In Cynthia Ozick's new collection of four stories, women find pockets of power in male-dominated worlds where they are either disregarded, misapprehended or taken for granted.
But the stories here do not accumulate into a tract; they are wise, complex and unsentimental. And they move idiosyncratically, always both whimsical and larger than themselves and are characterized by a knowing, European-style sensibility.
"Dictation" boldly toys with the relationship between Henry James and Joseph Conrad -- and their amanuenses: Miss Hallowes and Miss Bosanquet.
By Cynthia Ozick
Houghton Mifflin ($24)
When Conrad first visits Lamb House, James' English home, with his wife Jesse and his 3-year-old son, the boy wails unhappily. It's wonderful to see how the child's screaming sets the ever-polite James' teeth on edge.
Around James, Conrad is ashamed of his plump, unpretentious, plain-spoken wife and ashamed of his shame. He envies the purity of James' bachelor life in which there are no obligations except to work with the glorious English language.
James is described as having been impressed by Conrad from the first look at his work. "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!"
Much of the story's dramatic pursuit is left to the typists who take dictation for their masters. Sophisticated, attractive, sure of herself and sexually drawn to her own gender, James' Miss Bosanquet believes that her master is the greater writer.
Miss Hallowes, a fumbling, large, nervous, passionate woman, is certain that Conrad, with whom she is in love, is the superior writer.
In this way, the amanuenses mirror their masters and the story is more than the sum of its actions as Bosanquet slyly seduces Hallowes to commit a literary crime so that they, mere typists, will make a mark on history.
Ozick's quartet would be worth attention for "Dictation" alone. But there is more to captivate and puzzle us. "Actors" takes us to New York's cramped apartments and inadequate rehearsal spaces.
Matt Sorley is the stage name of Mose Sadacca, a big, awkward, clownish man who isn't getting much work on the stage. He pretends to go to auditions.
He finally succumbs to an opportunity to play a melodramatic King Lear in the style of the old Yiddish theater, where emotions were unashamedly large. Needless to say, Lear has a way of unearthing madness and pain.
"At Fumicaro" places Frank Castle, a happy American Catholic, at a conference in Italy. The Fascists don't meddle because the conference is supposed to be about virtuous subjects.
Immediately upon arriving, Frank meets his chambermaid. She is pregnant; she is religious; she is of a happy spirit; she can communicate only the most basic thoughts and emotions.
Frank cannot take his eyes or his hands off Viviana. Their three-day affair is fraught with interruptions and changes of mind. This story of carnality slyly becomes one in which Frank really meets his religion.
In "What Happened to the Baby?" the narrator shares a few biographical facts with Ozick. The premise of the story is that the narrator's family supports an eccentric relative.
Uncle Simon holds meetings to explain he has invented a universal language superior to Esperanto. He is pathetic, but also wily. So is his wife.
Over the years, the narrator hears a shifting version of a couple of events. One of them is the death of Uncle Simon's child, an infant. Which version is true?
We end up wondering, Who is the fool? Who is the manipulator? Is the narrator, then, a perfect inheritor of the family business of lies?
This quartet of stories is whimsical and challenging at the same time, both good-spirited and jarring, the work of a unique mind and a polished artistry.
Kathleen George is a Pitt professor of theater and the author of the novels "Taken," "Fallen" and "Afterimage."