Ozick’s latest work of fiction brings together four long stories, including the novella-length "Dictation," that showcase this incomparable writer’s sly humor and piercing insight into the human heart. Each starts in the comic mode, with heroes who suffer from willful self-deceit. From self-deception, these not-so-innocents proceed to deceive others, who don’t take it lightly. Revenge is the consequenceand for the reader, a delicious if dark recognition of emotional truth.
The glorious novella "Dictation" imagines a fateful meeting between the secretaries to Henry James and Joseph Conrad at the peak of those authors’ fame. Timid Miss Hallowes, who types for Conrad, comes under the influence of James’s Miss Bosanquet, high-spirited, flirtatious, and scheming. In a masterstroke of genius, Ozick hatches a plot between them to insert themselves into posterity.
Ozick is at her most devious, delightful best in these four works, illuminating the ease with which comedy can glide into calamity.
"History," wrote Henry James in a 1910 letter to his amanuensis Theodora Bosanquet, "is strangely written." This casual aside could easily serve as the epigraph of Cynthia Ozick's superb Dictation, which concerns itself with lost worlds evoked by languages -- languages that separate and obscure as readily as they bind. It can be risky to look for connective tissue between stories written years apart and published in magazines ranging from The Conradian to The New Yorker. But themes of deception, posterity, and, above all, the glory of language -- at once malleable and intractable -- knit together this quartet, recasting the whole as the harmonious product of Ozick's formidable talent.