I went with Jen Snow to this reading at the 92Y the other night—“what goes on in there?” my cabbie asked, “after stuff goes on there I always pick up old Jewish people in those little hats, what’re those things called again? Want a peanut M&M?” (all kinds of things! yarmulkes! yes, please, if you promise they aren’t poisoned!)—and she took this picture of Cynthia Ozick that is so obviously THE BEST that it makes me scream inside every time I see it.
She read after Nicole Krauss, who I’d never seen in person before—it was odd to see her be a human, with dangly earrings and long, black hair, me guessing just how old she was, wondering if I liked her less or more for her pat answers, the way she talked about embodying characters inner lives like it was a revelation. Maybe it was, to some or maybe it never really stops being that, as much as we can roll our eyes at it and wonder when Cynthia Ozick will be coming onstage. Nathan Englander talked about her so well, though, in his introduction—about which she was perfectly self-deprecating and gracious; what a skill, you know—that I had to kind of sigh and throw up my hands. He talked about how for awhile there everyone on the subway was curled around a copy of A History of Love, he wondered to us how many people may have been late to yoga or to pick their kids up from daycare (holy accurate demographical anecdotes, batman!) and I was like okay TRUE, I was also late for yoga and late to pick up my kid except he was not my kid, I was the daycare, and I have a handful of fluttery tumblr posts to prove it.
She started to read from Great House and I got over the dangly earrings and her regular person-ness and I loved it. I leaned my head back on my seat and listened the whole time, the way I can rarely do at a reading, be actually taken in and paying attention, not just judging the patterns of someone’s tie or dress or how they sip their water, wondering if I could ever be like them. She’s so good, I think. I just like where she goes, where she seems to be coming from, where it seems like her heart is. I am grossly sentimental I suppose, and she makes me admit it, because I love her. I want to read that book.
Then came Cynthia O, who was described by her equally small Introducer as “prodigious.” I wrote this word down on my program because it struck me as such a good, good word. I think all the Nicole Krauss had already gone to my head. She barely peeked over the podium and our hearts sang at this, everyone there already in love with her before she opened her mouth. Her jokes felt less cloying, less rehearsed, her earrings not dangling. She feels more like a writer so it doesn’t bother you as much; maybe it’s because she’s old but it sounds right—every word from her mouth the perfect one.
Her new book, Foreign Bodies, is a post-WWII challenge to the Jamesian notion of Europe as the center of culture (TEEHEE, WROTE THAT ONE DOWN), and from what I could tell of what she read—I paid attention here, too!—is about these ideas of romance and wanting to run away and be fulfilled without acknowleding all of the privilege necessary to even want that, and how that Hemingway-ish (or Jamesian as she much better elucidated) writing-in-a-cafe-stuff stuff seems a little gross after ya know, all the mass-murdering. So now, she’s basically saying that America is that place, that “vortex of civilization,” even though we are The Worst for plenty of reasons.Well that is what she says it is about, although the part she read was more about this guy we all probably know/are, those “imitation Baby Sartres” (YESS, totally wrote that down and circled it) with the ground “so obliviously soft under their feet,” who leave their “waiting, rich cities,” to go Find Themselves or what have you. God she is great.
Other things I wrote down:
“he was being scolded—worse, he was being exposed” #DAMNNN
she looked at him with something “both more and less than annoyance, the kind of look you throw on a child that has thrown a rock that was meant to hit you but doesn’t.” I’m sorry but can’t you see that look exactly? How better to describe it? We got it totally in our heads. gODDAMN.
Also “he tried to deserve them”
I don’t know what he was trying to deserve or how but I love the idea of trying to deserve something, because, yes.
In the Q&A old Cynthia Ozick basically threw it down and said she hasn’t been very impressed with contemporary “workshop” (zing!) poetry, that it has stopped aiming towards the transcendent. Eyebrows were raised, applause rung out. She talked about how all writers begin as poets, then a winnowing out occurs. She said either Goethe or Wilde or Eliot said that. Someone asked Nicole Krauss what it was about old men that intrigued her so much. I laughed too loudly, the old jewish people all around me gave me a Look. Nicole said something perhaps unintentionally dismissive about how she always gets asked that. Don’t say that! It makes the Asker feel unoriginal, the cardinal sin of question-asking. Gosh, have you ever asked a question at a reading? I haven’t. I keep thinking one day but lord, what is the point?