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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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