The frisky art of Cynthia Ozick

In four lively tales, Ozick takes a playful route to serious points.

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Many an engaging fiction – not to mention most of Tom Stoppard's plays – have sprung from imagining an encounter between famous people of yore. In the wonderfully playful title story of her new book, Dictation, Cynthia Ozick imagines freighted interchanges not just between two great writers, Henry James and Joseph Conrad, but between their secretaries.

James and Conrad did in fact meet once in England, but their conversations are unrecorded. And both writers did indeed dictate their work to secretaries named Theodora Bosanquet and Lilian Hallowes, although there's no evidence that they ever met.

Ozick, who wrote her master's thesis at Ohio State University more than 50 years ago on James's late novels, takes her knowledge and runs with it. The result is a classic Ozick story, a sly and witty exploration of literary style and immortality.

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"Dictation" opens with a 1901 visit by Conrad to James. Their conversation, "two labyrinthine minds locking and unlocking," includes "a discussion of style, and whether it remains distinct from the writer's intrinsic personality." Do writers reveal or conceal themselves in their work?

Ozick's James speaks in florid sentences that echo his ornate late style – exposing him as a pompous obfuscator. When Conrad eyes his typewriter, James asks, "May I presume, Mr. Conrad, that you, in the vigor of youth, as it were, are not of a mind to succumb to a mechanical intercessor, as I, heavier of years, perforce have succumbed?"

Conrad is aghast at the idea of an intermediary coming between himself and his work. When gout forces him to hire an amanuensis, he worries that Miss Hallowes "had seen (was constantly seeing) into the blackest recesses of his mind," she will expose him in all his vile nakedness to others.

Paranoia? As Ozick's frisky plot reveals, her Conrad is right to worry. Through the conniving of bold Miss Theodora Bosanquet, the two secretaries cross paths in 1910.

Miss Bosanquet first attempts to embed herself in timid Miss Hallowes's heart, but Miss Hallowes is mutely in love with her boss. James's secretary uses this knowledge to hatch a deliciously perverse plan to enable both secretaries "to shine through the ages" by covertly slipping a passage from James into a story by Conrad, and vice versa.

The other three tales in "Dictation" were all previously published, "At Fumicaro" in The New Yorker nearly 25 years ago, and "Actors" 15 years later. Ozick's style is remarkably consistent. Then, as now, her stories are driven by ideas and a love of language; her modus operandi is to create a situation in order to tease out its moral implications. She uses the fanciful as a springboard to more serious concerns.

Like "Dictation," "At Fumicaro" involves "the power of power." Frank Castle, an American radio journalist, seduces and then marries a meek, pregnant chambermaid while at a religious conference in prewar Italy. He thinks he is saving her but comes to see her as his lifelong obeisance.

"Actors" and "What Happened to the Baby?" both consider "Lie, illusion, deception ... the universal language we all speak," though "Actors," with its numerous Pinocchio images, concerns a more deliberate, outwardly acceptable form of pretense.

The story of Matt Sorley, an underemployed Brooklyn-born character actor, highlights two of Ozick's favorite themes, identity and tradition. Matt's portrayal of a modern-day Lear in a production aimed at restoring "the old lost art of melodrama" from Yiddish theater is hexed on many levels – and, like much of Ozick's work, both tragic and comic.

All four stories in this captivating collection explore what it means to dissimulate and deceive – and the importance of being, not earnest, but playful.

Heller McAlpin is a freelance critic in New York.

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