Dictation: A Quartet

Houghton Mifflin Company  2008

 

Dictation, Cynthia Ozick’s masterful new collection, is comprised of four long, intricately plotted tales.

In the title story, which is previously unpublished, two young women, secretaries to Henry James and Joseph Conrad respectively, meet at Mr. James’s country estate. A friendship develops, a bold scheme is hatched as the two amanuenses contrive to place their personal imprints on posterity.

“At Fumicaro” is set at a tranquil Catholic conference center tucked into the mountains above Lake Como, in Mussolini’s Italy. An eminent American Catholic literary critic arrives at the conference, falls precipitously in love with a pregnant, teen-age peasant girl. Four days later, they marry.

“Actors” follows the dismal fortunes of an over-the-hill character actor as he rehearses for the title role in an adaptation of King Lear, in which Lear has been re-imagined as a Jewish emigrant.

A naive college student enmeshes herself in the bitter marital discord of her crazy Esperantist uncle and his wife, in “What Happened to the Baby?” Mid-1950’s kochaleyn life is warmly drawn as the story moves between the Catskill Mountains, Manhattan, and the Bronx.

Ozick’s high intelligence, her sly, sometimes laugh-out-loud comic sense, and superb command of the language permeate these stories, along with her unique comprehension of the human heart.



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