The title of Cynthia Ozick’s collection of four short stories is taken from the first story. The stories share a theme of deception. “Dictation”, the first story, is about the chance meeting of secretaries of Henry James and Joseph Conrad. The more senior and well-established James’ invites Conrad to his home to discuss literature and his liberated amanuensis (aka secretary) takes Mr. Conrad’s shy, restrained and admiring employee under her wing. Mr James’ secretary is convinced that the secretaries know the man and author and are better qualified as editors than those men who serve as such. With a desire to achieve what limited recognition is possible at the time, they plot to edit their bosses’ works by transposing language from one author’s manuscript into the others when consistent with the narratives. The point being that with the invention of the typewriter the authors’ became so dependent upon their secretaries that they would not, and did not, recognize the deception.
The second story, “Actors”, stars Matt Sorley (Mose Sadacca), a mostly unemployed, difficult and aging actor whose self-importance rises above the secondary roles that he is occasionally given. His wife, a former actress with more talent, supports them with work outside of theatre. A director who would offer Mr. Sorley non-lead roles on occasion tells him that a young director is interested in having him play King Lear in a new production. It is “modern” theatre. It would be a revival of a Yiddish theatre version of the work based on an unfinished play of a daughter of Eli Miller, an equally self-important Yiddish theatre actor of the time, now in a home. The deception is that Mr. Sorley transforms himself into Mr. Miller’s vision of the work, only to be upstaged.
“At Fumicaro” is the third story of deception. The theme is self-deception on a personal and universal scale. In short it is about religious piety. The venue is a conference of Catholics at Fumicaro, Italy, where the Frank Castle, a temporarily celibate critic and journalist was returning to give a presentation. He happens upon a young chambermaid who it ill in the bathroom at the hotel at which he is staying. Her only English is “No belief” and he does not speak Italian. She is an innocent, apart from having been just raped by her mother’s cobbler boyfriend. She prays to Jesus wherever she finds him. Mr. Castle pours his pent-up emotions into this vessel, by sleeping with her, marrying her and taking her back to New York City. He imagines and realizes the ridicule of his social class from marrying this uneducated pregnant child. He ignores it, finding belief in her.
The last story, “What Happened to the Baby” is a choir of deception. The narrator is the faux niece of here mother’s cousin. Her always impoverished “uncle” was the inventor of “GNU” a universal language that was to displace Esperanto. Her uncle’s skill was sleeping with female believers. The name GNU came from the first sounds of his dead child. The child’s death may have resulted from his delay in finding a doctor while he slept with the mother of Esperanto while is wife was nursing her sick child and their own. The niece, supplants her con artist mother in supporting Uncle Simon, while trying to learn the family history from her divorced “aunt” Essie. Essie is a mistress of deception.
Ms. Ozick’s stories are good stories, but I was not emotionally or intellectually attached to them. I thought the idea in “Dictation” was interesting, but its conclusion was flat. A Pulitzer Prize and Mann Booker prize finalist, her writing is well-respected. These stories, although worth reading, may not be up to the level of her other work. Descriptive of character, but for me, lacking feeling for them.