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Authors: Cynthia Ozick


BOOK: Dictation
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A Quartet
Cynthia Ozick

Boston · New York


Quarrel & Quandary
Fame & Folly
Metaphor & Memory
Art & Ardor
The Din in the Head

Heir to the Glimmering World
The Puttermesser Papers
The Shawl
The Messiah of Stockholm
The Cannibal Galaxy
Levitation: Five Fictions
Bloodshed and Three Novellas
The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories

Copyright © 2008 by Cynthia Ozick

All rights reserved

For information about permission to reproduce
selections from this book, write to Permissions,
Houghton Mifflin Company, 215 Park Avenue South,
New York, New York 10003.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Ozick, Cynthia.
Dictation : a quartet / Cynthia Ozick.
p. cm.
I. Title.
PS3565.Z5D53 2008
813'.54—dc22 2007052331

Book design by Melissa Lotfy

Printed in the United States of America

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

"Actors" and "At Fumicaro" were previously published
The New Yorker.
"What Happened to the Baby?"
first appeared in the
Atlantic Monthly.

D.M. and M.J.,








In the early summer of 1901, Lamb House, Henry James's exurban domicile in Rye, was crowded with flowers. At the close of the morning's dictation, Mary Weld, his young amanuensis, had gone out to the back garden with scissors in hand, to cut the thorny vines that clung to the heat of a surrounding brick wall. On the entrance hall table, on the parlor mantelpiece, on the dining room sideboard—everywhere in the house where the eyes of the expected visitors might fall—she scattered rose-filled vases. Then she mounted her bicycle and rode off.

The visitors did not arrive until late afternoon. Tea was already laid, as usual with safe and respectable toast and jam, but also with the perilously sweet and oily pastries James was so fond of, though they made his teeth hurt horribly. Even before the knocker was lifted, he knew they had come: here were the wheels of the trap scraping on gravel, and the pony's skipping gait, and a child's angry howl when he was taken from his mother and set down before an alien door. James stood waiting, nervously braiding his fingers—Lamb House was unaccustomed to the presence of a noisy, unpredictable, and certainly precarious three-year-old boy, and one with so un-English a name.

Four years before, James had summoned Joseph Conrad to lunch at 34 DeVere Gardens, his London flat. The two of them sat in the unsteady yellow light of newly installed electric bulbs and talked of the nature of fiction—yet not quite as writer to writer. Conrad was a stringy, leathery, youthful-looking man of nearly forty, a literary cipher, virtually unknown. As an act of homage, he had sent James a copy of
Al-mayer's Folly,
his first—at that time his only—novel. James saw something extraordinary in it, even beyond the robustness of style and subject: he saw shrewdness, he saw fervency, he saw intuition, he saw authority; he saw, in rougher circumstance, humanity. In a way, he saw a psychological simulacrum of himself—and in a Polish seaman!

Awed and self-conscious, Conrad could scarcely lick away the grains of crumpet lingering on his lower lip. He understood himself to be a novice still, perpetually distraught and uncertain: was his stuff any good at all? And he worried, in these rooms of high privilege, and under the false yellow light with its unholy flicker, whether his pronunciation was passable. Sometimes he used words, marvelous English words, that he had only
and when he spoke the marvelous words, no matter how intimately he felt them, their syllables, striking the surprised eyes of his hearers, seemed all in the wrong tones: he could not bring out, except in ink, that sublimely organized Anglo-Saxon speech. Polish was otherwise constructed; now and then he borrowed the counterpoint of its ornate melodies, but he would never again write in his native language. He would not—he could not—speak to his wife in any foreign voice; she knew no language other than her own. Despite what was called a "natural" intelligence, she had little education. She was sensible and good-hearted and straightforward and comfortably dependable. He harbored some small shame over her, and was ashamed of his shame. He hid it, as much as he could, even from himself. He had learned, early on, the difference between common sense and infatuation; marriage meant the former. In this initial colloquy with the Master (he hoped others would follow), he was reluctant to disclose that he was, in fact, a new husband, and that he had only recently, and willingly, thrown himself into the coils of domesticity. There was nothing in his wife's character to attract James's always inquisitive ear—was this why he was blotting out his Jessie? Or was it because James, in all the nobility of his supreme dedication, led an unencumbered bachelor life, altogether freed to his calling? While a man with a wife, and perhaps soon with a child...

DeVere Gardens had saluted the coming century—the nascent twentieth—with artificial illumination, and also with an innovation growing more and more commonplace. It was said that the Queen had requested the new thing for her secretary, who had refused it in terror. On a broad surface reserved for it in a far corner of the room where the older writer sat discoursing, and the younger went on nodding his chin with an affirmative and freshly inaugurated little pointed beard, stood the Machine. It stood headless and armless and legless—brute shoulders merely: it might as well have been the torso of a broken god. Even at a distance it struck Conrad as strange and repulsive, the totem of a foreign civilization to which, it now appeared, James had uncannily acclimated. The thing was large and black and glossy, and in height it ascended in tiers, like a stadium. Each round key was shielded by glass and rimmed by a ring of metal. James had been compelled to introduce the Machine into his labors after years of sweeping a wrist across paper; gripping a pen had become too painful. To relieve the recurring cramp, he hired William MacAlpine, a stenographer, who recorded in shorthand James's dictation and then transcribed it on the Machine; but it soon turned out to be more efficient to speak directly to the thing itself, with MacAlpine at the keys.

Their glassy surfaces were catching the overhead light. Shifting his head, Conrad saw blinking semaphores.

"I note, sir," James remarked, "that you observe with some curiosity the recent advent of a monstrously clacking but oh so monumentally modern Remington. The difficulty of the matter is that my diligent typewriter, a plausible Scot conveniently reticent, is at bottom too damnably expensive, and I believe I can get a highly competent little woman for half,
n'est-çe pas?
May I presume, Mr. Conrad, that you, in the vigor of youth, as it were, are not of a mind to succumb to a mechanical intercessor, as I, heavier with years, perforce have succumbed?"

Dictation? Dependence? Inconceivable separation of hand from paper, inner voice leaching into outer, immemorial sacred solitude shattered by a breathing creature always in sight, a tenacious go-between, a constantly vibrating interloper, the human operator! The awful surrender of the fructuous mind that lives on paper, lives
paper, paper and ink and nothing else! Squinting upward at the electrical sorcery suspended from the ceiling, a thread of burning wire that mimicked and captured in its tininess the power of fire, it occurred to Conrad that Jessie at her sewing might covet this futuristic advantage. As for himself and the Machine ... never. He had his seaman's good right hand, and the firm mast of his pen, and the blessèd ocean of paper, as white as a sail and as relentless as the wind.

"An amanuensis?" he replied. "No, Mr. James, I am not so progressive. Indeed I loathe revolution. I have run steam in my day, but I was trained to the age of sail. I fear I am wedded to my bad old habits."


Not long after Conrad's introduction to DeVere Gardens, James gave up the implacable press and rush of London and went to live in the country, in his cherished Lamb House—an established householder at last. He took MacAlpine and the Machine with him. But on this warm June afternoon in 1901, when Conrad and Jessie and their son Borys came to visit, changes were evident on both sides. For one, MacAlpine had been replaced by the highly competent (and cheaper) little woman James had hoped for: Miss Weld. And for another, James now knew to a certainty that Conrad had a wife—a plump wife made all the plumper by a plethora of bulging and writhing bundles, among them the screeching child forcibly lifted over the threshold, a multiform traveling nursery to serve his exigencies, and a dangling basket of ripe plums. Her tread was nevertheless light, though with a bit of a limp from a knee injured in girlhood. The plums, she explained, were for their host, not that the little boy wouldn't like two or three, if Mr. James wouldn't mind, and would Mr. James please excuse the child, he'd been dozing the whole eighteen miles from Kent, it was the waking so abruptly when they arrived set him off ... She had the unschooled accent of the streets; her father had toiled in a warehouse.

Conrad, James saw, kept apart from wife and son, as if they had been strangers who were for some unfathomable reason attaching themselves to his affairs. He was much altered from the grateful young acolyte of DeVere Gardens. He carried himself with a look that hinted at a scarred and haughty nature. He had since brought out half a dozen majestic works of fiction; two of them,
The Nigger of the "Narcissus"
Lord Jim,
had already placed him as a literary force. He and James regularly exchanged fresh volumes as soon as they were out; each acknowledged the other as an artist possessed—though in private each man harbored his reservation and his doubt. James thought Conrad a thicket of unrestrained profusion. Conrad saw James as heartless alabaster. Writing, Conrad had confided, meant dipping his pen in his own blood and pulling out pieces of flesh. He was always despairing, and as a family man he was always in need of money. Very often he was ill. His nerves were panicked and untrustworthy. Those long-ago voyages in the tropics, Malaysia and Africa, had left him debilitated—the effects of malaria contracted in the Congo, and a persistent gout that frequently landed him in bed. The gout assaulted his joints; his writing hand was no good. There were times when it was agony to hold on to a pen. He had set Jessie to making fair copies of his big hurling hurting scrawl; she was eager and diligent, but when he looked over her neatly lettered sheets, he found foolish misreadings, preposterous omissions. She was not suited for the work. She was bright enough, she could compose an acceptable sentence on her own in decent everyday practical prose; she understood much of the ordinary world; she understood
it was only that she lacked an eye for his lightning storms, his wild rushes and terrifying breathlessness. It grieved him that she was capable of converting a metaphor into a literalism (but this too was a metaphor), and she in her good plain way grieved that she could not satisfy his ferociously driven greed for the word, the marvelous English word. His handwriting was so difficult! But she had a cousin, she reminded him, a cousin who had gone to secretarial school; the cousin was properly trained, surely she would do better? The cousin was hired. She did not do better.

James was contemplating the child. That red elastic mouth with its tiny teeth, those merciless unstinting rising howls, was there to be no end to it? Was there a devil in this small being? And was this hellish clamor, and these unwanted plums with their sour skins, the common fruit of all marriage? Ah, the lesson in it!

"My dear Mrs. Conrad," he began in his most companion-ably embracing manner (the graciousness of mere twaddle, he liked privately to call it), "is it not possible that a simple bribe might induce calm in the breast of this vociferous infant? Here you are, my little man, a tart truly sublime upon the palate—"

Borys reached for the truly sublime stickiness and threw it in the air and resumed the rhythm of his protests: he wailed and he flailed, and Jessie said cheerily, with a glance at her stoically indifferent husband, "Oh do forgive us, Mr. James, but all these lovely bunches of roses ... then would there be a garden? Borys would love a romp in a garden, and this, you see, will permit you and Mr. Conrad to enjoy each other's company, would it not? I assure you that Borys and I will be very happy in the outdoors."

James did not hesitate. "Mrs. Smith," he called, "would you kindly oblige us—"

A servant materialized from a hidden corridor, bearing a large steaming iron kettle. A smell of spirits came with her.

"Sir, will you be wanting the hot water for the teapot now?"

"Not quite yet, Mrs. Smith. Mrs. Conrad and this very delightful young man will be pleased to be escorted to the floral precincts beyond the premises, and I beg you, Mrs. Smith, do take away that perilous object before we are all scalded to embers—"

Mrs. Smith looked confused, but Jessie picked up Borys and followed her. The woman walked unsteadily, spilling boiling droplets. Mr. James, Jessie thought, was undoubtedly an unearthly intelligence—had he actually uttered "floral precincts"? Still, she pitied him. He had no wife to run his house. A wife would have a notion or two about what to do with a drunken servant!

BOOK: Dictation
9.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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