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
Ruth Puttermesser is a woman, an attorney, living alone in New York City. Her mother, retired with her 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
SPOILER: 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.