Cynthia Ozick, “Puttermesser Paired”

Not ever having been a regular reader of The New Yorker, I learned only belatedly about Puttermesser, but as soon as I read a review of The Puttermesser Papers I knew I had to read “Puttermesser Paired.” Who could resist a romance based on reading biographies of George Eliot? It sounded like Possession for the poetry-impaired. Now that I’ve read it, I know that it is indeed something like Posession, though odder and starker and (impossibly) more intellectual. Like Byatt, Ozick explores excesses of readerly identification, of readers driven by desires that are themselves generated or given form by reading, but no less real, or really felt, because of that–how else do we imagine what we want, after all, if not through stories? In Possession, the knowingness is mostly on Byatt’s part, and on the readers’; we enjoy ourselves at the expense of the 20th-century characters and their obsessions, which inevitably complicates our pleasure at the 19th-century romance. Ozick’s 20th-century characters, in contrast, seem much more in control of the ironies in their story–or at any rate Puttermesser does (I’m not quite sure about Rupert). And while Byatt’s story turns on the convergence of sexual and scholarly desire, with both characterized as consuming and possessive and thus potentially destructive, I appreciate the way Ozick’s story examines the relationship between Eliot and Lewes as “a marriage of two minds”:

They read until they were dried up. They read until their eyes skittered and swelled. The strangeness in it did not elude them: where George Eliot and George Lewes in their nighttime coziness had taken up Scott, Trollope, Balzac, Turgenev, Daudet, Sainte-Beuve, Madame d’Agoult (Lewes recorded all this in his diary), she and Rupert read only the two Georges. Puttermesser discussed what this might mean. It wasn’t for “inspiration,” she pointed out–she certainly wasn’t mixing herself up with a famous dead Victorian. She was conscious of her Lilliputian measur: a worn-out city lawyer, stunted as to real experience, a woman lately secluded, eaten up with loneliness, melancholia ground into the striations of her face. The object was not inspiration but something sterner. The object was just what it had been for the two Georges: study. What Puttermesser and Rupert were studying was a pair of heroic boon companions. Boon companions! It was fellowship they were studying; it was nearness.

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