Four short stories by Pulitzer finalist are cynical, ironic, engaging, a little academic

Posted: Friday, April 11, 2008

"Dictation - A Quartet " (Houghton Mifflin Company, 179 pages, $24), by Cynthia Ozick

On the eve of Cynthia Ozick's 80th birthday on April 17, four of her pessimistic but entertaining stories have been brought together under the title "Dictation."

It could have been "Deception."

Ozick doesn't write action packed page-turners and she allows herself more than an occasional literary or historical reference. But something is always going on - the book is hard to put down, even if you need to make sure the roast isn't burning.

The title story fantasizes about two typists supposedly hired by two giants of 20th-century fiction: Henry James and Joseph Conrad. Miss Lilian Hallowes and Miss Theodora Bosanquet achieve what seems to them a bit of literary immortality. They successfully conspire to insert a few lines from a novel being written by one writer into the work of the other.

But nobody notices.

At the same time James' typist, the aggressive Miss Bosanquet, tries unsuccessfully to seduce Miss Hallowes, Conrad's meeker amanuensis. Their literary deception accomplished, the typists part - never to meet again. Presumably they and their employers continue their careers.

"Actors" brings on stage a failed New York comedian. His Jewish ancestors were driven from Spain to the eastern Mediterranean half a millennium ago. He feels his talent reviving when he gets a chance to play "King Lear."

It's a modernist adaptation he doesn't like. But it gives him a chance to emit an "unholy howl."

Ozick's description:

"It spewed out old forgotten exiles, old lost cities, Constantinople, Alexandria, kingdoms abandoned, refugees ragged and driven, distant ash heaps, daughters unborn, ... the wild roaring cannon of a human heartbeat."

On opening night, another failed Jewish actor, trailing a cape and waving a walking stick, invades the stage from the audience with a rant about how wrong the production is. The way to do it, he shouts, is the way the great actors of the New York Yiddish stage did it years ago.

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