named it GNU, after the African antelope that sports two curved horns, each one turned toward the other, as if striving to close a circle.
       When Phyllis begins studying at NYU she regularly goes to visit Simon, down on his luck now, separated from Essie, but still toiling away at a dream that no one else shares any longer. Eventually learning the truth, specifically about the baby, she suddenly sees his actions and obsession in a totally different light.
       Much in this collection veers close to farce, and yet it almost never seems that way. In a similar vein of exaggeration in 'What happened to the baby ?' several of the secondary characters -- most obviously Phyllis' mother and college roommate -- drastically change the course of their lives, and Ozick describes this in enough detail that it feels like a massive train rushing close by (especially compared to Phyllis' much simpler and more straightforward own life) -- yet it doesn't get in the way of the story either; it is, like so much (and so many characters) literally supporting material, like a well-laid (if extremely loud) foundation.
       In each story language also plays a significant role, and Ozick can't restrain herself from playing with it. Far from being freeing or allowing better expression, language here is often an additional burden and barrier. There's foreign-born Joseph Conrad:
Sometimes he used words, marvelous English words, that he had only read, and when he spoke the marvelous words, no matter how intimately he felt them, their syllables, striking the surprised eyes of his hearers, seemed all in the wrong tones: he could not bring out, except in ink, that sublimely organized Anglo-Saxon speech.
       In 'Actors' there's the crossword-writing Frances, whose:
brain was all storage. She knew words like "fenugreek", "kermis", "sponson", "gibberellin". She was angry at being imprisoned by such words. She lived, she said, behind bars; she was the captive of a grid.
       In 'At Fumicaro' there's the chambermaid's refrain -- in her poor English -- of: "No belief !", and in 'What happened to the baby ?' one of the characters tries to create nothing less than a universal language. Here is a writer very much (irrepressibly, one surmises) as word-person -- yet Ozick won't allow for language to be much of a key to happiness in these stories.
       Such a talented and sure writer, Ozick is, as always, a pleasure to read. If not among her most exceptional work, these are nevertheless very solid -- and often very funny -- stories, and certainly worthwhile.

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Dictation: Reviews: Cynthia Ozick: Other books by Cynthia Ozick under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction

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About the Author:

       American author Cynthia Ozick is the author of numerous works of fiction, as well as several collections of essays. She has been awarded a number of prizes and honors, and she has received a Guggenheim Fellowship.

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© 2008-2021 the complete review

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