The Holocaust of Lars Andemening and Cynthia Ozick
There is a glorious ambiguity to Cynthia Ozick’s The Messiah of Stockholm, one that naturally encourages a variety of interpretations and understandings. It’s a text that at once is about religion, literature, the Holocaust, identity, and more – something worthy of a comprehensive overhaul and a critical eye. Cynthia Ozick uses Lars’ psychological shifts and precarious mental state to speak to a variety of elements; but she does this in a way that renders the oscillations Lars’ experiences into the surrounding environment. This sort of externalization of Lars’ psychology is integral to the novel, and it is through this externalization that Ozick makes her various points regarding the aforementioned topics in the post-Holocaust world; Lars’ struggle for identity, then, is the medium through which Ozick speaks. If we examine the externalized factors within the novel, and read the hidden language Ozick seeks to embed within the dialogue and narration, we can reach an understanding of the novel that clears up all ambiguities: that Ozick is not arguing for any particular subject so much as she is arguing for a passionate negation of everything that detracts from historical reality. Ozick, like Lars, seeks to hoist something up to the stage of the world; but it is not literature, nor is it religion – it is the Holocaust.
From the outset of the novel, Cynthia Ozick frames the novel in a way that calls attention to Lars’ identity. She does this by explicitly detailing his past; his marriages with Birgitta and Ulrika, his relationship with his daughter, and how “he had behind him much of the ordinary bourgeois predicament, and had lost it not through intention but through attrition” (Ozick 4). His former life as a family man is emphasized early on so as to contextualize Lars’ newfangled existence as a devoted belles-lettrist. We thus come to understand that Lars is, in essence, searching for a stable identity, one that is not susceptible to reality’s attrition. Lars, in this way, fits into the scheme of the Jewish protagonist that we’ve seen in the course so often now – of a man rendered into an orphan by the Holocaust. Even though Lars goes on to worship the altar of literature with vehemence, this slight clue of Lars’ contiguous identity as a bourgeoisie remains important. This serves to cast doubt upon his identity crisis; we thus know from the framing of the novel that he has simply latched onto a new identity. There is no constancy in a post-Holocaust world; thus his fanaticism is, by one deft stroke, diminished. Later on, when we see Lars’ reflecting on his family life with wistfulness and yearning, the theme of inconstancy of identity is revived and foregrounded, so that we understand the novel to be outlining a case for identity.
Ozick capitalizes on this theme of inconstancy with the various “intertextual” references in the novel – the most substantial of which are all references to fictitious authors and fictitious works. Her intertextual references are commentaries on the validity of identity in a post-Holocaust world; there is the example of Ann-Charlott Almgren’s Illusion, which details the pernicious relationship between an elderly painter and a young poseur who pretends to have painted her paintings. The book “weighed in Lar’s hands; it weighed him down. It was as heavy as loss. (And the Messiah in his arms – light, ah how light!)” (85); we can see that this sort of tale of stolen identity weighs heavily on Lars’ heart, through its chronic cruelty and realism. The old artist is forsaken by the young libertine; Lars’ artistic flourish is murdered by the monstrous greed of reality – of the Holocaust. The literary scandal between Sven Stromberg and Olof Flodcrantz also reflects a facet of Lars identity and, through him, Ozick’s message; Flodcrantz plagiarizes a translation of Robert Frost done by Sven Stromberg, and then has the audacity to send the translation...
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