The Puttermesser Papers, a reissue of Cynthia Ozick’s 1997 novel, concerns the live of Ruth Puttermesser, a Jewish lawyer, living in New York City. The book is separated into five sections, or papers, concerning five different events and stages in Puttermesser’s life.
The novel begins with ‘Puttermesser: Her Work History, Her Ancestory, Her Afterlife’, in which we are introduced to a woman who:
…roamed the same endlessly mazy apartment she had grown up in, her aging piano sheets still on top of the upright piano with the teacher’s X marks on them showing where she should practice up to. Puttermesser always pushed a little ahead of the actual assignment; in school too. Her teachers told her mother she was “highly motivated,” “achievement oriented.” Also she had “scholastic drive.”
Her parents bemoan Puttermesser’s over-education, although when we meet her, it doesn’t seem to have paid off. She works in the Municipal Building, in the shadow of Brooklyn Bridge, in the Department of Receipts and Disbursements. She’s taken a job there after leaving a law firm when she realised that – being Jewish and female – she was never going to be made a partner.
Nevertheless, Puttermesser has a dream – a dream that you and I might share:
…Puttermesser would sit, in Eden, under a middle-sized tree, in the solid blaze of an infinite heart-of-summer July, green, green, green everywhere…And there Puttermesser would, as she imagined, take in. Ready to her left hand, the box of fudge…ready to her right hand, a borrowed steeple of library books: for into Eden the Crotona Park Branch has ascended intact, sans librarian and fines, but with its delectable terrestrial binding-glue fragrances unevaporated.
…Puttermesser reads and reads. Her eyes in Paradise are unfatigued. And if she still does not know what it is she wants to solve, she only has to read on.
It truly sounds like heaven. But Puttermesser’s love of the written word – and ours – comes with warnings from Ozick. Our first hint of this comes a few pages later as we are being told of Puttermesser’s visits to her uncle to learn Hebrew:
Stop. Stop, stop! Puttermesser’s biographer, stop! Disengage, please. Though it is true that biographies are invented, not recorded, here you invent too much. A symbol is allowed, but not a whole scene: do not accommodate too obsequiously to Puttermesser’s romance. Having not much imagination, she is literal with what she has. Uncle Zindel lies under the earth of Staten Island.
Drawing our attention to her novel as a piece of fiction signals to us that Ozick means not for us to take Puttermesser’s story literally but to read it as a comment on society, specifically on those who value book learning without real-life experience.
This prepares us for the fantastical nature of the second story ‘Puttermesser and Xanthippe’ in which Puttermesser wishes for a daughter and then finds herself in possession of a golem-shaped one. Puttermesser uses her book learning to understand the golem and the golem aids her in creating a paradisiacal version of New York City. No surprises then that eventually Xanthippe breaks the boundaries of Puttermesser’s understanding and Puttermesser’s dream crumbles.
The other three stories in the book tell us about Puttermesser’s marriage, her taking in of a Russian refugee and Puttermesser’s death and arrival in paradise. All five tales work well as stand alone stories while, when taken together, create a snapshot of a life. It’s perfectly possible (as with all good literature) to read the stories and be entertained without having to consider what Ozick meant by them. However, I found myself desperate to discuss them with someone else – both on a story level and as to whether Ozick was satirising the learned.
The Puttermesser Papers is a great book in the sense that it entertained me while leaving me with plenty to think about. One on which to ponder and return to again.
Thanks to Atlantic Books for the review copy.