Fame & Folly

Katherine Whittamore reviews "Fame & Folly" by Cynthia Ozick.

Published May 31, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

Cynthia Ozick is nothing if not ardent. "Madly literary," as she puts it, in love with the "wild interestingness " of writing and writers. Think Robin Williams in "Dead Poet's Society" -- if he were an astonishingly erudite, Henry James-besotted, Latin-quoting woman from the Bronx with badly cut bangs. The essays in "Fame & Folly" are inconsistent, but never indifferent.

In this collection, we readers are impugned as likely being indifferent, ourselves, to figures Ozick holds dear. This is good; she fires best when she has the enemy in those bangsy crosshairs of hers. In the superb "T.S. Eliot at 101" she laments the dimunition of Prufrock's creator in college English courses. "To anyone who was an undergraduate in the forties and fifties. . . [this] is inconceivable -- as if a part of the horizon had crumbled away." But such mourning spurs her to action. What follows is an impassioned, nuanced defense and dissection of Eliot, now Ozick's patient and etherized upon a table. Eliot insisted on the objective correlative, meaning, among other things, that the artist's own life did not matter in his work. But of course it did (Eliot "hid his private terrors behind the hedge of poetry," as Ozick writes), and she goes on to detail his bio with brio.

The Eliot essay is the best here, followed by another spirited defense, this time of Trollope, who of all the Victorian authors is "alone unforgiven," as Ozick says. "He is flicked off as shallow," she writes, "restitution is necessary." The third best essay is a poignant curiosity called "Alfred Chester's Wig," about Ozick's youthful "Hansel-and-Gretelish" friendship with Alfred Chester, a Truman Capote-esque writer of the '50s and '60s, now largely forgotten. In their NYU class, Chester would read his work aloud and "an ingenious figure of speech or some turbulently reckless flash of power would afflict me like a wound ... He was better than I was!"

Such envy spasms propel many of the essays, especially the ones pivoting on the title theme: fame. Some of them work (i.e. the Eliot piece, and others on Twain, Isaac Babel, Salman Rushdie), and some don't (that's not an essay on Saul Bellow, it's a bramblepatch). Indeed, Ozick's sentences sometimes start off in grandiose, revelatory ways, then die from overprose. But she actually knows this, which in itself is endearing. In "The Break," Ozick cuts herself down: "her style is clotted, parenthetical, self-indulgent, long-winded, periphrastic, in every way excessive -- hard going altogether." That's much too severe; equal parts ardor and intellect, in one essayist, are vastly rare -- and welcome.

By Katherine Whittamore

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