Emotions Haunt a Man for Life in Cynthia Ozick’s Tragicomic ‘Antiquities’

Cynthia Ozick’s new novella, “Antiquities,” is set in Westchester County, New York, in 1949 and 1950. It’s about seven semi-distinguished old men: Waspy geezers, with walkers and heart conditions, the last living trustees of a patrician boys’ academy that closed more than three decades earlier. They live on the splendid property, their number dwindling, and they bicker like sunburned children.

This is a premise that, as A.J. Liebling was wont to say, stretches the elastic of credulity. These are men of means, former lawyers and businessmen, some with families. What are they doing here? What’s their monkish loyalty to this place?

The hothouse seclusion to which Ozick consigns them reminded me of the absurd premises of two of Donald Antrim’s brainy, surreal novels, “The Hundred Brothers” (1997) and “The Verificationist” (2000).

Each of those novels by Antrim is about crushing odd souls together. In the first, 100 brothers, of the same parents, gather in their family’s dilapidated library for a splendidly disputatious meal. In the second, a big group of psychotherapists have a tetchy nightlong dinner in a pancake house. One of them floats up to the ceiling, lost in a sticky, thumb-sucking flow of maple syrup and remembrance.

Ozick’s novella is not so unearthly, so giddily strange. But she introduces a second implausibility to the group’s living situation. The trustees have assigned themselves a literary task. Each is to compose a short memoir, fewer than 10 pages, about their time as students at the academy.

This is not a free-form assignment. The rules are finicky. Each essay must a) “be confined to an explicit happening lingering in memory and mood”; b) “concern childhood only, and nothing beyond”; and c) “reflect accurately the atmosphere and principles of the academy at the time in which the incident to be recounted had occurred.” Because the trustees are old and lazy and prone to long afternoon naps, the deadline is tight.

These fellows are going to let fly, one last time, before their probable rendezvous with mnemonic erosion. One way to read “Antiquities,” then, is as a (pretty funny) book about literary infighting and resentment.

Anyone who has followed Ozick’s career knows she’s a delight on these topics. Her long story “Envy; or, Yiddish in America,” for example, which appeared in her 1971 collection “The Pagan Rabbi,” is a masterpiece of pique. The poet Edelshtein seethes; he thinks he could be as famous as Ostrover, his nemesis, if only he too had a translator.

Ostrover gives witty readings that infuriate Edelshtein. Asked onstage if he follows Jewish dietary laws, Ostrover replies: “I was heartbroken to learn that the minute an oyster enters my stomach, he becomes an anti-Semite. A bowl of shrimp once started a pogrom against my intestines.” Some readers might forget that Ozick, who just turned 93, has a darting, impudent wit; “Antiquities” is a reminder.

This new book — it is richly patterned and strongly colored — is a relatively small addition to a distinctive body of work, composed across seven decades, that includes novels (“Trust,” “The Messiah of Stockholm,” “The Puttermesser Papers”), books of short stories (“The Shawl”) and many volumes of literary criticism, nearly all of which are steeped in an ardent awareness of Jewish cultural inheritance but grounded in universal human quiddities.

“Antiquities” is a small addition, but it’s a real one. The narrator — we are privy to his journal — is Lloyd Wilkinson Petrie. He’s a retired lawyer and a lonely trustee; there is something about him that sets him apart, that others like to mock.

When he attended the school, he was slight and sickly; he preferred the indoors to the out, chess to football. He was a walking embodiment of Samuel Johnson’s dictum that placing a shy boy at a private school is akin to “forcing an owl upon day.”

Lloyd went on to edit the Yale Law Journal and have a seemingly reputable career. But he’s pierced by an ingrained sense of alienation. When he manages to push it out a door, it returns through a window.

We learn about his lackluster marriage, and about his son, an embarrassment to him, who is trying to make a go of it in Hollywood. (About scripts, Lloyd sniffs: “Can a treatment, so called, be said to possess literary cachet?”) Lloyd is reeling, too, from the death of his longtime secretary, the younger Miss Margaret Stimmer, who in an unacknowledged way was the love of his life.

This novella’s heart lies in the story Lloyd is trying to relate in his essay about the academy, a story that keeps him banging away on his Remington typewriter late into the night, antagonizing the other trustees.

The essay is about his friendship with a boy named Ben-Zion Elefantin, and about the casual but intense anti-Semitism at the academy during his time there. Ben-Zion is from Egypt’s Elephantine island, and this fact allows Ozick to examine some of that island’s complicated Jewish history.

The worldly and well-traveled Ben-Zion is scorned at the school, and Lloyd’s friendship with him — they bond over chess — renders Lloyd an outcast too. He can’t quite comprehend his lost status. “I was, after all, a Petrie, and a Petrie by nature belongs to the mockers, not to the mocked.”

These boys are young; Ben-Zion is 11 and Lloyd only 10. But their friendship comes to have an erotic element. The tangle of emotions Lloyd felt has haunted him for life.

Lloyd works out these feelings at regular lunches, at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station, with a Jewish friend who was also a student at the academy at the time. “I was suffering all those years at school, Lloyd, and it’s not something a person forgets,” the friend says. “You never went out of your way to do me harm.”

“Antiquities” has a fable-like aspect. Lloyd, in his recollections, begins to wonder if Ben-Zion might have been a delusion of sorts. But Ozick grounds her book in the stuff of real life.

The tone is tragicomic. In one memorable scene, Lloyd discovers that his beloved typewriter has been vandalized. A few days later he peers down from his window into the yard and sees the other trustees looking up, jeering at him.

The likely vandal steps forward with his walker, “as if about to wave in ill-intended greeting.” As he does, he trips on a branch and takes a nasty spill. Within days, he’s dead. Spite and malice. In literature and in life, they’re the silent killers.

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