At the close of the nineteenth century, a cache of papyri and ostraca began to circulate within the burgeoning, semi-legitimate market for antiquities. The scholars who eventually studied them made a bracing discovery: there had been an independent community of Jewish people on Elephantine, an island on the Nile in upper Egypt, as early as the fifth century BCE. These texts, some of the oldest extant Jewish manuscripts, suggested some jarring realities: that the Judaism practiced by these people was polytheistic; that they established a temple outside of Jerusalem, contravening Deuteronomic law; and, most shockingly, that the narratives of Moses and the Exodus from Egypt may not have been true (or at least that this community had no knowledge of them).
What exactly all this means for scholars of Judaism continues to be hashed out. For Cynthia Ozick, these documents are the core of the many subtexts populating her most recent book, Antiquities. Published in April just a few days shy of her ninety-third birthday, this novella (actually subtitled “A Story”) continues in the vein of Ozick’s familiar obsessions: the work of Henry James, mid-century U.S. culture, the friction between WASP America and Jewish people, and abiding questions of knowledge and deception.
Among the many stylistic and thematic inheritances Ozick absorbs from James is her interest in deceivers and the secrets they hold. While her deployment of these materials might seem to evince an allegiance to the mainstream of WASP American fiction, there actually is a deeply Jewish dimension to her wrestling with James. As Adam Kirsch observed in a 2011 essay about her in the New Republic, “If writing fiction is somehow forbidden to Jews, Ozick proposes, it is not because Jews cannot do it, but because they should not do it.” Ozick herself vacillates on this point. In the “Forewarning” to her 1989 collection of essays, Metaphor and Memory, she takes the profoundly Jewish sensitivity towards the falsity of graven images and turns it on its head: “All good stories are honest and most good essays are not.” The reader of Antiquities should hold this aphoristic utterance in mind as they make their way through its curious blend of fact and fiction.
The narrator of Antiquities, Lloyd Wilkinson Petrie, is an aging lawyer and one of the trustees of Temple Academy, a fictional Westchester boarding school. It was long ago shuttered and repurposed as living quarters for him and the other remaining trustees, all of whom were Temple students. They’ve been given the task of writing a memoir of their time at the school, a remit that Petrie quickly surpasses. Working furiously between April 30, 1949, and Memorial Day, 1950, he produces not a history, but, as he describes it, an “album of remembrance, a collection of small memoirs meant to stand out from the welter of the past—seven chapters of, if I may borrow an old catchphrase, emotion recollected in tranquility.” What was to be no more than ten pages of Temple memories becomes a paranoiac’s descent into the meaning and mysteries of the past.