Authors: Cynthia Ozick
Heir to the Glimmering World
A Mariner Book
Houghton Mifflin Company
BOSTON NEW YORK
Books by Cynthia Ozick
Heir to the Glimmering World
The Puttermesser Papers
The Messiah of Stockholm
The Cannibal Galaxy
Levitation: Five Fictions
Bloodshed and Three Novellas
The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories
Quarrel & Quandary
Fame & Folly
Metaphor & Memory
Art & Ardor
First Mariner Books edition 2005
Copyright © 2004 by Cynthia Ozick
All rights reserved
For information about permission to reproduce selections from
this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Company,
215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.
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LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
Heir to the glimmering world / Cynthia Ozick.
1. Bronx (New York, N.Y.)—Fiction. 2. Inheritance and succession—
Fiction. 3. Children of authors—Fiction. 4. Refugees, Jewish—Fiction.
5. Jewish families—Fiction. 6. Benefactors—Fiction. 7. Rich people—
Fiction. 8. Nannies—Fiction. 9. Orphans—Fiction. I. Title.
Book design by Anne Chalmers
Typeface: Janson Text
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
A portion of this book previously appeared
Princeton University Chronicle Supplement.
The absence of imagination had
Itself to be imagined.
"The Plain Sense of Things"
Yet the world is full of interpreters....
So the question arises, why would we
rather interpret than not?
"The Man in the Macintosh"
1935, when I was just eighteen, I entered the household of Rudolf Mitwisser, the scholar of Karaism. "The scholar of Karaism"—at that time I had no idea what that meant, or why it should be "the" instead of "a," or who Rudolf Mitwisser was. I understood only that he was the father of what seemed to be numerous children, and that he had come from Germany two years before. I knew these things from an advertisement in the Albany
Professor, arrived 1933 Berlin, children 3–14,
requires assistant, relocate NYC. Respond
Mitwisser, 22 Westerley.
It read like a telegram; Professor Mitwisser, I would soon learn, was parsimonious. The ad did not mention Elsa, his wife. Possibly he had forgotten about her.
In my letter of reply I said that I would be willing to go to New York, though it was not clear from the notice in the
what sort of assistance was needed. Since the ad had included the age of a very young child, was it a nanny that was desired? I said I would be pleased to take on the job of nanny.
It was Elsa, not Mitwisser, who initiated the interview—though, as it turned out, she was not in charge of it. In that family she was in charge of little enough. I rode the bus to a corner populated by a cluster of small shabby stores—grocery, shoemaker's, dry cleaner's, and under a tattered awning a dim coffee shop vomiting out odors of some foul stuff frying. The windows of all these establishments were impenetrably dirty. Across the street a deserted gas station had long ago gone out of business: several large dogs scrabbled over the oil-blackened pavement and lifted their hind legs against the rusting pumps.
The address in the ad drew me along narrow old sidewalks fronting narrow old houses in what I had come to think of as the Albany style: part Hudson Gothic, part Dutch settler. But mainly old. There were bow-shaped stained-glass insets over all the doors. The lamps in the rooms behind them, glowing violet and amber through the lead-bordered segments of colored panes, shut me out. I thought of underground creatures kept from the light. It was November, getting on to an early dusk.
Frau Mitwisser led me into a tiny parlor so dark that it took some time before her face, small and timid as a vole's, glimmered into focus. "Forgive me," she began, "Rudi wishes not the waste of electricity. We have not so much money. We cannot pay much. Food and a bed and not so many dollars." She stopped; her eyelids looked swollen. "The tutor for my sons, it was you see . .. charity. Also the beds, the linens—"
She was all apology: the slope of her shoulders, her fidgety hands twittering around her mouth, or reaching into the air for a phantom rope to haul her out of sight. Helplessly but somehow also slyly, she was reversing our mutual obligation—she appealing for my sympathy, I with the power to withhold it. It was hard to take in those pursed umlauts sprinkled through her vowels, and the throaty burr of her voice was lanced by pricks so sharp that I pulled back a little. She saw this and instantly begged my pardon.
"Forgive me," she said again. "It gives much difficulty with my accent. At my age to change the language is not so simple. You will see with my husband the very great difference. In his youth for four years he studies at Cambridge University in England, he becomes like an Englishman. You will see. But I ... I do not have the—
wie nennt man das?
Her last word was shattered by an enormous thud above our heads. I looked up: was the ceiling about to fall in on us? A second thud. A third.
"The big ones," Frau Mitwisser said. "They make a game, to jump from the top of the ...
how you call this? I tell them every day no, but anyhow they jump."
This gave me a chance to restore us to business. "And the littler ones?" I asked. "Do you need help with them?"
In the dimness I glimpsed her bewilderment; it was as if she was begging for eclipse.
"No, no, we go to New York so Rudi is close to the big library. Here is for him so little. The committee, it is so very kind that they give us this house, and also they make possible the work at the College, but now it is enough, Rudi must go to New York."
A gargantuan crash overhead: a drizzle of plaster dust landed on my sleeve.
"Forgive me," Frau Mitwisser said. "Better I go upstairs now,
She hurried out and left me alone in the dark. I buttoned up my coat; the interview, it seemed, was over. I had understood almost nothing. If they didn't want a nanny here, what did they want? And if they had had a tutor, what had become of the tutor? Had they paid too little to keep him? On an angry impulse I switched on a lamp; the pale bulb cast a stingy yellow stain on a threadbare rug. From the condition of the sofa and an armchair, much abused, I gathered that "the big ones" were accustomed to assaulting the furniture downstairs as well as upstairs—or else what I was seeing was thrift-shop impoverishment. A woolen shawl covered a battered little side-table, and propped on it, in a flower-embossed heavy silver frame that contradicted all its surroundings, was a photograph—hand-tinted, gravely posed, redolent of some incomprehensible foreignness—of a dark-haired young woman in a high collar seated next to a very large plant. The plant's leaves were spear-shaped, serrated, and painted what must once have been a natural enough green, faded to the color of mud. The plant grew out of a great stone urn, on which the face and wings of a cherub were carved in relief.
I turned off the lamp and headed for the front door with its stained-glass inset, and was almost at the sidewalk (by now it was fully night) when I heard someone call, "Fräulein! You there! Come back!"
The dark figure of a giant stood in the unlit doorway. Those alien syllables—"Fräulein," yelled into the street like that—put me off. Already I disliked the foreignness of this house: Elsa Mitwisser's difficult and resentful English, the elitist solemnity of the silver frame and its photo, the makeshift hand-me-down sitting room. These were refugees; everything about them was bound to be makeshift, provisional, resentful. I would have gone home then and there, if there had been a home to go to, but it was clear that my cousin Bertram was no longer happy to have me. I was a sort of refugee myself.
(Some weeks later, when I dared to say this to Anneliese—"I sometimes feel like a refugee myself"—she shot me a look of purest contempt.)
Like a dog that has been whistled for, I followed him back into the house.
"Now we have light," he said, in a voice so authoritatively godlike that it might just as well have boomed "Let there be light" at the beginning of the world. He fingered the lamp. Once again the faint yellow stain appeared on the rug and seeped through the room. "To dispel the blackness, yes? Our circumstances have also been black. They are not so easeful. You have already seen my nervous Elsa. So that is why she leaves it to me to finish the talk."
He was as far from resembling an Englishman as I could imagine. In spite of the readier flow of language (a hundred times readier than his wife's), he was German—densely, irrevocably German. My letter was in his hands: very large hands, with big flattened thumbs and coarse nails, strangely humped and striated—more a machinist's hands than a scholar's. In the niggardly light (twenty-five watts, I speculated) he seemed less gargantuan than the immense form in the doorway that had called me back from the street. But I was conscious of a force, of a man accustomed to dictating his conditions.
"My first requirement," Mitwisser said, "is your freedom to leave this place."
"I can do that," I said. "I'd like to."
"It is what
would like that is at issue. And what I would like is a certain engagement with—I will not say ideas. But you must be able to understand what I ask of you."
"I've done most of a year of college."
What is this nonsense you write here about a nanny? How is this responsive?"
"Well, your ad mentioned children, so I thought—"
"You thought mistakenly. You should know that my work has to do precisely with opposition to the arrogance of received interpretation. Received interpretation is often enough simply error. Why should I not speak everywhere of my children? There is no context or relation in which they do not have a part. That is why your obligations will on occasion include them—but your primary duty is to me. And you will try not to disturb my poor wife."
It seemed, then, that I was hired—though I still did not know for what.
And it was not until a long time afterward that Anneliese confided that there had been (even in that period of crisis unemployment) no other applicants.
T WAS MY FATHER'S
habit to tell people that my mother had died in childbirth: it had a nineteenth-century intimation of Tragic Loss. He said this to account for what he admitted was the shallowness of his paternal devotion. "The shallowness of my paternal devotion"—that was exactly how he put it. He cared (though not crucially) about the opinion of his colleagues and acquaintances, and would send out a stream of self-castigation in order, he hoped, to nip their condemnation in the bud. His intention was to arrive at his own condemnation fast and first. It was a kind of exculpation.
No one condemned him; no one paid much attention. My father had, as far as I could see, no friends. I thought it was because he talked too much, elaborated and fabricated too much, and always took an exaggerated view of himself. He told so many stories that after a time he forgot the facts out of which his pessimistic romances sprang. It was even possible that he truly believed he had lost my mother the day I was born, though in reality I was almost three when she died of leukemia. I retain an uncertain memory of her lying on a sofa, holding my rag doll—or it may only have been a handkerchief. Years later, Lena, one of our series of housekeepers, informed me of my mother's enduring illness.
Of course it was my father who would refer to "our series of housekeepers." They were mostly neighbor women who would come to fetch our dirty laundry, scrub it on washboards in their cellar basins, and hang it to dry on their own clotheslines. Or sometimes one of these women would bring in a meal of hot cooked food, and while my father and I sat eating our supper, would mop the bathroom floor or change the sheets. It was all haphazard and irregular. The women were paid little; my father preferred to barter. He taught algebra and geometry at the high school, and would offer to tutor a pupil in exchange for a load of soiled clothing or two consecutive dinners. Disorder was our rule of life—disorder and my father's puffery. In the post office once, when a man buying stamps alongside my father struck up a conversation and asked what he did for a living, my father replied, "Professor of mathematics. Got my doctorate at Yale." He had no doctorate and had never set foot in New Haven; he liked to dream out loud. An invention of this sort was ordinarily harmless and evanescent, but the man in the post office turned out to be the uncle of one of my father's pupils; they met again at a school event, and my father was exposed. I suffered from such chronic embarrassments, but nothing troubled me more than my father's negotiations with those women. No one else I knew lived with our disorganization and dependence. My father was incapable of washing his socks or baking a potato. When no one was available to help out—around Christmastime, for instance—we ate dry cereal for nearly a week.