cover image Dictation: A Quartet

Dictation: A Quartet

Cynthia Ozick, . . Houghton Mifflin, $24 (179pp) ISBN 978-0-547-05400-1

A carefully honed, sharply intelligent new collection of four stories shows Ozick (The Heir to the Glimmering World ) at the height of her stylistic powers. The title story, by far the strongest tale, follows the female secretaries of Henry James and Joseph Conrad, both of whom take dictation from the two egoist titans. When the authors meet in London, their two amanuenses collude to make their own mark on their masters' work; in so doing, they exalt, with an undeniably sexual glee, that they will thus attain immortality. “Actors” looks on wryly as TV character actor Matt Sorley, né Mose Sadacca and nearing 60, reluctantly takes a role that will either cap his career or defeat him. “At Fumicaro” follows an American Catholic literary critic in Mussolini's Italy as he falls head over heels in love with a pregnant 16-year-old peasant girl: “She was more hospitable to God than anyone who hoped to find God in books.” The exuberant “What Happened to the Baby?” follows a young college student and her eccentric Esperanto-spouting uncle to his mid-20th-century meetings of the League for a Unified Humanity. Ozick's stories ingeniously put scholarship in the service of human flowerings. (Apr.)