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Ozick's virtuosic 'whirligig of incoherence'

Heir to the Glimmering World
By Cynthia Ozick
Houghton Mifflin, 310 pp., $24

Cynthia Ozick is an intellectual, without the intimidation that word implies; she is a fiction writer who also writes criticism about fiction, and both genres are completely accessible while reflecting the highest degrees of knowledge, insight, and wit.

Ozick's latest novel, ''Heir to the Glimmering World," is a delightful addition to an oeuvre characterized in large part by religious mysticism and magic. Her previous novel, ''The Puttermesser Papers," contains as a central character a golem -- in Jewish folklore, a creature fashioned from clay for use by its human creator -- who helps Ruth Puttermesser become mayor of New York so that she might pursue her dream of rehabilitating the city. And many readers will be familiar with Ozick's Holocaust novella ''The Shawl," in which a mother's wrap can literally nourish her hidden infant.

Yet while religion plays a major role in ''Heir to the Glimmering World," it remains in the realm of study, rather than being manifested by plot or character. The story is narrated primarily by Rose Meadows, who in 1935 leaves her cousin Bertram, with whom she has been living in upstate New York since being orphaned at age 18, and takes a job as amanuensis to Rudi Mitwisser, patriarch of a family of German refugees living in the Bronx.

Mitwisser is a legitimate scholar, but it takes Rose a while to realize that his subjects are ''schismatics, fiery heretics, apostates -- the lunatics of history." His particular obsession is a forgotten Jewish sect known as the Karaites, who oppose traditional rabbinical thought in that they reject Talmudic argument and interpretation of Scripture, all ''inferences and digressions . . . that are not in the Written Torah."

While the father Mitwisser seeks to resurrect the Karaite wisdom, his wife, who ''suffers from intellectual tribulation" by having lost her post as Erwin Schrdinger's associate at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, with no equivalent opportunity presenting itself in Depression-era New York takes to her bed and largely ignores her five children. The elder daughter, Anneliese, is ostensibly in charge of her three brothers and 3-year-old sister, but Rose often finds her own role expanding from that of Rudi's assistant to include nursemaid to mother Elsa and nanny to toddler Waltraut.

Because Rose's only family is Bertram she quickly becomes assimilated into the Mitwisser household. Bertram reappears toward the end of the book, but for much of the drama he is offstage and upstate.

It would give away too much to reveal Bertram's final significant role in the story. But it is important to recognize the novel's other young male character, James A'Bair, who as a child was the model for his father, an author-illustrator who made a fortune creating books about the Bear Boy, based on the young James. As an adult, James admires Rudi Mitwisser's work concerning the Karaites, fancies himself a spiritual sympathizer, and serves as financial benefactor to the family.

Coincidentally, among her dead father's effects, Rose had found the first in the series of the Bear Boy's books, which had belonged to James as a child. We discover that her father won a bet with James years ago, and in the deal, James lost the jam-spotted copy of ''The Boy Who Lived in a Hat." At the time he carried all his worldly belongings in a knapsack, including the book, which sold a million and a half copies in the week after publication. Though the book is worth a fortune, he purposely lost the bet in order to jettison what had become to him ''an atrocity" and a burden, because he had come to hate his father.

Though most of the book is related in Rose's perspective, we are also privy to the Bear Boy's point of view, through which we discover the circuitous, haphazard route that has led him to Rudi Mitwisser's passion to revivify the Karaites. Ozick's decision to alternate Rose's voice with the Bear Boy's allows us access to his experiences as a famous child. As an adult, he traveled aimlessly and became involved in a theater troupe before arriving in the Bronx to become what Rose calls ''merely another bruise in a house of bruises."

Rose comes to mistrust James as ''invader, usurper, thief," even as he is paying her salary and supporting her as one of the Mitwissers. James, who survives on caprice and schnapps, seduces Anneliese and wreaks havoc within the family, leading ultimately to a tragedy that Bertram comes to redeem. The novel is a tapestry of coincidence, disillusionment, ecstasy, luck, and hope, or -- as Rose puts it -- ''the whirligig of incoherence I already suspected the world to be."

In a 1985 essay called ''The Seam of the Snail," Ozick refers to herself as ''a pinched perfectionist" who goes on to the next sentence only when she is satisfied that the previous one is as good as she can make it. This tortuous process is her gift to those of us who value the rich poetry of words and the dramas they can create. ''Heir to the Glimmering World" is a tour de force of a vision and voice that reflect a compassionate intelligence we are most fortunate to have in our world, which inevitably glimmers when Ozick gets hold of it.

Jessica Treadway is an associate professor of creative writing at Emerson College. She is the author of ''Absent Without Leave" and ''And Give You Peace." 

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