Heir to the Glimmering World

heirtotheglimHeir to the Glimmering World
by Cynthia Ozick
2004 / 310 pages
rating 9 / 20th c. fiction

I read this the first time back in 2004 – I know this because I have a hard cover copy.   It’s a good book,  so when it was selected for the Book Group List I was willing to reread it if I had time.  Well… what with only one other book to finish before the 15th,  I have time!

Set-up – The 1st person narrator,  Rose, age 18 in 1946 and supported by a man named Bertrand decides to chuck college to work for the Mittwisser family in a position she found advertised in paper.   Rosa is a very bookish type person and getting the story through her eyes involves many Victorian era literary allusions and references.  She reads Jane Austen,  Charlotte Bronte,  Charles Dickens and I don’t know what else. From her father she received her mother’s death certificate and a copy of a “Bear Boy”  a children’s book by one James Philip A’Bair.  And from her guardian she received $500.  She also got a copy of Sense and Sensibility from Ninel,  Bertand’s Marxist girlfriend because it could use burning according to her.

So Rose finds herself doing a variety of chores for the destitute Mittwissers,  Father, Mother and 5 chileren,  newly immigrated from Germany.  Rudolf, the father,  was a renowned scholar (in really esoteric Karaite studies) and Elsa, the Mom,  was a physicist who worked with Schrodinger (and got no credit)  in Germany.   She is now an almost mad invalid.  There are also 5 children the eldest of whom is Annaliese the homemaker while Waltrout,  the youngest,  is a baby.  Rose is not paid. Rose types for Herr Professor and cares for Mrs. Mittwisser and helps Annaliese with the chores.

The family talks about someone named James who,  when he comes,  will make everything right.  Rosa even manages to get the very irritating but supposedly unwell Mrs. Mittwiser to read Sense and Sensibility – with which she identifies. Well,  James arrives and there are gifts and a new typewriter and Rose is paid.  There are also outings for Waltrout and Annaliese,  talk between James and “Rudy,” as James calls the professor but Mrs. Mittwisser is not happy about this.

James turns out to be “Bear Boy,”  a very famous child who grew up.  “Bear Boy” was obviously inspired by  A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin.  There are many sections devoted to his life, he’s a very major character.  And his stories lead to an interesting structure of backstories.

The structure is mostly straightforward in terms of a linear plot although there are some backstory bits about Bear Boy.   The dialogue is good and Ozick uses some of those  old Victorian cliffhanger chapter-endings.

The references to Victorian lit are interesting because we are seeing this story through the eyes of Rosa who loves the Victorian books like Jane Eyre (with it’s own orphan and  madwoman in the attic) and like Middlemarch with a woman on the political edge and an old man studying esoteric histories.   There are lots more specific references which lead the reader to the allusions.  Great stuff.

The interconnected ideas here include alienation and inheritance,  being a parasite, vs conrol,   families, running away and breaking (yes,  breaking).   Virtually all the characters are alienated from their roots and inheritance whether by choice or not – can you truly escape your inheritance?  Some have become parasites and one character rails against that. Who is a parasite? The idea is there.

Both the Karaites (which Mr. Mittiwiser is studying) and James are runaways.   At least a couple characters break – and special things break.  I think the idea of names is important –  James liked being called Jimmy,  not Bear Boy,  and he re-named the Mittwiser father Rudy and the  children,  Annie,  Hank, Jerry, Bill and Wally.   Ninel turned the name of Lenin backwards to name herself.

There are a couple of  literary themes thrown in there as well allusions  – ways of reading and thinking (literal vs interpretive) and the mirroring of Victorian literature (old ways) which fits beautifully.

Finally,  the title’s word of “glimmering” has a special meaning here –  lots of things glimmer – fireflies glimmer and go out – without substance.  It’s more of a theme-driven, “idea,”  book,  but the major characters are quite well developed and really move the story along in their own right.  Enjoy!

“… how different it must be for people who get thrown out of their own lives and afterwards can’t recognize themselves.”  (p. 201 – hc)

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