Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Puttermesser PapersThe Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Another great recommendation from "The Complete Review" website. It rates Cynthia Ozick's "The Puttermesser Papers" (1997) with an A+ and while I am not sure about the plus, this book is certainly a first-class piece of literature: quite strange, a little crazy, deeply intelligent, and overall delightful.

The novel is composed of five parts or episodes that portray various periods of Ruth Puttermesser's life and afterlife. In the first story, Puttermesser (her first name is seldom used) is a 34-year-old Jewish lawyer, fired from a Wall Street firm, working for the Department of Receipts and Disbursements in the New York City. The mechanisms of bureaucracy are shown with clinical precision and wit. Puttermesser comes "to understand the recondite, dim, and secret journey of the City's money".

Puttermesser, who is 46 in the second part, has an opportunity to follow the example of the 16th-century Great Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague. Somewhat accidentally she creates a golem, a teenager girl, who wants to be called Xanthippe, and who becomes Puttermesser's daughter and is quite instrumental in furthering her creator's political career. This part is solely responsible for my rating not being the perfect five stars.

The third episode is a magnificent literary construct. Puttermesser, now fifty-plus, meets Rupert, who reproduces (reenacts, he wants to call it) famous paintings. Puttermesser introduces Rupert to 19th-century works of George Eliot (pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans). They read aloud her biographies, particularly interested in her friendship with George Lewes. After Lewes' death George Eliot marries Johnny Cross, and the couple reenacts George Eliot's and George Lewes' trip to Venice. Puttermesser and Rupert reenact that reenactment, with all its natural consequences. Brilliant!

Puttermesser is in her sixties in the fourth part. These are the times of perestroika in the Soviet Union. Puttermesser cousin comes from Moscow, as a refugee, and a funny culture clash occurs when the capitalist Americans are interested in ideas while the socialist-raised Lidia is only interested in money. The Shekhina fundraiser story is hilarious. Alas, in the exquisitely written fifth part, we learn that Paradise, the place where we go after we die, is not really quite what we expect.

Wonderful book about life, death, philosophy, and literature, touching so many important topics. I am particularly interested in the "wrong generation, after your time" issue. Puttermesser does not believe in generations. Culture is obviously generational, yet human nature is not. The anger of an ancient Greek does not differ from the anger expressed on Twitter today.

Four and a half star, rounded up.

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