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Antiquities and Other Stories


Antiquities and Other Stories

Though she’ll be celebrating her 93rd birthday this month, Cynthia Ozick’s literary output doesn’t give any indication of slowing down. Her latest work, ANTIQUITIES, is an enigmatic novel that demonstrates her prose skills are undiminished, even as they’re deployed in the service of a story that doesn’t feel fully worthy of her considerable talent.

Ozick's protagonist, Lloyd Wilkinson Petrie, is retired from his family’s law firm and the youngest of seven elderly surviving trustees of the Temple Academy for Boys --- an obsessively Anglophilic “forgotten patrician academy” in Westchester County, New York. In the spring of 1949, he has come to live at the school with his six fellow trustees, and has embarked on an assignment to contribute 10 pages to an “album of remembrance” that will supplement the official history of the school, 34 years after it closed.

"There’s certainly nothing about [ANTIQUITIES] that will cause any reader to resent the brief investment of time it will take to read it, and some may well find themselves drawn to its vague sense of mystery."

Petrie’s work exceeds the limit by a considerable amount, but still clocks in at under 180 pages. He toils away on the Remington typewriter used by his former secretary and lover, Peg, raising the ire of the less industrious colleagues he’s constantly criticizing, one of whom sabotages his productivity by pouring ink on the machine. One of the anonymous trustees dies following an accident, while another takes his own life. Despite these deaths and his own persistent complaints, Petrie soldiers on in the face of fatigue, a sense of the project’s futility, and his dismay that “the past is mist, its figures and images no better than faded paintings.”

Two principal subjects consume Petrie's attention: the story of Petrie's father --- who, in 1880, suddenly and inexplicably left his new bride to join a distant cousin, the real-life Egyptologist Sir Flinders Petrie, on his excavation of the Great Pyramid of Giza and other archaeological projects --- and Petrie's recollections of a young Jewish student, Ben-Zion Elefantin, with whom he developed a relationship when both were young students at Temple.

Since the time of his father’s premature death, Petrie has retained a small box of relics and a notebook from the Egyptian excursion. The fact that Ben-Zion, one of a handful of Jewish students at the WASPy school, claims to descend from the small Jewish sect that lived on Elephantine Island, in the Nile River, until the fourth century BCE --- after splitting from the main body of Israelites following the Exodus --- loosely links these preoccupations.

There’s not much more to describe by way of plot. In elegant, if sometimes stilted, prose, Petrie circles these topics, largely frustrated in any effort to penetrate the mystery of his father’s disappearance (he returned to his law practice following the trip and never spoke about it to his family), or get as close to Ben-Zion as he seemingly would like. He must deal with the hostility of his schoolmates toward his strange friend, and the latter’s implacable reserve, but there’s never a confrontation on either front that raises the temperature from a simmer to a boil. Imagining himself as Ben-Zion’s James Boswell, and the subject of his story as Alfred Dreyfus, he complains, “It discomfits me to think that if I am Boswell, the small figure I was once so achingly devoted to imagined himself to be Dreyfus.”

It seems that anti-Semitism is one of the novel’s themes, but apart from the fact that he doesn’t engage in overt bullying, Petrie’s own attitudes toward Jews are ambivalent at best. Only four years removed from the end of World War II, he notes, “The newspapers are rife with grotesque tales of camps and ovens; one hardly knows what to believe.” He dismisses Sigmund Freud as “this charlatan Jew and his preposterous notions.” And while reflecting on his affection for Ben-Zion, he admits, “I never called him Hebe; but I thought it. And sometimes, I admonish myself, I still think it.”

ANTIQUITIES is a perplexing novel. There’s certainly nothing about it that will cause any reader to resent the brief investment of time it will take to read it, and some may well find themselves drawn to its vague sense of mystery. But when considering Cynthia Ozick’s diverse, impressive body of work, there are other places where that time might be better spent.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on April 16, 2021

Antiquities and Other Stories
by Cynthia Ozick