Tag Archives: reflections

Antiquities by Cynthia Ozick

Cynthia Ozick has a reputation of being a great stylist. This was the first book of hers I had read, despite 17 other works listed in this volume. I can’t remember what attracted me to this novella, her most recent work, but it may have been to do with her being 93 when it was published. 

Antiquities

The title could refer to the seven old men, former pupils of the now defunct Temple Academy for Boys, who had become trustees of and lived in the converted buildings. Or the antiquities might refer to the items left to the narrator by his father who acquired them from an archaeological dig in Egypt. Or it could refer to the memories of the narrator, of his school days, and of one particular boy. The narrator is writing in 1949, so his memoir itself is something of an antiquity. He introduces himself – as he would say – ‘thusly’:

My name is Lloyd Wilkinson Petrie, and I write on the 30th of April, 1949, at the behest of the Trustees of the Temple Academy for Boys, an institution that saw its last pupil thirty-four years ago. (3) 

Who uses the word ‘behest’? Who says ‘saw its last pupil’ instead of writing ‘the Academy closed’? This formal, rather pompous style, where no noun is without an accompanying adjective, reveals a great deal about the narrator, Mr Petrie. He has had a career in the law, which might explain his ponderous style, but he is also a very self-satisfied but lonely man. Despite being asked, alongside the other trustees, for just a chapter for the Album of Remembrance, he has provided a whole book. However, by the final section he is no longer writing as a trustee but as a man who has been challenged by his own memories and reflections. Notice how in the final section his writing has changed: from long sentences, containing arcane words and phrases, to short sentences, using everyday language, but with an obscure message.

I give this writing no date. I am unsure of the date. I dislike putting on my shoes. The windows cannot be opened. There are no fans here in summer. The air conditioning blows cold.
I think I know the significant thing. Ben-Zion Elefantin too knows the significant thing.
Only the two of us know.
Not in the heavens, not in the sea, not a god made of stone buried in the earth. A temple in a lost kingdom of storks on the Nile, is that what it is?
Only the two of us know.
We two kings. (179)

In the 167 pages between these two extracts, Cynthia Ozick shows us Petrie’s gradual disintegration, from stuffy self-importance to lonely slightly mad old man. 

Much of the short novel focuses on Petrie’s unhappy school days, when he was an isolated and unpopular child. The Temple Academy was a school run according to ideas about English religious and scholarly principles, so they wore blazers, played games, learned Latin and French and horsemanship. Chapel was compulsory. 

As he writes Petrie recalls the arrival of Ben-Zion Elefantin, another isolated pupil. He has an odd name, and a strange appearance, having long red hair. He speaks with a slight accent. His parents are known to be traders from Egypt who are very rich, travel a great deal and place him in a succession of boarding schools. While all this makes Ben-Zion Elefantin stand out, the feature that ensures his isolation is his Jewishness. 

The boys were at school at the turn of the century, but Petrie is writing in 1949. He makes no reference to the horrors that had recently been unfolding in Europe, the meaning of the ‘Final Solution’, and liberation of the concentration camps. Petrie cannot quite overcome the antisemitic attitudes of his childhood, even at the distance of adulthood and uses inappropriate language and generalisations. 

The young Petrie and the newcomer are drawn together by their isolation. They play chess. Ben-Zion tells Petrie that his ancestors are a little-known Jewish sect, originating on Elephant Island in the Nile, with their own rituals. Petrie wishes to impress the new boy with his father’s Egyptian antiquities. These play an important part in Petrie’s idea of his family, as the circumstances in which they obtained were very strange and not explained. His father had simply disappeared for months, returning from Egypt where he had been assisting a cousin, William Flinders, with an archaeological dig and bringing the artefacts with him. Petrie senior never spoke about what he had done during the time he was missing.

Ben-Zion is not impressed. The boys become estranged and Ben-Zion leaves the school soon after. In later years Petrie tries to ascertain the truth of the story his young friend told him. 

In the timeframe in which he is writing, Petrie is again assailed by his school mates, the remaining trustees. His precious typewriter, given him by his lover (now deceased), is covered in Indian ink. More of the Trustees die, and the remaining residents must find new accommodation. Petrie has few connections to help him.

Cynthia Ozick draws our attention to the part played by the past and our memories of it and how it is used to make sense of our lives, in the creation of our identity. Petrie reveals himself to have created his importance from his distorted memories, despite a poor relationship with his son, his fellow residents, and the isolated school friend. He has a view of himself as tolerant and mild but reveals himself to be contemptuous and vindictive.

Memories are embodied in artefacts such the typewriter, the inherited archaeological objects. Some objects are given strange and tenuous importance, such as the portrait of Henry James, who once was in the presence of someone who shook hands with his father and visited the school. 

This is a strange book. But if being a stylist means conveying the gradual disintegration of a sad man through his own text, then I agree. Cynthia Ozick is an excellent stylist.

Antiquities by Cynthia Ozick, published in 2021 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 179pp

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Gallimaufry or why my writing group is cock-o-hoop

Gallimaufry. Say it out loud to hear the skip in the middle of the word, like a sedate court dance. Gallimaufry is a late medieval word, probably from the French, meaning a ridiculous medley, or a hodge-podge of odds and ends. It is the title of the anthology by The Totnes Writing Group. We took delivery of 100 copies on 1st December last year. The group had been working towards this for about four months. The copies were impressive: the cover and the piles. The writers present felt immense pride at an ambition achieved, and a successful project completed.

228 Galli cover

The Group

The group was started in 2013 as a library initiative – those libraries again. (see next post on 5th February). The writers are a diverse lot. They include a gardener, care worker, home tutor, counsellor, IT expert, bowls player, theatre producer, artists, teachers, psychologist, editor, journalists, film maker. Some are established writers, others are beginners. A motley group of 15 writers had produced a collection of 36 poems, short stories, memoirs, reflections and illustrations. My own contribution was a short story.

228 Writers group

Most of the stress of the project was carried by Fiona Murray who edited the book, dealt with the printers, and all the complaints of writers who had commas and fonts adjusted without their say-so.

Why we did it

Writers like having readers and for many it is the reason they write. Although members read their work to the group, which is important, many of us also seek a wider audience. We began to ask ourselves, why don’t we publish a book of our own writings and then used the skills within the group to find a way to do it.

The anthology provided protection and support for those who love writing but do not want to stick out and who suffer from lack of confidence about going public with their writing. It’s a bit like singing in a choir, one of our members observed. If we publish again we hope more writers from our group will contribute.

What the group learned

At our New Year meeting the group identified the following learnings:

Feedback from our readers suggests that the diversity of themes, styles and genres is an attractive feature of the collection. We did not have a theme although if a writer wanted one we suggested ‘Totnes’. This is pretty much how our group operates – loosely.

The cover and overall professional look added greatly to the attractiveness of the anthology. The silk collage used for the cover was made by Fiona Green, a member of the group.

Writers selected the pieces they wanted to contribute. The editor did not choose what to include. We set an initial 2000 word limit and later, when we worked out we could include more for the same costs, a few people contributed additional material.

The experience of writing is lonely. Our warm, supportive group made one aspect of writing – the production of the anthology – a social process for our writers. Social support is something we all value in the writing group.

Writing is often ephemeral and the production of the collection meant that words took a more permanent form for the contributors. Seeing our work on paper, and alongside the other contributions, made us feel more confident about our writing. It has also made us question our current practice. At the moment the writer reads aloud their text for which they want feedback. Perhaps we should have hard copies of the written text because seeing a poem or short story in print is different from hearing it.

The production of our anthology has made us question the purposes of our group. Are we in a new phase? Do we want to launch into another publication, even one in a different format, or do we want to focus a little more on writing processes?

What we need to think about if we do this again

Some of our practical decisions indicate a lack of experience. We could have thought further ahead about costings, publicity and sales. Since our purpose was not to raise money, but to provide a platform, some of that seemed less important. We still have a dozen copies from our print run. We are on the point of breaking even!

The sales team having some success.

The sales team having some success.

Our frustrations (carried by our noble editor) about the printer’s inability to make corrections without causing further unwanted alterations to the text suggest we need to build in more time and more support for proofreading. We wanted a local printer, but we might look for a more responsive one.

And what would be the purpose of a further publication? Do we want to be cherished by the local community? Do we want to be better known as a creative group, and to contribute to the local creative community?

Overall

We learned so much about publishing that I would recommend the process to anyone who wants a modest platform for their writing.

I acknowledge the contribution of our discussion within the group about what we learned in the writing of this post. However I have not attempted to define what the group thought. We are a diverse lot and we seldom agree on everything, but this project was A GOOD THING.

Gallimaufry, edited by Fiona Murray, 87pp. Price £5. Published December 2015.

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Filed under Books, Libraries, Publishing our book, words, Writing