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The Puttermesser papers by Cynthia Ozick

The Puttermesser papers (1997)

by Cynthia Ozick

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Meh. I think this book is smarter than I am. And it may have taught me a vocabulary word or two. But I didn't enjoy it at all, and last night, finally reaching the last section (Puttermesser in Paradise), I read a few pages and did the unthinkable---I put it down with less than 20 pages left, and with no intention of reading to the end. This "novel" consists of five sections, each of which seems to stand alone, and to have nothing much to do with the others beyond the common character of Ruth Puttermesser. When we meet Ruth, she is a middle aged lawyer stuck in a dull bureaucratic job in the City of New York. After some political shuffling she ends up buried even deeper in the dusty files, on the clear path to termination. Her married lover walks out on her because she would rather read Socrates than frolic in bed when she knows their time together is limited. One night she subconsciously creates a golem from the dirt in her many potted plants. This section was a bit of fun of the magical realism variety, and although I couldn't warm up to Ruth, I thought the book might be going somewhere interesting as her fortunes rose and fell (possibly only in her imagination) with the machinations of her supernatural creation. But the next section took Ruth into a peculiar relationship with a much younger man, a relationship she attempted to mold into a recreation of that between George Eliot and George Lewes. The results were as predictably disastrous as releasing a golem in New York City had been. And this is where I really should have cut my losses and moved on. I continued to dislike Ruth, in the sense that there is nothing likeable about her, not that she is offensive or wicked or stupid; she's just an unfocused, over-educated bore. I also disliked that the author refers to her primarily as "Puttermesser", although it does describe her rather well---a butter knife, utilitarian, but useless, really. The separate parts, which I believe were all first published individually (each section a "paper"), fail to coalesce into a whole for me. Granted there are many allusions I'm missing the point of, my grasp of ancient history and mythology being slight, and naturally I cannot blame the author for that. But what was she getting at? What's it all for? The book is meant to be "comic in tone", apparently. While a couple bits of the golem story were amusing, overall I didn't see much humor in it, particularly in the final section as Ruth faces a distinctly unfunny end to her life on earth.

The book was a National Book Award finalist; it's on a list of 101 Great Jewish novels and the New York Times Best Books of the Year list. It didn't work for me. Your mileage may vary significantly. ( )
1 vote laytonwoman3rd | Oct 26, 2017 |
A series of short stories with Ruth Puttermesser as its main character. Funny at times and serious at others and also quite profound. A reader should be well read because of all the references, mostly to classic novels and writers, the beginner will miss a lot of these. ( )
  charlie68 | Sep 3, 2016 |
Loved the first half, especially the golem story. Ruth Puttermesser unwittingly fantasized into existence a daughter golem, and finished sculpting it with her hands. This was terrific writing. I think I would like it way more, on a whole different level, if I knew anything at all about Jewish religion/culture. The second half sagged badly for me. By now both the story and I had split far apart in widely divergent directions, and pretty much weren't communicating. ( )
  TheBookJunky | Apr 22, 2016 |
Key events in the life (and afterlife) of Ruth Puttermesser, a fairly unremarkable jewish New Yorker are the subject of this strange novel. The most compelling section veers off into magical realism (a genre I'm not particularly fond of) when she creates a female golem from the earth in her houseplant pots. The golem becomes her amanuensis and is so success ful in promoting Puttermesser that she is elected Mayor of New York. During her brief period in charge, she turns the city into a kind of paradise before it all falls apart. In another section, she forms a relationship with a much younger man who 'copies' old master paintings and then sells his versions as postcards. Their relationship also becomes a copy of George Eliot's with both George Lewes and her much younger husband, Johnny Cross.
I find it hard to put my finger on why I liked the novel. I can only label it a 'marmite' book - most readers will either love it or hate it. ( )
  stephengoldenberg | Apr 6, 2016 |
As you read this review, please bear in mind that The Puttermesser Papers really defies summarization. What I offer here can only be the most impoverished of overviews. The book must be read!

Ruth Puttermesser is a woman, an attorney, living alone in New York City. Her mother, retired with her father to Florida, writes to ask Puttermesser to fly down to check out an acquaintance's newly divorced CPA son. "Well," writes her mom, "he's divorced now no children thank God so he's free as a bird as they say his ex the poor thing couldn't conceive." Puttermesser disdains the idea. She is a woman with a considerable intellect, and if there’s one thing she’s not obsessed by it’s her biological clock.

"She went to work for the Department of Receipts and Disbursements. Her title was Assistant Corporation Counsel." She works in a great cumbrous municipal office building to the northeast of city hall — it actually exists — which Ozick describes with a kind of Dantean glee. "It was a monstrous place, gray everywhere, abundantly tunneled, with multitudes of corridors and stairs and shafts, a kind of swollen doom through which the bickering of small-voiced officials whinnied."

Rappoport, her married lover, a fundraiser for oppressed Soviet Jewry, leaves her one night because she prefers Plato’s Theaetetus to his embraces. She develops periodontal disease and fears the surgical exposure of her bones. At work, alas, she’s too smart for her own good. Her presence creates uncomfortable contrasts for those who are less so. Perhaps inevitably she is demoted and hidden away in Taxation. There she writes snappy, indignant letters to her boss. “Dear Mayor Mavett: Your new appointee...Commissioner Alvin Turtleman, has forced a fine civil servant of honorable temperament, with experience both wide and impassioned, out of her job. I am that civil servant. Without a hearing, without due process...” and so on. She does not receive a reply.

In her distress one night, Puttermesser doesn’t quite remember how she’s done it at first, she creates a female golem. A nice little overview of the golem in history follows. The golem, Xanthippe, knows everything her “mother” knows. She is taken to work at the cumbrous municipal office building where she begins to type. She produces a Plan. In short order, that plan has made Puttermesser New York City’s mayor by popular vote and the city flourishes as a low crime, highly civilized quasi-utopia. The murder rate plummets. Sobbing muggers walk into precinct houses, arms raised. Vast gardens thrive all over the city.

But now Rappoport has returned. He is not long in discovering his lust for Xanthippe, whom he takes to bed in Gracie Mansion, for the golem of course is among Puttermesser’s closest advisors. Soon Rappoport is sexually exhausted, raw. He leaves the city with a limp. Xanthippe, however, having tasted human lust, runs amok (as it is historically within the purview of golems to do). In her insatiable craving for boo-tay, one by one she fucks each of Mayor Puttermesser’s esteemed commissioners — presumably also the women — into Rappoportian insensibility. Gradually, the mayor’s carefully selected lieutenants, one by one, resign. Their marriages break up. They move to Florida. They enter monasteries. And just as gradually the city morphs back into the crime-ridden dystopia that it was before our heroine took office. Suffice it to say that Puttermesser does not seek reelection. She takes a year off.

Puttermesser, her name means butterknife in German, is lonely without anything to occupy her time. She reads widely about the life of her favorite novelist, George Eliot, and admires that single woman’s at-the-time scandalous relationship with the married George Lewes. Puttermesser understandably pines for her George Lewes. One day in the Met she comes across Rupert Rabeeno, twenty years her junior, copying David’s Death of Socrates with an accuracy that borders on the uncanny.

Rupert’s card reads “Reenactments of the Masters.” It turns out that this very postmodern art form is how Rupert earns his living. His reenactments are reduced to postcard size and sold in stationers shops. Puttermesser explains to Rupert her dream of finding her own Lewes, and in time she comes to believe she’s found him in Rupert. What follows with their relationship — after long nights of rereading Eliot’s novels and comparing all the major biographies — amazes the reader and defies summary. It must be read.

Then Puttermesser is visited by her Muscovite cousin. Lidia — a cynical, mercenary young woman — has seized on her New York connection in order to make money. God knows she can’t make any in Moscow. It is the era of Gorbachev and perestroika. Lidia comes to New York laden with all sorts of tchotchkes: Lenin as a boy pins, Russian nested dolls, etc. She finds a naive fellow she calls Pyotr, a man utterly without guile, whom she promptly seduces. (One thinks of Lidia as Peter’s first lover ever.) Puttermesser has installed Lidia on a sofa bed in her living room. Soon this is a veritable warehouse filled with Lidia’s inventory. Volodya, Lidia’s man back in Vladivostok, calls every morning at 3 am, inevitably waking Puttermesser. Soon, Lidia, having made her pile so she can marry Volodya, exits. Peter is shattered.

The novel has been rendered in the form of interconnected stories which were previously published independently. Yet together they make an indissoluble whole. It’s quite a trick on Ozick’s part. One studies the book deeply but exactly how she’s done this remains a mystery. Moreover, Ozick’s ear is exquisite. There is only one other such ear I have ever come across in my wide reading and that belongs to Martin Amis. Both writers have this innate zingy facility with language, both use vocabulary as punchlines, and both have unerring narrative instincts. Both also, it might be said, though their respective subject matters differ greatly, put enormous loving care into their work. I’ll spare you the usual superlatives, yet there can be no question that The Puttermesser Papers rises to such an exalted level.

Like Cather, Cynthia Ozick is an essential American novelist. So far her work has been egregiously overlooked by the mainstream. I have the pleasure of robustly recommending it. Please also read The Messiah of Stockholm. ( )
2 vote William345 | Jun 11, 2014 |
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Flaubert does not build up his characters, as did Balzac, by objective, external description; in fact, so careless is he of their outward appearance that on one occasion he gives Emma brown eyes; on another deep black eyes; and on another blue eyes.

--A comment by Dr. Enid Starkie, quoted (disapprovingly) in Flaubert's Parrot, by Julian Barnes.
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Puttermesser was thirty-four, a lawyer.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679777393, Paperback)

Fans of Cynthia Ozick are likely already familiar with Ruth Puttermesser, whose highly educated, unlucky-in-love but rather mystical existence as a Jewish woman in New York City has been chronicled in previously published stories appearing occasionally through the years. The Puttermesser Papers collects the old stories, along with several new ones, combined to create a funny and surreal picaresque narrative, touching upon Puttermesser's job at a blueblood law firm, her creation and intellectual sparring with the golem she makes out of soil from her flowerpots, her term as mayor of New York, her own death by murder, and beyond.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:46 -0400)

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Ruth Puttermesser lives in New York City. Her learning is monumental. Her love life is minimal (she prefers pouring through Plato to romping with married Morris Rappoport). And her fantasies have a disconcerting tendency to come true - with disastrous consequences for what we laughably call "reality."… (more)

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