While in concept they may sound dull and dry, novels about research
--- like A.S. Byatt's POSSESSION or Michael Frayn's HEADLONG ---
often have the pace and tension of a good detective thriller. They
present a central mystery that the protagonist must solve and
promise a resolution before the final page. But Cynthia Ozick's new
book, HEIR TO THE GLIMMERING WORLD, is a research novel without a
clear motivating quest, the lack of which is its point. For these
characters, such scholastic questing proves ominously futile.
When she begins working for Professor Mitwisser, a German academic
who has relocated his family to New York State in the 1930s, Rosie
Meadows, who narrates HEIR TO THE GLIMMERING WORLD, has neither a
clear description of her responsibilities nor any knowledge
whatsoever of Mitwisser's field. His shoulders permanently hunched
and brow perpetually furrowed in deep concentration, Mitwisser is a
scholar of the Karaites, an obscure sect of Judaism whose followers
decried any interpretation of the Bible and instead favored a
strictly literal reading. Actually, Mitwisser is the scholar of the
Karaites: he is "an archive; a repository of centuries; a courier
of alphabets and histories. At home, before they threw him out,
they had esteemed him because not one knew what he knew. And here
--- now --- he was scorned for the same reason: no one knew what he
At first Mitwisser has no use for Rosie, working instead with his
daughter Anneliese for long hours in his study and leaving Rosie to
watch over the rest of the household, including three rambunctious
boys, a withdrawn four-year-old daughter named Waltraut, and the
demented Mrs. Mitwisser. While she plays many different roles for
the different family members --- nurse, maid, secretary, nemesis
--- Rosie connects with none of the Mitwissers and remains alone in
the crowded house, an observer of its domestic politics, but rarely
Of all the family, it is Mrs. Mitwisser who proves the most
unpredictable of the bunch: a former physicist with the Wilhelm
Reich Institute in Berlin, she is prone to prolonged fits wherein
she rips at her nightgown, cuts herself with pieces of mirror,
takes scissors to books and pillows, and steals money from Rosie.
"She had sunk into an ongoing strangeness," Rosie observes,
"something deeper than lethargy, and more perplexing." Presumably,
Mrs. Mitwisser is unhappy in America, where she believes her family
lives in shame to their benefactor, a young, privileged, "Godless"
American named James, whose fortune derives from his father's
popular children's books.
Even when Rosie finally begins working directly with Professor
Mitwisser on the Karaites, Ozick keeps their scholarship
purposefully vague --- glimpsed from her narrator's limited point
of view rather than from Mitwisser's deeply knowledgeable position.
Instead, Ozick treats her characters as her subjects and presents
them as mysteries to be delved into and solved. As the novel
progresses, Ozick explores Mrs. Mitwisser's early career working
with Erwin Schrödinger and James's tenuous relationship with
his father and attempts to outrun his family's legacy. In prose
that is keenly inventive and intuitive, Ozick makes this
investigation as riveting in its own way as any thriller,
ultimately evoking the burden of history --- "how heavy it was to
be who they were."
Ozick's is an unglamorous view of the lonely, thankless world of
scholarship, whose inhabitants toil over obscure figures that
barely puncture the popular consciousness. In this way, HEIR TO THE
GLIMMERING WORLD offers a much-needed corrective to THE DA VINCI
CODE, whose academic hokum seems injurious to dedicated scholars.
The study of the Karaites holds no global conspiracies, no
cloak-and-dagger clues. Ozick's triumph lies in how far she asserts
the futility of Mitwisser's scholastic obsession while
simultaneously locating the importance of such work.
Reviewed by Stephen M. Deusner on January 22, 2011
Heir to the Glimmering World