About to turn 93 years old, she is as vibrant on the page as ever. In “Antiquities,” the latest of her many books, Ozick employs her virtuosic literary style to weave an enigmatic tale about the ephemeral nature of memory and the transience of life. The plot’s flirtation with the supernatural will remind readers of her most celebrated stories, including “The Pagan Rabbi,” “The Shawl” and “The Puttermesser Papers.” So will central themes such as the enduring sting of antisemitism and the push-pull between the sacred and the sinful. And then there is her longtime fixation on Henry James, to whom she pays tribute here by prominently placing his portrait on a chapel wall.
In other words, “Antiquities” is vintage Cynthia Ozick. But whether you’re new to her work or a longtime fan, you’ll find plenty to entertain as well as to astonish.
Her title is a wry double entendre, referring at once to the elderly characters she depicts and to the collection of Egyptian archaeological artifacts almost obsessively guarded by the novella’s narrator, Lloyd Wilkinson Petrie. The year is 1949 and Petrie, a grumpy widower long retired from his law practice and only sporadically in touch with his son, takes solace in writing his memoirs, tapping out the pages between naps on an old Remington typewriter as broken-down as he is.
In one way, at least, his life seems to have come full circle. The once imposing but long dilapidated Westchester building where he now lives is where he had resided in his youth, except that at that time it was the Temple Academy for Boys, a British-styled boarding school to which his parents had packed him off at an early age. The school itself had closed down years before, but more recently it had been converted into a makeshift retirement home for the seven surviving school trustees, all of them alums of long acquaintance.
Petrie prides himself on being the youngest and least infirm among them, but they all share the predicament of having little purpose left in life and no place else to go. Ozick depicts these Old Boys-turned-oldsters as having changed little over the decades from their callow, snobbish boyhood selves. Petrie is still the shunned outsider and chosen target for spiteful pranks. And the trustees who gleefully conspire in old age to gum up the keys of Petrie’s cherished typewriter seem unaltered from the supercilious, eager-to-humiliate childhood chums of long ago.
This is the backdrop against which Petrie sets out to reveal in his memoir the uncanny school experience that marked him for life. Ozick simultaneously builds suspense and provides comic relief by having the absent-minded Petrie repeatedly begin to spill the beans, then suddenly meander away to another topic. In these chatty interludes, he lets slip how deeply he cared for his intimate companion and former secretary, Miss Margaret Stimmer. He ruminates about his emotionally distant mother and his father’s abrupt and never explained decision to abandon his family and join his distant cousin, the Egyptologist Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie (a real-life British archaeologist, 1853-1942, whose photograph appears as the book’s frontispiece) on an excavation on the banks of the Nile River near Elephantine Island. Ozick’s narrator (who is fictional, like his father) also details the mysterious Egyptian religious relics that had passed to him from his father upon his premature death, including female fertility figures and a statuette of a long-beaked stork, an animal he later learns was associated with Egypt’s ancient deities.
And always he returns to the elusive schoolmate who became the object of his 10-year-old infatuation and source of an underlying lifelong emotional ache, Ben-Zion Elefantin. In a school culture steeped in antisemitism, new student Elefantin, with his red hair, curious foreign accent and Jewish-sounding name, becomes the automatic laughingstock for every pupil except for Petrie, who himself is ostracized simply for trying to befriend him.
They bond over games of chess, during which Elefantin cryptically explains that though he was born in Egypt, he is not Egyptian, and though people assume he is Jewish, his ancestry does not derive from the ancient Israelites. Rather, his heritage is that of the ancient Jewish community from Egypt’s Elephantine Island. For Petrie, the coincidence of Elefantin’s family home being the same place as the source of his father’s artifacts acts like a magic potion, and what happens next leaves him wondering if he has hallucinated everything.
Has he? Petrie repeatedly refers to Elefantin as an apparition, a revenant, an illusion. Was Elefantin merely a dream inspired by Petrie’s father’s antiquities? From the 1880s on, archaeological digs like those Petrie’s father and his distant cousin participated in did indeed discover the remains of a temple, papyrus scrolls and other evidence proving the presence of a previously unknown 5th-century BCE Jewish community on Egypt’s Elephantine Island. But that community had long since vanished, making Elefantin’s story, if not his very existence, fantastical. Ozick leaves it to the reader to decide the truth of Petrie’s encounter with Elefantin and his elusive ancient faith. Indisputable is Ozick’s exquisite artistry in rendering yet another resonant and unsettling tale.
Diane Cole is book columnist for the Psychotherapy Networker and the author of the memoir “After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges.”