Monday, August 14, 2017

Reading Now (August 2017): The Puttermesser Papers

Heavenly Comedy

“Yeder mentsh hot zikh zayn pekl.”

The Puttermesser Papers, published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York City, is Cynthia Ozick’s fourth novel; she is known for her short stories and essays, including The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories (1971), All the World Wants the Jews Dead (1974) and The Shawl (1989). This is another recent find at a second-hand bookstore, where I paid 50 cents. I am enjoying the book from one of America’s finest writers.
Photo Credit: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

The Puttermesser Papers (1997), by Cynthia Ozick [born April 17, 1928, in New York City], is a collection of five stories centered on the life of Ruth Puttermesser. There are many Puttermessers spun out of the imagination of Ozick, including a feminist and a creator of a golem who helps her become mayor of New York. The novel, although comic in tone, is a search for meaning and a place to fit in, but not necessarily through the usual social channels.

The book begins with her at age 34, a New Yorker living alone in her parents’ apartment in the Bronx. She is an intelligent but restless New York Jew who decides to quit her job at a “blue-blood” Wall Street law firm, mainly because she sees no future. The scene describing the New England-schooled partners taking out Puttermesser for a farewell meal is priceless, only because I have had similar experiences in my professional working life:
An anthropological meal. They explored the rites of her tribe. She had not known she was strange to them. Their beautiful manners were the cautiousness you adopt when you visit the interior: Dr. Livingstone, I presume? They shook hands and wished her luck, and at that moment, so close to their faces with those moist smile-ruts flowing from the sides of their waferlike noses punctuated by narrow, even nostrils. (8)
Puttermesser, it should be noted, is Yiddish for “butter knife,“ which suggests how easily a knife like this can cut through butter. At least a good well-made butter knife can do such a trick. As names go, it is not a pretty one, something her uncle Zindel points out:
And such a name. A nice young fellow meets such a name, he laughs. You should change it to something different, lovely, nice. Shapiro. Levine. Cohen. Goldweiss. Blumenthal. I don’t say make it different, who needs Adams, who needs McKee, I say make it a name not a joke. Your father gave you a bad present with it. (15)
With a name like this, was her fate sealed, “as it is written.” Perhaps all the good names were already taken when names were handed out many generations ago in the old country. Does the book suggest that the gods are laughing? I think so; and we humans are not only not amused, we are also oblivious to it, so much are we consumed by our own thoughts of self-importance. Such concerns touch no one and are of little consequence other than to ourselves. Such is the way it is; such is the way it has been written. What can one do?

Most just play along, but I can’t resist remarking on the absurdity of our actions and our many moral failings, the decisions that we make and don’t make, and how our laws don’t necessarily line up with progressive human morality that invokes not blind justice but thoughtful mercy. (Biblical morality is long on obedience and justice and short on love and mercy; this forms the basis of western law, or so it seems to me on what I have read and observed.)

Humans have an ability to make many wrong decisions, including wrong decisions for the wrong reasons. I can understand a morally wrong decision made for the right reason, but not one for the wrong reason. Stealing a loaf of bread because you are hungry is far different than you embezzling millions to feed a jet-set life-style. I have sympathy for the former but none for the latter. Under the eyes of the law, however, both are equally guilty.

Yet, this is where literature can help us understand the difference between the two, A good review of Ozick is found in The New York Times Magazine article (“Cynthia Ozicks’s Long Crusade;” June 23, 2016) by Gilles Harvey:
According to Ozick, literature is different from all other human activities, and its singularity consists in its recognizing and honoring human difference. Its purpose, she has said, is “to light up the least grain of being, to show how it is concretely individual, particularized from any other.”
This is not a new argument, but it is one that bears repeating. This is important to understand, and once you do you will forever be changed in thoughts and actions. A few earnest individuals will take this to heart, but not many by my reckoning. Sad to report that I have in the last decade or two met only a handful of such people in my life. This is not surprising, since most decent folks focus on survival (economically, financially) and do not spend too much time considering such existential questions.

But then again so were the many Yiddish speakers—self-taught, self-educated—who formed a good part of my father’s generation, part of my father’s landsmen. They viewed survival as not enough, that they had to do more than survive, that their mission in life was helping not only themselves but also others achieve their potential, chiefly by improving conditions for all. They did not sit there and wait for the messiah to come; they acted on their convictions. Hope is acting on the belief that it will not always remain hopeless.

Given the meshugas around her, Ruth Puttermesser didn’t, or perhaps couldn’t, understand this simple truth, but then again Cynthia Ozick didn’t allow her to even consider this in this crazy dark comedy she wrote—where all roads are paved with fabrications, prevarications and stories that have the basis of truth but are fare from it—much like the politics of today, and like much of the world that we inhabit. It is, after all, only fiction. Yet, others who live in the same world as Puttermesser might say in Yiddish: Trevst mayn folk; eyn tog es vet ale zeyn beser.

—Perry J. Greenbaum; August 14, 2017