Cynthia Ozick on Never-Never Lands
Your story “The Coast of New Zealand” revolves around a group of friends from library school who make a pact to meet for a meal once a year, and not to communicate between meetings. Did you know from the start what the outcome of the pact would be?
“The Fanatic” was my original title, and it was this notion that ultimately compelled what was to come, both what I knew beforehand and what turned up, all on its own, to surprise. I have always been drawn to the idea of the fanatic, the zealot, the proselytizer, the Johnny One-Note, the deceiver, the false explainer—the enemy of the ordinary. Sometimes his name is Bartleby. Sometimes his name is Gilbert Osmond. Sometimes his name is Aylmer, practitioner of the relentless science of perfection. But here his name is simply George.
The four characters are, to some degree, anachronistic, drawn together initially by their old-fashioned names—Evangeline, Olive, Ruby, and George—and their old-fashioned choice of profession. Is that aura of fustiness essential to the story?
Fusty, yes, but not in the way of moldy or decaying; rather, in the wafting purity of a forgotten innocence. Even Olive’s attempt to replace her name with the more up-to-date Susan only reinforces her almost maidenly self-consciousness. And the pre-digital library, with its fans and date stamps and ancient wooden cabinets, declares long-ago simplicities. George alone, despite his commonplace name, is looking for fiery dragons to slay.
Yet if their agreement—“the Pact”—is the opposite of fusty, what is it really? “To live in the whirlpool of the extraordinary. To aspire to the ultimate stage of fanaticism.” What did you (or George) mean by that?
Walter Pater’s famous credo is also George’s: “To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” But the story questions whether George has, in truth, lived up to this passion. And whether the rest of us ought to—and, if not, then what is “success in life”?
George’s rules for the Pact make a real impression on Evangeline—to the point that she almost rejects a loving relationship that she doesn’t think is in keeping with those rules. Why do you think she is so affected by George’s prescriptions while the other women aren’t?
Evangeline’s partners in the Pact are entertained by George’s outrageous pronouncements, but they do, as we soon learn, have their feet on the ground, and look to the future—suitable jobs, marriage, children—as a pragmatic progression appropriate to any normal life. But Evangeline is mesmerized by the exceptional, a vision of transcendence; she has an avarice for the peaks of experience that George inspires. The others are too quickly satisfied by the everyday.
Why did you dispatch George to New Zealand? Simply to get him as far away as possible?
Evangeline’s trust in George’s extraordinary spirit is at first absolute. Like him, she sees New Zealand as the acme of what he calls his “solitary will.” (As for me, I never for even a minute believed that George went to New Zealand.) So immersed is she in George’s tenets that she takes the preposterous for the truly original, while we can see (or maybe not?) that New Zealand is no more than a never-never land.
But only look at his history as he tells it: his parents a double suicide, à la Stefan Zweig and his wife; his great-uncle and his great-aunt vaudevillians, their closets stuffed with costumes (is his showy jacket one of these?); his having his supper in the wings while the show goes on; his sojourn at the Waldorf; his claim that New Zealand is the founder of the digital age; and so on and so on. All this excites Evangeline’s imagination. The proof of her devotion is her revelation of what might account for his not showing up: “He meant to shock her, he meant to undo her expectation. . . . The shock of his disappearance was not a negation of the Pact; it was its electrifying fulfillment.”
Why do you think he does break the Pact in the end? Does he lose interest? Is he ashamed of not having lived up to it? Or is it impossible to know?
My guess is that he is as mercurial as his inventions and gets tired of his one remaining acolyte, and moves on to find fresh ones. There may be other reasons: whatever they are, they are sure to be implausible. (Ultimate implausibility characterizes fanaticism.)
The story has an ornithological theme: Nate Vogel, a devoted bird-watcher, has a name that means “bird”; George has orange elbow patches the color of a parrot; he and Evangeline meet on a park bench covered in owl droppings. How did birds become a motif for this story?
Birds, yes, but also other creatures of pedantic interest, including seals and sea lions, and evolutionary wonders such as dinosaurs becoming birds, and hippos deriving from dolphins. All this, as it happens, comes under the rubric of George’s dicta “that eventuality is always inevitability, that the implausible is the true authenticity.” These apply also to Evangeline’s marriage to Nate Vogel: Why else would a fantasist end up with a dry fact-collector?
Are these characters going to be part of something longer, or do they exist only within the confines of “The Coast of New Zealand”?
Well, Nate Vogel would be acutely uncomfortable anywhere else; he’s content in his prosaic Stamford, Connecticut—his own never-never land of quotidian desire. But Evangeline? She might turn up wherever folly lies.
Earlier this year you published your seventh novel, “Antiquities.” Are you working on another one? Or will you be sticking to shorter forms for the moment?
A story of six thousand words seems exactly the right thing just now. A story of fewer words—one or two thousand, say—yields a momentary epiphany, while a novel rides on wave after wave of a sea. But a long story, neither the one nor the other, can capture the span, and thereby the meaning, of a life.