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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Cynthia Ozick

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To purchase Antiquities

Title: Antiquities
Author: Cynthia Ozick
Genre: Novel
Written: 2021
Length: 179 pages
Availability: Antiquities - US
Antiquities - UK
Antiquities - Canada

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Our Assessment:

A- : a lovely piece of work

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 14/4/2021 David L. Ulin
The New Yorker . 5/4/2021 Giles Harvey
The NY Rev. of Books . 8/4/2021 Cathleen Schine
The NY Times . 20/4/2021 Dwight Garner
The NY Times Book Rev. . 9/5/2021 Lionel Shriver
TLS . 18/6/2021 Natasha Lehrer
Wall St. Journal . 16/4/2021 Heller McAlpin
The Washington Post A 16/4/2021 Diane Cole

  From the Reviews:
  • "Ozick is doing something interesting here -- or a couple of interesting somethings. First, she is blurring the line between past and present to reflect not only the muddle of her protagonist's memory but also the insular society in which he has spent his life. (...) Antiquities gives us a narrator not only unreliable but actively self-deceptive, unable to reckon with who he is." - David L. Ulin, The Los Angeles Times

  • "A brisk work of some thirty thousand words, it explores her favorite subjects -- envy and ambition, the moral peril of idolatry -- in her favorite form. As you might expect, it also has much to say about last things, and the long perspectives open to the human mind as it approaches its terminus. (...) What sounds like a harmless exercise in group nostalgia soon takes on an air of the macabre as Petrie's recollections bring into the light things better left in darkness. (...) Ozick's book about a man ensnared by history is at once a warning against the hazards of nostalgia and an invitation to take a longer view of how we got to where we are. Transfixed by the unfolding spectacle of current events, the modern reader is apt to miss her richest and most subtle suggestion: that we have made an idol of the present." - Giles Harvey, The New Yorker

  • "Ozick's new novel, Antiquities, moves softly, with a tenderness and quiet intimacy that settle on a most unlikely Ozick character: Lloyd Wilkinson Petrie (.....) Petrie's writerly despair, the possibility that he will not finish the memoir, propels the novel forward (.....) He is an imperfect man, fully embraced by the author, and his predicament is to have grown old." - Cathleen Schine, The New York Review of Books

  • "Some readers might forget that Ozick, who just turned 93, has a darting, impudent wit; Antiquities is a reminder. (...) This new book -- it is richly patterned and strongly colored -- is a relatively small addition to a distinctive body of work (.....) Antiquities has a fable-like aspect. Lloyd, in his recollections, begins to wonder if Ben-Zion might have been a delusion of sorts. But Ozick grounds her book in the stuff of real life. The tone is tragicomic." - Dwight Garner, The New York Times

  • "(T)he narrative is shot through with the distinctive self-importance of the insecure. Indeed, the strongest literary aspect of this novella is its voice. Petrie's style is self-conscious, throat-clearing and evasive. (...) I tagged this book as “odd.” It is odd. (...) I have to say I found this story unsatisfying, and in the end a little hollow. Commonly, once a work of fiction proves intoxicating, we stop wondering why on earth the author chose to write it. I haven't stopped wondering." - Lionel Shriver, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(A) strange and compelling new novel called, somewhat impishly, Antiquities. (...) This is the mystery at the heart of Antiquities: not “who was this boy” but simply “was this boy ?” He is as resistant to interpretation as Henry James's figure in the carpet." - Natasha Lehrer, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(T)his slim but by no means slight narrative is as cunning and rich as anything she's written. (...) Ms. Ozick has created a character who, unlike herself, is unconscious of the reverberations of the words he chooses. (...) Petrie's inbred xenophobia and anti-Semitism snake through Antiquities like a toxic river, presenting a rare view in Ms. Ozick's work of such bigotry seen from the opposite shore." - Heller McAlpin, Wall Street Journal

  • "Ozick employs her virtuosic literary style to weave an enigmatic tale about the ephemeral nature of memory and the transience of life. (...) In other words, Antiquities is vintage Cynthia Ozick. But whether you're new to her work or a longtime fan, you'll find plenty to entertain as well as to astonish. (...) Indisputable is Ozick's exquisite artistry in rendering yet another resonant and unsettling tale." - Diane Cole, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Antiquities literally dwells in the past. Narrator Lloyd Wilkinson Petrie's starting point is a project of: "an album of remembrance", a collection of short personal memoirs he is meant to contribute to; contributions are meant to be limited to a length of ten pages, but Petrie's efforts turn into a longer chronicle of recollection and present-day log, a journal of sorts written over the course of just over a year, from the spring of 1949 to sometime in 1950. This account is itself steeped in a fading past: Petrie is of an advanced age, and he lives in what amounts to a retirement home -- Temple House -- for the Trustees of the school he attended in his youth, the Temple Academy for Boys. Premised on: "English religious and scholarly principles", the school, located in Westchester, New York, outlived its purpose more than three decades ago, and was (bizarrely) converted into a residence for its Trustees -- of which, at the beginning of Petrie's account, only seven (of the original twenty-five) survive and reside there.
       There's little sense of the budding American post-war boom here; the widowed Petrie -- a one-time successful lawyer -- is stuck in the past and baffled by the modern-day changes accelerating around him. His son -- a disappointment to him -- has moved to California, where he is involved in what Petrie can see only as his: "current frivolous preoccupations", pursuing: "a career in, as he puts it, 'film entertainment'"; it is unfathomable to Petrie that his son could (or should want to) try to become a screenwriter (as, indeed, the whole burgeoning entertainment industry is entirely beyond him). When Petrie has to consider relocating, his son quickly tries to throttle even just the suggestion of the old man heading out West, understanding that dad is not a West Coast kind of guy, but rather as old-school East Coast as it gets: "it's not a generational thing, it's a personality difference", he tells him. But it's also generational: Petrie is, in every way, stuck in the past.
       Tasked to write a short school memoir -- the idea is that each surviving Trustee pen a short reminiscence of the days of yore, to complement the already extant official school history (composed in 1915, when the school went under) -- Petrie repeatedly dwells on those long-past schooldays, but his account also drifts considerably beyond these. He's fairly vague about his life between his days at the Temple Academy and the present-day, but there's enough to get a general sense of it: an apparently successful academic (he was editor in chief of the Yale Law Journal) and then professional life; an unhappy marriage but then some happiness in the companionship of his secretary Margaret Stimmer (now deceased).
       Meanwhile, in the present, life moves forward even if Petrie is unable to readily keep up: the deteriorating converted school, with: "its considerable grounds as prime prey" is to be sold off and developed, the surviving Trustees evicted. As the story progresses, Petrie finds himself the last holdover:

     We were seven and then six, and then five, and now with the exit of four, there remains but one, and I am that one.
       He has a hard time letting go, even pleading to be allowed to spend a last Christmas there -- paying for the delay in the scheduled demolition of the property for the privilege.
       Petrie also clings to totems of the past: for one, there's his beloved secretary's Remington typewriter -- which he learned to use and made his own: "the very day I permitted myself to call her Peg". He writes his account on this typewriter -- to the annoyance of the other Trustees, one of whom even goes so far as to sabotage it -- until the move, when it is accidentally left behind ("A catastrophe") and lost. Even more significant are the artifacts his father brought back with him from a trip to Egypt in 1880, an escape and adventure that his wife seems never to have been able to understand. Petrie's mother gave the boy his: "father's toys" upon his father's death, when he was ten, and he clings onto them, at school and afterwards. As he admits, about these few things that he has carried with him for much of his life, which also include a few odds and ends of his grandfather's: "All these oddments are quiet emblems of nostalgic reminiscence".
       The Egyptian relics also play a role in the subject-matter of the school-memoir he means to write, recalling a fellow student named Ben-Zion Elefantin -- who was, in fact, born in Egypt, but is in all ways an outsider. Petrie befriended the boy, after a fashion -- playing chess together, for example -- though cautious as to how close to be, given that Elefantin was, as an outsider, picked on by the others, while Petrie hoped to more quietly fit in in the school-community. Elefantin's parents are traders and knowledgeable about objects such as those Petrie clings to; to Petrie's disappointment, Elefantin's professional and/or personal eye is dismissive of them.
       Petrie was never completely an outsider, but as also his present-day situation -- isolated and basically alone (by the end he's worried even about having lost any reader of this account: "The reader, if he has not already abandoned me") -- suggest, never really fit in either. Still, even if not embraced, he was never considered truly part of a different tribe -- unlike some others. So, for example, he recalls the time when the school changed its exclusionary policy and: "some half-dozen or so Jewish boys were admitted, and I grew to know them well, if from a distance, lest I too be shunned". Petrie's almost casual anti-Semitism is a fascinating aspect of the novel and chillingly smoothly woven into his account by Ozick.
       Among his old classmates is a Ned Greenhill -- a Jewish boy. Petrie notes, parenthetically, that they did keep in touch later in life:
     (Many years later, I would now and again lunch at the Oyster Bar with Ned Greenhill, by then a judge in the Southern District of New York. Our families, it goes without saying, never met.)
       Greenhill remembers Petrie -- one of the few people who do, it seems ... -- and even helps arrange for new quarters for him when he has to leave Temple House (though, in part, out of self-interest). Greenhill explains to Petrie how much he appreciated being treated with a decency by him that was otherwise absent at the school: "You never put me down, Lloyd, you never called me Hebe". It was enough that: "You never went out of your way to do me harm" in an environment where everyone else did.
       Petrie's relationship with Elefantin is similarly complicated by the boy's Jewish -- but more complicated -- background, as: "outcasts from the history of our people". But Elefantin also remains a mystery to him, never fully reciprocating the friendship Petrie hoped to offer -- which still haunts him. He has to admit: "It may be that all I knew of him as fabrication or delusion".
       Clutching the past, in the form of both memory and artifacts, Petrie becomes increasingly unmoored. By the end, he admits:
I remember nothing. I remember everything. I believe everything. I believe nothing.
       If ultimately tending towards disintegration -- by the end he has lost track of time itself: "I give this writing no date. I am unsure of the date. I dislike putting on my shoes" -- he still finds some hold and meaning in his crumbling past and the memories of so long ago. If Elefantin remains opaque, or even projection, he is a fundamental and also final reference point for Petrie, the key to the reduction of the essence of his life that is this summa.
       Convincingly unfolded, the narrative also impresses greatly in its natural, almost effortless-seeming style, subtly but oh so carefully crafted: there's a lot to Ozick sentences -- always a pleasure to read -- and scenes in this work. Though it is slim, it resonates profoundly; it is also, simply, lovely.

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 April 2021

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Antiquities: Reviews: Cynthia Ozick: Other books by Cynthia Ozick under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Cynthia Ozick is the author of numerous works of fiction, as well as several collections of essays. She has been awarded a number of prizes and honors, and she has received a Guggenheim Fellowship.

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© 2021 the complete review

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