The Puttermesser Papers

by Cynthia Ozick

Hardcover, 1997

Call number




Knopf (1997), Edition: 1st, 235 pages


With dashing originality and in prose that sings like an entire choir of sirens, Cynthia Ozick relates the life and times of her most compelling fictional creation. Ruth Puttermesser lives in New York City. Her learning is monumental. Her love life is minimal (she prefers pouring through Plato to romping with married Morris Rappoport). And her fantasies have a disconcerting tendency to come true - with disastrous consequences for what we laughably call "reality." Puttermesser yearns for a daughter and promptly creates one, unassisted, in the form of the first recorded female golem. Laboring in the dusty crevices of the civil service, she dreams of reforming the city - and manages to get herself elected mayor. Puttermesser contemplates the afterlife and is hurtled into it headlong, only to discover that a paradise found is also paradise lost. Overflowing with ideas, lambent with wit, The Puttermesser Papers is a tour de force by one of our most visionary novelists. "The finest achievement of Ozick's career... It has all the buoyant integrity of a Chagall painting." -San Francisco Chronicle "Fanciful, poignant... so intelligent, so finely expressed that, like its main character, it remains endearing, edifying, a spark of light in the gloom." -The New York Times "A crazy delight." -The New York Time Book Review… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member William345
As you read this review, please bear in mind that The Puttermesser Papers really defies summarization. What I offer here can only be the most impoverished of overviews. The book must be read!

Ruth Puttermesser is a woman, an attorney, living alone in New York City. Her mother, retired with her
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father to Florida, writes to ask Puttermesser to fly down to check out an acquaintance's newly divorced CPA son. "Well," writes her mom, "he's divorced now no children thank God so he's free as a bird as they say his ex the poor thing couldn't conceive." Puttermesser disdains the idea. She is a woman with a considerable intellect, and if there’s one thing she’s not obsessed by it’s her biological clock.

"She went to work for the Department of Receipts and Disbursements. Her title was Assistant Corporation Counsel." She works in a great cumbrous municipal office building to the northeast of city hall — it actually exists — which Ozick describes with a kind of Dantean glee. "It was a monstrous place, gray everywhere, abundantly tunneled, with multitudes of corridors and stairs and shafts, a kind of swollen doom through which the bickering of small-voiced officials whinnied."

Rappoport, her married lover, a fundraiser for oppressed Soviet Jewry, leaves her one night because she prefers Plato’s Theaetetus to his embraces. She develops periodontal disease and fears the surgical exposure of her bones. At work, alas, she’s too smart for her own good. Her presence creates uncomfortable contrasts for those who are less so. Perhaps inevitably she is demoted and hidden away in Taxation. There she writes snappy, indignant letters to her boss. “Dear Mayor Mavett: Your new appointee...Commissioner Alvin Turtleman, has forced a fine civil servant of honorable temperament, with experience both wide and impassioned, out of her job. I am that civil servant. Without a hearing, without due process...” and so on. She does not receive a reply.

In her distress one night, Puttermesser doesn’t quite remember how she’s done it at first, she creates a female golem. A nice little overview of the golem in history follows. The golem, Xanthippe, knows everything her “mother” knows. She is taken to work at the cumbrous municipal office building where she begins to type. She produces a Plan. In short order, that plan has made Puttermesser New York City’s mayor by popular vote and the city flourishes as a low crime, highly civilized quasi-utopia. The murder rate plummets. Sobbing muggers walk into precinct houses, arms raised. Vast gardens thrive all over the city.

But now Rappoport has returned. He is not long in discovering his lust for Xanthippe, whom he takes to bed in Gracie Mansion, for the golem of course is among Puttermesser’s closest advisors. Soon Rappoport is sexually exhausted, raw. He leaves the city with a limp. Xanthippe, however, having tasted human lust, runs amok (as it is historically within the purview of golems to do). In her insatiable craving for boo-tay, one by one she fucks each of Mayor Puttermesser’s esteemed commissioners — presumably also the women — into Rappoportian insensibility. Gradually, the mayor’s carefully selected lieutenants, one by one, resign. Their marriages break up. They move to Florida. They enter monasteries. And just as gradually the city morphs back into the crime-ridden dystopia that it was before our heroine took office. Suffice it to say that Puttermesser does not seek reelection. She takes a year off.

Puttermesser, her name means butterknife in German, is lonely without anything to occupy her time. She reads widely about the life of her favorite novelist, George Eliot, and admires that single woman’s at-the-time scandalous relationship with the married George Lewes. Puttermesser understandably pines for her George Lewes. One day in the Met she comes across Rupert Rabeeno, twenty years her junior, copying David’s Death of Socrates with an accuracy that borders on the uncanny.

Rupert’s card reads “Reenactments of the Masters.” It turns out that this very postmodern art form is how Rupert earns his living. His reenactments are reduced to postcard size and sold in stationers shops. Puttermesser explains to Rupert her dream of finding her own Lewes, and in time she comes to believe she’s found him in Rupert. What follows with their relationship — after long nights of rereading Eliot’s novels and comparing all the major biographies — amazes the reader and defies summary. It must be read.

Then Puttermesser is visited by her Muscovite cousin. Lidia — a cynical, mercenary young woman — has seized on her New York connection in order to make money. God knows she can’t make any in Moscow. It is the era of Gorbachev and perestroika. Lidia comes to New York laden with all sorts of tchotchkes: Lenin as a boy pins, Russian nested dolls, etc. She finds a naive fellow she calls Pyotr, a man utterly without guile, whom she promptly seduces. (One thinks of Lidia as Peter’s first lover ever.) Puttermesser has installed Lidia on a sofa bed in her living room. Soon this is a veritable warehouse filled with Lidia’s inventory. Volodya, Lidia’s man back in Vladivostok, calls every morning at 3 am, inevitably waking Puttermesser. Soon, Lidia, having made her pile so she can marry Volodya, exits. Peter is shattered.

The novel has been rendered in the form of interconnected stories which were previously published independently. Yet together they make an indissoluble whole. It’s quite a trick on Ozick’s part. One studies the book deeply but exactly how she’s done this remains a mystery. Moreover, Ozick’s ear is exquisite. There is only one other such ear I have ever come across in my wide reading and that belongs to Martin Amis. Both writers have this innate zingy facility with language, both use vocabulary as punchlines, and both have unerring narrative instincts. Both also, it might be said, though their respective subject matters differ greatly, put enormous loving care into their work. I’ll spare you the usual superlatives, yet there can be no question that The Puttermesser Papers rises to such an exalted level.

Like Cather, Cynthia Ozick is an essential American novelist. So far her work has been egregiously overlooked by the mainstream. I have the pleasure of robustly recommending it. Please also read The Messiah of Stockholm.
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LibraryThing member milkmaidintheshade
If someone were to ask me what kind of books I like I would answer: "Books by smart women." Cynthia Ozick is a smart woman, but this book was a disappointment.

It is one of those books that you read all the way through because you sense that it will get better-you hope that the bud will break
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through the frozen ground-but it never does.

Not that it lacks a good premise: a single woman who lives in the rambling Bronx apartment she grew up in, receives written lectures from her retired mother in Florida, tells her lover he needs to wait to have sex so she can finish up Socrates, is an über genius tax attorney employed by the city of New York and, as if all of that isn’t delicious enough, her last name happens to mean butter knife.

In Ozick’s hands that story would have been tremendous. But she seems to feel the need to add embellishment: Jewish folk tradition, George Eliot’s sexual history, mercenary immigrants, a debate on inspiration vs. creativity, discrimination in the work place… It’s like being in your grandma’s house: there is no place to rest your eyes, doilies and afghans are everywhere!

As if her characters and their situation aren’t interesting in their own right, she throws in the supernatural (until this book the only golem I knew of lived in Middle Earth. I actually prefer him to Ozick’s.) and not in a good, Garcia-Márquez way. The golem answers both Puttmesser’s longing for a child and the dream of making New York or, at least Manhattan, a utopia. Puttermesser gets her “daughter” and is elected mayor. Fine, fine. But it doesn’t stop there.

The golem becomes a sexually voracious, community organizer. It travels the city by subway, wearing army surplus, seducing and zombifying any man of position or wealth it can get its hands on along the way, only to end up as landfill across from Gracie Mansion.

But that is not the end; it is only the first third. I slogs along. Puttermesser falls, if not in love, into regard with a younger man who may or may not, dependent upon your definition of “art”, be an artist. They go on to reenact the last days of George Eliot, itself an enactment of Eliot’s earlier life.

After that is over, Puttermesser rescues a Russian Jew-her cousin-who turns out to be a shyster and the title character falls down the abyss of disillusion yet again.

It makes a reader want to scream; “No Cynthia, no! Give me something of Heir to the Glimmering World. Go back to the Bronx; tell us about the dead uncle who gives Puttermesser Hebrew instruction.” But no. You hold your breath and read on only to find another toilet paper cozy on the next page.
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LibraryThing member laytonwoman3rd
Meh. I think this book is smarter than I am. And it may have taught me a vocabulary word or two. But I didn't enjoy it at all, and last night, finally reaching the last section (Puttermesser in Paradise), I read a few pages and did the unthinkable---I put it down with less than 20 pages left, and
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with no intention of reading to the end. This "novel" consists of five sections, each of which seems to stand alone, and to have nothing much to do with the others beyond the common character of Ruth Puttermesser. When we meet Ruth, she is a middle aged lawyer stuck in a dull bureaucratic job in the City of New York. After some political shuffling she ends up buried even deeper in the dusty files, on the clear path to termination. Her married lover walks out on her because she would rather read Socrates than frolic in bed when she knows their time together is limited. One night she subconsciously creates a golem from the dirt in her many potted plants. This section was a bit of fun of the magical realism variety, and although I couldn't warm up to Ruth, I thought the book might be going somewhere interesting as her fortunes rose and fell (possibly only in her imagination) with the machinations of her supernatural creation. But the next section took Ruth into a peculiar relationship with a much younger man, a relationship she attempted to mold into a recreation of that between George Eliot and George Lewes. The results were as predictably disastrous as releasing a golem in New York City had been. And this is where I really should have cut my losses and moved on. I continued to dislike Ruth, in the sense that there is nothing likeable about her, not that she is offensive or wicked or stupid; she's just an unfocused, over-educated bore. I also disliked that the author refers to her primarily as "Puttermesser", although it does describe her rather well---a butter knife, utilitarian, but useless, really. The separate parts, which I believe were all first published individually (each section a "paper"), fail to coalesce into a whole for me. Granted there are many allusions I'm missing the point of, my grasp of ancient history and mythology being slight, and naturally I cannot blame the author for that. But what was she getting at? What's it all for? The book is meant to be "comic in tone", apparently. While a couple bits of the golem story were amusing, overall I didn't see much humor in it, particularly in the final section as Ruth faces a distinctly unfunny end to her life on earth.

The book was a National Book Award finalist; it's on a list of 101 Great Jewish novels and the New York Times Best Books of the Year list. It didn't work for me. Your mileage may vary significantly.
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LibraryThing member jwhenderson
While The Puttermesser Papers is considered a novel, it could also be considered a collection of short stories, as each of the five "chapters" were published previously in various magazines before being brought together as this book. However, the book has the coherence of a traditional novel, and
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can easily be read from front to back as one continuous tale. The story chronicles the life of the imaginary Ruth Puttermesser, an intelligent Jewish woman who lives in New York City. Each chapter chronicles the fulfillment of a desire, whether on earth or in Paradise, but each seems in the end to bring new pain. Golems and soul mates betray our Puttermesser. Edenic love fades away. The beauty of the prose and the challenges facing the heroine maintain the reader's interest. Cynthia Ozick is a wonderful writer who is fun to read.
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LibraryThing member Bookish59
A brilliant Jewish New York lawyer, Ruth Puttermesser dreams big. At first working in New York’s bureaucracy she accepts flawed politics, anti-Semitic and non-feminist policies, and small-minded people (especially men). She idealizes writers and thinkers; believing a perfect society is feasible.
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As she gets older she witnesses petty politics, cronyism and outright corruption in the system to which she contributed so much but which now uses her, turns against her and finally rejects her as does her lover. She is hurt and can’t tolerate New York suffering. Her solution is mystically and historically Jewish.

Puttermesser is Ozick’s Golem addressing the subjects of creation, copying and acceptance. The Puttermesser Papers is very funny and very sad which works to make it a good, solid mind-expanding read.
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LibraryThing member suesbooks
Somewhat humorous and also very sad description of Ruth Puttermesser and the golem she creates. I enjoyed the writing and numerous allusions more than the content.
LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
A series of short fiction stories around the life and misadventures of one Ruth Puttermesser. It is a patchwork biography, thick with literary and mythical allegory - see the Golem of New York, herself as George Eliot, visits from a Soviet alter ago, and visions of Paradise.

LibraryThing member raizel
Five separate parts that together make up a novel about Ruth Puttermesser. Ozick does not write down to her audience; she doesn't explain the items in her many lists of concepts and people. It feels good when I know what she is talking about and I trust her to be accurate when I don't.

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Copying / reproducing seems to be an important theme: Ruth creates a female golem and becomes an ideal mayor of New York City; what most stuck in my mind is that there are no cars in the street. But the golem, who names herself, runs amok as she increases in size.

She meets a younger man who makes copies of museum masterpieces and sells them to someone in Ruth's apartment building who them prints them as postcards. Together they study the life of George Elliot and the men she loved.

On the other hand, a distant cousin from Russia is not molded into what Ruth thinks she should be.

The final part is Ozick's idea of what Paradise is.
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LibraryThing member TheBookJunky
Loved the first half, especially the golem story. Ruth Puttermesser unwittingly fantasized into existence a daughter golem, and finished sculpting it with her hands. This was terrific writing. I think I would like it way more, on a whole different level, if I knew anything at all about Jewish
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religion/culture. The second half sagged badly for me. By now both the story and I had split far apart in widely divergent directions, and pretty much weren't communicating.
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LibraryThing member charlie68
A series of short stories with Ruth Puttermesser as its main character. Funny at times and serious at others and also quite profound. A reader should be well read because of all the references, mostly to classic novels and writers, the beginner will miss a lot of these.
LibraryThing member stephengoldenberg
Key events in the life (and afterlife) of Ruth Puttermesser, a fairly unremarkable jewish New Yorker are the subject of this strange novel. The most compelling section veers off into magical realism (a genre I'm not particularly fond of) when she creates a female golem from the earth in her
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houseplant pots. The golem becomes her amanuensis and is so success ful in promoting Puttermesser that she is elected Mayor of New York. During her brief period in charge, she turns the city into a kind of paradise before it all falls apart. In another section, she forms a relationship with a much younger man who 'copies' old master paintings and then sells his versions as postcards. Their relationship also becomes a copy of George Eliot's with both George Lewes and her much younger husband, Johnny Cross.
I find it hard to put my finger on why I liked the novel. I can only label it a 'marmite' book - most readers will either love it or hate it.
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