BY CARL HARTMAN
On the eve of Cynthia Ozick’s 80th birthday on April 17, four of her pessimistic but entertaining stories have been brought together under the title Dictation (Houghton Mifflin Company, 179 pages, $24).
It could have been Deception.
Ozick doesn’t write action packed page-turners and she allows herself more than an occasional literary or historical reference. But something is always going on — the book is hard to put down, even if you need to make sure the roast isn’t burning.
The title story fantasizes about two typists supposedly hired by two giants of 20th-century fiction: Henry James and Joseph Conrad. Miss Lilian Hallowes and Miss Theodora Bosanquet achieve what seems to them a bit of literary immortality. They successfully conspire to insert a few lines from a novel being written by one writer into the work of the other.
But nobody notices.
At the same time James’ typist, the aggressive Miss Bosanquet, tries unsuccessfully to seduce Miss Hallowes, Conrad’s meeker amanuensis. Their literary deception accomplished, the typists part — never to meet again. Presumably they and their employers continue their careers.
‘‘Actors’’ brings on stage a failed New York comedian. His Jewish ancestors were driven from Spain to the eastern Mediterranean half a millennium ago. He feels his talent reviving when he gets a chance to play ‘‘King Lear.’’
It’s a modernist adaptation he doesn’t like. But it gives him a chance to emit an ‘‘unholy howl.’’
‘‘It spewed out old forgotten exiles, old lost cities, Constantinople, Alexandria, kingdoms abandoned, refugees ragged and driven, distant ash heaps, daughters unborn, ... the wild roaring cannon of a human heartbeat.’’
On opening night, another failed Jewish actor, trailing a cape and waving a walking stick, invades the stage from the audience with a rant about how wrong the production is. The way to do it, he shouts, is the way the great actors of the New York Yiddish stage did it years ago.
The curtain is brought down. Many in the audience laugh untill they cry.
Then there’s the tale of a pious American radio commentator. He marries an ignorant Italian peasant girl after a four-day romance on the shore of Lake Como. She’s a pregnant chambermaid he meets as she vomits into the toilet bowl of his rooms at a scholarly conference.
Waiting for the boat to New York, the couple visits Milan. Only when he sees her kneeling before one of the myriad holy statues on the roof of the cathedral does he realize that the marriage is to be the lifelong penance for his sins.
The final story — ‘‘What Happened to the Baby?’’ — recounts a whole set of deceptions. There’s the mystery of the baby’s death and a wife’s concealment from her husband of visits with their little daughter to lectures by a relative whom the husband despises as a faker. Later comes the pretense of a Bohemian life in Greenwich Village. And on and on, falsehood after falsehood.
The despised lecturer spends much of his life vainly promoting an artificial language he has invented as a rival to Esperanto. The last line of the book quotes his divorced wife: for years she had gone along with his misguided project, aware of its futility.
‘‘Lie, illusion, deception, she said — was ... it truly, the universal language we all speak?’’